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The Rongai Route Round

By Alex Quayle

It’s a funny thing, naïvety...

an oft un-registered presence that stops short of ignorance but sadly falls off the pedestal of the wise. It can be inherently comedic but also irritatingly frustrating. It is certainly unusual in its spelling: what a rarity to encounter the seldom used diaresis!

Naïvety can also be deadly: what an amusingly scary nebulous of a thing! I had embarked on my first ever trip to Africa positive that my adventures in South East Asia and the poorer parts of Eastern Europe coupled with studying for a Public Health MSc (in which many a case-study are, unfortunately, based upon the enigmatic continent of Africa) would have prepared me for the life-changing experience that lay ahead of me and my good friend, Mr Oliver Knowles.

Those lofty chimes you can hear are naïvety calling in for an unwanted, but much needed, catch-up chat. What couldn’t have I uncovered in the months prior to our trek? 14 months of planning, emailing, saving, training, marathoning and fundraising (thanking all of you very kindly by the way for your much-appreciated cash, hugs and arse squeezes [looking at you here, Mr D Ardill]) had led my companion and I to believe we had covered it all.

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We were invincible (especially post-rabies vaccination!) We had become fitter than ever; I had personally lost 2 ½ stone and we were ready to take on the mountain I had dreamed of climbing for the last 20 years. Embarrassingly, we even jokingly worried that we may have over-emphasised to our supporters the difficulty of the task at hand.

"I hope it's not too easy"

"I hope it’s not too easy" one of us muttered as we surveyed the mountain’s peak at eye-level from our jet plane as we prepared (I say we, the pilot prepared. We just sat there, beer in hand: but we were ready!) to land at Kilimanjaro International Airport.

I shall never forget my first steps on African turf. I was greeted on the tarmac by a humongous local who excitedly cheered Welcome to Africa Mr Big Boss, Hakuna Matata! I was living the dream.

Surrounded by palm trees and sunshine, I’d been described as large for the first time in my life and somebody had just quoted my favourite childhood film; what a scene!

I hurriedly offered my hand for finger printing at border control, swore blind that the malaria pills I was taking hadn’t bestowed their most-common side effects on me and strode confidently into Africa. Sunflower-lined dirt tracks guided us to our home for the first two nights where the most wonderful welcome awaited Oliver and I.

Teddy, the manager at Stella Maris lodge, planted the warmest of hugs on us and smiled as she said "Welcome home, my sons".

Fruit juice, the establishment of secret handshakes with lodge staff and more beer followed before the question "Is that Dwight Yorke AND Tim Sherwood commentating on the world cup as part of the local TV coverage?" crossed my lips. I know, very niche commentating staff... well played Tanzania!

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Getting to know Teddy over dinner, we learned that the lodge we were staying in was actually a non-profit organisation solely devoted to providing funds to an adjoined primary school. We also learned we had managed to book into the lodge a day earlier than we had thought necessary to start our climb, and thus we were welcomed to visit the school the following day.

Back to school we went and how wonderful it was. I taught a couple of the kids how to dab whilst Oli (possibly the politest gentleman you could ever meet) engaged in deep discussion with Isaac, the school teacher, regarding the state of education in both Tanzania and Africa as a whole. It was lovely to see that the children were so happy and that by simply staying in the lodge we were helping to provide an education to these fun-loving youngsters.

That evening we met our crew: all 40 of them! We learned that they were a mixture of porters (whom preferred the self-christened term g-fighters), cooks, mountain guides and camp builders and were led by their chief, the inspirational Samwell.

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Sam cut a laboured, reserved figure at the initial meet and the other 10 clients on our trip were slightly apprehensive that the climb may be slightly dour because of this. We were comforted upon learning that the team had a 95% success rate for summit attempts and that Sam alone had summitted Kilimanjaro over 270 times (read: 540,000 ft of elevation change or greater than 11,000 miles climbed).

Then came the first realisation that I may have been naïve in thinking this climb was going to be fairly easy: people die on this mountain every year, we will try to make sure you are not one of the 1,000 evacuations or 20 to 30 deaths that occur annually. Cheers Sam.

A sleep-filled bus ride saw us arrive at the mountain gate greeted by the charming Mr Cheap Price and the quick-witted Mrs Cheapest Price: hilarious street vendors drunk on the local banana beer.

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We were in thick jungle, unable to determine if we were anywhere near a mountain or anywhere of significance. It was amazing. I’ve never seen so many shades of green. Green is my mum’s favourite colour (a Northern Irish Catholic girl, what else would it be!) and I was able to see why. I got over-excited, made for the front of our 50-membered crew and started chatting to Frank, one of the mountain guides. We discussed our up-bringings and catholic middle names and I quickly gained kudos for having chosen Pius X simply because I really wanted the 10th in the middle of my name (that’s a story for another day).

My opening conversations with Frank made a sweltering first trek on Kilimanjaro pass by very quickly. We had soon made it to Simba camp and tucked into pasta, ginger tea and the first of many competitive games of cards, happy in the knowledge that we were now residing 1300m above the highest point in Britain and feeling fine.

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All of those who have been lucky enough to try a spot of camping will know of the glorious sunrises that can only be appreciated upon that first opening of a dew-lined tent. The sunrise at Simba Camp offered one of the most claret-red skies I’ve ever witnessed and was the perfect backdrop for our morning briefing. A day long hike through the moorland followed, passing several caves that a herd of buffalo had inhabited only a week previously. It was misty, humid and tiring. Once we eventually reached the Kikelewa Camp at 3679m I wolfed down some cucumber soup (actually quite nice –don’t knock it) and retired to my tent.

This was the highest I had ever climbed and it had started to show, I was now exiting my comfort zone. Sunday 24th June 2018 proved to be one of the most significant dates in my life so far. It contained both the worst and best hours I have lived through and was the first time I’d ever truly thought Christ, I could die here.

The climb from Kikelewa Cave to Mawenze Tarn camp is only 3km in length, a distance I would usually run in under 15 minutes. It took 4 hours. A steep, exposed, hot climb on the last of the Kilimanjaro moorland left me suffering from symptoms of heat exhaustion. Lying in my tent in the middle of the afternoon at 4303m I recorded my pulse at 130bpm. My temperature was 38.5 ̊C, oxygen saturation levels were 75%, I could feel my head pulsating, diarrhoea had taken hold and England were beating Panama 6-1 in the world cup – I felt all kinds of odd.

A sign outside a ranger’s lodge demanded that all climbers suffering from my symptoms immediately descend to lower altitudes. After much deliberation I decided that Mawenzi was as far as I was going. It sounds dramatic but I honestly thought if I had stayed at Mawenzi Tarn I was going to become very unwell, at least 5 days walk from the nearest medical centre, in a country were the healthcare budget per person stands at $49 per person. In the UK it is $3600. I wasn’t going to be naïve here: it was time to leave.

Stepping out of my tent, I was greeted by Sam. Where do you think you’re going Doggo? he asked. The pub I responded, followed by did you just call me doggo?! Yes, our [the porters’] nickname for you is doggo. You’re small, but funny, and relatively strong [he must have been joking, surely!]. You are a doggo.

Okay. But Doggo is heading to the bar. Are you coming? Grabbing me by the hand, Sam announced that the whole camp was heading on a nature walk. I thought he was being kind and rounding up the troops to join me on my first few steps back down the mountain. The only problem was we had started to head for the peak of Mawenzi. Mawenzi stands at 4700m. We were heading upward and I apparently was being hand-led there. Wonderful. An hour later I was standing just shy of the peak of Mawenzi taking advantage of my first close-up view of Uhuru peak. All the pain had gone. I was elated. The view was simply stunning.

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We were over-looking a section of the mountain called The Saddle, a moon-like enlarged mountain pass that connects the two peaks of Mawenzi and Uhuru atop Mount Kilimanjaro and I was delighted to watch a herd of antelope navigate the slopes in the distance.

There’s a song written by Elbow which explores the idea of choosing your happiest of memories to think of when you die. In the song, Guy Garvey describes his most in-love moment with one of his romances to think of before he goes. I’d be quite happy if the scene on top of Mawenzi flashes by as I pass on, it was so beautiful.

Arriving back into camp, the porters burst into song. We danced as the sun went down, each displaying our native dance moves (I’m sure I convinced at least one of the porters that the chicken dance is in fact the national dance of the U.K. and even the queen gives it a go at the odd state-do). I felt similar to when I had completed a marathon for the first time. You forget the fact you can’t walk, you only feel elated: the purest and rawest type of happiness.

The following day we passed over The Saddle and arrived at the 4730m high Kibo Hut (a.k.a. Basecamp) at midday and tried to take a nap before waking at 11pm to take on the final ascent.

By the luck of Zeus we had managed to pick a full-moon night for the ascent. The only trade off was that it was double-glove mandatory minus 10 ̊C. A seemingly never ending, four-breaths-for-every-step ascent of 1km (that’s higher than climbing the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building) through the night saw us reach Gilman’s point at 6am. We were now standing (read: collapsed in a heap) above the maximum height you would be able to skydive in the U.K. gazing at the sunrise over Kenya. The porters embraced each other, singing songs and praising God for a beautiful day.

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A first-timer at this altitude, I was struggling to gain enough breath to speak. (A note for Sarah Sutcliffe: This was definitely not chatty pace!). I managed to utter "Uhuru" to Sam. My oxygen saturation levels were at 55-60% and I had vomited twice whilst gagging on the amount of breaths I had to take every second. I had to make the final push to Uhuru peak now or it was definitely time to go home. Sam smiled and said "Do you know what Uhuru means, Doggo? It means freedom. Let’s go grab our freedom."

Thinking of my club mates and feeling the weight of the responsibility of carrying the club flag to Africa’s highest point, I held back tears of overwhelming pride and pushed on. It wasn’t pretty, but it was happening. To get to Uhuru peak from Gilman’s point, one traverses the crater rim of the dormant, snow filled volcano, passing through Stella point at 5739m before reaching Uhuru peak at 5895m. This is a slow-motion, energy sapping walk requiring great concentration so that you do not fall off the icy path into the crater hundreds of metres below. I had seen many pictures of Uhuru peak, it looks Cheshire-flat. In fact, to the right of the official summit sign is a steep drop into the crater.

When you’re 5 days into an energy-ravaging climb, standing at a point 700 metres higher than Everest Base Camp, you’d be forgiven for making a footing error and falling to near certain life-changing injury or death. How thrilling! As Nigel Hartley once proclaimed, "this is the s#*t!"

An extremely quick descent followed and, before I could contemplate it, the adventure was over. Sitting on the bus back to Moshi I discussed summer plans with the porters. They were due to head back up the mountain just 2 days later. Make no mistake, this was a lifetime achievement for me. Climbing Kilimanjaro had become an everyday thing for them. And here is where naïvety comes back into the fray.

I was naïve not to realise that I could go to a place like Africa, climb a mountain as special as Kilimanjaro and not learn something; or at the very least be affected by the experience.

The mountain is a great leveller: out there, everyone is equal. The only thing that separates people is their ability to climb, their mental toughness, their fitness levels.

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Coming back to ground zero and leaving the freedom of the mountain, I was glad that I was only making a temporary home of Moshi. I’ve never experienced such poverty.

From Kilimanjaro you can see Mount Kenya, a magnificent mountain and Africa’s second highest after Kilimanjaro. Not one of the porters or guides had ever passed into Kenya, let alone climbed its highest peak. This is despite the fact they were relatively well off when compared to their countrymen.

That has, unexpectedly, left a mark on me I’m still struggling to verbalise. Prior to the trek, I often got annoyed with myself for being over-enthusiastic, for being too full-on.

Growing up, my parents struggled to control and discipline a child they assumed had a mild form of ADHD. In other words, I appreciate that sometimes I can be a pain in the arse, not realising when to stop and relax.

Chatting to Sam and the other guides, I realised that I am more than fortunate to be able to say yes to every challenge and experience I can put my hyper-little-self through.

The most striking lesson I learned is that you should say yes, simply because you can.

Reader, I therefore put it to you: if you ever get the opportunity to climb this symbol of freedom, please do, simply because you can.

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Alex Quayle (RRC131)

Alex and Oliver climbed Kilimanjaro to help raise funds for Save the Children. At the time of writing, the total amount raised is more than £3,200. If you would like to donate to Save the Children or learn about some of their amazing work both here in the Manchester region and globally, please have a cuppa with Alex who’d be more than happy to chat it through with you.