The white glint of the icefield sloping steeply above and below us was the only Clear thing in the dark of the moonless African night. Our torch beams - some wavering as batteries bought 'new' from a Tanzanian shop ran low - only made the ice look more slippery and treacherous. We had known that the final ascent to Uhuru Peak could be dangerous - but only because of the possibility of altitude sickness; no-one was prepared for this, Three women in our party had already ventured onto the ice., and found it as as slippery as it looked They showed signs of panicking, and our guides told them to keep still. One didn't ,and started slipping downwards; there was almost disaster before they got her safely back onto the rock.
Had it been a terrible mistake to choose to take Arrow Glacier up to Uhuru Peak, instead of the safer but less interesting Marengu or Machame routes? It was not too late to go back, although this would almost certainly wreck our chances of summiting Africa's highest point. We left the decision to our guides. They deliberated a few minutes in Swahili; then it was decided to go on. However, we took a route that kept us on rocks rather than ice. Encouragement came in the form of torch beams on the lip way above us: a group of Stellenbosch students who had left the final camp an hour before us. (They later told us they'd been praying for us when they saw our parlous situation on the ice.)
We struggled upwards; awkward rocks and me biting cold caused discomfort, but the sense of life~threatening danger had gone. The guides chanted Swahili praise songs - mentioning Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and Bafana Bafana among their own heroes - to keep our spirits up. They advised anyone who tried to take a tricky rock too quickly "Poleh, Poleh” - slowly, slowly. At one point we had no choice but to cross the glacier, but footholds hewed in the ice by the Stellenbosch group made this safe. To ease matters, it was beginning to grow light: we had long since given up all thought of reaching the summit in time for sunrise, the main reason for starting at two in the moring. The glacier 'ended' in one lip, but then came another and another; I counted five, but then at last we came out on the final plateau. We hugged each other jubilantly, even though we could see an outcrop before us rearing some 300 metres up into the air. This plateau was like the top of Polly Shorts in the up Comrades Marathon: we knew there was more to come, but the worst was behind us ,and we knew now we'd make it.
The plateau was Kibo Crater, revealing Kilimanjaro‘s volcanic origins. We walked confidently across the grey lava ash. A Oath led up that final outcrop, with a rocky lip to scramble up at the top. The altitude, around 5 500 metres by now, was biting: you had to stop and regain your breath after every rock scrambled, or ten paces uphill. And then we were on the very final plateau: first some kind of wind indicator, and then about 400 metres away the signboard proclaiming Uhuru Peak. Three of us joyously ran the last 50 metres to the board- probably risking a heart attack at that altitude - so I can say I've run at almost 6 000 metres. We had made it to the top of ’Kili‘ and the top of Africa - the hard way.
It was almost noon; all the other groups had been and gone at sunrise, so we had the summit to ourselves. And miraculously, the sun was out and it was cold but not unbearably so, perhaps a degree or two below zero. Around us, blue-white ice gleamed on nearby glaciers: now they were objects to admire and photograph, not fear. We stayed at the summit for a good half-hour, a memory to be savoured.
The adventure had begun four days before at Londorosi Gate, where one enters the Kilimanjaro national park (the name's resemblance to a well known South African game reserve appears to be coincidence). We‘d been kitted out in the nearby town of Moshi at a depot run by Zara, a redoubtable lady who also employed the guides, porters, accompanying us (and ran most other enterprises in Moshi, it appeared.) There was no need for Goretex jackets, thermal underwear, beanies or mittens at this stage. We began the ascent at a village called Lemosho. Also the name of our route. All we needed to wear at this point was T-shirts and shorts; this was, after all, the Equator
The initial terrain was certainly equatorial: thick, tangled rain forest , with ferns and creepers and old man's beard running riot amid indigenous trees rearing up like crazy giants: all of it fairly similar to Tsitsikamma, Magoeba's Kloof, Amatola and the other great forest hikes we know. We spotted a colourful bird that in South Africa we would have identified as a Knysna Loerie: the local name, according to our literature, was Harttaub's Turandot, doubtless a close relation. There was also a black-and-white monkey scurrying in the treetops which we thought might be a colobus.
As we hiked upwards, we got to know our escorts. There is a strict hierarchy, reminiscent of the Sherpas and others in Nepal: it goes Chief Guide; Assistant Guide; Cook; and Porters ' What the staff did for us was a revelation. They set up camp each night for us, including a large mess tent inside which meals were served. We sat down and were brought piping hot meals. Each morning we would trek off with day packs only. Soon there would be a call of "Porter coming through!" and they would dash past bearing on the heads, necks and shoulders our kitbags, the tents, cooking gear and all the other expedition ' katunda' - while moving twice our speed with the sure-footedness ofmountain goats.
We camped the first night in the rain forest (in a clearing known as Lemosho Camp), and then hiked on through utterly gorgeous sun-dappled rain forest. Eventually we emerged above it; a mist was rolling in over the sea of trees, and the effect was straight out of 'The Lord of the Rings.' The terrain now became alpine moor, rocky and studded with erica and protea-like plants, very like the fynbos. Rain tell for a while (for the only time on the trip, another of our blessings). We reached a moorland plateau named Shira l, and crossed it. The day turned to evening and we hiked almost 11 hours; 'Endless Day' we called it, but we hadn't seen nothing yet. Eventually we reached Shira Il Plateau and camped there, first signing it an office (A hut in the bleak expanse of the plain). A so-called ranger sold us beers; as in Nepal, the price of refreshments rises with the altitude, by now 2 800 metres.
A much shorter day's hike next day took us steadily upward away from Shira ll Plateau. The fynbos-like vegetation gave way to another type of terrain -lava rock and stone. We gained altitude steadily. lt was still not too cold: we were hiking in tracksuits by now, but not too much else. At the end of the day's march, we reached a formation aptly known as Lava Tower. It was only mid-aftemoon, and four of decided to scale the tower - rock-climbing at 4 200 metres, not something non-mountaineers get to do very often. The top was no place to fool around on, as Chombo (who'd prudently accompanied us) warned: on the opposite side to where we'd climbed up, a precipice fell away to dizzy depths.
A short day's walk the next day took us to the Arrow Glacier camp, about 4 800 metres high and just a thousand short of the summit. The afternoon would be spent there to acclimatise before the summit attempt, which would begin some time after midnight. A glacier with broad ice fields swept past the camp: a couple of brave souls even ventured out onto it Above us rose a forbidding wall topped by jagged lips, something like the Drakensberg's Amphitheatre - but an Amphitheatre streaked with snow and ice. The Stellenbosch group camped near us had one man down with all the symptoms of mountain sickness. A doctor in our group examined him and told him it could cost him his life to spend the night at this altitude, let alone even attempt the summit . He reluctantly took this advice and allowed two porters to help him down to a safer height. The incident only increased the butterflies of apprehension taking hold of all of us. A very subdued group ate supper and climbed into their sleeping bags at dusk, wearing almost every item of clothing ready for a 2 AM start, None of us slept a wink with the tense anticipation of one of the biggest- and longest- days of our lives.
Which of course the next day, Thursday July 6 2000, turned out to be. After that unforgettable half-hour on Uhuru, we were all feeling slightly queasy -no-one who lives below 3 000 will ever quite avoid the effects of the altitude.
We began the long trek down on the opposite side of Uhuru, the last part of the more generally-used Marengu and Machame route. The path along fine lava ash dropped gently and gradually down hiker- friendly gradients - a picnic after what we'd been through. To our right was a fantastic wall of blue~white ice stalactites, something out of the Hall of the Mountain King. Towards dusk, after some 17 hours on our feet, we tottered into Millennium Camp, as new as the name suggested. It was little more than a clearing, but one sight was like an apparition from Paradise: a small wooden *bar* with beers and other drinks arranged on top of it.
The next day, our last, soon brought us back to the rainforest. We slipped and slid and skidded in the slush; every member of the group tumbled to the ground at some stage. The porters seemed just as able to run fully-laden on this surface as any other, they came whizzing past as usual.
After several hours of these muddy manoeuvre's, we found ourselves on a car track of sorts, and suddenly it was all over It had been five days ofdrama and achievement. Edmund Hillary, after his own more daunting conquest, called it 'High Adventure‘. Now we knew what he meant.