The Journey to the Roof of Africa


by Cecilia Yee.  

I never thought I'd go all the way to Africa to climb a mountain, least of all the highest free-standing mountain in the world. But I'm a sucker for challenges. Mount Kilimanjaro - 5,895 metres above sea level.

Six of us at Flight Centre started planning the hike about a year in advance. Instead of just climbing the mountain, we decided to do it for charity. Leading up to our climb, we organised a couple of fundraising events for two Philippine-based charities, and we received a tremendous amount of support from the community.

In preparation for the climb, we trained hard. We hiked, ran and climbed endless steps... Lucky for us, we live in Hong Kong. Whilst it's known for its skyline, Hong Kong boasts incredible terrain for training with its sprawling landscape rising from white sand beaches, country parks and even mountain ranges. We mixed weekly hikes with testing runs and even threw in some strength training into the mix.

But I don't think any kind of training can prepare you fully for the experience. We arrived in Africa excited yet scared.

From Machame Gate to Barranco Camp

After the long journey to the town of Moshi in Tanzania, we were briefed about the mountain and given an itinerary. We came away reassured that as long as we listened to our G Adventures guides, they'd get us to the top.

Machame Trail

We woke early the next day to begin the journey of a lifetime. Heading out on the Machame Route, considered by many to be the most scenic path to the summit (Uhuru Peak), we were beyond excited. The first day of our hike was spent in Kilimanjaro's gorgeous rainforests. Early on it began to rain, making the trail soggy and muddy, but this didn't dampen our spirits. We finished the 18-kilometre trek in five hours, and quickly settled in at Machame Camp.

It was incredible how quickly our porters got to the campsite. We set out first, but when we got there, our tents were already pitched and everything was in order. An afternoon snack of popcorn, biscuits and hot chocolate followed. And for dinner, we were served a full meal - soup, rice and hot stew.

Day two started early as we climbed steeply through sparsely vegetated heathland. I started to feel the altitude, and ran out of breath pretty quickly. As we climbed over massive rocks and boulders, the rain continued. The 9-kilometre hike included a gentle ascent through lower alpine moorland, dotted with beautiful, flowering plants. We reached Shira 2 Camp just after noon, very ready for an afternoon nap.

On day three, the rain continued to pour as we climbed through rocky and barren terrain. Atop Lava Tower (4,630 metres), it was so cold that the rain turned to snow. From there, a 600-metre path descended steeply into the Great Barranco Valley. We had fantastic views of the Western Breach, a gap formed by lava flow on the western outer rim of Uhuru Peak.

One of the benefits of the Machame Route is that the downhill sections provide you with extra time to acclimatise. We felt the benefit as we lost altitude heading down to Barranco Camp.

Trekking to Base Camp

On day four, which is billed as the 'fun hike', we tackled the Great Barranco Wall - an imposing rock face that takes about one and a half hours to scale. Here at the base of Heim Glacier, the skies finally cleared and we watched as the highest mountain in Africa, slowly revealed itself. Just like that, we experienced the magic of Kilimanjaro.

First glimpse of Uhuru Peak after climbing the Barranco Wall

Our trail continued down into the Karanga Valley, where we climbed another imposing wall and crossed alpine desert to get to the campsite. I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath; the air was thinning, and I was feeling increasingly nervous about summit night.

Waiting for the sunrise at Karanga Camp

This was the first day that the sun shone on us, and we were just thrilled to be right where we were. The five of us had truly bonded by the time we reached Karanga Camp. Fully connected to each other and totally disconnected from the world, all we had to focus on was reaching the top of the mountain. We played music, our guides and porters sang to us, we had fun!

On day five, the shortest hike of the trip had us climbing through a dry and empty landscape to Barafu Camp - Kilimanjaro Base Camp. As we camped on the narrow, exposed ridge, harsh winds blew down from the peak. We spent all afternoon and much of the evening sleeping in preparation for our trek to the summit.

Barafu Camp

Summit night

The guides woke us up at 11pm. When I got out of the tent, I was greeted by the full moon in all its glory. I didn't need to use a torch. The temperature had dropped to -20ºC.

We began the final ascent passing between imposing glaciers on rough scree. For the first time, I was hit hard by altitude sickness. As I struggled for breath, the guide told me to continue walking. He could tell that I was fit enough to continue; and he waited patiently for me while I stopped every 10 steps or so to catch my breath.

After six long hours, we finally reached Stella Point, the rim of the main crater (5,686 metres). We took in the glorious sunrise, before continuing up to Uhuru Peak. Every step of this one-hour ascent was a challenge. At 5,895 metres, Uhuru (meaning freedom in Swahili) is the highest point in Africa.

On the Roof of Africa

Due to the altitude, we were only allowed to stay at the summit for a couple of minutes. How can I begin to explain what it feels like to stand on the roof of Africa?

The descent

Bone tired, unable to breathe properly yet beyond elated, we started our descent back to Barafu Camp. After a short rest, we continued down the rock and scree path through moorland and rainforest, before eventually arriving at Mweka Camp. Here I was overjoyed simply to find I could breathe properly.

Day seven: the final stretch. We woke up full of oxygen, ready for the short hike down to Mweka Gate, and the flight home.

It was a long journey for all of us - training, fundraising, freaking out - and by far the toughest challenge I've faced in my life. But the experience will never be forgotten, not just because of the successful climb, but also because of the friendships I forged with my fellow climbers, as well as the fact that we helped children and families in need in the Philippines.

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