Reflections on the Slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro through the Rain Forest

From childhood, Tanzania, or Tanganyika as it was then called, was entwined with stories of the paleontological excavations of the Leakeys in the Olduvai Gorge. My friend, John, and I played being intrepid explorers whenever we came together at the neglected far end of his family’s garden. A nascent feminist lurked in my nine-year old breast as I fought against the type-caste role of woman left in the Wendy-house while he went off on solitary adventures. Like a modern feminist I quickly put berries on the plates and filled the teapot with water before setting out on my own exploration to find bird and small animal skulls and, hopefully, fossils and primitive tools. Reluctantly he agreed to my joining him at his side and together we gathered impressive piles of stones and bones.

Why I focused on Louis and Mary Leakey as my paleontological heroes I don’t know. Plenty was happening in my own back yard of South Africa at the time following the discovery of the Taung child by Professor Raymond Dart in 1924. Perhaps it was because Mary Leakey, a woman, found Dear Boy (or the Nutcracker Man) in 1959, roughly the time of these bottom-of-the-garden explorations.

It was unsurprising therefore, that I should rally to the call of an old school friend to join her and a few of her friends in Tanzania. Thoughts of Olduvai, Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Caladera, Maasai famers, and Zanzibar filled my mind. But before any of that, we had to climb a mountain – Kilimanjaro no less. I am not a mountain conquering sort; more a stroller through interesting landscapes. I like sitting on a rock contemplating the majesty of the mountain. My first reaction was NO. But then I had a vision: I was standing on the peak of the highest mountain in Africa, the intense blue African sky above me, looking out onto the wondrous continent and its magnificent landscapes – all of it at my feet. Irresistible! Completely mad! But there I was on the 12th July, loading the required paraphernalia for the next eight days onto a bus in readiness to tramp through the equatorial rainforest to the heath and moorlands of the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro up through the bare alpine desert to the arctic conditions of the summit at 19,341feet/5895metres.

Arctic conditions? At the equator? People questioned my assertion; I questioned my sanity.

How do you, having lived in the southern hemisphere all your life, imagine the cold and appropriate dress for this? I spent three months obsessed by this question. Friends rallied round and lent me suitable clothing and I spent much time examining socks and thermal underwear.

My heart always stops and tears easily rise when I catch my first glimpse of Africa through the window of the hovering aircraft. I feel as if I am returning home even though it is not where I live. I love seeing and experiencing the energy of the people, their musicality that expresses itself in everything they do, their indomitable spirit. Their cities and towns are like no others. There is a particular arrangement of domestic and commercial activity along the roads; there is no “closed for business” after dusk. Arusha, the city where the organisation through which we had made our arrangements for the climb, Climb Kili, is based is one of those exciting, if not confronting, cities.

I arrived a day ahead of my fellow climbers, giving me time to recalibrate after the long flight and to explore a bit of the city and Tanzanian history. I had heard of both the Natural Museum, housed in the Boma, built by the Germans after they had brutally suppressed Tanzanian tribal insurrection led by Chief Mkwawa of the Hehhe tribe from 1891 to 1894. Chief Mkwawa continued to cause the German colonial government problems and finally committed suicide in the face of defeat and capture in 1898. It struck me as ironic that the Germans would build their fort along traditional African boma design given that they had cared little for African traditions, one of the causes of the uprising. The Boma was built by the defeated and imprisoned rebels as a way of humiliating them.

The Boma now houses interesting geological, paleontological, taxidermy, botanical and pictorial artefacts. A highlight is the Dirk Petersen collection of wildlife photographs. They captured the essence of the animals, some endangered, others extinct, and their landscape. The message throughout all of the displays is that we are in danger of losing so much because of modern agricultural and commercial practices and this in turn will impact on humans who also depend on a rich biodiversity. The pity of this museum is the lack of funding for a proper curator who could better organise and display the artefacts. Poor lighting made it difficult to see some of the displays or to read the most informative signage. Someone has put a lot of effort into creating the exhibtions and it is a pity that sometimes this is hidden by the lighting or crowded display. In its garden I met John, a gardener who is experimenting with water saving techniques to grow vegetables and restore the garden. Together we shared our passion for gardening. His aim is to take his enthusiasm into the schools of Arusha.

The Cultural Heritage Centre on the other hand is a very striking modern building, combining open African design where the tourist shops are to be found as well as a post-modern architectural styled fine art gallery, built so that the interior winds around in a helical curve. Light streams into the open spaces allowing the viewer to explore and be drawn without encumbrance to the various works of art: sculptural, paper and canvas. Separate from the Art Gallery was the Mask Gallery, a collection of fascinating masks collected from all over Africa.

Arusha Natural Heritage Centre Mask Gallery

This is worth spending time in and, like the Natural Museum, a reminder of how rapidly we are losing human diversity and tradition.

The evening before the climb we met our Climb Kili lead guide and co-ordinator, Goodluck Minja, a Wachagga man. The Wachagga are the original people to live and cultivate the rich plains that lie at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Their presence predates the Maasai who are the people that immediately come to mind when thinking of the people of Tanzania. Their language sounds very different from Swahili, the primary language of Tanzania. Like so many first nations they have fought discrimination. I wondered how many Wachagga we had working as porters and guides. I learnt that there was at least one other Wachagga in our supporting team and, looking at some of the faces, thought there might have been more.

Goodluck exuded confidence, precisely what I needed having learnt that I was in the company of seasoned athletes that climbed and skied mountains, ran, played tennis, conquered rivers and, seemingly, any other physical barrier. On completing school I, on the other hand, happily left sports grounds, in my mind places indelibly marked with failure. I have spent happy times clambering the slopes of the Drakensberg in Natal, South Africa, exploring its lower peaks, the glens and the clear, cold crystal streams while watching out for snakes and baboons. I have also enjoyed the challenging walks in Gariwerd (Victoria, Australia) but these were leisurely activities requiring little of the athlete’s focus and determination. I comforted myself: I was reasonably fit, had control of my asthma and was fairly philosophical about any need to conquer the summit; like any other hike, this was merely an adventure – of a life time, to be sure and harder than anything previously tackled. I was however, clearly in a league of my own – and not necessarily the right one.

The next morning we set off. Oh the excitement of setting off! – the anxiety about the weight of duffel bags, stuffed with all that we would need over the next eight days climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the fact that we had come together and now were meeting our crew that would support and guide us up to the summit. The stress of the last six months – whether I was fit enough, what clothes to take, what had been overlooked – was at an end; this was it. We finally set off for Londorossi Gate, the point at which we registered and headed off to the first camp, Mti Mkuba on the Lemosho Track.

We drove through Arusha and its outer suburbs of mixed housing and coffee plantations where the bushes are planted between trees that provide the much needed shelter for them to grow, to the countryside. As we approached the mountain we passed farmland planted with carrots and legumes, potatoes and other crops. Young pines were being planted in newly cleared soil and I rather hoped that lucrative fast forestry was not being planted at the expense of traditional forest and agricultural crops. I suspect forest clearance because the area was once covered with shrubs and dense native forests, some of which one can still see on the lower slopes where small farms are established.

At the gate the excitement and its attendant bustle was palpable as groups gathered, posed for photographs, and teams of porters unloaded trucks and loaded themselves up to set off for Mti Mkuba Camp which is set in the rain forest through which we walked. From the edge of its rise one could look down onto the agricultural land miles below. Grand trees were draped in grey lichen and flowers hid at their roots. The sun, which was to remain with us, as did the waxing and waning moon, sent shafts of light through the foliage. On the way we stopped for lunch where we met the first of many opportunistic hooded ravens, who know that where there are humans there is inevitably a meal from the waste.

The walk to Mti Mkuba was a breeze compared to the relentless steep climbs along the Shira Ridge to Shira camp. Shira is the extinct remains of one of the three volcanoes that are part of the Mount Kilimanjaro family consisting of Mawenzi, also extinct, and Kibo, our challenge. Kibo is the youngest of the three and is dormant.

While the altitude gain was less than 1000 metres it felt as if all we did was to climb. We emerged from the rain forest into the moorland and heath with splendid views and displays of wild flowers including Helichrysum that created carpets across the stony surface, the palm-like Senecios, proteas, scabiosa and fairy-like gladioli, pink and delicate. In the distance, a thin trail of steam, I am sure it was steam not cloud or mist, spiralled from Mount Meru Africa’s fifth highest mountain, also a dormant volcano whose last eruption was in 1910. She sat in the landscape like a placid woman, her head rising above the ruff of misty fabric draped on her shoulders.

From Moir Camp Shira Cone

At the camp the wind blew cold and dusty predictive of a cold night. The next morning frost lay on the ground and the stream’s water was frozen with ice sheets like fine window panes.

My diary entry for the 15 July reads: “I was so exhausted after yesterday’s walk that the last thing I could do was write”. On this evening we were in Barranco Camp, a busy camp where the Lemosho and Machame tracks converge. Clearly I was no less tired because within the next paragraph, I note that it is the 16th and I am writing in Karanga Camp in the bleak, grey Alpine desert on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro where I can see Kibo’s glaciers and the ragged slopes of Mount Mawenzi, the third highest African mountain.

Mawnzi Peak

Crossing the Shira Plateau

Over the previous two days we had walked from Shira to Moir Camp which is situated in a gorge at the end of an ancient solidified lava flow and then from Moir to Barranco Camp. The walk to Moir was long and exhausting taking us past the emergency road and helicopter “pad” – a stark reminder that we must be aware of our bodies and notice signs of altitude sickness and keep focused on our physical safety. But like so much of the walking, although physically exhausting, there was the rewarding stunning scenery in the midst of dust, rocks and scree. Just before reaching Moir Camp we passed a deep cave, the damp walls of which hosted a variety of lush plant life – algae, moss and lichens. We then descended into the gorge. There is no rest for the walkers of Kilimanjaro, for shortly after lunch we headed up the escarpment for an “acclimatisation” walk, taking us up to 4572metres. From here we could see Mount Kilimanjaro in all his glory as well as the space between.

I was learning and putting into practice the art of focused walking and breathing. There was little energy for anything else. My companions talked as they walked; I just breathed; breathing in and directing the outgoing breath to my aching upper back. There were times when I asked myself: “What am I doing here? I should be with Lee in Zanzibar, smelling the clove-scented air and exploring ancient Stone Town.” And then I would stop and look around me and marvel at the landscape, the determination of nature to survive regardless of conditions. I was reminded of Arusha’s Natural Museum’s refrain: biodiversity must be preserved if we ourselves are to survive. Whether I was enjoying it or not was irrelevant; this was an adventure of a lifetime and adventures are not necessarily enjoyable but are always memorable.

Descending from Lava Tower towards Barranco Camp we headed into the senecio forests, giant palm-like trees which are related to groundsel. A stream flows through a gorge, creating small waterfalls that tumble down the rocks. Grasses and flowers grow along the banks, a sharp contrast to the rocky, scree-like slopes where the senecio and giant lobelia grow, a view so beautiful I had to fight back tears. One smallish lobelia plant showed perfectly the three stages of the plant’s life: simple ovate leaves at the bottom, followed by the spent blooms and these in turn crowned by the new, trumpet-like flowers. These lobelia bore no resemblance to the delicate blue lobelia that grows from a hanging basket in my garden. How I longed to stay and try to capture impressions with my charcoals.

Senecio Forest

There was much anxiety about the Barranco Wall, a sheer wall of rock that has to be negotiated by climbing up, carefully placing feet and hands into available cracks and crevices. We kissed the Kissing Rock where there is no other choice but to hug it like a long-lost friend. Our guides, Gaudrence, Junior and the lead guide and co-ordinator, Goodluck, nursed us through the footings and the holdings with care. Above us we heard the aclack-aclack of a helicopter. Porters scrambled up from behind, passed us and headed into the distance of the next camp site.

Karanga Camp was finally reached after a walk that ascended and descended in steep slopes where there was plenty of opportunity to slip and fall. Mount Kilimanjaro towers above it and seems just a moment away. A flask of ginger tea sat on the table to refresh us. I almost burst into tears of gratitude. Grey-brown mists swirl and shroud the countryside. On the night we were there the moon’s full light bounced off Kibo’s glaciers in the pitch black darkness, outlining the shape of the challenge.

It was a steady climb from Karanga to Kosovo Camp situated at 4876 metres, passing through Barafu Camp, formerly the final camp from which climbers left for the summit. I would not have liked to have negotiated the rocky upward climb from Barafu to Kosovo in the dark. Kosovo is on a stony ridge bare of vegetation but with a view of the challenge awaiting us as well Mawenzi.

At our last briefing I expressed confidence that I would reach the summit. I was feeling no ill effects of altitude sickness other than a mild nausea that had come and gone throughout the climb. My asthmatic lungs appeared to be behaving themselves although I had identified the pain across my thoracic region as lung related rather than backpack related. This, however, had not increased or decreased; it was merely uncomfortable. So it was with confidence that I set off at midnight.

It was confidence misplaced. After a strong start and just as I felt that I was warming up in the biting cold night air waves of nausea and light-headedness started to hit me. My breathing was shortening and my stamina seemed to drain away from me. Hot sweet tea restored me briefly. I could have continued but I would have delayed our ascent, possibly finished the tea, leaving no warming refreshment for anyone else, and still not have reached the summit. Neither did I want to be carried out which would have further depleted the minimal resources available on that last climb. I decided to return to Kosovo and was accompanied by my Kilimanjaro guardian angel, my kaka (brother), Gaudrence.

My companions headed up into what they described as brutal conditions (cold blizzards and a climb that never seemed to end). They arrived at the summit, as planned, at dawn and saw what I had hoped to see, a brief glimpse of sunrise before swirling mists and clouds hid it. I saw them next at Mweka Camp, once more in the rainforest, late in the afternoon, exhausted after the climb, which had been followed by a difficult descent back to Kosovo Camp for breakfast before continuing to our final camp. They had been walking for 16 hours. What an achievement!


I want to thank Ann for bringing us all together for this amazing adventure. Through her research, ably assisted by Lee who could not join us on the Kilimanjaro trek, she found Climb Kili. Climb Kili arranged our trip with Goodluck Minja, the co-ordinator, lead guide and a man who was never flustered and always encouraging. He pulled together the team of two other guides, Junior and Gaudrence, and porters who carried our tents and duffle bags as well as a chemical lavoratory, cooking equipment and furniture. Even though they, too, must have been exhausted after their hard work, they greeted us with smiles and never failed to encourage us. It was they who left the camp after us and arrived at the next before us. There we would find our pitched tents, hot tea and delicious food awaiting us along with their smiling faces. How did they do it, day after day? › place › Olduvai-Gorge

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