Climbing Kilimanjaro is different than I ever expected. The gate is a zoo – full of people speaking countless different languages, porters weighing gear, guides scrambling to deal with last minute details, men selling cheesy t-shirts and tourists taking photos. I stand with other hikers in a queue for the last real toilet we’ll see for a week and I take it all in. It reminds me more of the entrance to a gala event than the beginning of a wilderness experience.
Amidst the throngs of people, feelings of excitement, anticipation, fear and joy are palpable. For many, this is the start of making a life long dream come true and it will not be easy.
The forest is thick for the first day, eventually giving way to rocky alpine terrain where only plants who hug the earth can survive. The trail ahead looks like a piece of multi-colored string as hundreds of people hustle up the mountain. On our second day of walking, the trail funnels into a narrow shoot where we are actually being pushed and pushing to move upward. As someone who turns to nature for peace, solace and spirit, I am frustrated to be in the midst of what feels like “combat hiking.”
A few days into the trek, things change. I wake to the same camp noises I have been hearing for the last 17 days – Norbert (a wisp of a man who is the sweetest member of our camp crew) chipping the ice away from the hand washing station, white-necked ravens buzzing camp with their loud and powerful wing flaps, tents zipping and unzipping and the porters endlessly bantering in Swahili. Simba, the head of camp crew (and the reason we’ve been eating so well) growls at my tent door. His big eyes peek in followed by a hand holding a cup of hot Kenyan coffee. I look out and Kili looms large above us – still far, but enormous; a stone wall with a path carved into it awaits our ascent. During the scramble up the aptly named, “Breakfast Wall” (because many lose their eggs on the long vertical climb), I become enamored with the hike toward the Roof of Africa. This kind of hiking is exhilarating and there is enough space to feel the power of nature. I am once again alive and find what I came here for – a clarity and a peace of mind that I am exactly where I ought to be, doing exactly what I ought to be doing.
At the top, Kili shines and rewards us with a brilliant view of its remaining glaciers. We stop to take advantage of the calm day, sunning ourselves on the warm rocks and shooting a ridiculous amount of silly photos. Each of us is well aware that this is a far cry from where we will be or how we will feel in a few days when we make our bid for the summit of the highest mountain in Africa ….