It was an absolute honour to lead, alongside our greatly experienced group of 7 guides, a team of 13 determined, fearless and courageous women to summit Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro. According to one of our guides, Regi, the original name of this beast of a mountain, loosely translates to "the journey" and hiking it was no doubt, just that!
On our first day, we were warmly greeted by Seamas and Desmund, two brothers who own and operate Marangu Hotel and the hiking expedition tour. Seamas provided an extremely thorough presentation about our hiking route, and gave us insightful tips such as, "breaking your chocolate into bitesize bits so you do not break your teeth biting off a chunk during summit day". His enthusiasm and British humour stirred up further excitement in us for the next day's adventure. We had all our equipment and gear checked and were able to borrow equipment such as fleece sleeping bag liners and snowpants as required. The afternoon was spent touring around the village, walking through the neighbours' banana, coffee and corn plantations and appreciating the green lushness of Tanzania. We were able to order local tea and coffee beans for pick-up after completing our hike. Lastly, we visited a cave that was only discovered a few decades ago, that represented the sanctuary for the Chaaga tribe from the attacking Maasai tribe during a historic drought period. It took 54 years for the Chaaga to hand-carve the cave and its tunnels, and having the opportunity to enter the cave and learn of its history left us in awe!
Now, to the beginning of our adventure! After breakfast, we met our guides, kitchen staff and porters - all 51 of them! What a posse! We quickly learnt how to greet each other with "Jumbo/Jumbo Mambo!" (Hello/How are you!) and "Mambo Pore" (I am fine) with lots of smiles and thumbs-up. A 4-hour drive took us to the Lemosho Gate at 2100m amsl. Our head guide, Steven, set the hiking pace that would continue all the way to the summit - super slow and steady. As soon as we started, the porters showcased their incredible athleticism, balancing heavy loads on their heads or back of their necks, and powering through the terrain like absolute legends. Almost 4 hours later through the forest greenery, we reached Mti Mkubwa Camp at 2650m and settled in for our first night.
I have to say though, for every single meal, our chef satisfied our bellies. Having 2-3 courses for each meal, we surely had more than plenty to eat, even causing us to struggle to eat our own snacks during the day! As we hiked up to higher altitudes, some of us experienced altitude sickness which decreased our oral intake, yet the chef and his assistants catered accordingly, and our guides continually encouraged us to feed and keep hydrated.
From Mti Mkubwa, we continued on to Shira 1 Camp and Shira 2 Camp over the next two days. As we emerged out of montane forest vegetation and into moorland terrain, the vastness of what is Mt Kilimanjaro became apparent. Mother Nature truly is beautiful, and we had to keep reminding each other to look up from concentrating on our footsteps to appreciate the cliffs and valleys before us. Only at Shira 2 camp, situated at 3800 amsl, did we realise we were above the clouds! It was a breath-taking sight, an ocean of clouds dusted with pink and orange hues from the sunset, with Mt. Mawenzi peeking out in the centre of the horizon. The midnight sky glittered with stars and galaxies, and you were able to catch a glimpse of a shooting star every now and then.
Continuing on to Barranco Camp, we bypassed Lava Tower at 4600 amsl. Previously at the hotel briefing, Seamus described it as The Lord of the Rings' "Mordor", and that was exactly how Lava Tower presented itself. Surely enough, we hardly spent more than a few minutes there, and powered through to Barranco Camp. It was around this day and onwards that some of us experienced mild altitude sickness, ranging from mild headaches, nausea and upset bellies. However, my group kept their chins up, and with lots of reassuring words of comfort, medications and water, we transformed a not-so-fun experience, into a "we are all in it together" rally.
To get to the next camp, Karanga, we had to trek up and down highly-inclined mountain walls and although every day was "leg-day", I do recall my thighs crying at the end of this particular day! Imagine hiking down and then up a "V" shaped mountain-side, a steep descend for a 45mins or so and being able to see the campsite on the other side of the opposite ascending cliff wall. So near...yet so far...
Finally, we settled in at the "base-camp" of our route, Barafu Camp at 4673m amsl. Mt Kilimanjaro's peak was in sight! After an early dinner, we retreated to our tents for a bit of eye-shut before getting ready at 11pm to start summiting by midnight.
The summit route was dotted with a countless number of headtorches inching their way up an imaginary zigzag line. All you could hear was the wind, your own breathing pattern, and trekkers' shoes shuffling against the mountain rocks. Steven's walking pace was perfect - with each step, you needed to take a big breath in and out. Our 7 guides were extremely attentive, assisting us with our water breaks (snow gloves are too thick to grasp anything!), steadying us along the paths, and giving us an reassuring pat on the shoulder for encouragement. Their patience, confidence and humbleness was truly comforting, and they were by our sides through thick or thin.
When the sun rose, we were about an hour away from the summit. And my, oh my, was the sunrise beautiful. It shed light on how high up we were, and gave our spirits a final boost to muster up our remaining energy to reach the top. And summit Mt Kilimanjaro, we did!! The sense of achievement was powerful, and with whatever we had left in our tanks, we completed a round of big hugs and high fives. We were unable to linger long at the summit as the chill set into our bones so after a satisfying cup of hot tea whilst gazing out into the crater of Mt Kilimanjaro, most of us kicked on to reach Uhuru Peak (translation: Freedom Peak) while others descended back to Barafu Camp. 3 hours later of ski-walking down scree and zigzagging along the mountain, it was time for a quick rest, lunch, pack up and descend further down to Millenium Camp. Again, our porters whizzed past us with loads on their backs and music playing from their bluetooth speakers - a good distraction from the knee pangs felt with each step.
With tired relief, we chatted at dinner about our experiences of summiting (as we could hardly chitchat on the way up), and retired to our tents very soon after for some well-deserved sleep. Our final descent the next day started earlier than usual, as we had a decent distance down to reach Mweka Gate where our pick-up was. Back into the forest green we entered again, with our sights on a hot shower and our celebration dinner that night.
Seamus welcomed us back with much enthusiasm and we quickly readied ourselves for our celebration ceremony with our entire tour team - remember, 51 of them! Certificates were handed out by our head guide Steven to us, singing and dancing was had and beers all 'round. It was a delight to see every single one of our team members relaxed and relieved that our mega hike was done and dusted. Handshakes and highfives continued until our tour team members made their way home, and then my team of 13 were treated to a lovely dinner, where laughs continued and wonderful words of appreciation shared.
As previously mentioned, it was with great gratitude to have been given the opportunity to lead a group of inspiring women to summit Mt Kilimanjaro. I believe that you always need to better yourself, physically and mentally and if given the chance to be out of your comfort zone, take it - you will gain yet another armour of strength, resilience and perseverance. Such moments will open up your mind and heart to what the world has in store for you, and will tide you over temporarily until the next travel bug bites again!