I traveled to Tanzania after graduating from college to volunteer at Mt. Meru Day Care and the Rift Valley Children’s Village with a close friend of mine. Prior to our trip we mentioned climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but did not put that on our itinerary until we were living in a town outside of Arusha. The moment we decided to make the trek sticks in my mind like a flash of light: While watching a local soccer game on a late Sunday afternoon in the company of new friends, I saw the clouds quickly roll by and there she was “like olympus above the Serengeti” as brilliantly described Toto’s 1983 hit song, “Africa.” The moment the summit came into view, we looked at each other and without question or each other’s approval we knew we had to make it to the top.
We chose a friendly, knowledgeable local guide company and selected our route up Machame, with its disparate pathways it’s also referred to as the “Whiskey Route.” We arrived at the Machame gates to a sea of porters loading the last of each group’s gear, placing the bags on their heads and taking off up the path. Starting up the path, we were quickly taught to go pole-pole (slow in Swahili) to pace and acclimate ourselves. Each day up the mountain the vegetation surprised us with a change: We passed through thick forest, moorland, highland desert and up to the summit with views of glaciers rapidly changing.
For anyone concerned that it’s too much of a challenge, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is not technical and is a very manageable hike. Reaching its summit, however, is a different story. After completing a seven-hour hike (following a decision to do the climb in six days rather than seven) to reach the 15,500-foot-high Barafu Camp, we ate a nice dinner and had our usual warm chai tea before crawling into our sleeping bags to rest our eyes for a brisk three-hour nap. We woke at 11:30 p.m. to start our final ascent to the rooftop of Africa. I donned every article of clothing and gear I had rented from a “storefront” in Moshi, including every pair of socks I had to ensure the two-sizes-too-big rental boots would fit. Fortunately, this all helped brave the quickly dropping temps and strong winds.
Stepping outside of the tent into a pitch-black night, I had no idea where the summit lie, until I noticed a lit path of headlamps dotting the sky, slowly moving forward. Proceeding up the mountain and only seeing a few feet ahead of you, it is pure adrenaline moving you forward-not to mention my inner voice telling me to ignore the cold and tired and just push ahead to the summit. The advantage of climbing a mountain like Kilimanjaro with a close friend is that we made a pact: We would make it to the summit together no matter how many times we might have to stop.
Slowly making our way up the mountain, we passed climbers who physically could not make it due to exhaustion and altitude sickness. After the challenge of keeping your eyes open after a short night’s rest, we had many laughs between shooting stars and sunrise, as we had become very close with our guides, Simbo and Antipas. The weather was blistering cold, the wind was howling, and our drinking water was frozen.
Right when I needed another push of motivation to keep my eyes open, I noticed the sun rising above the dark night sky revealing one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed. Our group of four made it to Stella Point, the false summit of Kilimanjaro, by sunrise. An hour and half later, with fists pumping in the air, we made it to Uhuru Peak and waved both Texas and Tanzania flags with shouts of self-congratulation. After spending a few well-earned minutes admiring the view and our accomplishments, it was time to turn around and make our way down after a seven-plus hour hike to the summit. Upon returning to our campsite, we were welcomed with juice, warm chai, breakfast and a short nap before continuing on down to the next campsite. It was an adventure I never knew I’d make until it was before me … and I’m forever grateful that I did.
Emma Simmons is a professional photographer who splits her time between the east and west coasts. Although permanently residing within the continental U.S., her passion for photography has taken her across the globe. Check out the world from the eyes of Emma at http://www.emmasimmons.com