Below is the second guest post from my mum. I’ll definitely be thinking about her experience when I’m struggling up that hill with all my fancy modern gear!
CLIMBING Mt KILIMANJARO 50 YEARS AGO
As a 21st birthday celebration my mother suggested a trip to climb Mt Kilimanjaro which was hastily accepted – a happy co-incidence as Kili was supposed to have been given as a birthday present to the Kaiser Wilhelm II by his grandmother, Queen Victoria, in the late 1800s. The kink in the present Kenya/Tanzania border would tend to corroborate this story. At the time the British Government had been allocated what are now Kenya and Uganda for trading and development, which became known as British East Africa, while the land south of Kenya was given to Germany and was known as German East Africa. The latter was re-named Tanganyika after the First World War when it became part of British East Africa after the defeat of the German army.
The routine way to do this expedition was to join a group organised by Marangu Hotel in the southern foothills in Tanzania. The climb entailed a four day slog, using existing huts to sleep in at nights, one above the forest line and the second at the bottom of Kibo. In the typical laid-back style in East Africa we were just advised to bring “warm clothing and stout footwear”. Although the five of us lived in the Kenya Highlands at varying heights (my home at Molo was 9,000 ft above sea level) we had never needed the relevant clothing to cope with the cold at the extreme heights to which we were ascending. No problem they had said, you can hire anything you need at the hotel. In the event we all needed snow goggles, balaclavas, gloves and long walking sticks. We carried only our personal urgent needs in small rucksacks, the rest of our equipment being carried by porters who followed us up the mountain. My own clothing was typical of the group – a couple of thick jumpers, cotton trousers, a rubberised waterproof jacket and two pairs of thin socks, plus a pair of short leather boots borrowed from a boyfriend. When climbing Mt Kenya five years later I did at least own a pair of stout jodhpur boots! Such modern luxuries as thermal underwear and padded jackets were quite unheard of then.
This was to be a major safari for my mother and me, having to drive from our home in Molo, at the top of the western escarpment of the Rift Valley, via Nairobi to Marangu, a journey of over 300 miles mainly along very basic dirt roads. As we got to know each of the other climbers in our group that evening, we were suitably inspired by the tantalising view from the hotel of the tops of both Kibo and also the smaller, dormant, Mawenzi. Early next morning we set out on our first day’s walk up through the indigenous forest along a very muddy track to Bismark Hut, nestling at the foot of a cliff amongst the trees at a healthy 9,000ft. The accommodation was pretty basic with two dormitories each having several bunk beds consisting of a wooden frame covered with a thin mattress, over which we laid our sleeping bags. An outside “long drop” was located nearby but there were no washing facilities other than a bucket of cold water! We were all more than ready to eat our frugal supper seated round a camp fire in front of the hut at sundown (which is short-lived and barely lasting 15 minutes at about 7.30 p.m.) and chat by the light of a couple of Deitz (paraffin) lamps until retiring to snuggle down into our bedding shortly afterwards.
The next day we continued up a narrow track onto the moorland with tantalising views of the jagged peaks of Mawenzi slowly revealing themselves out of the mist as we climbed upwards. The scenery up here was much more varied as we traversed the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo, and finally arrived at Peter’s Hut at 12,500 ft. While the porters were unloading our gear we walked a short way up to the top of the ridge behind the hut to catch our first proper sight of Kibo in all its glory. However it was not to be, as thick cloud covered the snowy top, but the sheer bulk of it was still an awesome and somewhat daunting sight.
At about 4 a.m. the following morning we were woken by our three guides, to be plied with steaming mugs of tea and chunks of bread with which to fortify ourselves for the coming assault. None of us had slept much due to the freezing temperature and uncomfortable beds, so we were not at our best. It was, of course, pitch dark, but it was essential to make an early start in order to reach the top in time to see the sunrise at 7 a.m. By torchlight our frozen bodies set out in single file across the plateau with the three native guides spaced out between us until we stopped for a much-needed breather and another mug of tea at the foot of Kibo itself. By this time we were beginning to show ominous signs of distress – extreme lassitude, splitting headaches and in my case completely numbed hands. The chief guide was most concerned, and after a vigorous hand massage and an additional pair of gloves managed to get the circulation going again. None of us suffered full-blown altitude sickness and continued on our way.
The following ascent was sheer torture! Ascending in a zigzag up the scree, 6-8 steps each zig/zag, was as much as we could do at a time, such was our lack of energy and breath. Here our walking sticks really came into their own to lean on when resting as much as for balance and help while climbing. Ever onwards and upwards, until, blessed relief, we reached the rim of the crater, at Gillman’s Point, 19,043 ft above sea level. Sadly the flag pole marking the spot had blown over, but was still there to mark the spot. Obligatory photos were taken to keep as proof of our conquest. We had all been born and brought up in Kenya, so none of us had experienced snow first hand and were amazed by the beauty of the ice fields along the rim.
Celebrating our success with bars of chocolate, and mugs of tea (which the guides had nobly carried up in flasks) we slowly became aware of what we had achieved. None of us cared about not continuing along the rim up to what is now known as Uhuru Peak, 600 ft higher, especially as the weather was not going to improve, and were quite content to savour the moment looking down over the thick blanket of cloud below us, highlighted by the rosy glow of the sun, which covered the whole countryside, broken only by the highest peak of Mawenzi poking its head through. That in itself was magical. We all sensed the feeling of reverence with which the native tribes regarded both Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya as the ancestral homes of their gods.
But soon it was time to begin the descent. Easy, now that all we had to do was avoid losing balance as we slid down the loose scree in short bursts, aided by our trusty sticks. We even had the energy to bypass Peter’s Hut and continued on down to Bismark for the night. What bliss to be warmer and relaxed – only now could we fully enjoy comparing our individual highlights and lowlights of the trip. Never again, we all said, but agreed that despite the trials and tribulations we wouldn’t have missed it for worlds.