Hiking the roof of Africa; my journey to the depths of myself
Why did I go?
I’m turning 60 this year. This has always been on my bucket list.
But seriously, I wanted to pay a personal final tribute to the memory and values that Madiba stood for from the roof of Africa – the top of Kilimanjaro at Uhuru Peak, the highest free standing mountain in the world, towering close to 6,000 metres above sea. It would be closure of an era for me. And a small personal sacrifice for the enormous ones Madiba made for all of us. I also wanted to search for, and hopefully find, a renewal of the motivation to continue pursuing his dreams and hopes, that inspired for billions across the world who are today on the receiving end of an unprecedented pillage of human greed, poverty and inequality.
Photo: And so began my personal final tribute to the memory and values that Madiba stood for.
Who did I go with?
A month ago I heard of Alex Harris, the explorer who walked to the South Pole with Sibusiso Vilane, the first South Africans to do so. He had done Kilimanjaro 14 times before and was taking another party up. I jumped at the opportunity. I had always wanted to test the fullest limits of my human endurance. It was also a challenge I could face confidently with my son, Kami, who was 21. I wanted to spend an intense time with him. He was also enthusiastic. (And I would thank my gods many times as he stayed with me on the final ascent as my pillar of strength.) It was a beautiful and fulfilling journey as father and son.
So… I had very little time to train
I am reasonably fit. I’m also a bit crazy (please don’t start that conversation with my wife). And then I meet another crazy guy, Alex, and I know anything is possible. Three weeks before the trip I had managed to, incredibly wisely, sprain my ankle, and was walking on crutches for the next two weeks. My physiotherapist, a tower of sanity, did suggest that I delay the trip. But I got a clean bill of health in time for the trip and both he and Alex claimed that climbing Kilimanjaro had more to do with the mind than the body anyway.
And you know what? It is true: it IS about the mind.
I can swear by that now. You do have to have a reasonable level of fitness, so if you have to take a lift to your first floor office, better see Kilimanjaro from the plane. But if you are not scared of climbing 10 flights of stairs, it is your mind you have to work on. Climbing Kilimanjaro is gruelling. Yep, it’s the toughest physical thing I have done in my life, no doubt about it. You reach a point on the final day when the body screams for no more punishment. The shop is ready to close down. Then what remains is just your mind. Ok, one can call it stubbornness, one can call it insanity, whatever you name it, but it is that internal flame that keeps you going.
Photo: With Kami and Julio, ready to take on the big mountain.
Kilimanjaro is nearly 6,000m high. There is not much above that but planes flying at 9,000m. You have to acclimatise to the low levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. Breathing is nigh impossible at that height. You spend your seconds, minutes, hours, suffocating, dreaming of your lungs filled with air, dreaming of your heart not beating wildly, dreaming of so many simplest of things we take for granted, every day of our lives, all the time. Until we lose it.
Photo: Kibo Hut. Still feeling… okay.
We started at 1,700 meters. The first night we slept at Mandara Hut, which is at 2,700 meters. It was a rather high gradient but masked by a beautiful equatorial forest. The second day is at Horombo Hut, which is at 3,700 meters. We spent three nights there to acclimatise. Two days of hiking high and sleeping low. On Day Five we hiked to Kibo Camp, which is base camp at 4,700 meters. That night we would leave at midnight on the final ascent.
So how was I feeling?
Bloody nervous; eating at that height is really tough. We had no appetite. And anxiety is high. We had seen stretchers rolled down by porters with climbers, oxygen masks attached to their faces like Martians from long forgotten scary movies. This was the real stuff. The danger was real. Altitude sickness could happen to anyone of us, and can be deadly. And nearly everyone we saw who had ascended the summit returned looking completely exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally. One needs to be strong, just looking at them. The questions you ask yourself in those moments are not always the easiest ones to answer.
And then it was our turn.
That final night, Alex insisted on a supper of potatoes and potatoes – just stuff it in, you are going to need it tomorrow. We complied, somewhat sheepishly, perhaps lethargically even. Already in the group of 11 there had been problems with the altitude sickness.
You have about three hours to spend on sleep. Still, it takes a special kind of human to sleep at that tense moment. (Remind me one day to tell you a story about Juri Gagarin, the first man in space.) I… could not. Too tense, to excited, ridden with so many opposite emotions that I just … couldn’t. I felt the others had the same torrid time. The midnight, when we set out, came out almost as an emotional release. This is what we had prepared for; better the enemy you know than the one you are afraid of.
The final ascent was the most difficult. The gradient was now nearly 90 degrees. The words of the guides Julio, Salvatore, John, Alex and Alifayo, all local Tanzanians ringing in our ears ”pole pole’, ‘slowly slowly’ in Swahili; one step at a time. It was quiet. No, it was eerie. There we were, a single line of climbers, all with head lamps lighting up sections of the mountain. The moon shone at half-mast, masking the brilliance of the Milky Way. It would take six hours to Gillian’s Point at the top of the Summit.
It was excruciating. After the first two hours of walking in the loose volcanic rock – ‘ the scree slope’ – the legs were beginning to take enormous strain. I put on Johnny Clegg music to get my mind off the wooden legs, cramping breathing; I was Impi, I will not surrender. Then on to Angelique Kidjo. The only stops are now for the sips of water. It’s too dangerous to stop longer. The exhaustion was starting to drown out the music.
All I could think about was turning back.
This was too difficult.
Photo: With Kami, exhausted, almost defeated.
But the guides saw so many of us suffer before. They are the heroes of Killi. Gently they encourage. They nudge. They know. They have been alongside us for five days. By now they know us, they know our limits.
I retreat to the safety of my mind; one step at a time. I meditate; one step for Madiba; one step for Nyerere; over and over. Madiba, Nyerere. Then I call on the ancestral spirits and the gods of the mountains to give me strength and courage. I keep going. As the rays of the rising dawn light up the skies there is a cry – our guides cheer at the sight of Gillian’s Point. But it’s still another 100 metres. Now it just adrenaline as we scale over the last few rocks to reach 5,670 meters. We have arrived. There is intense relief. (See main photo)
Hot chai awaits; we have done it.
I said: Do we go down now? We have done it. I want to go down. Every one of gazillion of my cells screams for that to be true.
But Julio, the main guide who calls me Papa, says, “It’s only a little way to Uhuru. I will be with you every step of the way. You have come so far. You must do this for Mandela.” I cannot even argue. With him and Kami at my side we go on. The views of the glaciers come into focus. It is magnificent. This is God’s grandeur at its best. Its majesty is indescribable. My mind drifts through the miracle of nature; its majesty. I feel like walking in a different universe. My dear human body, I love you and I treasure you, but I am more than just a multitude of physical cells. I inhabit and I thank you, but walking there, in this perfection of nature, I feel so much more: I feel this spirit of mine, more than ever before.
And so I reach Uhuru.
Photo: On the top of Africa. Alive.
It’s cold and the glacial winds swirl around you. But so does the sweet taste of victory and human endurance and my spirituality. Words, any words, anything that we the humans have invented to communicate with ourselves and the universe, all them come short of explaining what I truly feel. I feel a welling up of pride and joy; our beautiful Africa; I feel the sorrow for the lost promise of our own Uhuru. When will we know peace? When will we have leaders of integrity? When will the spirits of Mandela and Nyerere, Nasser and Nkrumah, Cabral and Lumumba rise again and bring the sweet taste of Uhuru to our African people?
I remember Mandela’s inauguration speech: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…” I am carrying that Mandela dream in the copy of the SA Constitution that I have been reading on the journey. In the cold gusty equatorial winds I feel his warmth human spirit. I feel renewed.
I make my prayer for peace in Palestine. I know one day Palestinians will have their freedom. They will have human dignity and justice. And so many more millions of the oppressed and enslaved, around the globe.
My walk/stumble down was too blurry, and I can’t remember much. It was only the mind working. The relief of knowing one is going down, to the thick, juicy, precious… air, is the only reason to keep going. There is a bed down there to lay your crushed body down and lose yourself in a sleep so deep that might as well be a coma. But still, walking down is tricky. The loose volcanic rock is like a ski slope. (Thank God I had done some cross-country skiing before.) The guides are there always ready to lend a stable pair of experienced, safe hands. I arrive back at the camp. The good news is that there is the bed; the not so good news is that we have it only for the next hour. I cannot imagine possibly getting up. Then we get up. There is a bowl of steaming soup with bread dipped in.
Alex announces that if we don’t eat then, the 12 km hike is impossible. That’s the choice; a stretcher wheeled down; or eat and walk. We stuff the bowl of soup and bread down. And then we start walking.
The food and the cereal bars are nourishing. We have descended 1,000 meters. It is behind us. The air starts to feel the lungs again. The reserves of energy return. I gaze in wonderment at the Alpine landscape. It is spectacular. I watch the huge cumulus clouds sitting above. Streams of clouds drift upwards. I feel a flush of relief and then… I feel peace. I settle into an easy pace and the adrenaline rush is now gone. I feel healing energy embalms me. I feel calm and resolved. The landscape was magnificent and the mountain shone with its defiant glory. The life is good. I am a lucky man.
That night at Horombo I fell into a deep sleep. We wake up the next morning keen to walk down the remaining 20 kms. My head was clear. Now this is the time to appreciate the beauty of this beautiful mountain.
What are my best memories?
We were in a group of South Africans and evangelical Christian Texans. Our views on many things from God, guns, abortion and gay rights were widely divergent. The South African side was eclectic; more spiritual than religious. Our Constitution and leading church luminaries like the irrepressible Desmond Tutu to Mandela preached an inclusive philosophy and liberal approach to many of these issues. It’s enshrined in our Constitution, a copy of which I carried with me throughout the trip to the top.
Photo: We came from all over the world.
But we all had a goal to achieve. It stared at us day and night. It was visible at most times. And it was daunting. We settled into camaraderie in a cramped space, altogether. We ate, slept and walked together. We shared a goal; to reach Uhuru. It was important that every one of us put away our prejudices, our preconceived notions of right and wrong.
Our conversations built on a common foundation of mutual respect and focusing on what we shared. We ended up friends. We appreciated each other. We helped each other over the many obstacles. We built, rather than destroyed bridges of trust. We listened with attention. We questioned robustly but understood what it takes to build a group identity and then face the toughest test of human endurance. How I wished we could put all the leaders of our political parties into one group and set them the goal of working together to climb the Kilimanjaro and the conquering the prejudices in their hearts. Uluru would be within our reach.
Thank you, my Tanzanian friends
Like real Africans I meet across the continent, there is limitless goodwill and quiet resilience. We are rich continent under the ground. Our people walk on gold, tanzanite, diamonds and platinum. But we remain poor because our leaders fail us. We need to learn to lead ourselves. I placed my life in the hands of Julio and Salvatore. I never doubted for one minute that I would be unsafe. How I wish I could trust our political and business leaders like I trusted them. They were my heroes and my lifesavers.
My South African friends
There was Alex Harris, who was our organiser. There was the youth league; my son Kami, who is 21; and Shawn Baloyi, 20 years, who is captain of the Diepsloot Development Mountain Bike Academy; Andre Ross, a banker from Absa Capital, who is heavily involved in promoting mountain biking in our townships; and Sharon Harris, a Pilates trainer who is the sister of Alex. They are a wonderful group of people will be my friends for life.
My bucket list is long. I want hike to the base camp at Mount Everest. I want to see Antarctica. I want to see the priceless beauty of our natural assets before they are destroyed by the unrelenting greed of our predatory elites, which has brought both our planet and our human species to the edge of a precipice. It strengthens my resolve to take a stand; to speak truth to power. To support the next generation find their struggle and their voice to forge the world they want for their future and their children. I want them to see what I see. We all owe them as much. DM
Main photo: Gillian’s Point, at 5670m. Do we go down now? We have done it. I want to go down. Every one of gazillion of my cells screams for that to be true.
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