Tanzania’s (big) little hill

I called Kilimanjaro “just a little hill” to myself in the weeks leading up to my climb just so I didn’t freak out too much. In the days before I even started to wonder why the hell I had decided to do it in the first place. I’d done no acclimatisation and only a little bit of hiking, I still suffered from a bruised knee from white water rafting in Victoria Falls AND I was just getting over a cold that I’d had at New Years. So I was not in the best shape but I was up for the challenge and in my mind I had no choice but to make it to the top.

The day before I began the climb I went to the tour office and picked out the equipment I needed to take but didn’t already have. Thermals, gloves, hiking poles, sub-zero sleeping bag, four season tent, rain pants, snow jacket and pants… What is this? Am I climbing Mt Everest? Not quite, but it started to sink in that it was no ordinary expedition.

I only saw the mountain once before I started my climb as it’s usually hiding behind clouds and I seriously thought I was insane, who would actually try and climb that?

On day one we arrived at the Machame gate for sign in and to meet the porters. I was to have a team of five just for me; three porters, one cook and one guide. The porters have a limit of 20kg each and they have to carry everything that we’ll need for the 7 days. The car park area had quite a few people gearing up for the hike so that made me feel a bit better.


The first day we hiked six hours through dense rainforest up to 3000m to the Machame camp. We had to sign in at the ranger’s office as we had to at each camp for the rest of the week. It was interesting to see the list of other hikers, quite a few Australians surprisingly but I was by far the youngest person. The porters and cook arrived ahead of us as was also the week’s routine, which meant our tents were already set up and we could smell dinner being cooked. I was served an amazing three course dinner every night and ate more that week than I had the entire trip so far!


The second day we had a bit of a tough hike up a steep and rocky hill but it was a slightly shorter day with only five hours of walking. Shira camp was 3840m and had amazing views of other mountains, including Mount Meru in the distance. Later that night when the sky had cleared we had our first magnificent view of the summit we were attempting to conquer. I looked up and wondered how the hell I was going to make it!

I prepared for day three to be tough and it sure was. We hiked up to Lava Tower which was 4600m and an extra acclimatisation day that made up the total trek 7 days. The last half an hour I could really tell the difference in altitude and the effects on my breathing and my head but I didn’t feel too bad so I was proud of that. It had been raining in the morning and by the time we were heading up to Lava Tower it was snowing and it didn’t stop for the rest of the day. We descended to Baranco camp at 3940m for the night and the descent was actually far harder as we were walking down slippery rocks and mini waterfalls from all the snow. I ad never been more relieved to get to my tent, have a cup of tea and put some dry clothes on.


I woke up on day four and was so happy to see clear blue skies and sun shine! We only walked for about three hours but it did involve some serious rock scrambling up a cliff face to get up over the valley we were camping in. Once we got to the top at 4200m we dropped down into Karanga Valley and then of course back up the other side with a steep climb that really got you sucking in the air and sweating a lot even though it was cold. Karanga Valley was also the last water source before summit camp so you could see all the porters carrying 20L of water up the valley wall to camp, I could almost feel their pain just watching them. Once we arrived at camp we had a bit of rest time before my guide, Stewart, wanted to take me 200m further up for acclimatisation. I felt pretty good and from that point I could see the path leading to summit camp, it really was getting closer.


Day five was a three hour hike to summit camp or Barafu camp and again we dipped down into a valley and had a steep climb up to camp which was at 4600m. I felt really good making it there and I could feel everyone’s excitement from being so close… yet still so far away. Again, I had a short rest and Stewart took me up the path “a bit further” which was actually another hour. We stopped at about 4800m and I could see the track winding all the way up to the top. I said, “well let’s just keep going then” but I knew it was still another 1000m ascent and it was going to be harder than it looked.


That night we had an early dinner and went to bed about 7pm ready for our 12am ascent up to Uhuru peak. Stewart said, “Try and get some sleep, most people don’t because they’re excited.” I said, “Well I don’t know why because there’s nothing exciting about not being able to breathe properly, having a throbbing headache and hiking in snow in the middle of the night!” And I slept very well.

Wake up call was 11.30pm for something to eat and piling on every piece of clothing I had brought in preparation for the summit. I wore three pairs of socks, two thermal pants, hiking pants, two thermal tops, a fleece jacket, gloves, balaclava, beanie plus my snow jacket was added about half way up. We left at 12am and joined the line of head torches slowly bobbing along the track.

I was feeling pretty good until about three hours in when Stewart took my backpack and we continued at a slower pace. We hit 5300m and the incline got even steeper and everyone really started to slow down. My chest started tightening up and my head was throbbing as I took one step every few seconds. I began to stop and catch my breath more often and Stewart became worried that my body was struggling with the lack of oxygen. I kept pressing on though… Pole, pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly!).

We got to a point where I was about one hour from the top and then Uhuru peak 5895m would be another hour after that. I looked up and the climb was virtually vertical and I really didn’t think I could do it. Stewart said, “Maybe we turn around, what is your body telling you?”. I wasn’t going to tell him but my body was screaming at me to turn around and descend immediately. But I wasn’t ready to give up so I went a little further and thought, ‘I just have to make it to Stella Point’.


Once I got up over that edge I sat in the snow, I was struggling. Stewart said, “Congratulations, you made it to Stella Point”. I thought, ‘Yeah but it’s not where I really want to be is it?’. I caught my breath and actually took a second to look around at where I was as I’d been keeping my head down concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, the sun was just coming up over the horizon and I felt like I was looking over the entire world. Stewart said, “What do you want to do? Go back down or try for Uhuru peak?”. I started to get upset, I so badly wanted to make it so I thought I’d give it a shot even though it felt like my heart was ready to explode.

The last hour to Uhuru peak went in kind of a blur. I just remember trudging through the snow and looking up at the famous sign and thinking, ‘I have to make it now, I’m so close. I don’t care if I crawl or Stewart carries me!’ And I did finally make it at 7.09am. I don’t know how I did it, I think I went numb that last hour and just kept going. The views from the top were absolutely amazing. I really was on top of the world. I had some quick photos and then Stewart wanted to get me down because he was understandably concerned about me.


The descent took me three hours. My legs were so tired I could hardly walk. I slipped and slid down the rocks and Stewart had to support me to stop me from falling over for most of the way. When I saw the camp I can’t even explain how relieved I was! I collapsed into the tent and had two hours of solid sleep before… Yes another four hours of walking! We had to make it to our final camp that night, Mweka camp at 3000m and they were the longest four hours of my life. I was so fed up with rocks I just wanted to scream. I don’t know how many times I tripped over just because my legs were so tired. Walking into the last camp there were congratulations all around amongst the hikers and I gave Stewart a big hug and said, “Asante sana” (thank you very much), I really couldn’t have done it without him. But I didn’t really care for celebrations all I wanted was to sleep!


The last day was sad. The last morning waking up in the tent. The last morning having a three course breakfast delivered to me. The last day I’d have my team with me. And the last day Stewart and I would leave for the day’s walk. We only had three hours down to Mweka Gate and the pick up point. Thank God the rocks had disappeared and we were back into the rainforest from day one. I walked through that gate triumphantly, I had accomplished a feat I never thought I would and had persevered even when my body had almost given up. It’s definitely the hardest yet best thing I’ve ever done, it’s definitely not a little hill!


*post adapted from my trip here in January 2015 and from my original blog site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com

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