Our last day of trekking was rather frustrating for a number of reasons. Most of the group were still tired from the climb, although I was feeling totally recovered and full of energy, even if my mind was all over the place. An early start at 6am to make time for the traditional tipping ceremony, conducted by Phil with a very moving speech which had me in tears throughout. I kept catching Joseph’s eye, and despite his big grin I knew he understood what I was feeling: the emotions of the trip, the reasons for my undertaking it, the disappointment of not making the summit, but at the same time the incredible experience of it all. I glanced at Nicholas and George, and then at Abraham, and they clearly understood too. All the guides are used to the incredible emotional experience that the trek is for many, and no doubt for some in the past who endured far more than I did. It was clear to everyone: guides, trekkers and even some of the porters (as I found out later), not to mention you the reader by now, that Joseph and I had developed a special bond in the last 36 hours that had nothing to do with romantic interest. I wished I had something to give him, but the only thing that came to mind was my gaiters, which I hadn’t used all trek (or even ever in the 10 years I’ve owned them), since he was the only guide without a pair. I caught him in a quiet moment and handed over the gaiters and an extra tip: no words were needed.
The tipping ceremony over, the guides and porters sang the standard Kilimanjaro song for our entertainment, which they had been busy practising over the last few days. I’d seen and heard it many times, so it wasn’t novel, but it was beautifully done and with great gusto, as if it was the first time for them too. Unfortunately, the effect was marred by several members of our group requesting a repeat performance so they could video it. I’m sure they meant well, but the repeat and the videoing turned it abruptly from a moving and personal experience into something that felt commercial and touristy. The porters performed creditably, but you could tell their hearts weren’t quite in it the second time.
Finally, after much faffing (still, on day 8, people had not figured how to adjust their poles, remembered to apply suncream, sorted their rucksacks and so on, which made me incredibly annoyed), we began the descent. Due to the tiredness of some, or perhaps general apathy, it was painfully slow and I became more and more frustrated, along with several other members of the group. It was a huge anticlimax at the best of times, and the mood was not improved by all the delay, especially as the porters were all desperate to get home. It gave me the chance to spend some more time chatting to Joseph and the other guides, who clearly shared my frustration but were of course too professional to do anything but grin and bear it. The fact that I had buckets of energy and no outlet for it made me more despondent: I had recovered fully and had no sore muscles, just a lot of bruises. I found it increasingly hard to rein in my feelings, but Joseph and George sensed my mood and did their best to cheer me up and make me laugh.
The bus journey back to Arusha, however, lifted everyone’s spirits as we crammed in guides and porters, some of whom were dropped off en route. The bus was stuffed like a Turkish dolmus, but somehow George had managed to save the extra jump seat next to me for Joseph and he climbed on board at the last minute, enabling us to spend a final couple of hours chatting. He was eager to point out all the sights of his local area, including where he’d been to school and college, and to educate me more about local life. The porters on board were in jovial mood and were laughing and singing, led by James the cook up front. The whole bus soon erupted into a frenzy of singing and clapping, which brought home to me the spirit of the whole trip – much more so than the organised song they had prepared for us earlier, which though beautifully sung and with great gusto, was a tourist performance as opposed to the wonderful display of spontaneous warmth, fun and excitement of a group of Africans going home after a week of trials, tribulations, hard work and bonding, both amongst themselves and in many cases with us too.
While the trip was an incredible experience, as is often the case it left me finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the mundanities of everyday life once we had arrived back at the hotel – the inane chatter of the rest of the group, the petty complaints about food and service that night and the next day. I could see a couple of the others felt the same way, and we found it hard to socialise, preferring the solitude of our own thoughts and emotions. I was also devastated that due to some miscommunication and the extreme lateness of the hour at which we got back to the hotel, I missed saying goodbye to Abraham and the other guides who were supposed to be staying for a drink or two with us. Much though goodbyes are difficult, the trip felt incomplete without a final farewell to those who had looked after us so well and become real friends. Phil, Mo, Gail and I shared a bottle of wine over dinner, and then lingered over another bottle after the others had gone to bed, but I didn’t feel like sleeping even though the wine had gone to my head a little. The next day, I reached for my MP3 player for the first time, and deliberately shunned conversation, opting to go for a run around the coffee plantation instead. Of course, there will be other trips to look forward to, new memories and excitement, but I find it hard to believe that anything can ever match my Kilimanjaro experience.