Ballito friends conquer Kili

2016-09-28 06:00
The Ballito team that summited Mount Kilimanjaro.  Photo: supplied

The Ballito team that summited Mount Kilimanjaro. Photo: supplied

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I OWN a bright orange suitcase which was unmistakeable on the runway among the rest of our gear, as we taxied off on the last leg of our inbound journey to Kilimanjaro. We were finally on the way, but our luggage evidently, was not. Not the most auspicious of starts to an epic adventure.

Earlier in the day, a delayed flight out of Johannesburg had started us off on the wrong foot and now 11 tired and stressed adventurers stared in disbelief at the receding suitcases. Precision Air, as it turns out, was anything but and what followed was like an episode of Faulty Towers.

We arrived in Tanzania to intense heat and the promise of a majestic mountain in the distance.
Then it dawned on us with a certain amount of trepidation that we were going to walk to the top of that awesome monolith. An aeroplane flew overhead and the realisation that we could reach out and almost touch it from the top of the mountain did little to settle our nerves.

Waiting to greet us was Simon the driver. From his reaction to the news of our missing gear, we deduced that this was standard practice. An hour later we had checked into a hotel called “Springland”, an establishment not unlike The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

We soon met up with our head guide, Juma, a slight fellow with a rolling accent and a calm disposition. This was just as well as morale was low and we had seven near hysterical women wailing for their bags. The alternative plan was to hire equipment from the hotel and share what little toiletries we had between us, but old kit and very used sleeping bags was cold comfort compared to the top of the range gear we had all acquired for the trip… and we were not amused.

Luckily the new day saw some of the men in our group heading back to the airport and they returned triumphant with the lost luggage. We were off – a few hours later than planned, but we were at last on the way to the start of the climb.

Waiting to greet us at Machame gate were 33 porters and two cooks. Everything was weighed and recorded and then, off we set, ambling upwards through a magnificent forest. Before long, the sun had set and we were in the dark, making our way towards the first night’s camp by torchlight and the sliver of a moon peeping through the forest canopy. Black Colobus monkeys rustled in the trees and we saw a little civet dart across the path in front of us. The mood was upbeat and the promise of a warm sleeping bag and hot meal spurred us on.

Daybreak brought the realisation that we had walked 11km the day before, most of it in the dark and although we felt strong, you could feel the stress on the legs and little aches and pains appeared from nowhere.
The next stage of the journey was up towards Shiva camp and it soon became evident that some were going to feel the altitude more than others. Already some in the group felt nauseous and others had headaches so bad they were in tears.

We walked each day until we could go no more, stopping only to have a drink of water before pressing on.
When we did rest for a long time, we could be reassured that we were still very far from camp. Our guides would assure us that we were always just “10 minutes” from our next stop – which meant anything from 15 and 160 minutes. I think if they had really told us the truth, some of us would have just sat down and refused to go any further.

Each day brought new challenges, the higher we went the thinner the air got and the worse the headaches. Scenery started to change and eventually you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the moon. The nights were freezing and a trip to the dreaded long-drop ablutions is something not many will forget. Some conquered their fear of heights, but scaling up the Baranco Wall unaided – others settled into extreme camping for the first time, and more still found solace in nature and the unspoiled stark beauty that the mountain offered.

Finally after days of winding our way upwards towards the sun, we assembled in Barfu - snow hut in Swahili – camp, an unremarkable strip of land 7km from the Summit. We were told to dress and get some sleep, not an easy feat at 3pm in the afternoon. The wind started howling and I leaped out of my sleeping bag to put on another layer of windproof gear.
I looked like the Michelin man, four layers of clothing, two sets of gloves, a fleece hat and a thermal scarf.
At 10pm they came to wake us, but believe me, none of us was really able to sleep. Your nerves are so unsettled that you could be forgiven for thinking that you are at the start of the 400m sprint at the Olympics with the world watching. The guides did the last check, made sure we were suited up correctly and that our glasses were clean, our noses did not run and we had our backpacks on the right way. They wiped our brows, dabbed our noses with tissues and tucked our shirts into our pants and away we went.

We had a pecking order and had to shout out our numbers every now and again to ensure everyone was still okay. Juma took the lead and set the pace and Allen, another guide, brought up the rear. He carried our emergency oxygen and some coffee for halfway.
Two lesser guides appeared from nowhere on summit day and brought up the flank. They both had head torches and would tap us on the shoulders every now and again to check our response and look into our eyes. The summit was 1,300m up over a distance of 7km. It took us 10 hours. You put one foot in front of the other and just keep going. The wind was howling, no one was talking. As you looked up to the top of the mountain you could see the hundreds of little headlamps from other groups of climbers ahead of you.
Climbers passed us and sped upwards, only to be found sitting next to the trail a few meters higher, some in tears as you slowly passed them again…the mountain cannot be rushed, you have to do it “pole pole” (slowly slowly).

Eventually the stars gave way to daybreak, a thin sliver of burnt orange light announced the arrival of the new day as we stepped up to Stella point at the top of the mountain. By now we were exhausted. Already the place was choked with the walking wounded - groups that had summited ahead of you and were now starting to make their way down. People were crying from pain and relief, others were being dragged off the mountain, disorientated, exhausted, some with broken limbs, some bleeding from the mouth. Guides and porters have their hands full trying to steady the ship and get everyone down as soon as possible.

But ahead of us was yet another challenge. Stella Point is only the top of the mountain, not the highest point, and we set off on one of the longest journeys of my life for the final victory. This was where you separate the men from the boys. Those last 200meters is what Kilimanjaro is made of. Finally, after what seemed like hours of torture, we reached Uhuru. It is here you break down and cry, from relief and gratitude and the realisation that you are one of the very few people on this earth who will ever have the privilege of stepping up to such greatness.

I don’t think this escaped any of us and to say we all made it… together… has brought a new bond to remarkable friends now bound by the journey forever. - By Natasha Barnes

Each day brought new challenges, the higher we went the thinner the air got and the worse the headaches. Scenery started to change and eventually you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the moon.

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