I received the most wonderful email last night from Rebecca Layman, who is also known as ‘Dragon Bex’, of Pete’s Dragons fame. For those who don’t know about Pete’s Dragons, then please see the link below. I shall also quote from their website to tell you a little bit about them:
In January of 2010 Peter Wicks passed away. He was aged just 24 and the younger brother of Diva Dragon. Diva and her friends decided that the only way to say thank you to the people and agencies who helped Pete’s family and friends through this hard time was to raise money and awareness for them; to ensure that they can help other families in their time of need.
I came across the Dragons last year, when I (and they) did the Great British Bike Ride, and I posted my small but enormously emotional tribute to them in this post here from last September:
The poem referred to there I still cannot read without being moved to tears. I think what the Dragons are doing is nothing short of amazing, and it makes me feel very honoured just to have some very small association with them, even if just by sponsoring their efforts now and again.
So anyway, being friends with the Dragons on Facebook, I get to follow their activities, and noticed that Rebecca was doing Kilimanjaro a few weeks ago to raise more funds for their wonderful cause. I got to correspond with her a few times before the trip, and tried to offer a few snippets of advice from my own experiences. It was just nice to be able to share a few of them again – Kilimanjaro will never leave me, and I am so grateful to have such wonderful memories of my own time there.
I was so happy to find out that on 8th September 2011, Dragon Bex summitted the world’s highest free-standing mountain. Fantastic!
Dragon Bex at the roof of Africa
Bex has done a write up of her experience, and with her kind permission I am posting it all here below for you to see. It made me smile, laugh, and also cry, and brought everything back to me from my own trip. I am so happy for her, and for all the Dragons. And if you enjoy it half as much as I did, then please show your appreciation by making a small donation to their chosen charities – a link to their charity page is provided here:
By Dragon Bex:
It is Summit Night. It was cold and dark, as 7 people crowded around the table in the mess tent. Somewhere outside we could hear the muffled laughter of the porters exchanging jokes in Swahili. In the tent we sat with our head torches on crowding closer to Ramson our Head Guide.
“In my village at the foot of Kilimanjaro I often take a meal with some of my tribe elders.” Said Ramson in his excellent yet heavily accented English.
“I have been a guide on Kilimanjaro for some years and they still ask me the same thing- “Ramson we don’t understand why do the Mzungu do it? (Mzungu is the collective term for white man) The mountain is dangerous, you can get very sick and die up there, it is cold and bleak- and they spend a fortune to do it…….why Ramson Why?”
As I reflect on my amazing adventure “Why” indeed!
Earlier that week on Saturday we arrived at a very dusty Kilimanjaro airport having flown from Heathrow to Kilimanjaro via Addis Ababa and Mombassa. Very tired, myself and my companion Sue climbed on board the bus to be confronted by the tallest man I had ever seen. He explained that he was Paul the chef and introduced us to the rest of the team: Ramson our head guide and Amos and Thomas his deputies. Paul explained that his height was not unusual as he was half Masai and in fact at 6 foot 7 he was the smallest in is family! In addition to these 4 chaps there were also 18 guides who came up the mountain with us (more on them later) some who accompanied us on the bus and some who we were to meet the next day before the climb.
As Sue and I settled in our seats our fellow Mzungu joined us. A lovely couple from Northern Ireland; Daphne a Nurse and Rob a retired drug enforcement Policeman, Fiona from Scotland who ran her own pet grooming firm and Nigel- A paramedic who we referred to as the “Camp- Medic” ( Take that as you will!) All lovely people and will be friends for life I have no doubt. They were also really interesting and great fun and the conversations we had on that mountain were awesome and got me through some tough moments.
After an hour of driving Paul signalled to something in the sky. I thought he was pointing out an airplane or a bird, but no, nestled in the clouds was our first glimpse of Kilimanjaro. I don’t think anyone was prepared how big this mountain was and the mood on the bus changed…….Ramson noticed and quietly remarked that as long as we gave Her the respect she deserved we would all be ok.
We arrived at our Hotel, (lovely) had a few beers (lovely) and looked forward to the next morning and the start of “The Climb”.
There was no need for an alarm the next morning as the 18 porters had arrived with food for 7 days, our tents all the equipment and were noisily strapping it to our bus. I must now talk about the porters who were for me the absolute stars of the journey and there is no way on this earth any of us could have done it without them.
The first thing I must mention is how poor they are. They are paid very little and are poorly equipped. We all had spent a fortune getting ourselves kitted out with boots, warm clothes etc but some of them climb, every day, in flip-flops. I also need to mention that they carry the majority of their bags on their head. Yes head. They also can make several trips to and from the various camps on a daily basis to ensure the Mzungu have water. Each of us had to carry 5 litres of water per day in our ruck sacks so you can imagine the volume. Many don’t have sleeping bags and huddle together at night in a very flimsy tent. (This is also generally the same tent that Paul cooked in- Health and Safety…!?) Having said all this they are always smiling; are unfailingly polite and helpful and love to teach you Swahili; Jambo “ Hi”- Poa- “Cool” Habari Gani? “How are you”. Fiona thought she was being highly amusing by feeding me some lines from her Swahili guide book: I couldn’t help wonder why the Porters fell about laughing (Fortunately they have a brilliant sense of humour) when Fiona suggested I say
“Unafanya nini wikendi hii, Unataka kwenda kucheza densi”
Which roughly translated means: “What are you doing at the weekend would you like to go dancing?
Hmmm thanks Fi!!
So back on the Bus and off on the two hour drive up into the foot hills to the Rongai gate to start our climb. Now to give you some perspective we started walking on Sunday at lunch time at over 2000 m above sea level. This is higher than Ben Nevis the highest mountain in the UK. The weather was lovely and hot, the sun was shining and spirits were really high…
I think the problem with climbing Kilimanjaro is that the first 2 and a half days are relatively easy. Monday and Tuesday are spent walking up hill at a slight gradient, very slowly for about 4 hours in the sunshine, looking at the wild life, pretty flowers. Chatting, eating sweets, playing games getting to know each other and having a jolly time. Altitude sickness pah! We had would stop at camp for lunch, have a rest, go for a high walk in the afternoon to help us acclimatise and then have a nice dinner…..What comes as a shock is summit day ( More of that later) and also the lack of hygiene that slowly creeps up on you…which leads me to the Camps…..
Let me make this clear, there is no running water on the mountain. No electricity or gas. So clearly there are no showers. There is the odd “drop toilet” at camp and believe me, having used one of those I now know what hell smells like. It is also advisable at night not to use your head torch in the toilet as any glimpse down into the “pit” will lead to dry retching. I made a decision early on that I couldn’t use the “toilets” and felt happier going behind a rock. This is known as “checking the tyre pressure” I have no idea why! Each day at some stage on the walk the girls would go one way and the boys another, armed with toilet paper wet-wipes to relieve themselves by a rock….leave your dignity at home!
The next thing to mention is the dirt….it is very dry and dusty in Africa and the dust is so fine that it gets everywhere, ingrained into your deepest pores, it goes up your nose (black bogies) and into your ears, not usually a problem, however there are no showers so it is impossible to get clean. There is of course the “Shanklin Shower” named by Daphne which is a wet-wipe wash of your face, arm-pits and…well you can imagine the rest! We all turned our noses up at the start of the trip as the porters were a bit pongee but by the end we didn’t care because we smelt just as bad!
So with the exception of no showers or toilets the camp is made up of the Mzungu’s 2 man tent I shared with Sue, (cosy is the best way to put it) the “mess” tent where a trestle table and 7 chairs sat, where he had our meals and a bigger tent which had seen better days which doubles up as the porters accommodation and the kitchen. Now a huge amount of credit goes to Paul. I have no idea how at 4 km above sea level he managed to produce some yummy food. Breakfast consisted of fresh fruit, Porridge, Spanish omelette, bacon on some days and sausages, with lots of coffee. In the evenings after our walk we would come back to popcorn and hot chocolate. For our supper we would have soup followed by coconut based curries and pasta. It wasn’t Cordon Bleu but you eat everything that was put in front of you.
So I hope I am painting a picture so far of lots of- if somewhat dirty-fun.
And then Wednesday morning came and everything changed. As today was summit day and we had no idea what to expect……..
The days started with a 5 hour walk to Kibo Hut which is the last camp before the Summit at aprox 4500m above sea level. Now this is the tricky time for altitude sickness. Whilst we had been walking very slowly for the last few days and walking high in the afternoons- this was a critical time to get our bodies used to what was to come. The terrain suddenly started to change too, from lots of vegetation to desert as it is too cold and there is too little oxygen for anything to grow. It also started to get very cold, and we all had to put on gloves, hats and several layers. When we arrived at Kibo hut the mood was slightly flat was we were tired and frankly in my case scared of what was to come. After lunch we rested and were fed again early evening and briefed on what to expect that night. Ramson explained that we were to get as much rest as possible because at 11pm we would be roused from out tents to start the walk to Uhuru Point 5895 m above sea level with an expected arrival time of 7am the next day. We would be given a small bowl of porridge before we started as it was likely that we would be sick if we ate too much. We were to take the bear minimum in our ruck sacks: 5ltrs of water carefully wrapped because it would freeze, any sweets, flapjack or glucose tablets we might need. Two pairs of gloves, socks and other warm clothes, our head torches as well as sun high factor sunscreen because when the sun came up we would burn.
I have no idea what I thought about for those 8 hours. It was pitch black, we walked unbelievable slowly on a variety of terrain; we scrambled over rocks, slipped on scree, all at a very steep gradient. It was so cold (-10 degrees) I could barely feel my hands or feet and we were so very tired, I am fit and have done a huge amount of prior training but my muscles were on fire. We should have been tucked up in bed, yet Ramson would not let us rest too long for fear of getting to cold or falling asleep. Is strange, you are with a group of brilliant people who you have bonded with of the last few days and there are several other groups of people from all over the world ascending at the same time, so you are not alone however it is a very lonely experience walking in the cold with your own thoughts and fears of not getting to the top. Altitude sickness can hit anyone, no matter what age, gender, or fitness level. You have to keep focused though on the task at hand. Big strong men in their prime are being taken back down past you, covered in vomit with their noses bleeding because they could not cope with the altitude. You have to just keep going slowly and pray that the terrible headache you have and the acute shortness in breath will not lead to anything more dramatic.
I have focused on the negatives here because it was really really tough but it was also amazing. I was given a piece of advice by a Kili veteran before I left- make sure you look up from the boots in front of you and take in your surroundings. I am so thankful for that advice…..as mentioned there were several other groups on the mountain ascending at the same time as us and as we zigzagged in the darkness it looked like a beautiful pilgrimage to yet unseen point, as the little groups of light created by the head torches bobbed up the mountain. With no light pollution, the stars were like nothing I have ever seen- you could see the Milky Way and I lost count of the shooting stars. Dawn breaking made the pain disappear… (momentarily!) Sunrise at 5,500m above sea level is something to behold, we were so high we could see the curve of the earth as the gold line of dawn on the horizon lit up everyone’s dusty faces. Shortly after we felt warmer and I could feel my hands and feet again. Looking down we could see a blanket of cloud several hundred metres below us. We were now nearing the end and could see in the distance the summit, so tantalisingly near yet still so far. I thought it might be snowier at the top but it is Spring in Tanzania and Global Warming has shrunk the ice cap. What is left is still majestic, massive turquoise lumps of ice.
The feeling when you get to the top is strange. I felt personally felt a huge sense of relief and sadness in a way (everything you had planned for the last year was over), a few people shed a tear, some laughed hysterically. After taking the iconic pictures, I just wanted to get the hell out of there! I had gone from extreme cold to now very warm in the African sun; I was hungry and wanted my tent. The mind works in mysterious ways and I got a sudden surge of freakish energy, frankly I think I went a bit bonkers because, with the permission of Ramson, I ran down……..You walk up one side of Kili on summit night but part of the journey back down is 2km of sand dune, I had so much fun running and rolling down from the peak, I-Pod blaring return to camp to the best tasting glass of OJ ever, juice delivered by a smiley porter..
So you are shattered, you stink, you can’t wash, or use a toilet in private you are hungry but an hour after you get back to camp you have to pack up because you still have two days of walking to get back to the bus!! These last two days were in a way my favourite, you are all mad with fatigue- everything is very funny, the food is deliciously because you are always hungry and the sleeping bag is like a four poster bed because you are shattered….On our final night on the mountain the Porters got together and sung as songs in Swahili which was incredibly moving as we gave them gifts of our old tee shirts and smelly socks…they were so grateful!
The best bit though….. collecting my certificate at the bottom and celebrating with my new friends and a Kilimanjaro Beer.