Summiting Africa's icy crown

Words & Photos by Kerry de Bruyn |

Trekking to the roof of Africa is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. Climbing Kilimanjaro from the Machame route, the route of choice amongst most climbers because of the impressive views and a variety of habitats it provides, was at the top of mine.

I made a promise to myself before leaving South Africa that I would make the time to write about each day spent on the mountain. I knew it would be tough and I'd probably not want to do it after trekking for 18km uphill every day, but I made myself do it. I also knew that one day I would want to read my notes and relive the experience of being there, covered in sweat, ice, snow and mud. When you have a dream so close to your heart you want to make absolutely sure that no moment is forgotten. This is my account of the climb.

Day 1: Machame Campsite

We woke up in a sauna this morning (what they call a hotel room) and got ready for our journey. After breakfast and a cold shower we were ready to go. Everyone was excited, but didn’t exactly know what to expect. Before we knew it we were packed into a 1940 bus that was falling apart and on our way to Kilimanjaro National Park gate. On the way we stopped at a general store for some last minute sweets and energy drinks, but instead of buying that I was sweet talked into buying a Kili floppy hat. Because I was from Jo'burg and knew of Bafana Bafana I managed to talk the man down to $7, which actually was quite cheap. I didn’t know it then but the hat became quite handy! The next two hours were spent on formalities at the Park's gate and then we met our guide, William, and the rest of our group: Dave, a Canadian tree planter; Anouk, a CNN journalist; and her boyfriend Barack.

We spent the next four to five hours walking through the rainforest. Some hills were steep and others not too bad. It wasn’t hugely tiring and a good start to the journey. The forest reminded me of Avatar, with its huge fern trees and giant yellow woods mixed in-between tumbling waterfalls hidden by the thick bush. Arriving at camp, the porters greeted us with a bowl of popcorn, followed by a three-course candlelight dinner. It was just what we needed. Kilimanjaro keeps hiding behind the clouds and we haven’t seen her in the clear yet. It’s been great so far. Tomorrow is the start of the big climb.

Day 2: Machame Campsite to Shira Huts

We woke up early and were greeted by the sight of the heavily laden snow peak of Kilimanjaro (only for a few minutes). After a breakfast of (again) white omelets, toast and fresh fruit, we prepared for quite a steep part of the walk. William told us the path was short but steep and would take us about three hours. Pole, pole ('slowly but surely' in Swahili) were the words we heard for the next few hours. Stopping for lunch on a scenic ridge, the view was shrouded in clouds and mist, but beautiful nonetheless. What William didn’t tell us was that after lunch we still had to walk up another very steep part of the mountain to reach Shira. Once there we realised how cold it was. Fleece and beanies were everywhere.

From Shira we could see how many people were also climbing the mountain. There were quite a lot, but in different groups of course. The view was spectacular: all the peaks to west of Kilimanjaro. They are so jagged and the way the light sliced 4through the cotton wool clouds and hit the peaks was amazing.
It started raining in the afternoon so we spent most of that time sleeping (I tried to and Dad definitely was because he was snoring). I took loads of photographs today. For dinner there was banana fritters for desert, which were pretty good, but the rest of the food was not so good. Eating the same thing day after day is starting to get to me and I’m not the greatest eater … After dinner the clouds opened up for a few minutes and revealed the beast. It looks unsurpassable. It’s freezing in the camp at -1°C. So an early night it is.

Day 3: Shira to Barranco Huts

This was definitely the hardest day yet. We started out very early after a three course breakfast, which by now none of us want. I felt like vomiting in the middle of the night and Dad almost puked three times this morning. We both took a Diamox so hopefully the nausea goes away. It's been raining ever since we woke up and started trekking to Lava Tower (4600m to acclimatise), where it proceeded to snow. Yay, my first snowfall! It was beautiful! Lava Tower was more like Terror Tower and Dad hated every second of this walk. After reaching Lava Tower we had to walk down a waterfall in the snow and rain, which was not very easy. Our waterproof clothes were not so waterproof either; we were both drenched and freezing for the entire walk to the next camp. Coming down the mountain was the worst; my knees are in pain (we had to come down to sleep low).

After a change of clothes at camp we felt a bit warmer. Kilimanjaro showed her face again, having hidden behind the clouds for the entire day. It made us all feel a bit better. We’re getting closer now.

Day 4: Barranco Huts to Barafu Camp (Summit Camp)

At least it wasn’t raining this morning! We got moving quickly to avoid getting wet and I’m sure everyone had the same idea. Being cold and wet and walking 20km is not ideal. I’m excited now. Tonight we get up at 23h30 and start our ascent to the highest peak in Africa. Barafu Camp is freezing and the wind is howling. Hopefully it’s not this cold tonight … for now I’ll try to get some sleep.

Day 5: (after summit)

We woke up at 23h30 last night. Everyone was quite anxious. I couldn’t believe I was going be on top of Africa that night. It was snowing again, but it didn’t dampen me. I had six layers on my top half and four on my bottom half. Dad the same. I’ve never been so cold in my life.

We started trekking up the mountain, which was possibly the most painful thing I’ve ever done. Walking at a snail pace is the only way to go, as the hills are so steep you can’t go any faster. One step at a time. After many short rests - you can’t rest long as you get too cold and need to keep moving - we stopped at around 03h00. Dad was hating it. After trying to convince him to carry on, he wouldn’t budge and said, “I’m cold, I’m tired and I’m sore!” He wanted to go down and no one was going to tell him otherwise. He trekked back down to Summit Camp while Dave and I carried on. It got colder and harder. Dave and I will never forget the hill to Stella Point. It’s like a never-ending path that just gets steeper. The only thing keeping me going was seeing other people’s head torches getting closer to the top and knowing we were almost there. We stopped for some hot Milo close to the top of Stella Point. It was just what we needed, a little pick me up before the last stretch. Conquering Stella Point felt amazing and knowing we only had a few hundred more metres was even better.

The sun was slowly coming up. I’ll never forget the sight I saw next; the Uhuru Peak sign was in front of my eyes, although still in the distance. It was completely surreal. And the colours on the mountain were unbelievable. On one side the sun was rising so there were purples, pinks, oranges and blues. On the other side the moon was still up and colours of deep purple and dark blue flooded the snow and sky. It's the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Dave and I reached the top of Africa at 06h20. I had made it.