We climb Africa’s highest peak
November 7, 2001


We climbed Mount Kilimanjaro!

Shaun, Gisela and I reached Uhuru Peak, Africa's highest point at 5895m (19,340ft), at 6.36am on October 25.

We climbed the Marangu ("easy") route in five days, not the recommended six, which gives extra time for altitude acclimatisation.

We began our summit ascent from Kibo hut (4703m) at 12.30am on Thursday October 25. Then followed four-and-a-half hours of slogging hell in the dark, as we ziggagged our way up a steep, slippery gravel scree. It was freezing and we were doing the penguin walk with all the clothes we were wearing.

Eventually, as first light touched the sky at 5am, we crested Gillman's Point (5685m), the edge of the crater rim; the worst was behind us.

The only way to get through is to concentrate only on putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. And at that altitude I concentrated hard on breathing: full lungful in ... full lungful out ...

After Gillman's Point it's a 200m ascent over 1.5km, which took us an hour and a half to cover as the sun rose above the horizon. At that altitude the air contains 40% of the oxygen it holds at sea level, and one does everything in slow motion to avoid the effects of altitude sickness.

The feeling of standing at Uhuru Peak is indescribable, and it was a very emotional moment for me. It has been my dream to climb Africa's highest peak since I was five years old and my grandmother showed me photos of my father and his brothers climbing the mountain in the 1950s.

Yesterday (1/11) we found my grandfather's old house at Usa River, near Arusha. He built a grand mansion for his large family in the 1930s, and it still stands today, now in use as admin offices and dormitories for a Seventh Day Adventist seminary. We met the vice-chancellor and were given the grand welcome.

Climbing Kilimanjaro and spending time in this area, where two generations of my family flowered, has been a return to my roots, and a very moving experience for me.

October 19, 2001

We are in Tanzania now and all is well. We have been on the road a week short of three months and the ZebraBus has carried us 13 500km so far without any mechanical failures. A couple of bits have broken off the car from the bad roads, but nothing we can't live without.

We are in Arusha and are preparing for our ascent of Kilimanjaro on Monday.

I was unaware of it until we arrived in Arusha, but the clock tower in the centre of town was regarded as the half-way point between Cape Town and Cairo on the old Great North Road. We zigzagged our way this far, so distance wise I think we are beyond the half-way mark, but the worst roads and unfriendliest lands still lie before us, even if the road from here heads more-or-less directly north to Cairo.

Climbing Kili is an expensive undertaking. We've organised our climb as cheaply as possible, but it's still costing us US$500 each, and that's about half what most people pay. OUCH! We are missing out on everything else that Tanzania has to offer, because it costs $25 per person per day to enter Tanzanian National Parks, and about $50 per day to drive a foreign-registered vehicle in the parks, and that doesn't include accommodation. It's a shame to pass on world-famous places like Ngorongoro crater and Serengeti, but if we have to spend that kind of money we won't have enough left to get to London. And I don't even want to think about the consequences of running out of cash in a place like Ethiopia or Sudan.

Oh well, luckily we're not doing this trip to see wild animals. We are still enjoying travelling through African countries, and we have met so many fantastic people. Everywhere we have been, we have been met with total friendliness and openness, and everyone who has crossed our path has gone out of their way to be helpful and welcoming.

And to think that so many folks back home asked us if we were afraid of going into such a dangerous continent. All I can say to that is that nowhere on this trip have I felt as unsafe as I feel in Johannesburg.

Africans are so relaxed about everything. There are none of the racist undercurrents that cut through every interaction between black and white in South Africa. It is quite refreshing to interact socially with black people and not feel that you are being silently held personally accountable for apartheid and every ill that ever befell a black man. Out here people take you as you come, without prejudging you just because you are white.

Another surprise has been the friendliness and helpfulness of border officials. I had always been led to believe that it is simply impossible to travel in Africa without having a large budget available for bribes. We have not paid a cent in bribes, and we have a policy of not doing so.

We have been asked for "gifts" at many of the numerous police and army roadblocks in Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, but a polite "no" has always been accepted without further discussion.

The only evidence of overt corruption we have come across was a Tanzanian policeman who greeted us with: "You were speeding, now you must pay a fine." We politely but firmly responded that we were not speeding and we were not going to pay anything. The cop tried the demand from several angles, each more threatening than the last, but we were steadfast in our refusal to give him anything, and he eventually let us go, saying: "OK, I will forgive you this time."

Before Tanzania we spent a couple of weeks in Malawi. Malawi is a tiny country and very heavily populated. It's also the poorest country we have seen.

We climbed Mount Mulanje, which left me feeling depressed, as the mountain is dying -- uncontrolled fires are exacting a heavy toll, and the mountain has been denuded of much of the forest that used to cover its slopes.

After Mount Mulanje we spent some time on Lake Malawi, and that was paradise. We scuba dived and snorkelled at Cape Maclear, and the variety of multi-coloured tropical freshwater fish was breathtaking. Apparently there are more than 3500 species of fish in the lake, of which only about 1500 have been named. I was told that 90% of tropical freshwater aquarium fish originate in Lake Malawi.

After Cape Maclear we spent a few days at Kande Beach; more paradise. We would probably have got stuck there had it not been for the impending expiry of Shaun's Tanzanian visa.

Christian and Gisela on Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro.

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