Ain’t no mountain high enough

2014-08-27 18:45

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Jay Naidoo went on an intense spiritual journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Along the way, he learnt more about himself, took inspiration from Africa’s great leaders, and explored the nature of resolve and the human spirit

Since I’m turning 60 this year, I thought it a good idea to scratch one imposing item off my “bucket list” – climbing to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world.

I also wanted to pay a personal final tribute to the memory and values Madiba stood for from the roof of Africa. It served as closure of an era for me and a small personal sacrifice for the enormous ones Madiba made for us all.

I also wanted to search for, and hopefully find, a renewal of the motivation to continue pursuing his dreams and hopes.

A month ago, I heard of Alex Harris, the explorer who walked to the South Pole with Sibusiso Vilane, the first South Africans to do so. He had climbed Kilimanjaro 14 times before and was taking another party up. So I jumped at the opportunity.

I had always wanted to test the fullest limits of my human endurance. It was also a challenge I could face confidently with my son Kami, who was 21.

I wanted to spend an intense time with him. He was also enthusiastic. (And I would thank my gods many times as he stayed with me on the final ascent as my pillar of strength.) It was a beautiful and fulfilling journey as father and son.

Mind over matter

I am reasonably fit. I’m also a bit crazy (please don’t start that conversation with my wife). And when I met another crazy guy, Alex, I knew anything was possible.

Three weeks before the trip, I had managed to, incredibly wisely, sprain my ankle and was walking on crutches for the next two weeks. My physiotherapist, a tower of sanity, did suggest I delay the trip.

But I got a clean bill of health in time for the trip and both he and Alex claimed that climbing Kilimanjaro had more to do with the mind than the body anyway.

I can swear by that now. You do have to have a reasonable level of fitness, so if you have to take a lift to your office on the first floor, better see Kilimanjaro from a plane. But if you are not scared of climbing 10 flights of stairs, it is your mind you have to work on because climbing Kilimanjaro is gruelling.

Yep, it’s the toughest physical thing I have done in my life, no doubt about it. You reach a point on the final day when the body screams for no more punishment. The shop is ready to close down. Then what remains is just your mind. You can call it stubbornness, you can call it insanity – whatever you call it, it’s that internal flame that keeps you going.

At Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s highest point at almost 6?000m above sea level, there is not much above but planes flying at around 9?000m. You have to acclimatise to the low levels of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Breathing is nigh impossible at that height. You spend your seconds, minutes and hours suffocating, dreaming of your lungs filled with air, dreaming of your heart not beating wildly, dreaming of the many simple things you take for granted, every day of your life, all the time.

We began our trek at 1?700m. The first night we slept at Mandara Hut, which is at 2?700m. It was a rather high gradient but masked by a beautiful equatorial forest.

The second day is at Horombo Hut (3?700m). We spent three nights there to acclimatise. Two days of hiking high and sleeping low. On the fifth day, we hiked to Kibo Camp, which is base camp (4?700m). We would leave at midnight for the final ascent.

The real deal

I was feeling bloody nervous; eating at that height is really tough. We had no appetite and anxiety was high. We had seen stretchers rolled down by porters with climbers, oxygen masks attached to their faces like Martians from long-forgotten scary movies. This was the real stuff. The danger was real.

Altitude sickness could happen to anyone of us, and can be deadly. And nearly everyone we saw who had ascended the summit returned looking completely exhausted – physically, mentally and emotionally. One needs to be strong just looking at them. The questions you ask yourself in those moments are not always the easiest ones to answer.

That final night, Alex insisted on a supper of potatoes and potatoes. “Just stuff it in,” he said, “you are going to need it tomorrow.” We complied somewhat sheepishly, perhaps even lethargically. Already in the group of 11, there had been problems with the altitude sickness.

You have about three hours to spend on sleep. Still, it takes a special kind of human to sleep at that tense moment. I?could not. Too tense, excited and ridden with so many opposite emotions that I just couldn’t.

I felt the others had the same torrid time. The midnight when we set out came out almost as an emotional release. This is what we had prepared for – better the enemy you know than the one you’re afraid of.

‘I was Impi’

The final ascent was the most difficult. The gradient was now nearly 90 degrees. The words of the guides, all local Tanzanians, rang in our ears “ole pole”, “slowly slowly” in Swahili.

One step at a time. It was quiet. No, it was eerie. There we were, a single line of climbers, all with headlamps lighting up sections of the mountain. The moon shone at half-mast, masking the brilliance of the Milky Way. It would take six hours to Gilman’s Point, 300m short of Uhuru.

It was excruciating. After the first two hours of walking in the loose volcanic rock – the “scree slope” – the legs began to take enormous strain. I turned to the music of Johnny Clegg to get my mind off the wooden legs and cramping breathing.

I was Impi, I would not surrender. The only stops now were for sips of water. It’s too dangerous to stop for longer. The exhaustion was starting to drown out the music.

All I could think about was turning back, but even that was too difficult.

The guides saw so many of us suffer before. They are the heroes of Kili. Gently they encourage. They nudge. They know. They have been alongside us for five days. By then they knew us and our limitations.

I retreated to the safety of my mind: one step at a time. I meditated: one step for Madiba, one step for Nyerere – over and over. Madiba, Nyerere.

Then I called on the ancestral spirits and the gods of the mountains to give me strength and courage. I kept going. As the rays of the rising dawn lit up the skies, there is a cry – our guides cheer at the sight of Gilman’s Point.

But there was still another 100m to go. Adrenaline kicked in as we scaled over the last few rocks to reach 5?670m. We had arrived with intense relief.

Hot chai awaits; we have done it.

I asked: “Do we go down now? We have done it. I want to go down.” Every one of my gazillion of cells screamed for that to be true.

But Julio, the main guide who called me “Papa”, said: “It’s only a little way to Uhuru. I will be with you every step of the way. You have come so far. You must do this for Mandela.” I was unable to argue.

With him and Kami at my side, we went on. The views of the glaciers came into focus. It was magnificent. This is God’s grandeur at its best. Its majesty is indescribable. My mind drifted through the miracle of nature and its majesty. I felt like walking in a different universe.

I thought: “My dear human body, I love you and I treasure you, but I am more than just a multitude of physical cells. I inhabit and I thank you, but walking there, in this perfection of nature, I feel so much more.

I feel this spirit of mine more than ever before.”

Jay Naidoo with his son Kami on their way to the summit of Kilimanjaro, where he tested the fullest limits of his endurance


It’s cold and the glacial winds swirl around you. But so does the sweet taste of victory and human endurance and my spirituality. Words, any words, anything that us humans have invented to communicate with ourselves and the universe, all of them fall short of explaining what I truly felt – the welling up of pride and joy.

Our beautiful Africa. I feel the sorrow for the lost promise of our own Uhuru. When will we know peace? When will we have leaders of integrity? When will the spirits of Mandela and Nyerere, Nasser and Nkrumah, Cabral and Lumumba rise again and bring the sweet taste of Uhuru to our people?

I remember Mandela’s inauguration speech: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another?…” I carried that Mandela dream in the copy of the Constitution I had been reading on the journey. In the cold gusty equatorial winds, I felt his warmth and human spirit. I felt renewed.

I made a prayer for peace in Palestine. I know one day Palestinians will have their freedom. They will have human dignity and justice. And so many more millions of the oppressed and enslaved across the globe.

My walk/stumble down was too blurry to remember much. It was only the mind working. The relief of knowing I was going down – to thick, juicy, precious air – was the only reason to keep going. There is a bed down there to lay your crushed body down and lose yourself in a sleep so deep it might as well be a coma.

But still, walking down was tricky. The loose volcanic rock is like a ski slope. (Thank God I had done some cross-country skiing before.) The guides were there, always ready to lend a stable pair of experienced and safe hands. I arrived back at the camp.

The good news was there was a bed; the not-so-good news was that we had it only for the next hour. I could not imagine possibly getting up. But when I did, there was a bowl of steaming soup with bread.

Alex announced that if we didn’t eat then, the 12km hike would be impossible. That was the choice: a stretcher wheeled down or walk and eat. We stuffed the bowl of soup and bread down, then began walking.

The food and cereal bars were nourishing. We had descended 1?000m. It was behind us. The air began to fill the lungs again and the reserves of energy returned.

I gazed in wonderment at the landscape. It was spectacular.

I watched as the huge cumulus clouds sat above, streams of clouds drifting upwards. I felt a flush of relief, then?felt peace. I settled into an easy pace and the adrenaline rush was now gone. I felt healing energy embalm me. I felt calm and resolved. The landscape was magnificent and the mountain shone with its defiant glory.

Life is good, I thought, I’m a lucky man.

That night at Horombo, I fell into a deep sleep. We woke up the next morning keen to walk down the remaining 20kms. My head was clear. Now this was the time to appreciate the beauty of this beautiful mountain.

Friends for life

We were in a group comprising South Africans and evangelical Christian Texans. Our views on many things – from God and guns to abortion and gay rights – were widely divergent. The South African side was eclectic – more spiritual than religious.

Our Constitution and leading church luminaries like the irrepressible Desmond Tutu preached an inclusive philosophy and liberal approach to many of these issues. It’s enshrined in our Constitution, a copy of which I carried with me throughout the trip to the summit.

But we all had a goal to achieve. It stared at us day and night. It was visible at most times. And it was daunting. We settled into camaraderie in a cramped space, all together. We ate, slept and walked together.

We shared a goal – to reach Uhuru. It was important that every one of us put away our prejudices.

Our conversations were built on a common foundation of mutual respect and focused on what we shared. We ended up friends. We appreciated each other. We helped each other over the many obstacles. We built, rather than destroyed, bridges of trust.

We listened with attention. We questioned robustly but understood what it took to build a group identity, then face the toughest test of human endurance.

How I wish we could put all the leaders of our political parties into one group and set them the goal of working together to climb Kilimanjaro – and conquer the prejudices in their hearts while they’re at it.

Like real Africans I meet across the continent, there is limitless goodwill and quiet resilience among the guides. We are a rich continent under the ground.

Our people walk on gold, tanzanite, diamonds and platinum, but we remain poor because our leaders fail us. We need to learn to lead ourselves. I placed my life in the hands of Julio and his team, and I never doubted for one minute that I would be unsafe. How I wish I could trust our political and business leaders like I trusted them. They were my heroes and my life-savers.

Then there was Alex, our organiser, and the youth league: my son Kami; Shawn Baloyi (20), the captain of the Diepsloot Development Mountain Bike Academy; Andre Ross, a banker from Absa Capital who is heavily involved in promoting mountain biking in our townships; and Sharon Harris, a Pilates trainer and Alex’s sister.

These wonderful people will be my friends for life.

What’s next?

My bucket list is long. I want to hike to the base camp at Mount Everest. I want to see Antarctica. I want to see the priceless beauty of our natural assets before they are destroyed by the unrelenting greed of our predatory elites, which has brought both our planet and our human species to the edge of a precipice.

It strengthens my resolve to take a stand, to speak truth to power. To support the next generation in finding their struggle and their voice to forge the world they want for their future and their children. I want them to see what I see. We all owe them as much.

This is an edited version of Naidoo’s post on his blog,

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