Claire Brittain, Perth, WA
Mount Kilimanjaro or “I’m not dead yet” (with apologies to Monty Python)
To climb to the Roof of Africa was never going to be a stroll in the park. We went into training with the realization that it isn’t easy to train for high altitude trekking at sea level, but we used the Kokoda Track in Kings Park for some hill training, joined a gym, walked locally on the two hills in our suburb and went bush walking with Perth Bushwalkers on the Bibbulmun Track.
The first point on our trek was the lodge in Moshe, the main town on the Serengeti at the base of Kilimanjaro, where we were briefed by our guides. At dawn the next morning we could see the top of the mountain and after some African organisation we arrived at the gate to the National Park at 1970m, where we registered.
The first part of the walk in the rain forest was quite hot but easy going; the main difficulty was that the guides made us go slower than our natural walking pace. The forest was attractive with lots of parasitic plants, including begonia, the perfume of which was exquisite, and we had the pleasure of seeing a mongoose and some blue monkeys.
We had opted to climb the route which offered huts—the Marangu Route, and our first overnight stop was a collection of huts making up Mandara Camp, at 2715m. The huts are very basic but afford some protection from the cold and rain. We could congregate in the cosy dining hut and talk to walkers of every nationality, some going up, some down. The food was reasonable but I found I wasn’t hungry.
The following morning we left Mandara Camp and came out of the forest into an area of low scrub and bushes, with wild flowers blooming and gorgeous scenery. It was quite hot and sunny. The paths were generally well kept and the slow walking pace meant that we had plenty of time to admire the surroundings, but as the day went on the walking became more difficult. The afternoon was quite strenuous as we were beginning to feel the effect of the altitude, even though the path didn’t appear too steep. Our next stop at Horombo was at 3720m, so we had climbed 1,000m in a day. Sleep was a bit fitful!
Day three was an acclimatisation day, staying at Horombo, hiking out to a lateral peak and returning for the night and so the next morning we set out for Zebra Rocks and beyond. The day started sunny, then became misty and although the guides said it wouldn’t rain, they were wrong! We got very wet as we walked past rocks somewhat like Wave Rock, up to a rise to 4290m and then back down through a meadow of everlastings which would have been stunning on a fine day. My boots were saturated, so when Mohamed, one of our guides came for our usual briefing after dinner he took them to the kitchen and made sure they were dry by morning.
We had two guides, a cook, a waiter and four porters. That may seem a bit over the top but it does provide a means of employment for the local people. Our guides Mohamed and Silam were Muslim and because it was Ramadan they were walking each day without eating or drinking. Needless to say they looked forward to sundown.
And so Summit Day arrived, and a long day it turned out to be! The vegetation became sparse as we climbed, although there were beautiful stands of sceceria, which are tall cactus like plants. We found the walking comfortable apart from one steep section that had us panting for breath. We had morning tea at a high spot with beautiful views, continued up and saw alpine chats, the most common bird in the area and some four-striped grass rats. By this time the terrain was barren, typical of country above the snow line. We continued on up to Kibo Hut, puffing all the way! Mohamed was pleased with our progress and told us we were walking strongly and should make the top. Then we met a couple of people coming down who hadn’t made it—disconcerting!
Kibo Hut, at 4700m, is at the foot of the summit climb. It had taken us about six hours to get there and we were told to have a sleep. We prepared the gear we would need for the ascent, had dinner at 5pm and went to bed. My ear plugs and eye pads worked a treat, and we were woken up at 11.30pm to get dressed and have a snack prior to starting for the summit.
The guides told us to put on all the clothing we had. I had two thermal tops, a T-shirt, a polar fleece, a down jacket and Gortex jacket. On the bottom a thermal, polar fleece track pants and waterproof pants, plus two pairs of socks. Added to that lot were inner and outer gloves, a beanie and a balaclava. I tried to tell Mohamed I’d be too hot but he wouldn’t agree!
The walk started at about midnight. It was pitch black and the stars were stunning. We started very slowly on a fairly rocky track, somewhat like a creek bed. It didn’t seem long before I was gasping for breath and I had to keep stopping. I was really worried that the guides would tell me I couldn’t continue, however they were encouraging and Silam took my backpack. I don’t know if it was psychological, as it wasn’t heavy, but after that I settled into more of a rhythm. Then we reached the scree and I felt as though I was taking one step up and two back. It was very difficult and we just slogged on, stopping frequently to catch our breath. Everyone on the mountain was wearing a head torch and it was like a string of glow worms along the mountain. I made the mistake of looking up and saw the lights of climbers hundreds of metres vertically above. Then I then looked down and it became obvious we had come up quite a long way ourselves, which made me feel a little better.
We kept toiling away with encouragement from the guides. Thoughts ran through my head…“I can’t do this”—“They’ll send me down”—“I don’t want to do this”—“Why am I doing this?”—“Why am I paying to do this?” Then I thought—“Oh my god, the dunny!” In my wisdom prior to leaving Perth I’d conned friends and family into sponsoring us to raise money for a dunny on the Bibbulmun Track.
I put my head down and kept going. The final part of the climb was over large stones and boulders, which was difficult in a different way. This was where the training on the Kokoda Track was invaluable for leg strength. We finally made it to Gillman’s Point (5681m), the first main point towards the summit on the crater rim. As soon as I made it there I knew I’d make the top. Although we were still climbing it was now on a much easier solid path, and we reached Stella Point (5756m) just as dawn was breaking.
There was the fantastic sight of a brilliant pink line along the top of the clouds, which were below us. We watched the sun rise and then continued on to Uhuru Peak, the absolute summit. The glaciers at the top were beautiful and we were lucky not to have too much wind with the temperature around minus 15 degrees Centigrade. Our extremities were freezing as was the water in our backpacks. There were great celebrations with everyone hugging and kissing and wanting to get photos to prove that they had made it.
The guides start you down quickly, and after a snack in the shelter of a large rock we started the descent, peeling off layers of clothing as the sun got higher. When we got to the scree we couldn’t believe that the descent was almost vertical. This is what we had been climbing up in the dark? Mohamed took my arm and told me to lean back, take big steps and go with him. It didn’t take long to get down, sliding most of the time. When we got to Kibo Hut we had been gone for nine and a half hours. I fell into a deep sleep.
After lunch we packed up and began the walk down. I didn’t think I could walk any further, but we walked downhill for four hours to Horombo Hut, where we had dinner and went to bed. I slept well that night!
Our final day dawned fine, and we started our trek back to the gate, walking slowly to savour the most attractive part of the mountain and take more photos. In the rain forest we were lucky enough to see black colobus monkeys, which have beautiful bushy white tails. We signed out at the gate and met our guides at the lodge to present gifts to them and to the porters. They presented us with the certificates that are issued by the National Park, proving that we had achieved our goal.
Although we’ve done lots of walking at high altitude, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro was the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. We raised over $6000 for the Dunny Donor campaign, and look forward to getting our sponsors together for a weekend of walking and celebration.
I would like to encourage other BTF members to do something similar to our trek if they are looking to embark on a challenge.
Claire Brittain and John McKay raised $6000 to upgrade the Dunnys on the Bibbulmun Track.
They did this in memory of their friend Sandra Taylor (nee Dodd) who loved walking and the Bibbulmun Track.
They were generously supported by family and friends including:
- The Taylor Family
- Perth Bushwalkers
- Janet and Gary Tilsley
- Pat and John Garland
- Philip and Patrick Dodd
Thank you for supporting our Dunny Donor Campaign.