I’ve been sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro. Mostly I was sitting because I was completely finished – hiking nearly six kilometres up will do that to you. But the real reason I was there was because my fifteen year old daughter, Emily, couldn’t be talked out of it. Don’t get me wrong, I was dead keen but it’s an expensive – and risky – undertaking so we had been stalling her for ages. That strategy worked with the pet pig idea, but not the world’s greatest amateur mountain climb.
|Just clearing the cloud line on Kili after three days on the mountain.
In the background is Mount Meru, also in a Tanzanian National Park.
|On top of the world with daughter
Emily, Musa and Daniel.
Call me biased, but I really think it is the best . Not only is it the highest point in Africa, and the tallest free-standing mountain on earth, but it’s doable. Yes, Everest is higher but you can’t borrow some ski-kit, take a week off work, and climb Everest. And you can’t take another week off and revel in Lake Manyara National Park, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater.
Kili is not trivial. Uhuru Peak, is higher than Everest Base Camp and most people hike for three weeks to reach that. The scheduled flight that delivered us from Nairobi to the mountain had a a cruising altitude lower than the summit.
Getting to the top of Kili is hard but the feeling of accomplishment, of having done something extraordinary, is amazing.
There are few things as boring as other people’s holiday snaps, so let me think about our journey a bit differently for a moment. I spend a lot of time worrying that protected areas are under siege, going backwards, facing insurmountable challenges. Mount Kilimanjaro National Park is not like that.
I first climbed this mountain shortly before Emily was born, about 16 years ago. It was dirty and dangerous. There were no facilities – white flags of toilet roll (and much worse) littered the barren upper slopes. We never saw a ranger on the mountain and everyone knew that the $10 we each paid for mountain rescue was a joke. No-one was coming to help if things went wrong.
How different in 2014! It’s all so much more organised. Every porter’s load is weighed, so that that porters aren’t bullied into carrying punishing loads. Weigh-stations at every camp check that rubbish carried down the mountain isn’t dumped on the way.
Altitude sickness has always been a worry but now you really know when you’re getting into the red zone.
Each night the guides gather their hikers together and measure their oxygen saturation levels and pulse rates. They also ask lots of questions. If you are sick, you don’t hike tomorrow. It’s not fail-safe (it took a Hindi speaker in our party three days to understand the question “Have you had a number two in the last 24 hours…..?”) but the young Londoner who died in our camp when I was summiting back in 1998, would not be left alone, sick and freezing, in his tent today.
It is still dangerous. We saw several people taken down the mountain on wheeled stretchers, by incredibly strong and committed rescuers. Heart attacks are apparently quite common and altitude sickness still defeats many.
|Hikers’ vital statistics are charted
to help guides assess their fitness to continue.
|This porter is taking a stretcher back up through the
rainforest – he took it off his head for the photo….
Each camp on the Machame route, now has a few buildings, including an admin hut for signing in and brick long-drops. There is radio contact all the way up the mountain and even some cell phone reception. None of that was there in the past. Yes, the unmaintained toilets are unbearably stinky – the temptation is still to slip behind a rock for a private moment – but it’s a tremendous improvement.
|Porters’ loads being
|Signing in at a new hut at 4,600m||The weather can change in minutes|
It’s not that easy to find good news stories in Africa’s conservation areas but, to the inexpert eye, Kilimanjaro National Park is in better shape than it was 15 years ago. How encouraging is that?
Interestingly, it wasn’t the classic eco-warriors who motivated the clean up, it was the adventurers. The jobs and revenue they generate are too important to risk by offering a tainted experience.
Kili isn’t the only African national park to tempt the adventure crowd. You’ll often hear people say that a place is spoiled when it becomes too popular. Table Mountain National Park recently rerouted some running trails to manage erosion. Still, you only have to visit less glamorous reserves to see how quickly infrastructure can fall apart. In the 21st Century, African parks need more visitors, not less.
Running through the main gate at Victoria Falls National Park during the annual marathon event.
Earlier this year I ran a half-marathon at Victoria Falls where we had to run through the national park. It was a brilliant event with impala leaping across the road (true) and game guards ready to ward off lions (well, that’s my story!).
The Kruger National Park, like other South African reserves, has hiking and 4×4 trails. Mountain bikes seems to be everywhere. In the USA there are running events in all the big parks.
Even if they don’t know what they are looking at, hikers on Kilimanjaro protect giant lobelias as surely as surely as ornithologists in the Kazinga Channel protect shoebills.
Giant lobelias at about 4,000m are part of the unusual alpine flora found just below the high Altitude desert
I’ve got the bug now. Apparently Mount Meru is a much easier climb than Kili and you see plenty of game on the lower slopes. I did a pretty amazing trail in the Atlas Mountains years ago. Our parks need visitors and there must be loads of ways to spend time in Africa’s parks other than spotting big game.
Where else in Africa can I walk, run, ride and climb in a National Park? I think we could be doing more of it.
It takes a big team to help you to the top of Kilimanjaro – welcome employment in Moshi District. One of our climbing companions was Kalpana Dash from India (wearing green). She has previously summited Everest but still came to Africa to take on our iconic mountain.
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