Having had the holiday, now it was time to start the work. We had seen the ‘wild life’, now it was time walk on the ‘wild side’ of the mountain! (Okay, a bit of artistic licence here.) But it was time to meet up with our climbing group.
And, as was not uncommon on this trip, Jonathan and I were late to the party. Not our fault on this occasion, as we were expecting a group briefing from our mountain guide in the evening. So a little perturbing when we polled into the hotel at about 5pm to find that the briefing had taken place in the afternoon and we had missed it. Like true pros we adjusted our plans, made arrangements to get a private briefing early the next morning and retired to our room prior to meeting up with the group for dinner.
And, as was not uncommon on this trip, Johnathan and I were the last to arrive for dinner. By that time the table was pretty much full, with an empty chair at each end. So we split up. And that proved to be an excellent start to the trip. It meant that we could chat to the people at our respective ends of the table, getting to know twice the number of people in the same space of time. We could also establish our own separate identity within the group rather than being seen as a pair.
I joined what turned out to be the Norwegian end of the table. I sat and chatted with two couples from Norway; Morton and Hilde and Bjorn and Katrine. Both lovely couples, and both of whom were familiar with the mighty Leicester City FC. Later I moved down the table and met Pete and Allison from the States and Dave from Australia. Lovely people. And it turned out that everyone in the group was lovely. Four Brits, four Norwegians, two Americans, three Aussies and two Swedes. One common goal, which was to climb Kilimanjaro and enjoy ourselves along the way.
The next day we had our briefing and then the bag-weighing ceremony. Almost all of the climbers would be carrying a relatively light back pack with the stuff they needed for the day (water, spare clothes, suntan cream, snacks etc.). The main luggage – and we were going to be on the mountain for over a week – was to be carried by the porters. And even with their superhuman strength, there was a limit as to what they could safely carry. And that meant that we had to leave a fair amount of excess baggage at the hotel, to be collected on our return. For me, that meant leaving some of the gluten-free food I was planning to take. However, that in itself was the start of a useful conversation, as I found out that two of the other party members – Pete and Ed – were Coeliac, like myself. Considering only about 1 in 300 people are diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, to find two others in my party was amazing. Rather than 1 in 300, the ratio in our party was 1 in 5!
A bumpy ride of a couple of hours saw us enter the Kilimanjaro National Park and travel some distance up the western side of the mountain. We had to disembark and sign in – much excitement. At that stage we were at an altitude of 2,250m. Higher than any point in the UK – but nothing to trouble us. Another short ride and then we did leave the jeeps for good. Almost a year to the day since I had first declared my intention to climb Kilimanjaro, I was now on the slopes of the enigmatic mountain, putting on my back pack and adjusting my walking poles. I was finally about to climb the mountain!
The start was a fairly gentle affair. The party assembled and set off. ‘Polepole’ (pronounced ‘poley-poley’) was a word we heard a lot on the mountain. It means slowly. And for most people, polepole is the only way to climb Kilimanjaro. There are multiple benefits of taking things slowly. The first is that it is easier to move slowly rather than fast (until we were actually coming down the scree-covered slopes from the summit some days later, when coming down slowly was quite difficult to do!). The second is that it is easier to breathe if you are exerting yourself less, and breathing is ‘a big deal’ at high altitude. And a third reason is that a slower ascent helps the body to acclimatise to the altitude. So polepole we started, and sometimes we could only move very polepole!
Much of the first few hours was relatively easy, which made it easy for us to talk to our fellow trekkers. All very pleasant and easy until we got to our first gulley. Only about a 10m drop, No problems in getting down and across the little stream. And then up the other side. Again, not a hard climb. But it was probably the first time that many of us started to breathe more heavily and realise that we were at altitude and that this was going to be no picnic.
As the afternoon wore on we reached out first campsite. And it was a proper campsite. No comfortable huts for us. The porters, carrying all of our heavy luggage, their own kit and all the camping equipment had raced on ahead of us and erected tents for all of the party. Welcome to the world of camping!
If you have been following my blog you may recall my feelings for camping. It was not something I was looking forward to, and it managed to live down to all of my expectations. Cramped. Cold. Uncomfortable. And those are just the good things I have to say about tents and camping!
And unlike my one previous camping experience in the UK, there was not even a warm and welcoming pub in which to spend the evening. We had our evening meal in the mess tent at about 6.30pm and by about 7.30pm we were heading back to our tents and to bed!
I can’t say I slept much that night, which was something of a pattern on the trip. Various factors contributed to this. However, I had read that high altitude does make sleeping difficult. I was glad when morning came. Although I was cold and had to get used to washing in a bowl of water, delivered to the tent, I was glad to be up and out and about to crack on with another day.
We still had a long way to go, but we had taken our first steps. And that is the lesson for this post. To get to the end, you have to start. For me the first steps were taken over twelve months ago. Jonathan and I wanted to enjoy the company we had on the mountain, so the evening meal at the hotel provided us with the opportunity of taking our first steps of getting to know everyone. And the polepole start to our trekking was the first steps in reaching the peak at 5,985m.
Lesson No.11 – A journey of 5,895m starts with the first step. What is your journey, and what is the first step you can take?