My time in Africa, unsurprisingly, was fraught with drama and adventure.
It started calmly enough: I began on a two week safari trip around Kenya and Tanzania, which was incredible. I saw loads of wildlife including lions, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, hippos, rhinos, cheetahs, etc, and developed new-found respect for the beauty and majesty of all these animals. The landscape is every bit as breathtaking as films and books describe – the sky envelops you with its hugeness, the colours are so intense, the vastness of the land awing.
We visited a few Masai villages, went on walking safaris, shopped in markets. All very fun. Not so fun was the day to day logistics – erecting and dismantling a tent every day, in all sorts of weather conditions… eek. Driving for hours and hours on spine-jarring roads… ouch. Approaching pit toilets in the Serengeti where you could be accosted by marauding lions, or worse, people with bowel problems who missed the pit… urgh. Seeing the poverty and lack of opportunity that affects so many people in Africa… mmm. Still, the woes were a welcome balance, and despite the cliche, were hugely instrumental in highlighting once again to me the blessings of my life.
My next adventure after the safari was to head to the base of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where I was to attempt a climb over 6 days. If I thought what I’d been through was tough, nothing prepared me for Kili. Well, the first 4 days were amazing: we hiked for hours each day, up to 7 or 8 in a day, but it was through incredible scenery… rainforest, moorlands, semi-desert… And despite my lack of fitness after 6 months of travelling, I managed really well, I went slow and steady, but with a huge grin on my face, it was exhilarating to be climbing the worlds largest free-standing mountain! The only part I didn’t cope well with were the evenings: they were cold, misty, and the camp sites were not always nice. The toilets were frightening…. think pit toilets that were too full and so messy. And of course, everyone got bowel problems, so rushing to the toilets in the middle of the freezing night, hoping you don’t fall of a precipice and die, or that you step on anything too awful in the toilets… was horrific. But I coped, and was actually overwhelmed with peace, serenity, insights, and joy during the day, which made up for the unpleasantness of the evenings.
I was in a tour group with one other man, a 54 year old American called Bill, and our entourage of 8 porters plus a guide treated us wonderfully. It was actually great to be around Bill, because for the first time in my life, I understood what my friends must feel like around me: Bill was – believe it or not – more clumsy and dithering than I am! I was the epitome of grace and orderliness in comparison. He dropped things, lost things, took forever to get ready each day, forgot things… I was able to be patient with him, because I saw myself in his behaviour, and let me tell you, I think its taught me to improve! During those 6 days I didn’t break or lose or forget anything!
The walk was great fun, lots of rock-climbing, some of it a little scary and precarious, making my heart beat madly and a little whimper escape from my mouth… but all in all I made myself proud with the things I attempted and achieved.
Then the final ascent day came. We were to leave at midnight, walk all night, to arrive at the summit for dawn. We set off, Bill powering on ahead as usual, me slow and steady in the rear. About half way up, my guide stopped and responded to a whistle from Bill’s guide. The guide went to investigate, and soon came back with a stumbling Bill. Bill says “Alicia, is that you? I’m BLIND!!!”. For some reason, he had suddenly lost all his vision. I suggested he return down, but the guides were gabbering in Swahili, and I was getting cold, so I told them to stay with him, take him down, I would join another group. I joined up with a group of Canadian girls, and proceeded up.
It was absolute torture. Nothing could have prepared me for that final ascent. I could do a few steps at a time, and then I’d stop and gasp for air. We were over 5km above sea level, a high altitude even to professional mountaineers, and it was a miracle I didn’t have altitude sickness, but it was hard work climbing up, and it took me forever. I’d sworn to myself beforehand that unless I had altitude sickness, I would make it up, so in the end, I had to push through all the pain, all the cold (I had 6 layers of clothing on top and on bottom), all the heart-wrenching fatigue, and keep going.
After over 8 hours, I made the penultimate peak (a scenic point about an hour from the summit), long after sunrise, but there nonetheless. Then amazingly, five minutes later, Bill stumbles up the mountain with both guides in tow. He looked a fright: his face was literally frozen from all the snot that had seeped down his face, his hands were cramping up into weird shapes, his speech was slurred, and he was still blind! The guides and I tried to get him in shape again, but he was in a rough way. Still, he was determined to make the final ascent to the summit, and the guides seemed to think he’d be ok, so we set off.
It took every fibre of my being to make that final hour walk uphill. I could manage one step at a time, breathing deeply, trying to suck as much oxygen from the air as possible. But finally, after over 9 hours of walking without any sleep beforehand and with a 7 hour walk earlier that day, I reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was the 25th of January, my 29th birthday. I expected I would feel elated and contemplative of the year to come. Instead, I collapsed on the foot of the sign, and stared dumbly at the ground. I couldn’t even look around me. Finally when I had the strength to look around, I burst into hysterical tears, which were actually happy tears. I had made it! I had climbed to 5895 metres above sea level, with no training, no experience, no preparation. I was delighted.
We then had the descent to get through. By this stage Bill was totally blind, and could only proceed with assistance from the guides. It took us hours and hours to descend, by this time I was dehydrated, hungry and exhausted, but had no choice but to continue. 12 hours after we had started our ascent, we returned to camp. I couldn’t move or think or do anything but lie on a pile, and Bill was in a worse state. He insisted upon being evacuated, and the process began. He was taken down the mountain in what was effectively a large flat trolley, which was torturous for the poor man.
I made it down the next day (walking), and went to check up on him at the hospital. Thankfully, his eyesight had returned (a symptom of acute altitude sickness), but he was severely dehydrated and sick. That was yesterday. Since then he has slowly gotten better, but it still incredibly weak and ill. As he is travelling alone, our tour guide and myself have been taking care of him, and the people here have been so helpful and kind. Its been quite an experience seeing African hospitals, but in all, he is on the mend, although he is heading back to the US as soon as he can.
He is luckier than others – the guys that came down from the mountain today said one of the climbers died yesterday of altitude sickness at the summit. Its a dangerous pastime, I didn’t realise how much before I started, and I count my blessings that I am safe and well.
The other thing I wanted to say, is that during those hard uphill hours, it was two things that kept me going. The first was Bikram Yoga… the breathing exercises from this yoga class were what I suspected might make me process the little oxygen in the air more efficiently, and put me into a zen state of meditation which would consume less valuable energy. And I was right – when my muscles literally wouldn’t carry me a step further, I breathed in the Bikram way, and suddenly I could walk 100m without stopping. Miraculous.
The second was you guys. To keep me amused, I thought of my friends and family, what they might say to me if they could that minute, what they meant to me, what their smiling faces would look like… and it was my salvation. Thank you all for being there for me, without even knowing it. I felt like the luckiest person in the world to have people like you in my life. I miss you all so much, and despite how much I am enjoying these travels, I am very ready to go home now… I have another 5 weeks here in Africa, then HOME!! Some of you won’t be there, in Sydney, but as this experience has taught me, you are all with me always anyway.