Climbing the Roof of Africa

Climbing the Roof of Africa

Just over 5 years ago I was diagnosed with a rare auto immune disease of the lungs known as Pulmonary Vasculitis which resulted in my lungs bleeding.  I was in hospital for a month and thereafter treated with a low dosage of chemo for 6 months.

During the time in hospital all I could think of was when can I get back to running.  After the treatment I ran the Knysna Half Marathon but I struggled. The struggle continued and I started to think what else I can do to better myself.  I skydived but that wasn’t enough! Then the idea of Base Camp Everest came about.  I asked my Pulmonologist if I could climb.  In his words he said, “Sure you can go to Base Camp but don’t expect to come back alive!” So I had to find an alternative and then the idea of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro came about.   This time my doctor agreed but with one condition, he goes with me and if I show any symptoms I go straight back down!

It took a year to plan this expedition. Flights, accommodation, equipment (which wasn’t cheap) and of course the training which involved running, swimming and strength training.  I was excited but very nervous because I knew I had a slight handicap.  I promised myself that I wouldn’t let it come in the way of my goal.  I did the training that was needed so I knew I was capable on the endurance side but wasn’t sure of the mental strength needed especially for Summit Night.

Saturday 31st August 2019.   Finally the day arrived when ‘The Magnificent Seven’ flew to Kilimanjaro Airport!  We spent the weekend resting and getting our gear in order and packed ready for the porters to carry to the camps where we were going to spend the nights.

 Monday 2nd September : Day 1 From Machame Gate at 1800m above sea level, we trekked 11km through dense rain forest on a winding path up towards our first camp, Machame at 2835m. It was nightfall when we reached camp and our tents and sleeping bags were already put up by the amazing porters who transported our bags very skillfully on the heads.  We went into the ‘mess’ tent to have our much needed hot cup of tea and popcorn.  After wash up dinner was served.  Thereafter a quick brief given by our guide explaining what to expect on the next day’s trekking.  Then lights out!

Day 2 to Day 5 was pretty much the same drill except we were climbing higher, going through different terrains from forest to moorlands then becoming more rocky and into an alpine volcanic desert decorated with large deposits of volcanic rock and grey dust. 

Day 5:  Shortly after midday we arrive at Barafu Camp at 4673m, the final camp before the Big climb! We had covered 35km with another 5km to go to Uhuru Peak.  At this altitude breathing was difficult and every step you took was literally breath taking. After lunch we slept or at least tried to sleep until 10.30pm when we were awoken to a cup of tea and biscuits.

Finally Summit Night was upon us.  On Friday 6th September at 11.30pm we set off into the night with our headlamps as our eyes.  The distance from Barafu to Uhuru Peak is only 5km but at this high altitude one needs to go very slowly.  Our guide calls out, ‘Pole Pole’! which means slowly slowly.  Looking up I saw what looked like a lit up caterpillar crawling up the mountain.  That night the mountain was crowded, all hoping to summit!

The next few hours were grueling and exhausting. You take two steps and stop and breathe then take another couple of steps and breathe again and you continue and you start wondering how long can I keep this up.  Soon a member of our group gives up.  Showing signs of altitude sickness. Like a horror movie, you think who is next, please don’t let it be me!  After a while I turn my head to the right and I see the horizon light up with a beautiful sunrise and I’m thinking we must be close to the top.  I look up and there I see the sign board saying: ‘Stella Point 5756m’.  I knew at this point I was going to make it to Uhuru Peak which is the highest peak on Kili, but getting there was tough and to top it all, it started to snow!  I was told the temperature was around -10/-15!   Finally after climbing literally all night, at 08.26am on Saturday 7th September my group and I summit Mt Kilimangaro at 5895m!  Words  cannot describe how I felt at that moment. I just burst into tears!  Tears of happiness! A huge relief!! All the hard work and training paid off, especially swimming at 5am with MTD Swim Squad!!

I will never forget this life changing experience and what I’ve learned from this is that if you believe in yourself you can achieve anything your heart desires!

by Varsha Gihwala

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