‘Where is it?’ Orly, my 12-year-old, asked, squinting up through a veil of low cloud.
We still hadn’t seen Kilimanjaro. My two boys and I had set off from Machame Gate early that morning, through the jungle, dwarfed beneath sycamores and twisted juniper trees draped with silver moss. But that mountain, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, remained elusive, a mirage above the clouds.
Far-flung travel is not unfamiliar to the boys. Twice I’ve taken them on year-long trips, to Myanmar, Kashmir, Chile, Cambodia and beyond. I’ve always travelled. After leaving school I spent three years hitching rides through Africa and Asia, and ever since then I’ve made my living as a travel writer, and the boys have grown up with that. It’s our way of life, partly by profession, partly by my desire to show the boys the world. But even for them this trip was special because ever since they were very little, when I found myself on my own with them, I’d told them I’d take them to East Africa, to north-eastern Tanzania, to climb the continent’s highest peak, because sometimes you need a mirage of a utopia in the clouds to hold on to.
Then, at a party, I met Jon Gupta, a passionate mountaineer and world-class expedition leader, who said he’d take us. He’d just led a trip that had broken the record for the fastest seven-summit challenge, and I knew we’d be in safe hands. But still, in the months beforehand, I could feel my courage slipping away. You embark upon adventures with positivity. You have to. You do your research, assess the risks, but sometimes the fear of what could go wrong overwhelms. Then the sun comes up, and the light burns those fears away.
So here we were, a group of nine, a mishmash of characters, walking upwards at a funeral pace with one common goal: a desire to reach the roof of Africa. Porters ran by laden with tents, chairs and bags balanced on their heads, accompanied by tinny rattles from weathered phones; a heady beat of techno, funk and jazz spilling out into the humid air. Then there were our local guides, Michael, Stanley and Bryson, the patrons of this mountain. You could not climb it without them. They were a constant — beside, behind or ahead, singing encouragement. ‘Polepole.’ ‘Slowly!’
‘You are going to climb your mountain,’ Michael whispered to Orly. ‘You are not afraid.’
Michael was the smallest of our guides. They called him Kidagaa, meaning ‘Little Fish’. He called Orly Sana Kidagga, meaning ‘Very Little Fish’. While I strove to keep a steady pace, Orly skipped, splurging energy. Slight and light, he can flip a full somersault from standing, but stillness comes less easily to him. Dow, my eldest, 14, was more head-down and determined. Taller than me now, heavier, and wanting to take on the world. The trees diminished the higher we got and yet, by late afternoon when we reached our first camp at 9,940ft after seven hours of walking, we still had not seen the mountain. Then, as the light faded from blue to a flaming cinnabar, the clouds burned up and, suddenly, there it was: the peak, glistening with snow. It sent rushes from toe to head, with awe and something close to fear. We laughed it off with jokes and ate jelly babies.
The next morning we woke to singing. ‘More fire. More water. More water. More fire.’ This, their mountain hymn, beneath the vaulted skies. ‘We are not afraid,’ they hollered. But I was afraid of failing. Because when you set off to climb a mountain, you desperately want to reach the top.
We walked on, into the endless up-ness, through every scape, from jungle to heath, desert to moon. We were below the clouds, then inside them, finally above, in the clear sun-blushed blue.
Day three was our hardest. We hiked steadily for six hours, up into heathlands of lobelia. Dow was sick as soon as we reached Lava Tower, an immense boulder of volcanic rock that sits at 15,223ft, but still determined, while I questioned the wisdom of continuing. Jon took it all in his stride, a rock of reassurance. ‘He’ll be fine,’ he told me as we descended. ‘It’s common. His body’s acclimatising.’
At camp, I found Orly curled in a heap. ‘I’d rather be in maths class,’ he whimpered, but an hour later he and Dow were up, full of chimp vitality, cramming popcorn into their mouths as we played cards and laughed in the mess tent with the others. The comradeship is vital to trips like these.
We slept in layered thermals that night, hats pulled down over our ears, gloves, two pairs of socks, threads of ice on our breath. An owl hooted. A white collared raven squawked. I woke at intervals to check that the boys were still breathing.
Two days later, after we’d scrambled up Barranco Wall and crossed over that dreaded altitude line again, the boys were fine, buoyant and laughing, despite mild headaches — but we all had those. We stood as a group, smiling out at a setting sun, preparing that night to summit. Moments like that, to be united in a venture that brings out the worst, the best, the rawest, are to be treasured. Most things come too easily nowadays, and in our techno world of heads down, eyes blankly reflecting a silver screen, it’s glorious when you witness your children looking joyously up and out.
We woke at midnight and tried to eat porridge. ‘We’re walking towards sunrise,’ I encouraged Orly, as we headed into this looming shaft of darkness. Behind, there was a trail of tiny lights, shuffling head-torched people, moving upwards.
One hour bled into two, then four, then six, and that was all there was — the determined padding of our feet. We had only the present moment, the wind and the ice coming at us and a half red moon rising in the sky.
Jon skipped back and forth between the group and helped to warm Orly’s feet. It was lonelier when he was not there. We drank ice-slushed water and guessed the flavour of Skittles as the air got colder, hearts pounding, lungs burning. At that height there is little life, save for rocks threaded with lichen. We bowed, clumsy, limbs screaming for sleep.
But when I next looked behind, there was a glimmer of light on the horizon, and moments later that great orb was blazing up from the curvature of the earth. All around, where there had been dark, there was now searing light. It sliced against our eyes.
Orly’s arm was linked in mine. Michael was near. Jon behind, Dow ahead. I choked back tears. But when we came over the ridge after Stella Point, there it was, Uhuru Peak, that place of highest high, where there is no more up. Orly turned to me then, spilling tears, astonished we were there. ‘We made it, Mum!’
What most enthralled, it turned out, when reaching the top of a mountain, was to look back down on the vastness of the earth below, glorious and laced white with cloud, holding the hands of the two people I love most. The boys would always know what it had taken to witness a view as beautiful as that. They could, I thought, call on the hard-fought battle of that upward climb their whole lives long.
Mountain Expeditions leads expeditions up Kilimanjaro for pounds 2,195 (Dh10,300) per person, which includes all food, transfers, permits and qualified leader. Private groups are also possible (mountain-expeditions.co.uk). Fly Ethiopian Air via Addis Ababa, about Dh1,600 per person return.
The Daily Telegraph