My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “February, 2020”

The Highs and Lows of the Lemosho Route

There are some mental images from my time hiking Africa’s highest mountain that will stick in my mind forever. Coming out of my tent at 11pm to ready ourselves for our midnight departure, I looked across the campsite to see an incredible trail of lights bobbing uphill in the darkness. The peak itself and the path that led up it were invisible but the headlamps that adorned every hiker who was already on route resembled a trail of ants in procession. The numbers were astounding and the excitement and tension among our group as we prepared to join them was tangible. After all the planning, and the training, and the days of hiking to get there, summit day was about to begin.

We were warmed up with hot chocolate and cookies as we listened to the plan for the day ahead. We were given snack boxes to take with us and after bundling all our layers into our backpacks, and kitting up, we gathered together to set off. This was it: the biggest hike of my life. Our campsite had been below the majority of people at Barafu Camp, and so we had to hike a little just to reach the start of the summit trail at the far end of the camp. It was so busy that there was a queue of people to set off, but before long it was time to put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. The only stimulation was the light cast by the many headlamps and the sounds of foot steps on the rock. There was no awareness of the greater landscape we were walking through and more importantly there was absolutely no idea of altitude, either literal, or relative to the summit. On top of this, there was no perception of time. I had no ready access to any form of time device due to the layers I was wearing but with a predicted 7hr hike to reach the summit, it was a difficult concept to get my head around the progress, or lack thereof, that we were making as we trudged.

And trudge it was. The pace was slow, partly due to our own ability at that altitude, and partly due to the traffic on the trail. Periodically it would get bunched up or have to stop completely if people struggled up a steep bit or stopped to take a break. The steepness and altitude gain felt constant, and the higher we climbed, the more I felt it. The pace actually suited me as I could catch my breath whenever a stop was forced, but at times I had to focus hard on maintaining a regular breathing pattern to keep my momentum going. My arms and legs screamed for oxygen, fatiguing easily and tiring me further. As we climbed in absolute darkness, up and up and up, the temperature dropped and my hands and toes became cold, and then numb, and then painful. I was only aware of the people immediately in front of me and behind me. It was only when we stopped for a break that I realised how differently people were coping. We’d set off from camp three people short of our original group: one of them had sadly had to descend before Lava Tower on day 4, and two of the group had set off an hour ahead of everyone else as they had up to now been slower than the group’s average speed. Of those of us there on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, I could see that the fittest of the group was feeling a little held back, whereas the rest of us needed every single break, and a few of the group were starting to look sorry for themselves.

We stopped often, and probably regularly, at least once an hour. I made guestimations of the time as we progressed, but I didn’t actually want to know the reality in case it deflated me or gave me false hope. The first couple of breaks had been enough to recover my limbs and even out my breathing, but by the time we were probably three or four hours into the hike, I was really struggling with the pain of my cold hands. I was hiking with poles, so I couldn’t retract my hands too far into my jacket, but it had become clear to me that my gloves weren’t enough, and I had been naive to think that my hands didn’t need layers like the rest of my body. Even with the exertion of the walk, my body was barely warm enough, and that was with the duffel jacket on that I had rented in Moshi on arriving in Tanzania. When we took another break, I was able to borrow a spare pair of gloves and some hot hands from people that had been more prepared than myself. I had another layer of trousers to put on but with my cold hands, I was slow. What prevailed was another of those vivid images that I will never forget: out of nowhere, all of the guides descended on me, took my trousers out of my bag and proceeded to dress me, standing me up and manipulating my limbs to get them into the extra clothes. They took my hands and as one hand was rubbed vigorously to stimulate some blood flow, the other hand was ungloved, and layered back up with the hot hands and the extra layers. That gloved hand was then rubbed vigorously while the other hand was covered back up. I just sat there and let them do it – grateful but a little stunned. We were given a hot drink to warm us up, and with concerned looks from the guides as I shivered, we set off again.

Even with the extra layers, I struggled to keep warm. My hands and toes remained cold and uncomfortable, and as the altitude continued to increase, my breathing became more laboured, my energy drained further and I shifted into a pattern of 2 steps forward, then a pause, then 2 steps forward, then a pause. I have no idea at what point I noticed it, but at some stage on the hike, a brief change in the density of the darkness around us made me realise that the peak of the night was over and sunrise was approaching. It wasn’t enough to make out the mountain yet, but as we continued our push up the never ending slope, the sky above us gradually changed from black to dark blue, and then through an increasingly lightening array of colours. As the landscape began to become discernible around us, we could make out the amazing stream of people that were below us, and frost became visible on the stony ground at our feet. Eventually we could make out the top of the ridge above us, and off to the side was Mt Kilimanjaro’s third cone, Mawenzi, the second tallest of the three. The horizon line turned red then yellow, and as the sun peaked above the horizon on the 7th of February 2019, we stopped to take it all in. Finally there was something to photograph but my hands were clumsy in the multiple gloves and it was still bitterly cold.

There was still a steep section to negotiate although the ridgeline was in sight. I had just 3 things in my backpack: water, a first aid kit and the snack box I’d been given, but my backpack felt like it weighed a ton and I was clearly struggling now as one of the guides insisted on taking it off me and carrying it for me. It was a little gesture but it made all the difference to me. My breathing felt inefficient, the air felt so utterly thin as it entered my lungs. I was struggling even with the 2 steps forward and pause cycle that I’d been following, but all of a sudden, as the light continued to creep up the side of the mountain, I was surprised to see the fittest member of our group, my fellow Christchurch resident, goat-hopping down the mountain from the summit. When he reached us, it turned out that in the darkness he had headed off ahead of us with a guide, and had summited before the sun had even risen, and was on his way back to camp. I hadn’t even noticed his absence at the last couple of rest stops. He left us to it as we continued on our opposite paths, and although I was exhausted, I felt spurred on to finish.

I guess social media has had a lot of effects on a lot of people. I’d enjoyed the digital detox over the week of hiking, but as the energy drained from my muscles, and catching my breath became increasingly difficult, and as I felt a little zoned out, I focused on one thing only: getting a photo of me at the summit to post on Instagram. We’d spent a large part of the previous days singing songs from the Lion King in a joking ode to Tanzania, and in the first few hours of the summit trek in darkness, those same songs had entertained me until our voices had petered out with the increasing exertion. Now we all hiked in silence, and as I grappled with my inner dialogue, I told myself repeatedly that I had to get a photograph for Instagram. Failing to summit was not an option because I had to get a photo for Instagram. Two steps forward then pause, then two steps forward then pause. Now coated in brilliant sunshine, we rounded the last corner and crowned the last slope to be confronted with the crater floor. We’d reached the crater rim and Stella Point at 5756m (18885ft).

Although not the highest point of the mountain, reaching Stella Point was still classed as summiting, so no matter what happened next, we’d made it. There were a lot of people recovering here, and there were people clearly in a bit of distress. With the benefit of daylight, I’d seen some people who were really in a bad way. Some of them were being dragged up the mountain by guides (something we were told happened with some independent operators who were purportedly just interested in boosting their summit success numbers) and some of them were being physically run down the mountain by guides in an effort to get them out of danger. There are definitely some people that have summited Africa’s highest peak that will probably have little to no memory of it at all due to being so spaced out or sick. I was exhausted and breathless as were my companions, but we were all lucid. We had to queue to get our photo taken at the sign, but it allowed us to rest before the final summit push. After ten minutes I actually felt better and retrieved my backpack from my guide. The summit was visible and we’d be there in no time at all. We met one of the two who had left an hour ahead of us as he was heading back down to camp. He had summited but his mother had had to turn back, struggling greatly around the point of sunrise.


Within ten minutes of walking I was as bad as I’d been before and I realised that despite appearances, there was still a long trek to the true summit. My backpack again felt like a burden so again one of the guides relieved me of it. I felt weak and pathetic but these guys were adapted to the altitude, doing a couple of summits a month in the peak season, so I just had to accept their help. We passed by giant glaciers that hung on to the edge of the crater a little to the side, and after trudging at a snail’s pace for the final distance, we found ourselves on the roof of Africa, Uhuru Point, the highest peak of the African continent at an altitude of 5895m (19341ft). We effectively staggered there and jolted to a stop. Any urge to rush to the sign was blocked by the queue of people waiting to get their photo taken at it. It was a busy place but not oppressively so. We spread out a bit, and I found myself dropping into a sitting position on a group of rocks, and as I sat there oblivious to anything else in the World but the view in front of me, silent tears started rolling down my face. Against the negative inner dialogue that I had been battling for the last couple of days, and after two years of planning and training, I’d only blooming gone and summited Mt Kilimanjaro.

I looked around and realised I wasn’t the only one crying. It was so overwhelming, a release of a lot of emotion in the face of utter exhaustion. Our guides came round and hugged and congratulated us. They seemed so cool and unfazed by it all while the rest of us looked beaten up and drained. Between the resting and the photography and the meandering around absorbing the view, we spent a half hour at the summit. Even with the sun up, it was still really cold. I discovered later that we’d summited at 8.20am, taking over 8hrs from leaving camp behind. As we started the trek back to Stella Point, I saw the clouds had appeared and engulfed the side of the mountain, and there we were above it all. Aside from the crater, there was no other visible landmark above this grey sea of cloud. At Stella Point, we were quick to move onwards, heading back to near where we’d stopped at sunrise. To prevent congestion, the descent route separates off from the ascent route and effectively cuts down a giant scree field. Although a path was marked, there were times where we were effectively skiing down the loose rock. We continued to see people being run down this scree path being held upright by their guides and one of our group had started to feel unwell at the summit and was sped down the mountainside back to camp. We found ourselves back at Barafu camp a little after 11am, just a few hours after summiting. Over 8hrs up, and just over 2hrs down.


We remained at camp till 1pm, resting and having lunch, but the hike was not over yet. We had to get down the mountain now and we’d collectively decided to walk to the lower of the two descent camps in order to make a short hike out for the following day. It hadn’t been a unanimous vote and there were clearly some people who wished the vote had gone the other way. From Barafu camp we were soon at the track junction from the day before, and this time we headed straight ahead and immediately started losing altitude. We were amidst the cloud and the landscape that was visible was barren and volcanic. Everyone was quiet and tired, and it was as much by autopilot that my legs continued to move one after the other. As the low vegetation returned, it started to rain, becoming quite heavy by the time we reached the higher of the two descent camps. It would have been a bit miserable to get into the tents here, but at the same time, a few of the group were really flagging. This trail that we were descending was a supply route, and so we regularly passed porters that were laiden down with supplies to take to Barafu Camp. It was incredible to see the poor state of some of the shoes on their feet and incredibly some of them were hiking in just jandals (flip-flops). We’d learned a lot about the variable state of pay and care that was received by the porter teams, depending on which company or guide they worked for. All of our team spoke highly of G Adventures and they all seemed appropriately kitted out for the terrain so I felt satisfied that I’d picked a good company to hike with. It can be so hard to know at times how ethical your travel is, and whether people are being taken advantage of or not.

The rain turned the track into a river as we squelched our way down the mountainside. Eventually we found ourselves among tall trees again, a novelty after the days of exposed and arid volcanic landscapes. It felt like an age before we finally popped out at Mweka Camp at 3100m (10171ft), over 2500m (8202ft) below where we’d summited in the early morning. It was amazing how good I felt after a rest: breathing was suddenly so much easier and I even felt my energy return. My appetite was back also and we tucked into our dinner full of elation and chatter. My oxygen saturation on the final reading was back at 98%, just how it had started a week before. The next morning we had a group debrief with our guides and porters. Each and every one of them had played a role in getting us up the mountain, and I was particularly grateful to the guides who’d supported me in those final hours of the summit push, the chef who’d continued to fill us with the most amazing meals, and my personal porter who’d set up my tent and greeted me with the biggest grin and ‘Jambo!’ every time he saw me. It was emotional to think it was all over and we sang the song of the mountain to each other in thanks for the time of our lives.

The descent from camp was similar to the hike on day 1: walking through thick forest, listening out for monkeys and tropical birds. The pace was relatively quick, and we were quite spread out, chatting away with whoever was nearest, and passing the final hours on the mountain in no time at all. Bursting out of the forest at the end of it all, we just had to sign out at the office, and then wait for everyone else to come down. Bundling back onto the bus, we stopped some way down the road for lunch at a roadside rest stop. It already felt surreal that we’d just come off the mountain, and removed from the exertion of breathing, there was only my sore knees to remind me what I’d just done. Our porter team had been either from Moshi or Arusha, so we dropped them off either at the main road to catch a ride home, or in Moshi. We returned to the gear rental store so I could drop off my duffel jacket, and finally we returned to the same hotel just outside of Moshi where we were greeted with open arms by the bubbly team that worked there. It was fantastic to see the American who’d had to be taken down on day 4 looking rested and in good spirits. He’d gone on safari for a few days to wait our return and although a little sad, he vowed to come back and summit another time. He definitely deserves his chance to get there.

After resting and a much-needed shower, we had a small celebration to receive our certificates and say goodbye to our guides. We had a communal dinner together ahead of us going our separate ways the next day. A couple of people were heading on to Zanzibar for a bit of R&R, but most people were going home to return to their normal lives. It was strange to say goodbye the next morning to these people that I’d shared such an experience with but whilst the majority were set to head to the airport, I wasn’t done with Tanzania yet. Myself and one of my hiking companions had a new set of people to become acquainted with as my great African adventure continued.


Lemosho Route – Baranco to Barafu

Stepping out of the tent as light returned to the sky, I was feeling better than the night before, but I still wasn’t feeling great. I had cut my diamox down to once a day, skipping the evening dose which had alleviated the nighttime shortness of breath, but I still felt tired and lethargic, and my stomach still felt uncomfortable. Thankfully the headache had gone, but my appetite was low, and I again had to force feed myself breakfast. Our camp spot had been down in a dip, so it was only once we’d packed up and headed up to the ridge beside us that I suddenly realised what the big deal about the Baranco Wall was. Off to the side of the camp was a tall and wide cliff face. I had seen it the day before as we’d descended, but never for a minute had I fathomed that we actually had to scale it. I’d assumed the track skirted round the bottom of it, but in the early morning light, all I could see was a stream of people dotted up the sheer cliff face and my heart sunk a little. It looked tough, and physical and I just didn’t feel like I had the energy for it. Our head guide G Daddy checked in with me and after I assured him that my headache had gone and I was vaguely better, we set off.


Everybody from Baranco Camp was heading in the same direction, and soon after leaving the campsite, the trail narrowed and started to climb onto the cliff face. The pace slowed right down and immediately we joined a queue of people at the first climbing point. My breathing was ok, but it was my tiredness and sore stomach that I had to suppress and block out. The pace was so slow with regular pauses to let the people in front get out the way, that it never felt exhausting and it was only when we were about half way up the cliff that I realised that not only was I feeling better, but I was actually enjoying the Baranco Wall, and it wasn’t anything to stress about at all. There were places that involved using your hands to haul yourself up or across narrow ledges, and I can imagine if you had vertigo that this would have been a frightening section of the hike, but for me it was a welcome change to the style of hiking that had been the previous 4 days on the trail, and the higher we got, and the better I felt, the happier I became and the more I enjoyed it. In fact it felt like we reached the top in no time at all and I was almost sad to have finished it.


The valley which we’d ascended from had been in shadow the whole way up, but by the time we’d summited the wall, sunshine lit up the campsite and the far ridge as well as Kibo Massif which now sat to our left. To our right, there was a staged drop-off towards the Plains which lay shrouded in clouds. There was a second section to the Baranco Wall, which we made light work of, and finally at the true top, we took a breather and some group photos to celebrate. The cloud which had been below us began to lift as we were there and soon after leaving we found ourselves within it. The gradient of the next section was mild and what we could see among the cloud looked barren, but the overall perspective of where we were heading was lost, with only the sight of people disappearing ahead of us and appearing behind us to see. The cloud lifted and dropped as we walked, giving us brief glimpses of a wider landscape.


As we continued across this vague plateau, the usual conundrum of where to find privacy to go to the toilet arose. There generally was none. Any boulder cluster would be quickly commandeered, but nothing ever offered 360 degree privacy, and there was always the likelihood of someone behind spotting you with your pants down. Not to mention that it was clear where the popular spots were, as often there was a pile of paper or wet wipes to negotiate just to find a spot to balance on. It was definitely the gross side of the mountain, as even without the litter that had been left, the amount of urine and human faeces that were present was pronounced. As is often the case, the negative impact of tourism and adventure travel is a hard pill to swallow and I could see first hand why hiking Mt Kilimanjaro in the current manner is becoming contentious.

After a while, we found ourselves at the top of a ridge with a valley below us. Across the valley and up an equally tall ridge lay our next campsite. There was a lot of loose scree on the trail, meaning I had to focus on my feet for most of the way down, but I was able to notice the pocket of vegetation that was thriving in this valley where shelter and water allowed life to flourish. Only when I was looking back from the valley floor did I appreciate how steep the descent had been, but on the flip side, there was now a similar gradient to negotiate to get up the other side. Again, there was a bit of loose scree to negotiate, and it meant there was a vague queue to get started up the slope, and we watched as a steady stream of people worked their way up. I was slow on the ascent, using my hiking poles to my advantage to get purchase and optimise my energy output. When we reached Karanga Camp on the top, it was surrounded by cloud, limiting our view. The site was broad and exposed but it meant the campsite didn’t feel too crowded despite the numbers of people staying there.

At 3995m (13107ft), we were less than 100m (328ft) higher than Baranco Camp but these gains and losses were essential to give my body the best chance of adapting. We hung out as a group together as the hours passed, and only as the sun was setting did the cloud level drop back below us to expose the campsite a little. My oxygen saturation remained stable at 92% and I was glad that the headaches were keeping away. I was still tired though and now the cold was really starting to hit. Even wrapped up in layers whilst we ate dinner, it was hard to stay warm, and at night in my thick sleeping bag, I struggled to get warm, waking up often and having to pile clothes into the bag to insulate me further. The more layers I wore and the more insulation I put in the bag, the more restricted and claustrophobic I felt, and on several occasions I woke up feeling trapped and having to stifle a panic.


On paper, day 6 on the Lemosho trail didn’t look too bad. And in terms of distance it wasn’t, but not only would we end up camping at our highest point yet on the hike, we’d have only a few hours rest and sleep before setting off at midnight to push for the summit. As always, there was just a vague hint of light in the air as we rose, but with the cloud off the mountain, we got to watch the sky brighten up as the sun rose, and although it was cold, it became a beautiful day. It became clear that we had camped right next to the Kibo Massif, and our plan for the day was to continue our circumnavigation of it round to the eastern flank where the ascent trail lay. Immediately the trail headed uphill but despite the rocky terrain and lack of vegetation, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Kibo. Ignoring the effects of the altitude, it looked so achievable, and less of a hardship than some of the mountains I’d summited in New Zealand. Right then I could have been in Tongariro National Park; it reminded me of that volcanic landscape so much. At one point there was another collection of stone cairns laid by those who’d hiked before us, and we paused here to rest and take photographs.


A ridge of rock swept down from the summit to the trail as we continued our climb, and looking back from here, Mt Meru, a nearby peak in the neighbouring national park looked both close and far away at the same time as it stood tall amidst the haze. We crossed a plateau under the rocky ridge before climbing up a neighbouring ridge. Here we reached a track junction: turning left would take us to our campsite and, all being well, the summit of Africa’s highest mountain; turning right was the descent route. We turned north to follow this ridgeline to the Barafu camp, our second-to-last camp site before leaving the mountain behind. At 4673m (15331ft), this was the highest point I’d hiked to both on the trail and in my entire life. The campsite was very spread out and balanced on a ridge with some people on the ridge top, and others like ourselves, having to descend into rocky crevices to squeeze into small flat areas where only 1 or 2 tents could fit. After signing in at the cabin, we spent the rest of the day down in our little pocket of Barafu. The rest of the campsite was visible above us, but Kibo had once again been swallowed by cloud, and for the rest of the daylight hours, it remained out of sight.

Just negotiating the space between our tents and the portaloos or the food tent was a threat to the ankles with large boulders and small loose rocks everywhere. Even the guylines of the tents were a trip hazard here and I had to make a mental note of what was around me in order to be safe once darkness fell. As we ate our dinner, the oxygen saturation monitor was passed around and despite the jump in altitude I was surprised to see that my oxygen saturation had increased to 94%, a sign that my body was responding to the increased stress I was putting it under. It had become obvious that our food offerings had changed as we’d ascended. Several of us were struggling to eat everything that we were given, but in the lower camps we’d had red meat, and then it turned to white meat meals, and now we were on a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t just due to the freshness of the meat that could be provided, but also a well thought out plan by the chefs to acknowledge how our digestive system would be coping at altitude. I’d made the decision before Karanga Camp that I was going to stop the diamox tablets. I was sure they were giving me some undesired symptoms, and I wasn’t convinced they were doing much to help with the effects of the altitude. I had by now missed several doses and I wasn’t the only one. Several of us hadn’t liked the effect that it had on us, so whilst a few of the group continued with their prescriptions, a couple of us had stopped, and a few of the group had never even started to take it in the first place.

Nerves and excitement built as dinner came to an end. Where on the previous nights we had sat up chatting until the coldness or tiredness had sent us to bed, this night we had only a few hours to rest before our 11pm wake-up call, so as soon as our debrief was done, we retreated to our tents in anticipation. The moment of truth was not far from us, and I for one was excited and nervous all rolled into one. It was hard to relax enough to sleep, and I actually didn’t think I would sleep but both myself and my tent companion managed to drop off for a bit. I’d needed every single layer I had to be just warm enough to fall asleep, something which should have raised alarm bells for me for the summit attempt. But in that moment, there was just me and my emotions, drifting off into a brief lull ahead of one of the biggest days of my life.

Lemosho Route – Shira Peak to Baranco

There was always a niggling doubt in my mind that perhaps I wouldn’t make it. That perhaps the altitude would get to me, and that I’d have to accept failure. The aim of each day was to climb high but camp low, so that we graduated our altitude gain, exposed our body to higher altitudes, but slept a little lower than the day’s highest point, to allow it to recover and limit the stress that the altitude brings. Shira Peak had been day three’s highest point, so after we’d gotten our fill of the view, we followed the trail back to Cathedral Junction and after another break here, we cut back down to the Shira Plateau to continue across to join the rest of our hiking group at the next campsite.

Back on the plateau, there was again a dearth of vegetation, and after a while we came out at a smooth area where a plethora of hikers before us had erected a multitude of miniature stone cairns. We still had a bit of a walk to the campsite but it was time to answer the call of nature, and so began the search for somewhere private. Between my fellow hikers, the guides that were with us, and the lack of vegetation, there wasn’t much in the way of privacy. Being a guy definitely has its advantages in this respect, but when at last a group of large bushes lay off the track, I was quick to separate myself from the group. Although G Adventures is a Canadian company, they always make use of local guides and porters, abide by fair employment rights, promote ethical travel, and partner with the charity Planeterra to give back to the community. Our guides, who were utterly incredible, amazing at their job, funny, and selfless, had instilled in us the importance of taking our rubbish with us and not dumping or polluting the environment. I wouldn’t do this anyway, but our guide had explained that they had targets to meet with their rubbish – if they didn’t take an expected amount of rubbish off the mountain relative to the weights of what they had carried up, they would get fined. In other words, there was an incentive to bring rubbish out, and some of the guides or porters would seek out rubbish to pick up and carry, to ensure they were well above the expected minimum, as well as tidying up the mountain.

We shortly came upon a roughly marked helicopter landing spot as our track met one of the evacuation routes off the mountain. From here, the track started to climb once more and shrubbery returned again before we finally reached Shira II camp at 3850m (12631ft). The sun had by now gone, and the sky was grey and cloudy, but the campsite was full of life. By this stage, the Lemosho Route had joined with the Shira Route, and so now there were hikers gathering from two different ascent routes. Although it was spread out, there were tents everywhere and surprisingly considering the altitude, there were quite a lot of birds hanging around also. Behind our campsite were large volcanic boulders that gave an elevated view point on the campsite itself but also to the increasingly large Kibo Massif which was tantalisingly close, but as always happened in the afternoon, veiled behind a swirl of cloud. Whilst taking a wander around the campsite, I got chatting with a hiker who was ascending with another company. We shared experiences of our hike so far, as well as general chit-chat before parting ways to rejoin our groups. As time went on, more and more people arrived at the campsite.


When I’d hiked the Inca Trail through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu, I’d been so grateful for the work of the porters who’d carried our stuff and the chefs who’d created delicious meals that had fueled us to our destination. Our entire team on Mt Kilimanjaro, the G Fighters as we called them, led by G Daddy as we called our head guide, were incredible human beings. They greeted us with smiles and enthusiasm, they seemed genuinely interested in our lives, they seemed genuinely happy when we spoke in what little Swahili we knew, and among each other they had an incredible camaraderie, functioning like a family unit of loving brothers, and they all spoke highly of each other as well as how they were treated as employees. We all loved them for it, and really couldn’t have done the hike with a better bunch of human beings. After we’d had some time to ourselves, G Daddy called us all together and we stood by our incredible team as they sang and danced for us in Swahili, welcoming us to Tanzania, blessing us for our hike ahead and singing the song of the mountain. It drew a crowd and as it continued, they enticed us in to dance with them, which we did with great embarrassment. With my terrible memory I have forgotten most of their names, but I can still picture several of their faces, and even recalling the interactions that I had with them as I write this blog, I can feel the emotions that I felt on that trip rush back to the surface.


I’m not sure whether it was the singing and dancing, or the incredible views as the clouds parted to expose Kibo, the tallest of the three cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro, but this campsite holds a special place in my heart. I felt like I could just reach out and touch Kibo, but from this perspective it was now obvious that we had to skirt round a good chunk of the massif to reach the trail that would lead us to the summit. There was a lot more snow visible now that we were up close and I could see some steep, striated cliffs in various places. As the sun set behind us, the clouds turned red as the peak faded into the background. At our evening debrief, my oxygen saturation had reduced to 94%, still an acceptable level for the altitude, and I deliberated what to do with the diamox. As a diuretic, I was having to pee a lot, and the previous night’s shortness of breath had been really off-putting. As we listened to G Daddy tell us about the day ahead, it became clear that day 4 would likely be a bit of a challenge for at least some, if not all of the group.


Coming out of the tent the next morning, there was just a line of red on the horizon before the sun broke through and lit up the sky. We were provided with our large breakfast, as every meal had been, and I struggled a little to finish it. I was tired. As much as I have camped in my life, it doesn’t tend to allow a good night’s sleep, so there was a developing background level of tiredness after 3 nights of disturbed sleep. The altitude wouldn’t have helped either. By the time we were ready to head off, the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was again ready to beat down on us, having risen above the Kibo Massif. There was a definite feeling of leaving the plant life behind as we climbed over the rocky wall that had been the background for our campsite. From then onward, rock and dust became the landscape of the day, with only the hardiest of low plants dotted around the place. As a group we were really spread out this day as we set our own pace. G Daddy and the other guides really instilled the slow and steady ideology into us, and whilst at the lower altitudes it had frustrated a little, it was really starting to make sense.

Initially the climb was gradual but I was feeling the gain in altitude, the character of my breath noticeably different and a hint of a headache threatening to form. We stopped often to regroup before once more we would spread out. In any other scenario, the bleak landscape could have become monotonous, but there was a constant activity of clouds swirling above us, the rock patterns changed often, and towering above us was the increasingly close Kibo Massif. In fact as we approached the steeper part of the day’s hike, we were practically underneath it, finally reaching the base of the Massif as we reached a brief steep push to reach our lunch stop at the Lava Tower camp at 4600m (15091ft). This was several hundred metres higher than the highest point of the Inca Trail, my only previous experience of hiking at altitude, and boy was I feeling it. Every breath I took felt dissatisfying. It felt like my lungs weren’t inflating properly, and I could just never inhale enough oxygen. I could actually feel the thinness of the air every time I inhaled. Although we were only stopping for lunch, this campsite is used by hikers on other trails, and by this stage we had actually joined up with those on the Machame Route. Having previously joined those on the Shira Route, there were now three route’s worth of people conjoined on the trail. This campsite is also the launching off point for the Western Breach trail, the most dangerous ascent route of Kibo, scaling the steeper, rougher and less stable western side.


We were briefly entertained by a couple of mice running around our tent. Despite the lack of air, the regularity of humans had obviously allowed life to continue here. I wasn’t hungry but managed to eat some lunch. Our guides insisted we continue to force food in, even if we didn’t want it, to maintain energy for the hike ahead. Aside from the breathing, the headache that had been threatening was getting a little more pronounced. It was still tolerable, but it was there, and at this point, still with over 1000m of gain to achieve the summit, the doubts started to creep in. News came to us that one of our group was being led down the mountain. One of the Americans, in an act of brave defiance, had decided to hike Mt Kilimanjaro less than 6 weeks after having major surgery, to honour his daughter who he’d recently lost. Whilst we’d all thought he was crazy for attempting it, we all had immense respect for him, and he had been good company on the hike. It was sad to hear he wasn’t going to make it, but as the evacuation route was easier from before the Lava Tower than anywhere afterwards, and as our incredible guides had the knowledge to know what was to come on the hike, as well as to recognise who wasn’t fit enough to do it, they had made the right decision for him, and taken him down before it was too risky. It again brought it home the immensity of this hike.

I was happy to leave Lava Tower camp behind, eager to lose a bit of altitude and give my body a break. The initial descent was steep and quick, crossing loose scree on the slope of Kibo as we skirted the western flank heading south. There was a constant procession of people and from here onward, the trail was packed with porters pushing ahead and hikers spread out across the trail. As with the previous afternoons, the familiar sight of the cloud enveloping and retreating over the Kibo Massif repeatedly played out as we made the long and gradual descent to our next campsite. This section was one of the worst for litter on the mountain. With no toilets away from camp, every person that relieved themselves on the mountain left their mark, and unbelievably, the amount of abandoned toilet paper, wet wipes and even sanitary pads and tampons was astounding. I always, and have always, carried out everything from a hike that I carry in, and I had a special bag to seal up anything I used for sanitation purposes. I just couldn’t believe that all these people had not cared about the environment they were walking through and had just left behind all these things, which not only was a contaminant for the soil and the local water supplies, but at this elevated altitude where the oxygen is reduced and the temperature is colder, they just won’t decompose at any great speed, if at all.


The trail eventually met and followed a stream, besides which life was teeming with some trees and shrubbery appearing once more. Kibo sparkled in the sun next to us until a thick bank of cloud enveloped it and us and we descended into the Baranco campsite with little visibility. At 3900m (12795ft) we weren’t much higher than the previous night’s camp, but this was important for our bodies after the jump to Lava Tower. The cloud meant I had no idea where the next day’s hike would take us and even when it lifted to reveal the surroundings of where we were, I still was naive to the next day’s task. Between the drama of the cloud and the sheer scale of the mountain around us, this was probably my favourite campsite in terms of aesthetics, but although I felt better here than I had at Lava Tower, I wasn’t really feeling great. My appetite was noticeably reduced and to top it off, I felt bloated and sore in my guts, a problem I can get even at home in normal altitude, but an issue that was accentuated by the symptoms of altitude sickness that I was experiencing. For the first time, I’d had to take pain killers to help the headache, and I had to lie down for spells to help my stomach settle. G Daddy noticed I wasn’t myself, and took me aside to check on me. I assured him I just needed rest, but I felt his attention on me from then onwards.


Baranco Camp is the only place on the mountain where there is cellphone service, and even then, it is only in one little spot on a bit of rock. It was amusing to watch people congregate there to rejoin the outside world. Several of those I was hiking with had children or close family in need of updating, but I had loved being off the Internet and in the moment. In fact I hadn’t had this degree of digital detox since the days of smart phones arrived, and I was so happy without it. Living in the moment had been too easy – I was after all in Africa, in Tanzania, living a dream, and focusing on surviving and putting one foot ahead of the other. My only thoughts of communication were whether I was going to be able to get a summit photo to show the World, or whether I’d have to send a sheepish and deflated message home to say I’d failed. Those thoughts remained with me from this point onwards, but I did my best to just to take in my surroundings and push those feelings aside.


That night at debrief, my oxygen saturation was down to 92% and I was actually surprised to still be in the 90s given how I’d felt at Lava Tower. A few of the group had dropped into the 80s but no-one was deemed as a danger to continue, and so we listened to our debrief for the following day. Day 5 was all about the Baranco Wall, the great ascent that was to take us out of our current campsite and onto the southern flank of Kibo. I’d read about it in my guidebook, I’d heard about it from other people, and now the guides were regaling the immensity of the challenge that was to face us the next day. I’d failed to work out where the trail was going in the daylight hours, so I would just have to wait till morning to see what all the fuss was about. I retired to my tent, less worried about the infamous Baranco Wall, and more worried about how my health would hold up.

Lemosho Route – Londorosi to Shira Peak

Deciding to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is probably the easiest of the decisions to make with regards to hiking this behemoth of a mountain. With 6 ascent routes to choose from, there is a lot weighing on the choice of route up, and then there is the choice of who or where to hire your guide and porters, or what company to hike with, not to mention which month to go for. I had the relative luxury of time and after doing some research, I opted to hike via the Lemosho Route which is the longest route, allowing for decent acclimitisation, and therefore having one of the highest summit success rates. I’ve hiked at altitude before in the Andes mountain range in Peru, but this was the first time I would be paying a lot of money to hike a mountain that I wasn’t really guaranteed to summit. For all it’s popularity, the success rate of reaching Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Massif is only 66% (give or take, depending on the source), so the best I could do to improve my chances, was to pick the route with the best chance of leading me there. For me, choosing the route was nearly as easy as deciding to hike the mountain in the first place, and in the end, I didn’t deliberate too long about the company I went with either. Having had an incredible trip to the Galapagos with G Adventures a few years prior, I decided that they would be the people to lead me up Africa’s highest mountain.

After picking up our guides and porters outside of Moshi, we left the dry, red landscape behind and headed into the forests that grew on the fertile slope of what is a dormant volcano. I missed out on spotting the monkeys that some of my fellow passengers noticed, but I was content just watching the landscape go by, spotting people farming and workers upgrading the road under the blistering African sun. It was over an hour and a half before we pulled up at Londorosi Gate (2250m/7382ft) and all piled out. Here, everyone and everything had to come off the bus. This was the weigh-in station where all our bags and the equipment that the porters would carry for us, had to be weighed to make sure they were within the limits set out for carrying. Meanwhile, we had to check in for the hike, signing in at the office before there was a lot of hanging around waiting for the logistical side of things to get wrapped up. Even when at last we all bundled back on to our bus and everything was loaded back on to the roof, we still had a half hour drive to reach Lemosho Gate (2100m/6890ft), and from here, our hike was finally to begin.


With a summit altitude of 5,895 metres (19,341 ft), I felt initially dismayed that the bus climbed up and up as it drove us there, somehow thinking that we were cheating by skipping the lower slopes of the mountain. Having left Moshi at 950m (3117ft), we’d already gained over 1000m (3281ft) on the drive, but over the coming days, I’d put those feelings aside. We gathered for a group photo at the start of the hike as loud birds crowed above our heads, and finally, after over 2 years of planning, I was finally on my way to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Our first campsite was listed as 4hrs away and the trail took us through dense forest, with swathes of green below our feet as well as above our heads. This was to be the best chance of spotting monkeys and some of the rich bird life that lives on the volcano’s slopes, but alas I didn’t see much wildlife at all. The steady climb and ease of this day’s hike was a good chance to start to get to know those that were hiking with me, and for the most part we all hiked at a relatively similar pace. In part, this was at the request of our guide who wanted to keep us together and take our time. It was his mantra for the coming days too: to take our time, maintain a steady but slow pace, and prevent over-exertion.

Our porters had left us behind in order to get camp set up and ready for our arrival. Mti Mkubwa Camp was amidst the forest at 2650m (8694ft) with no view to speak of. Although this route isn’t one of the busiest, this camp site was well used and there were plenty of people packed into the gaps between the trees. The campsite ritual was to become very familiar over the coming week: sign in at the cabin, meet with our personal porter who had set up our tent and mattress, get cleaned up, have a wander round the campsite then retire to the meal tent for hot coffee and snacks before dinner and a debrief, including a run-down of the next day’s hike. There wasn’t too much to explore here as the campsite was compact, so the time spent in the tent was another chance to get to know each other. The dinner that was served to us was filling and delicious and it reminded me of the amazing meals I’d received whilst hiking to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail.

As part of our debrief each night, we had to get our oxygen saturation levels read via a finger monitor. Altitude sickness can hit anyone of any fitness level, and it is important to catch it early. Our guide was explicit from the beginning that if he wasn’t happy with how any of us were doing, he’d send us down. It was hard for people not to become competitive with this test. We were generally a bunch of fit people, used to hiking in our respective countries. The aim was to stay above 90%, but our guide said it was common for some people to drop into the 80s at higher altitudes. That first night I was sitting at 98%, a fairly normal reading for a healthy adult, and this was fairly consistent around the table. The temperature was cool but manageable in my sleeping bag, and I was able to get some rest to prepare for the next day’s hike.

I’d stocked up on diamox, a drug to reduce the effects of altitude, ahead of this trip, and my doctor had told me to start taking it once I was above 2500m (8202ft), so that second morning I took my first one, committing myself to the twice a day tablets in conjunction with the malaria tablets that I’d been taking for the past week. We still had some forest to walk through on leaving the camp behind and it remained thick for a good chunk of the morning before the height of the vegetation noticeably dropped and the canopy opened up. The tree tops were just above head height and looking behind us, we could see back down to the flat land surrounding the mountain and across to the neighbouring peak of Mt Meru in Arusha National Park. Although the plants here were distinct, the hiking reminded me a little of New Zealand, with rolling green false summits disappearing in front of me. On one of these ridges we stopped for lunch, coming out of the bush to find a large tent had been erected to accommodate us. The sun was strong and it was a pleasant temperature although some wind whipped across the exposed area.


We climbed higher up a rocky terrain with the vegetation continuing to get shorter as we gained altitude. It felt like the climb was never ending when all of a sudden, the track turned a corner, and there right in front of us was the Kibo Massif, the highest of the three cones that make up Mount Kilimanjaro. In comparison to the view from our hotel, it suddenly looked close and I marvelled that it was still several days hiking away. Little did I know what was to be in store over the coming days of hiking. We took a break on a prominence at the side of the track where we could look down on the expanse of the Shira Plateau and our campsite not too far ahead. We watched the cloud roll in and tease Kibo, threatening to engulf it then retreating over and over again. The snow on the side looked like icing sugar and the summit had large chunks of snow visible. It was hard to leave this vantage point behind but after walking the rest of the way to the campsite, I discovered that Shira I camp had just as cracking a view as our rest stop had had, and I was in awe.


By now we were at 3610m (11844ft) and the vegetation had shrunk down to low shrubs that didn’t even reach waist height. Unlike the previous night’s campsite, this one was exposed and a bit more spread out. After signing in on arrival, there was plenty of time to wander around and ogle at the view. As the night drew in, the clouds came with it, and Uhuru Peak disappeared into a veil of cloud. It felt noticeably cooler here and we were all rugged up in our layers as we ate our dinner and had our debrief. My oxygen saturation had dropped to 96% which was still a reasonable level to be at considering the altitude and I felt fine. However, among the group, the numbers were already starting to vary, and as we discussed the next day’s hike, it became clear the group was going to split up. I took another diamox before going to bed and woke up in the night with palpitations and shortness of breath. It was a wholly unpleasant sensation that took me a bit of time to get under control. Having been bundled up in my layers inside my sleeping bag, the shortness of breath had almost sent me into a panic. Thankfully I was eventually able to get back to sleep.


I took another diamox in the morning but after speaking to my companions, I realised that it had been the cause of my shortness of breath in the night. It was cold again as the sun was yet to rise above the Kibo Massif. The mornings were just as ritualised as the evening: a morning wake up call, hot chocolate to warm us up, pack-up, breakfast then meet up to head off. After being kept close together on day 1, we had spread out a bit on day 2 and on this 3rd day there were two options to proceed: the more direct route to Shira II camp, or the detour to Cathedral Point on Shira Peak, the lower of the 3 cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro. This detour allowed a bit of acclimitisation which was recommended, but a few of the group chose to head straight to the next camp. It was a short walk to reach the track junction and after a brief pause there, we set off across the flatness of the Shira Plateau. The vegetation here was sparse and it was an exposed march across the unsheltered flatness. In the distance we could see the ridge of Shira Peak grow closer and closer until finally we were at its base.


There was an initial climb to Cathedral Junction where large volcanic rocks were interspersed with some taller vegetation again and from here, there was a large rock face to frame the view across to the Kibo Massif. It looked unbelievably close and I again marvelled that there was still several days hike ahead of us. I was yet to feel much effect of the altitude, even at 3806m (12486ft), so at that stage it looked so achievable. We paused here to allow us to take some photos, as well as due to a bit of a queue to negotiate the narrow track that led to the cone’s summit. When at last there was a chance to move on, we picked our way up the rough and wandering track to Cathedral Point at 3872m (12703ft) where there was a spectacular view. To our right was the large flat expanse of the Shira Plateau which made it look like we weren’t that high at all. However to our left, the ground dropped away in a steep and dramatic fashion, disappearing in the distance to the bottom of the volcano. The sun shone above us, and some clouds whisped around the nearby jagged rocks. I felt alive and it felt good, and we celebrated our achievement of summiting one of the mountain’s 3 peaks. I was feeling positive and pumped for what lay ahead.

Adventures with Anxiety

On the 7th of February 2019, at 8.20am, I sat down on a rock and let myself cry. It was a silent cry, the tears just rolling slowly down my face as I breathed in the cold air. Being present in the moment can be a rarity in modern life, and as an anxiety sufferer, I spend a large portion of my day and week stressing about things that have passed and worrying about things that may be. But in this moment, as I felt the cold, and the tears and the immensity of it all, there was nowhere else for my mind to go.

I sat at Christchurch Airport the week before, quietly terrified. I’m used to gallivanting across the World solo, but I’d had a lot going on in my life recently, my mental health was fragile and I was stressing about how unfit I’d felt in the last few weeks despite training at every opportunity I got. This was serious business. I was returning to a continent that I hadn’t been to for over 13 years and I felt nervous about what would greet me when I got off the plane at the end of it all. I felt nauseous and unprepared. I felt like I was about to make a fool of myself. I sat there at that airport realising how much my anxiety had changed me from the woman who sold all her stuff and moved to the other side of the World in 2011 with no plans and no job.

The first flight that dumped me at Sydney came and went. I was antsy, eager to continue but nervous. I’d originally been booked via Melbourne but the week before leaving, I happened to look at my booking online and noticed that my flight had been cancelled and I’d been put on a different flight a whole 10hrs earlier. I’d had no contact from the airline whatsoever and it was total fluke that I noticed this far ahead. It had made me livid and after an agitated phone call to the airline, I was re-routed via Sydney. The second flight took me to Qatar, and I arrived in Doha to experience my first exposure to the Middle East. What greeted me at the airport was a giant freakish-looking teddy bear that was a large sculpture in the middle of the main hall. I got bored in the dull and enclosed space that was Doha airport, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a Qatari gentleman walk past me with a bird of prey on his arm. I’d landed in darkness but my 3rd and final flight took off in daylight, and the almost empty plane meant I got a window seat, and what a view I had. We took off beyond the city, turning and banking to see an intricate resort built onto reclaimed land that had been designed into a pattern. I made a mental note to come back to Doha some day and see the city itself, but as we turned south and left Qatar behind, I was enraptured with the sights below me. We curled round to reach United Arab Emirates airspace, then sneaked into Oman and followed the coast down towards Yemen. The landscape was stark but each country looked different and I watched the water come into view as we crept towards the Gulf of Aden and then entered African airspace.


In 2005 after graduating university, I took a 3-month sabbatical to South Africa that remains one of the defining times of my life. Doing voluntary work on the south coast, I had lived like a local, met some incredible people and fell in love with the country. But despite a strong desire to get back to the African continent, it had never materialised. In 2017 I made the decision to go to Tanzania and hike Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, and one of the Seven Summits. I knew a couple of people that had done it, but the desire for me only came years later. The two year wait seemed like an age, but here I was crossing Ethiopian and then Kenyan airspace. I decided that now was the time to get my hiking guide book out and read about the trek ahead. I’d vaguely read it when I’d bought it, but as I sat there on the plane and read page after page, I suddenly felt more worried. I’d packed for hiking with Scotland’s climate in mind. I knew it would be colder than the hiking I was used to in New Zealand, but I knew what cold was like in Scotland. Only I’d never done any winter hiking, only short walks, when I lived there, and as I read the recommended packing list, I became acutely aware of my lack of layers. I felt like an idiot. I’d been so caught up in the drama of my life that I’d overlooked the fact that it would be bitterly cold at altitude, and immediately I started having to work out plans to fix this which added to my stress.

When at last the plane touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport, it was mid-afternoon. I hadn’t been lucky enough to see the peak itself on the descent and as we taxied I was disorientated with no idea what direction to look. Getting off the plane I was smacked in the face by the dusty African heat, and we all bundled into the airport terminal to deal with the muddle of customs. There was no air conditioning in the terminal and with a need to get a visa on arrival, it was organised chaos as people tried to work out which of the many queues to join. When I finally had my visa, I joined the frustratingly slow queue to get my passport checked, impatiently waiting to get called up. When at last I was summoned, I handed over my passport to the inspector and as she folded the cover back to scan it, the power cut out. The entire airport ground to a halt. The lights were out, the fans turned off and all of the computers went down. No generators kicked in. There was just the staff and those of us unlucky enough to not have made it through passport control yet looking at each other with no idea what was happening. Here I was in Tanzania, unable to get into the country. I was informed this was nothing unusual – a typical afternoon power cut in Africa. It was just a matter of waiting. And wait I did, and wait, and wait, and wait.

It took a long time for the power to come back on, and I had no idea whether the pick-up I’d arranged was still going to be waiting. I told myself if it was normal, that somebody would be there. When at last I had my bag, I walked out the building to a deluge of men trying to offer me a taxi ride. Through their faces I locked eyes with a man who’d been laughing with his mates, and as I saw the sign I wanted to see, I smiled, thankful that he was still there. It was time to see Tanzania. I still remember the drive from Cape Town airport into the city, past slums of corrugated iron and filth, and the shock that it had been to witness that first hand. The landscape was different, but that drive had the same effect on me. The ground was red and arid, and there were people walking everywhere, with livestock dotted around the place and a mix of cars and bikes crawling along the road.

I chatted away with the lad who’d picked me up, and he was the first of many amazingly friendly and welcoming people that I would meet on this trip. He told me about the low speed limit on this road, and we talked about his life and my plans whilst I was there. He told me about the area, and he asked about my flights. He took me to my hotel a little outside of Moshi and he introduced me to the loveliest and bubbliest people ever that ran the hotel. I was overwhelmed. They bent over backwards to welcome me, and took me up to the room that I’d have to myself that night. I went for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, ordered food, and as my eyes struggled to stay awake, I waited impatiently for my first Tanzanian meal. I listened jealously to some diners at a nearby table who had come down from the mountain that day. They’d successfully summited and they were elated. I wondered if that would be me soon. I waited and waited some more and after an hour and a half of waiting, my dinner finally arrived. I ate it gladly and hurriedly before disappearing up to my room and falling into slumber.

The birds singing outside of my window woke me up. The early morning light was trying desperately to sneak through the curtains and after acknowledging where I was, I got up and ready and went down for breakfast. There were several diners eating alone and I wondered if any of them were going to be in my hiking group. I’m very introverted, so although I smiled and said hello, there wasn’t much communal chat until a fellow diner walked in and introduced herself to everyone as she passed. It turned out we were all going to be hiking together, and we quickly sat together and introduced ourselves, making shared plans for our day of leisure. I’d read about a gear-rental shop in Moshi and everyone was keen to go into the city for a wander around, so we organised a shuttle to take us all there. Before leaving the lodge though, one of my new companions allowed me to ogle the view from the patio of their room: a direct look across to the snow-capped peak of Mt Kilimanjaro. It was my first view of the mountain that I was about to get very familiar with.


Moshi was an assault on the senses. It’s not a big city but it was bustling with life and we found ourselves dodging traffic and people as we tried to make sense of the streets in order to find the gear-rental shop I needed. We were approached often by locals and although everyone was friendly, some of them were almost too friendly and wouldn’t leave us alone. It was hard not to stand out, and I don’t like feeling hounded or harassed whether at home or abroad, so I quickly became a bit annoyed with the attention. Our group consisted of 3 women and 1 man, and whilst the three of us tried to play down the interest, our male companion was loving it, chatting away and happily being led into shops to look at wares. It’s hard sometimes not to feel intimidated, and I’m not sure how much is concern as a single female traveller, and how much is just me being introverted. It does probably mean that I miss out on some interactions with locals that more outgoing people than me get to experience, but irregardless, I wasn’t enjoying my experience of Moshi, and I became more keen to get to the rental shop and get out of there again.

After a bit of help with directions, we eventually found the shop and I was able to rent a large duffel jacket which I was convinced would be the extra layer of clothing I’d need. With none of us wanting to explore any more of Moshi, we headed into a coffee shop to grab lunch before catching our lift back to the hotel. It was a cute little place that served coffee roasted from beans grown on the fertile slopes of Kilimanjaro itself. As the afternoon pushed on and more of our hiking party arrived, it was hard not to move my thoughts to the hike ahead. We had a team meeting that evening, where we got our pre-hike briefing and I met my roommate for that night. We were made up of myself and in a small-world kind of way another guy from Christchurch, a few English people, a couple of Americans, an Australian and some Canadians.


The next morning I got chatting to some other guests at the hotel. Two of them had had to be air lifted off Kilimanjaro due to altitude sickness. It brought it home that this was no walk in the park. I was excited but nervous. It felt like an age before we were all packed up and on the road. We made a stop to pick up our porter team and we all trundled together on the bouncy bus along dust roads to reach the trail gate. Ahead of us all lay the behemoth that is Africa’s tallest mountain and the adventure of a lifetime.

Return to the Mountains

After a poor night’s sleep camping through strong winds, I left Mt Thomas scenic reserve behind and continued past Glentui and Ashley Gorge to reach Oxford. I didn’t have enough supplies for the day, but thankfully the supermarket was open and I could stock up before continuing to the Coopers Creek car park to start the day’s hike. I’d hiked Mt Oxford many years ago and knew it was an arduous hike. In my head I figured I’d just hike the summit track and return the same way, so I left my car behind to start the long hike through the valley to reach the start of the climb.

The lower section is among forest and here I was overtaken by a man running the trail. Like the day before, I felt a little unfit as the track became steep, trying to tell myself it was just the heat. I’d set off before 9am but the sun felt hot above me. At the first break in the trees however, I looked behind me and realised a blanket of fog was creeping across the Canterbury Plains. The higher I got, the closer the cloud bank got, such that as I reached the more open upper ridges, the Plains were completely obliterated from view. It was pretty cool, a phenomenon I’ve seen only a handful of times from above the cloud line. Like the day before, it got windier the higher I got and the edge of the blanket seemed to wisp around itself, fingers creeping and retreating into the gullies between the lower ridges.


Mt Oxford is a series of false summits until at last the track rolls onto the true summit at 1364m (4475ft). I had to hunker down to shield myself from the wind while I ate some food, watching the cloud roll in and out and the wisps puff up and then retreat. I’d summited a little after 11.30am and with so many hours ahead of me, I knew I should do the longer route back across the far ridge, even though I remembered how much I hated its monotony last time. Despite this, I was in training, and needed to keep the momentum going, so despite knowing I’d get frustrated, I took off across the summit, bracing against the wind.

It’s an easy but exposed track to follow across the bare ridge before it eventually cuts back into the forest. I recalled from last time that the time on the sign underestimated this section so this time I was prepared for that. As I reached the forest once more, I could see how much the cloud had piled in and how much it was desperately trying to push up the mountain side. It was mesmerising to watch though, and I paused for a bit to do so before losing sight of it as the trees closed around me. As the track cut down the mountainside it became eerie as soon I was within the cloud. It was cooler suddenly and any gaps in the trees offered no views other than the wisps of cloud that swirled around. It made the descent through the forest much more enjoyable as I simply breathed the mist in, merely guessing where I was with my sense of altitude dimmed.


When at last I reached the Korimako track that I’d taken to Ryde Falls the last time I’d been here, I continued straight this time, taking an alternate route towards a different car park then cutting away to trudge the long route back to Coopers Creek. This alternate route was muddy and undulating, but it was busy because it formed a loop track to Ryde Falls, which seemed popular. The low cloud continued the whole arduous slog back, and I finally returned to my car about 7hrs after setting off.


The following week, I joined two local walks together, parking at the Christchurch Gondola car park to hike the Bridle Path over the Port Hills to Lyttelton Harbour. The Bridle Path is a popular local walk, but it is rough and steep underfoot, making it a good slog that isn’t to everyone’s tastes. It zig-zags its way up to summit road and from there it zig-zags its way down the other side, reaching the road by Lyttelton tunnel. I’ve walked this track from end-to-end as well as just up to Summit Road and back, and on several occasions have combined it with trips to the gondola station. This time, I was heading to the harbour, grabbing food at a local cafe before heading down to the port to catch the ferry across to Diamond Harbour.


Once on Banks Peninsula, a track leads from near the wharf deep into the lower forests and up a gradual slope to reach farmland where the most popular route up to Mt Herbert leads from. I’ve hiked Mt Herbert multiple times, using 3 different routes up, but this one I’ve done the most. The ferry ride over is an added bonus to this hike that I like to tack on, but it does mean the hike has to be to a timetable in order to catch the ferry back over at the end of the day. Once again there was a recurring theme of feeling slow. I’ve definitely noticed that hiking with poles takes me longer than hiking without them. But with my knees starting to show wear and tear, I feel that using them is a necessary evil. But it is hard to accept at times that I’m not making records when I return to hike mountains I’ve previously summited. Despite the amount of walking I was doing lately, I couldn’t help feel that it was my fitness that was the problem.

Having caught the 11am ferry, I was relatively late to head up through the farmland, and I watched sadly as several people sped ahead of me and several people passed me heading down. The route however was familiar and I knew what to expect ahead. When at last I reached the summit (919m/3015ft), there was hardly anyone around and I might as well have had it to myself. Mindful of the ferry times I didn’t stay up long before heading back down. Going down was straightforward, but as is often the case, the clouds had piled in over Christchurch and it looked a little dull. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a music festival on at Diamond Harbour so when I reached the pier there was a massive queue for the ferry. Normally only once an hour at this time of the day, the ferry company thankfully agreed to do multiple runs to lighten the load. I wasn’t successful at making it on the first sailing, but was able to get on the second one. I still had the return hike over the Bridle Path to do, so I was eager to get back and get going. When at last I reached my car once more I’d been on my feet for 8hrs and was eager to be done.


Just 2 weeks later, I found myself on my final training hike ahead of the toughest hike of my life. I was to leave the country in just 2 days and the anticipation was starting to get real. I took the familiar drive into the Canterbury foothills and found myself on the edge of a cloud blanket that was slowly creeping in from the east. This last hike was a return to Mt Somers, a hike that I’d found challenging the first time round, and one that was a decent length and steepness to make me feel like I was getting a good last workout. Again I felt my poles slowing me down and I took longer to hike the lower slopes through the forest and across the rising ridges to reach the summit route junction. I focused on the task at hand, aware of people overtaking me regularly. Wisps of cloud had initially hugged the side of the mountain and as I climbed I saw the cloud holding off a little distance away.


It was another scorching day, and the 30 degree heat got the better of me. I was struggling, wheezing for breath and having to stop often. I’m not entirely sure what was wrong those last few hikes. It had been hot, but it wasn’t the first time I’d hiked in the heat. I was using poles, but they shouldn’t have made me tired and breathless. I’d had a vaccine ahead of my travels but that had been weeks before. Something just wasn’t right, I felt super unfit now despite the regular hikes and it was starting to concern me. Up and up I went, struggling but stubborn. I reached scree and then boulders and the marked route became a matter of picking a way up and across between distant orange poles. When at last I reached the final push towards the summit, I saw that the clouds had moved in, and like the few weeks prior at Mt Oxford, they tried desperately to sneak up the side of the mountain. I needed a break and rested at the summit, but as the clouds crept higher up the slopes, I was conscious of the fact that I needed good visibility to follow the markers in a few of the lower sections. I was caught between catching a break and wanting to rush back down before I risked losing my way.


It had taken me so long to get up there, that I was one of only 3 people left at the summit. The other 2 started to head down as I finished my food, and wary of getting into trouble if the clouds became a problem, I didn’t waste much time following suit. It was a needless worry in the end. As much as the clouds tried to wisp upwards, they never really made much progress, and I made better time on the descent, watching the blanket gradually dissipate as I neared its altitude. By the time I was back down at the track junction to follow the Mount Somers Route back to the car park, I had a clear view across the Plains. It took me 8hrs from start to finish, a lot longer than I’d taken the first time I’d gotten up. I was disappointed, but I headed as usual to grab my favourite post-hike treat: nachos and ice-coffee at C1 Espresso in Christchurch. Hiking is a good excuse for me to have a bit of a pig-out afterwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if I eat more calories after a hike than I actually lose on the hike. Maybe that was my problem. Maybe that was why I was struggling on these last few hikes. But there was no time left to wonder. Because 2 days later, I was off on a great adventure.

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