Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro

I'm reaching up

In the midst of the positive thoughts that occupy my spirit and my mind, there exists a gnawing sensation letting me know it is time for something different to happen. I begin to think: “Something” is a vague word, so I must figure out what it stands for. “I need to go home!” I hear myself say out loud. The idea hit me as if I was running fast, when suddenly a wall appeared in front of me with the writing “I need to go home” written on it.

I continue thinking, “I thought home is wherever I am. Yes, I am my own “home” capsule, so what, then, is this need? I have been away from the rest of my family for 11 years. I have gotten married, started college, had a child, got divorced, and adapted to adulthood in a culture different from my own. Maybe what I need is to be around my brothers, my mother and aunts. But wait…all the people I am mentioning are people I trust, and by whom I feel protected; they are my elders. It is interesting that I should have the need to be around these people.” I do my best to listen to that elusive thought that I hear randomly, otherwise known as intuition. Therefore, I decide to go home.

This journey begins in September of 2009. I do not typically share my plans before I execute them, so I kept these thoughts to myself for a few months. Nevertheless, I began saving money and when January 2010 brought with it a tax refund check, I was able to purchase airline tickets for my daughter and myself. We would leave for Tanzania in May of 2010. Tanzania is my home; it was my only home until 1999. I waited 11 years to go, usually because of financial impediments. This time, I would have to make things work financially because I already purchased our tickets.

On our way to Dar es Salaam
On our way to Dar es Salaam

My daughter (Ruh) and I arrived in Tanzania on May 29, 2010. Landing in Dar es Salaam in the afternoon allowed us to see the city as we rode in my brother Luca’s car. Dar es Salaam had changed significantly. Buildings rose everywhere, confusing my points of reference so much that I did not know where we were. The roads were busy with minimal adherence to traffic laws. I was excited for Ruh (eight years old at the time), and myself. I was in Tanzania and despite my loss in bearings, I was happy. We arrived at Luca’s house and stayed there for the first week. The cost of living increased in some cases by 300%, which was higher than what my calculations covered.

The road to my mom's house in Zanzibar
The road to my mom’s house in Zanzibar

 

By the end of the first week my mother, Sally, had come from her home in Zanzibar. She came to collect Ruh and me for the boat ride to Zanzibar. I had not seen mom since 2007. Hence, it felt exceptionally good to see her. We arrived in Zanzibar in the evening and dusk was showing its last light. The taxi entered a rural area; we were getting close to mom’s house. The taxi stopped on the side of the road and six children came running, happily screaming, “Bibi Sally!” They seemed so joyous to see my mom and us. Ruh felt shy, but the children helped her adjust and they all played together the majority of our time in Zanzibar. There were no lights on that narrow village road leading to mom’s house other than one she left on for a few hours during the evening. We stepped inside my mother’s house, and at that moment I realized that I was home.

During my stay in Dar es Salaam I began to doubt my ability to fulfill some of my goals while in Tanzania. I planned to take Ruh on a safari (that being her only request), and I planned on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. As I visited with my mother in her home, I thought about what I should do there. Although her home was more modern than her neighbors, it was simple. In fact, maybe too simple for someone who is over 60 years old and has polio. However, Bibi Sally, as the children called her, is one of the most active people I know. She loved her space, maneuvered around it, and made it her home. I, on the other hand, thought it should be painted, that it needed some shelves for her boxed books, that it could use this material thing, and that material thing. All material things, I thought, cost money.

Beach in Zanzibar
Beach in Zanzibar
Having fun in the water
Having fun in the water

I decided that I would not put my desires over the present need of updating my mother’s home. I would help her and take Ruh on a safari. These two things would be sufficient. When I released my want, and happily accepted my solution, my mother had a conversation with me. She let me know that the material things I wanted for her house, were not necessary for her to have a happy home. She needed some small kitchen appliances, food, and she wanted to take us to a nice beach in Zanzibar. Those things would make her happy. Those are the things that we did.

After a week in Zanzibar, we decided to leave. The night before we left I was walking away from the kerosene fueled light emanating from the local convenient store. Mom’s outside light was off. I looked up and saw myriad stars. I stopped walking and gaped at the vastness of the universe in which we live. My surroundings were so dark that I could see a part of the Milky Way. I sensed a basic, spiritual connection to everything that is alive and has lived. I took to my mother the things she wanted from the store, and stepped outside again to stare in that star-filled space.

On the bus to Arusha
On the bus to Arusha

 

On the way to Arusha
On the way to Arusha
On the way to Arusha
On the way to Arusha

After a day in Dar es Salaam mom, Ruh and I went to Arusha; a northern Tanzanian city I wanted to visit. The bus ride would offer ten hours of movie-watching, sleeping, eating, talking, or contemplating. Betwixt sleeping and looking outside the window, I contemplated. I was in a country people from all over the world come to visit so they can witness the great migration on the plains of the Serengeti; or visit Oldupai Gorge and say they were in the cradle of mankind; or climb Mount Kilimanjaro and say they saw the sun rise from the highest point of Africa. Tanzania is where I was born. I did not have to pay for most of the expenses tourists have to cover. My want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro was exceedingly present. The question remained, as to how I could make it happen.

As the bus driver drove north and west, we went through Moshi, which rests at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We approached the majestic mountain, and although it was covered by clouds, something magical happened. I was leaning my head against the window, manifesting my wish to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Suddenly mom says, “Do you see that land rising into the clouds? That’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.” I looked at that space in awe, and felt (as crazy as it may sound outside of spirituality or quantum physics) as if the mountain was calling to me. As a person who believes that all things have a vibrating energy which can be felt by other things, I felt the mountain’s magnificent energy welcoming me. The decision was made: I did not know how, but I was going to climb that mountain.

Once I established that I would go on my climb, a variety of things began to happen; all conducive to fulfilling my climbing goal. First, I must mention that upon deciding that I would climb, I repeatedly visualized Mt. Kilimanjaro as an entity. I sent it energy vibrations of love; telling the mountain I respected its elemental power and asking it permission to walk on it. I met friends of my mother’s who were mountain guides. One of them, Mr. Ngaiza, had an extra pair of hiking boots and thermal wear I could use; everything fit me perfectly. Another person had a thermos, which he suggested I fill with hot water on the mountain and sleep with it to warm my knees. My best friend & I had talked about climbing together one day, and as she wasn’t in Tanzania at the time, I visited her mother who gave me a sweater & backpack of my friend’s to use. To have other family members with me, I carried my brother’s and my niece’s scarves as well.

I was able to use my birth certificate to prove I was Tanzanian, which made the trip a fraction of the $1,400 dollars I would have had to pay. If that would have been my cost, I would not have been able to climb. I found a mountain jacket at a second-hand clothes market, and my mother had the perfect-size backpack from my childhood. Ngaiza helped me train on small hills by the city, and I walked for hours every day. On one of my walks in town I came across one of many travel agencies. I was compelled to go inside their office. I was met by two kind-hearted individuals. They became my Mt. Kilimanjaro-climb agency. The owner, Aafeez, sent me to a pharmacy to purchase essentials for the climb, including dextrose tablets. Aafeez also added me to a group of three, who planned on taking the Machame route; the same route I hoped to take. Everything was finalized and I would begin my climb on July 23, 2010.

The group I joined for the climb
The group I joined for the climb

 

Rainforest on the mountain
Rainforest on the mountain

After signing in at the entrance of the Mt. Kilimanjaro Park (through the Machame Gate) my team and I began our ascent. My team comprised of Espen and Camilla from Denmark, Maria from Sweden, myself, a guide, an assistant guide, a chef and his assistant, and porters carrying our big bags. The altitude was 1490 meters, much higher than Central Florida’s; where I lived then. Our pace was slow and our eyes observant of everything around us. We immediately entered the montane forest. The tree canopy was thick. Moisture from the night’s fog was trapped amid the leaves, slowly falling as rain drops.

Extraterrestrial-looking Plants
Extraterrestrial-looking Plants

 

Cloudy Blanket
Cloudy Blanket

Some trees looked extraterrestrial; different types of tropisms made branches grow horizontally and in circles. I thought about ‘The Alchemist’, a book written by Paulo Coelho, and how the alchemist spoke of communicating with elements so they would do what you want them to. I decided I would try this concept. In reality I had already done so with letting the mountain know I respected it, and asking its permission to climb upon its surface. I would attempt to converse with the wind, asking it to rest its powerful blows; to the clouds, asking them to let the sky show itself and for them to not bring rain. I like to believe it worked, for the entirety of the first two days (and the majority of the trip) there was no fog around us, no clouds above us, and no wind. The only clouds were below us, forming a blanket that covered civilization and making the experience dreamlike.

The first stop was at Machame Hut
The first stop was at Machame Camp

 

So close and yet so far!
So close and yet so far!

The first hike was to Machame Camp (2980 meters). We arrived when tents were ready and hot water was ready for us to freshen up. From this camp I saw the summit for the first time. The sight excited us all, and reaffirmed the adventure on which we embarked.  The walk to this camp took about seven hours. In Kiswahili there is a proverb, ‘Polepole ndio mwendo’; it means ‘slowly slowly is the speed’. The guides kept reminding us to go ‘polepole’. I slept for 10 hours, more exhausted than I knew I was. My team mates slept just as long, and we did so for the following two nights. After breakfast we continued our ascent toward Shira Camp (3840 meters). The way to Shira camp takes you from montane forest to moorland. The change in habitat prompted in me further appreciation for the power of the elements. The pace was slow and steady. We had to drink at least two liters of water a day, and with temperatures being below the freezing point, there were many bathroom breaks.

Lava Tower. Point of acclimatization.
Lava Tower. Point of acclimatization.

The next morning we left camp and hiked to Lava Tower, which looks like a jagged rock busted out of the ground in search for light. It stands at 4630 meters. This altitude was the highest we had experienced thus far, and my head began to throb. My temples were pounding a menacing beat, multifarious with my every step toward the next camping ground (Barranco Camp). Besides my overall excitement of the climb, walking to Barranco Camp meant descending to 3950 meters. The camp was hidden in the fog, making it seem like a mystical place to reach. There were lobelia deckenii on the way to Barranco camp. They were as short as two feet, and as high as 20 feet. They enhanced the feeling of being in a mystical place. En route to camp I saw the Western Breach and Breach Wall. I was amazed by the Wall’s vastness. The Wall and everything else on the mountain, for that matter, seemed close and easy to reach. That, however, was an optical illusion.

Barranco (Breakfast) Wall
Barranco (Breakfast) Wall

 

Fresh water from the mountain!
Fresh water from the mountain!

The next day, after a necessary breakfast we continued on our quest. The first and most exciting obstacle thus far, was the climb on the Barranco Wall. Wall sounds like something I do not wish to climb, however, it was a little easier than its name seemed to promise, with no need for safety gear. On the way we passed through Karanga Valley, its habitat was alpine desert. I put my hand in a river bed that was almost dry, and felt the fresh water touch my skin; how invigorating a feeling that was! We arrived at Barafu Camp (4550 meters) after about seven hours. Barafu in Kiswahili means ‘ice’. It was emphatically icy cold.

Karanga Valley
Karanga Valley

 

Karanga Valley
Karanga Valley

Upon arrival at 6 p.m., the guides called us for a briefing. We then ate dinner and were advised to sleep in preparation for the night ascent to the summit. By this time Camilla was feeling nauseous, Espen had a slight head ache, and Maria’s pre-existing neck injury was causing her pain. Anxious about the climb and worried for my team mates, I did not fall asleep until almost 10 p.m. At 11:30 p.m., we began getting ready for our last climb. Within the first 30 minutes of our hike Maria decided she was in too much pain and was taken back to camp. Because of Camilla’s nauseating feeling, she and Espen walked extremely slowly. We all stayed together for another 30 minutes, and then the guide said I could move forward with his assistant Emmanuel (a.k.a Whitey). Whitey and I found out when we returned to camp that Camilla and Espen became too sick to continue and were taken back to camp after climbing for two hours.

Emmanuel (Whitey), the assistant guide who assisted & guided me to the summit
Emmanuel (Whitey), the assistant guide who later assisted & guided me to the summit
This was the only time we headed to a place that was surrounded by any fog or clouds.
This was the only time we headed to a place that was surrounded by any fog or clouds.

The air was crisp, and felt clean; there was not a single breeze to disturb the dreamlike feeling of the night. There were no clouds and the moon was full. I looked at the sky and saw two shooting stars. I thanked all the elements for working with me to create this extraordinary experience (by this time I fully believed what the alchemist said in Paulo Coelho’s book was true). I had my headlamp, but the moon and stars provided sufficient lighting. Heading north-westerly, ascending through heavy scree, we headed toward Stella Point (5685 meters). Some of the guides from a large group of climbers were singing and blowing horns. I wondered how they had enough air in their lungs. This ascent was most challenging. Whitey kept telling me “it” (Stella Point) was right there. We kept walking upwards, on what seemed an endless climb. Hunger and sleepiness attacked me simultaneously. Lifting my arm accelerated my heart-rate, so Whitey fed me the dextrose tablets Aafeez told me to buy. After four continuous hours we reached Stella Point, rested for about 5 minutes and continued on our climb to Uhuru Peak.

Almost there, at the very summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro: Uhuru Peak.
Almost there, at the very summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro: Uhuru Peak.

 

Made it!!
Made it!!
Sunrise on Africa's Summit
Sunrise on Africa’s Summit

 

Sunrise on Mt. Kilimanjaro
Sunrise on Mt. Kilimanjaro

 

The full moon and Mt. Meru in the distance.
The full moon and Mt. Meru in the distance.

We arrived at Uhuru peak on July 27th at 5:39a.m.; on time to witness sunrise from the very top of Africa. I took a glove off to take pictures, but in less than two minutes I realized how cold my hand was. We left shortly thereafter, and began our descent to Barafu Camp. I brought an iPod with me to listen on my climb, mostly out of societal conformity. Society as a whole seems to teach that if we have possible quiet, we should have something to keep us engaged. As soon as I began my ascent, I acknowledged that life is engaging and I would be disrespectful to the entire climbing experience if I listened to music. I wanted to be fully present on every moment of the climb. However, after having reached Uhuru Peak, I thought a little music would be acceptable. An hour into the descent, as I followed Whitey around a rocky wall corner, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, sung by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole started playing in my ears. Oh! How serendipitous it was for that song to play at that moment. That is my favorite version of the song because of its simplicity. I kept walking, my senses awakened, and I realized that I was descending mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro having reached its peak. I saw everything, smelled and felt the air and sun on my skin with renewed sensory awareness. I felt warm inside and happy tears on my face. We continued our descent to Mweka Camp. Our team greeted us in a congratulatory spirit, and after a brief rest we all kept walking toward the gate.

The Whole Team after the descent
The Whole Team after the descent

 

He carried my big backpack up & down the mountain!
He carried my big backpack up the mountain & walked down the mountain with me, as I had an injured knee.

Paulo Coelho wrote in ‘The Alchemist’: “When you want something all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”  I am now a firm believer. My experience on Mt. Kilimanjaro still seems surreal. However, when I hear Israel singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ I am immediately taken to that rocky wall corner on Mt. Kilimanjaro. The sun is shining and the cold air hits my face as if I am on the mountain again. With a warmed soul I become cognizant that it was not a dream; I really was on the summit of Africa.

This was after the descent.
This was after the descent.

 

If you are interested in traveling to Tanzania, you may contact me for agency information. True Tanzania Safari is my top choice, then Tanzania Private Select Safaris, and Zara Tours. They are all great companies and trustworthy!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Beautiful story!!! Thank you for publishing it!!!!

    1. Thank you for your feedback 🙂

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