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On top of Africa

3 August 2010

Text and photographs: Stephen Smith

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel with Kingsley Holgate on a few occasions in the past, and it has always been an adventure. No matter where we’ve gone, Papa King (as Kingsley is commonly referred to) has managed to find the most fascinating stories and the most eccentric characters, as well as the most outrageous activities.

I suppose that’s why they call him an adventurer? I haven’t experienced it, but I reckon King could make grocery shopping in Howick entertaining. So imagine my delight when the opportunity arose to join King on another expedition, this time to scale the heady heights of Mount Kilimanjaro.

About a month before the trip, the butterflies started to circle. Was I fit enough? Was I strong enough? Would I cope with the altitude? Then I got a list of people who were going to be climbing: Ross Holgate, cricket legend Jonty Rhodes, Andre Bredenkamp, Mike Nixon? In case you don’t recognise the last two names, they might not be famous, but they have both climbed all of the Seven Summits — the highest mountains on each of the seven continents — and most of them together.

So I would be climbing my first mountain (had I not mentioned that this would be my first mountain?) in some lofty company indeed. This didn’t help the nerves.
But wait. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of background on exactly what would be taking us to the slopes of Kilimanjaro.

It all started on 25 April 2010 — World Malaria Day. A group of Land Rover owners congregated at Lesedi Cultural Village in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site outside Johannesburg, to send off the man most often associated with Defenders, malaria and African exploration. Kingsley was at it again – setting off in a convoy of Landys (this time the luxurious and capable Discovery 4) on his latest bid to wage war against malaria: the 2010 United Against Malaria Expedition.

The Holgates then travelled through South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and finally Tanzania, covering 14 000km and visiting iconic points of Africa on their way.

They went to the Victoria Falls, Speke’s source of the Nile and the spot where Dr Livingstone’s heart lies buried near Lake Bangweulu in northern Zambia. They climbed Mount Gorongoza in Mozambique, Mount Mulanje in Malawi and the famed Mountains of the Moon – the Ruwenzori mountains in the Congo. And now it was all coming to a finale, on the plains of the Serengeti and the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kingsley himself would lead his convoy of Discovery 4s, filled with his crew and volunteers and carrying hundreds of mosquito nets, into the Serengeti, where they would continue the expedition’s main task: distributing the nets to prevent malaria.

“A child dies roughly every 30 seconds in Africa from this devastating yet preventable disease,” says Kingsley. “On this expedition we will have distributed 10 000 nets, which can potentially save 30 000 mothers and children from the deadly bite of the anopheles mosquito.”

At the same time our group would be trying to reach Uhuru Peak of Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa at 5895m above sea level – and the symbolic conclusion of the expedition.

Ross, Andre and Mike were already in Tanzania, having just conquered the Ruwenzoris, but the rest of our group, for the most part representatives of Kingsley’s sponsors, gathered at the airport in Johannesburg, most of us meeting each other for the first time. As we sat around a table waiting for our flight to Tanzania, the conversation naturally turned to the adventure ahead.

We asked each other about the training we had done, what kit we had brought, what snacks and energy foods. And, like those moments before a school exam, all we did was make the anxiety worse.

By the time we were in the plane I was seriously questioning what I had got myself into. What if I didn’t make it to the top? What about the costs involved, for the climb and the kit, not to mention the damage to my ego.

Then, suddenly, all my doubts were cast aside. “Ladies and gentlemen. If you look out of the left hand windows, you will see Mount Kilimanjaro.” And there it was, the snow-capped peak floating above the clouds, resplendent in the morning sun. I was reminded that it had always been a dream of mine to climb the mountain, and I knew that I would never have forgiven myself if I had passed this opportunity by. All was right with the world.

That night Mike Nixon, who would be leading our group alongside the local guides, gave us a briefing around a map of the mountain. We would be using the Machame route, neither the easiest nor the most difficult, but one of the most beautiful. Four and a half days up, one and a half days down.

“There’s no reason why we won’t all make it to the top,” Mike starts positively. “Yes, Kili is a big mountain, the highest freestanding mountain in the world. But if we take it slowly and look after ourselves we will hopefully all get there. Altitude sickness and blisters are the biggest challenges, but Andre and I have got a lot of tricks up our sleeves. Just tell us as soon as you get a headache or a hot spot on your foot.”

He carried on chatting to us in this vein, answering questions about everything from the mountain to what we should be taking with us. Porters would be carrying our bags, but we were only allowed to take 12kg. This isn’t as much as it sounds considering that it includes a sleeping bag, lots of warm clothing, snacks and energy supplements and much more.

When we finally went to bed it was in a more peaceful frame of mind, ready for the challenge that lay ahead.

The scene that greets us at the Machame gate to the Kilimanjaro National Park the next morning is not quite what we expected: throngs of porters milling about in the mist, waiting to get their cargo approved and to start off up the mountain. Gaggles of tourists looking even more disorganised, waiting for the unexpected. As Mike says, a hint of despair in his voice, “This is not going to be wilderness experience.”

Around noon we are finally on the mountain, walking through the mist and drizzle of a beautiful rainforest and being introduced to “pole, pole”, a phrase that we would grow to hate. It means “slowly, slowly”, and you’ll get told it every ten minutes by your guides, and again by every bunch of walkers you pass.

It’s even worse with an American twang to it. But listen and obey, because this is the most important tactic to a successful summit. Go too fast and you are courting with failure.

And so we trudge on for our first day, stopping every hour or so for a break, getting to know the other climbers better, and testing our preparation for the first time.

We arrive at camp at six in the evening, still surrounded by swirls of mist. We are already more than 3000m above sea level — about as high as the top of the Drakensberg. Unfortunately one of our party, Lawrence, is already suffering from altitude sickness, and more importantly, Mike is feeling terrible.

The news the next morning is grim. Lawrence will have to turn back, while Ross has diagnosed Mike with, ironically, malaria! He will also have to go back down the mountain for emergency treatment.

Luckily we still have calm, unflappable Andre to settle our distress at losing two teammates, including our leader, so early on. As we climb, the scenery changes. In the distance, peeking out of the clouds below us, we can see ridges of peaks, while fynbos now surrounds us.

The walking isn’t challenging, and by late afternoon we have reached camp two at about 3600m. We lounge around in the afternoon sun, some reading, others chatting. We have tea in our mess tent, relieved that we’ve survived the first two days.

I’m restless and go for a stroll and am rewarded by a beautiful view of Kibo Peak in golden afternoon light, set against a blue African sky. That night Kassim, our head guide, warns us that day three is long and tough.

The going gets steeper and more difficult as soon as we leave camp, and before long we pass the 4000m mark. By lunchtime we are at 4600m and a few of us are struggling with headaches and fatigue. We rest at the Lava Tower, a cone of lava left over from an ancient eruption — an eerie place of black rock and orange lichen at the base of snow-covered peaks.

The mist is with us again, and we are told that there is a glacier above us. “This is the route that Kingsley took years ago when he climbed the mountain,” says Ross. “I remember him telling me about sleeping at the foot of the glacier, and getting his lips stuck to his tent’s zip as he tried to get fresh air at night.” Even those battling with the altitude laugh at the thought of it.

We’re soon on our feet again, and dropping down into a desolate valley of rock and gravel. Camp is at 3900m — a ploy to outsmart altitude sickness, walking high during the day to get the body used to it, and then sleeping lower to recover. It works for most of us, but Chris Thorpe from Nando’s, one of Kingsley’s sponsors, is starting to look decidedly iffy.

Day four dawns, and is said to be tougher still. From camp we drop into a valley, and then climb almost vertically for about 1000m, scrabbling up the rocky path. A porter goes mad from the altitude, screaming that he is going to die, and is rushed down the mountain to Moshi. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, even if it’s not the person’s first climb.

We’re above 4000m all day, and our guides no longer have to tell us “pole, pole”. It’s 4pm when we make it to camp, at 4600m. Chris is still looking bad. We have an early supper and go to bed straight away, because in a few hours we will be waking up, ready for our midnight summit of Uhuru Peak.

At 11pm we wake up, get dressed into our warmest clothes and meet at the mess tent. There’s bad news – Chris is really sick now, and delirious. There’s no way he can continue, even though he is already fully-dressed and convinced he’ll be fine. It may sound dramatic, but if he stays up here any longer there’s a good chance he will die.

A guide rushes him down to the next camp at 3100m.

The rest of us carry on, our world reduced to the pair of boots in front of us, lit up by our headlamps. Jonty is in good spirits and does a little shuffle as we get going, while Andre lopes on as relaxed as ever. At one point Jonty stops and asks Ross where the music is coming from. They stop and listen, until Jonty realises it’s just the blood pounding in his ears.

The walk becomes a game of “are we there yet”. At first we stop every hour for snacks and a drink, but as we go this interval gets shorter and shorter. The water in our bottles begins to freeze and sachets of Gu are the most valuable commodity in our world.

At 5000m the monotony of the rock is broken up by patches of snow, but we’ve still got a vertical 900m to climb, and we’re zig-zagging up the slope.
Jonty’s shuffle has disappeared.

When we stop, we look up to the heavens and see lights dancing above us. We convince ourselves that they must be stars, but then they move and we realise that they are the headlamps of climbers who got going before us. We’ve got a long way to go.

At 07h00 the sun finally rises, but not before we have almost all considered the possibility that we might not make it to the top. The sight of the sun rising over snow-capped peaks gets us going again, but I’m too exhausted to take a photo of the spectacular sight.

Then we make our first goal — the rim of the volcano at 5800m. There we rest and watch the sun illuminate the peaks below us. Mountains we have looked up at over the previous days are suddenly below us. But we’ve still got to climb another 100m while traversing a kilometre or so.

The air is so thin that our lungs are burning even when we rest, and we can’t walk more than 50m without having a rest, bent almost double over our walking sticks. I stop frequently, to rest and to take shaky photographs. It’s an amazing sight, the snow-covered mountain and the glacier lit up by the morning sun, but it’s hard to appreciate it when you’re battling to breathe. Some hikers encourage you as they return from Uhuru, while others are lying on the snow, gasping.

But finally that interminable last stretch is over, and we make it to the top of Africa and the symbolic conclusion of the 2010 United Against Malaria Expedition.

It’s an emotional moment for all of us, and Jonty says a few words, including “This has been the hardest day of my life.”

Then it’s time for us to get going again, back to camp, then Moshi, and finally, reality.

What we found really useful
iPod – Music takes your mind off the fatigue in your legs and the burning in your lungs. Save the battery for summit day.

Soft-shell jacket – A soft-shell jacket deals with 90% of weather conditions, including rain, gentle rain or snow. Use it with other thermal layers.

Hiking boots – Don’t skimp here, but also don’t go overboard and spend more than is necessary. Get a waterproof boot designed for multi-day hikes.

Light shoes/takkies – Very useful for the afternoons and evenings when your feet don’t feel like going back in the boots, or for when your boots are wet.

Sleeping bag – Buy the best sleeping bag you can afford, preferably down-filled.

Thermal underwear – Light and warm, thermal underwear is very useful for a base layer, for sleeping in, and a thermal top can also be used as a long-sleeved shirt.

Socks – don’t bank on being able to use a pair of socks more than once. If they’re wet, they will give you blisters. Also experiment with using one or two pairs at a time in your training hikes.

Altitude sickness
Altitude sickness is one of the two real problems facing climbers, along with the common blister (not to be underestimated!). There’s no way you can know whether your body will cope with the altitude, so prepare for the worst.

Some doctors recommend using Diamox as a preventive (but not curative) medication for altitude sickness, although it is by no means definitive. Of our party of 10, nine used Diamox and got to the summit, and one didn’t use Diamox and was forced to turn back at the last stage.

Speak to your GP about the medication. It is inexpensive and has few side effects.

Kilimanjaro is a big, high mountain, but ascending it is a hike, not a climb. You need no special skills, but you do need to be moderately fit. People generally recommend that you do exercises like lunges, squats and calf raises to strengthen your legs, while cardiovascular fitness is less important.

The best preparation, fairly obviously, is hiking. Go to the closest mountains to your home and walk for two full consecutive days. If possible, do this at altitude to see how your body copes.

More Information
For more information or bookings contact Wild Frontiers on 011 702-2035, or visit

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