Kilimanjaro diaries: Pushing the limits

An ecstatic Mahendra Vakharia, Managing Director, Pathfinders Holidays, talks about his latest achievement of scaling 5895m Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, also among the world’s highest volcanoes, and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

Last year we had an opportunity of arranging a dream itinerary for our clients. They visited Rwanda to do Gorilla Trekking, then arrived into Tanzania to climb the 5898m Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest free standing mountain in the world, followed by enjoying a wildlife safari in Tanzania, and ending with resting the tired body on the golden sands of Zanzibar. This set my mind ticking and I said to myself, why should I not climb the Mt. Kilimanjaro? I shared this thought with my friends in Mumbai and incidentally they also had the same idea over a cup of coffee and so the journey to climb Mt. Kilmanjaro began. By no means we are professional hikers or experienced in high altitude trekking, but that did not deter us a wee bit from going ahead with our plan and convert this dream into reality. On Feb 22, 2017, I along with my friends Sunila Patil, Director, Veena World, Renuka Natu, CEO, Travel Representations and Manu Kashyap, Director, Windmill Holidays reached the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport to board Kenya Airways flight to Kilimanjaro with a lot of excitement and nervousness. We reached Kilimanjaro at midnight, met with our friend, guide and Kili Climb Operator, Genes Shirima of Lava Rock Adventure, and settled into a comfortable hotel for the night. The next day was spent with Genes to understand the route, get medical examination done for oxygen and pulse with important instructions on dos and don’ts during the climb. Also the hiking gear that we were to carry on the mountain was all inspected, checked and packed into our duffle bags and backpacks all ready for the start next day.

The Mountain beckons
On Feb 24, we assembled at the starting point – Machame Gate, where we completed registration formalities, filled our water bladders, organised our backpacks and were ready for the strenuous climb full of energy and rigour. Climbers are required to drink at least four litres of water every day. We took the Machame Route for the climb as it is one of the most scenic routes to Mount Kilimanjaro and popularly known as the Whisky Route owing to its difficulty in nature compared to other routes like Marangu. The route gave us the opportunity to experience the Rain Forest zone, Moorland and Heatherland zone, Rock Garden zone caused by the huge volcanic lava rocks, Alpine zone, and semi-desert zone till we reached the Uhuru Peak @19,341 feet. During the course of the climb, we gained height on the mountain and stayed at different camp sites at different altitudes. Due to the sheer beauty, challenge and adrenalin rush I’ll never forget the terrain of our trek on Day 3 when we climbed to the Lava Tower with its majestic rock formations, and Day 4, when we climbed the Barranco Wall – the highlight of the Machame Route. Highlight of the day was crossing the ‘Kissing a Rock’ where we had to literally scrape our cheeks on the surface of the rock and “kiss the rock” so to speak to be able to cross it. A fall from here would have landed us few hundred feet below on massive rocks and boulders. We were hiking and trekking for 6-7 hours every day. Our climb operator and ‘saviour’ Genes altered the plan and instead of starting the climb at night we decided to start the trek during the day itself. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we avoided the biting cold of the night.

Feb 28: Fantastic Four reach Uhuru Peak
There is a famous saying, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough gets going’. At this stage mental strength took over physical tiredness, pain and exhaustion as we pushed ourselves to continue trekking to our destination. ‘No guts no glory’ was best understood today. Reaching Stella Point at 18,885 feet renewed our energy and resolve to trudge on to the summit which we could see clearly shining in all its glory from here. The view of the massive Rebmann Glacier to the left of the summit was sheer joy and a sight to behold.

At the pinnacle
Finally, the few moments at the summit holding the Indian flag in my hand, were the finest of my life and for all of us. At this altitude, being exposed to thin air and hardly any oxygen, was enough to numb our senses and so began the descent from 19,341 feet of the summit to our Barafu camp at 15,000 feet, in a span of two hours in the biting cold, the descent was actually more challenging than the climb. Reaching the camp and removing the shoes is the only thing I remember before crashing into my sleeping bag for the night. It was only the next day I remember the feeling of ‘Yes. I did it’ finally sink in. Next day was spent in climbing down to Mweka Camp – the last camp on the Machame Route. This is a melting pot of climbers from different routes of ascent. The last morning in the mountain was heavy with emotions as it was time to bid farewell, and we then headed to Moshi town to collect our luggage. A flashback of the peaceful time, the tranquillity and serenity of the mountain was shattered the moment we connected with the outside world, thanks to the digital technology. Last night of the trip was well spent at the luxurious Arusha Coffee Lodge, and the joy of hot water bath after a week was worth much more than gold. The courteous staff at the lodge lifted our spirits with some dance and music as they celebrated our climb. Our meal at the Bomay Spice Restaurant in Arusha, after 9 long days, concluded with a glass of chilled beer aptly named Kilimanjaro Beer in the pleasant and cheerful company of Sangeeta Solanki from Sense of Africa. Return journey on Kenya Airways flight was spent catching up on some sleep before arriving home to the comfort of family and friends. Thank you Margi Patel and Karan Vakharia for believing in me, supporting me unconditionally and also for being my biggest critic.

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