What was the one highlight of the trek for you, Juraj (or Ting as she corrected me) asked the group, on our last evening meal in camp. Certainly not reaching the summit – Jeff and I got to 100m below the summit, to Stella Point at 5756m. We would have made the summit if we’d gone on another 0.5km, gritted our teeth through another hour. But by that point, Jeff’s oxygen levels were dangerously low, and I was over it and dreading the slide downhill back to base camp.
In any case, taking the obligatory photos at the summit were not the highlight for Juraj and Ting either. The view wasn’t much too different from where we had parted ways.
I think, for all of us, there wasn’t one particular highlight. Certainly not the interminable slog up from base camp at midnight. That was the singular hardest and longest night of my life. It was beautiful looking up at the trail of lights from headlamps slowing snaking up the mountain in the dark, while the stars twinkled overhead. At times, when the clouds below parted, we could also see the distant yellow lights from the city of Moshi far, far below, where people slept soundly and snugly in their warm beds. Most of the time though, we kept our eyes firmly on the round spot of light from our headlamps, which were trained on the boots of the person in front of us.
It was too cold, too windy, and the air too thin, to appreciate the beauty of the night. We had all wrapped ourselves up in multiple layers. Two pairs of socks, three pairs of pants, three layers of jackets, beanie, two pairs of gloves. But still the biting wind cut through. It seemed an eternal struggle between stopping to gasp for air and shiver from the cold, or trying to fight off the building lactic acid in our legs and push on.
Groups passed us. We passed guides helping clients back down the mountain, seemingly before we had barely started on the trail. We passed people who keeled over suddenly to retch, passed people slumped over by piles of rocks, unable to get up on their own accord. I couldn’t see my watch under all my layers of jackets, but I concentrated hard on just putting one foot ahead at a time, and tried to estimate the minutes until sunrise.
I was never happier when I looked up to see the thin sliver of the waning moon rise above the clouds, the yellow crescent a sure and welcome precursor to the rising sun. And finally, finally, after five miserable hours in the dark, we could see the start of a band of indigo light up the clouds, which slowly broadened and turned orange and pink.
A most glorious sight, one of which I shall have to commit to memory, since I was too cold and tired to want to struggle to get out my camera. But the sense of relief was so sweet.
So, while there wasn’t one highlight, as I reflected on the trip, and especially as I gave more thought to the question when I got up at 230am for my last night pee at altitude, what I appreciated was being out there in nature. To have been able to walk through the drastically different climate zones that Mount Kilimanjaro had to offer – from the wet and humid rainforest to the moorland, to the Alpine desert and finally the arctic zone, it was pretty special.
It was pretty special to ring in the new year on the mountain too. Not that any of us were particularly planning to stay up till the Tanzanian midnight to countdown to 2019. We had already marked the Sydney new year and the Singapore new year earlier. But my bladder, and the brief but rousing cheer of the porters woke me up right at midnight. I crawled out of my tent to find that the earlier fog and clouds had cleared, and I could see a sky full of stars overhead and even the snowy outline of the summit in the background. I exchanged greetings with a couple of the guides and porters in the vicinity, and with Juraj, and snapped a few astro shots to mark the occasion.
2018 seemed long and short at the same time. Long, because we had packed quite a lot into the 12 months. Moved from Sydney to London and then to Singapore, and then we each visited another total of 6 other countries. Short because time seemed to flash right by.
But back to Kilimanjaro: we had a great experience. It wasn’t a vacation by any means, and frankly, after back to back trips like this and the kayak marathon, I am looking forward to a warm and relaxing vacation by the beach. A bit of snorkeling, kayaking, and sleeping in hammocks under the stars.
One big bonus – after going through countless pairs of hiking boots and even more blisters and a few lost toenails, I finally landed on a pair of boots that fit like a dream. The lady at Campus Corner in Singapore who sized me up, placed my feet on insoles two sizes larger than my usual boots and pronounced them perfect to go. And indeed they were. Perfect. Not a single blister after 100km on Mt Kili! To think that I had almost normalized wincing everytime I accidentally kicked my old boots against my hiking pole!