Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
I lifted my head gingerly and craned to see my foot at the end of the table. Sticking out of it were six or eight long needles. A peculiar sight, and an even more peculiar feeling. I had been told that acupuncture didn’t hurt. I disagreed. Those needles slipped into the outside edge of my right foot had certainly hurt on the way in, throbbed a little while I waited for them to work their magic, and were exquisitely painful in the drawing-out process. I admit I yelped a little, but not too much. At this point in time I was willing to try anything to cure a stubbornly persistent case of tendonitis in my right foot. In one week I was flying to Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. It looked like I’d be limping all the way to the top.
This is the story of an unlikely undertaking. I call it unlikely because I am an unlikely person to try to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. I’m over fifty and took up adventure trekking only five years ago. At school I avoided sport. I worked in a sedentary job for nearly thirty years. So what happens when an inexperienced fifty-something (but young at heart) female tries to climb the highest mountain in Africa? How does the lack of plumbing, the sleeping on rocky ground, the weird effects of altitude, the physical struggle and the mental challenge affect her? What is it really like to sleep in a jungle with monkeys and possibly an elephant? What doyou do about the toilet? And where is Tanzania anyway?
When I excitedly announced that I was off to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, friends and acquaintances usually had a few questions. ‘Why?’ featured often. ‘Where is that?’ also. But most often I was asked, ‘How do you prepare to climb Kilimanjaro?’ It is Africa’s highest peak, at 5895 metres, and no walk in the park. Well, it helps if you are young, strong, fit and motivated, but one out of four (as in my case) is not a bad start. I had made my reputation with my trekking friends as the one who consistently brings up the rear. I had been told that the watchword on Kilimanjaro was ‘pole, pole’, Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly’. This was my forte, and I expected to be very good at that part.
Nevertheless, having trekked at altitude before in the Nepal Himalaya, I was under no illusions about the absolute necessity to be as fit as possible. My conviction on this point was strengthened – to the point of worry – when I received our guide company’s information pack. On almost every page, there were admonitions about fitness. ‘You are expected to be in excellent physical condition. Our expeditions require strength and endurance’ and ‘Kilimanjaro is an extreme, high altitude climb and is often underestimated … You are expected to be in excellent physical condition for this trip.’
I began an earnest fitness improvement campaign about one year out from the climb date, drawing up a detailed, structured weekly regime which included a power walk or short jog each day, swimming two or three times a week, a weights session at the gym with a trainer, gym cardio sessions two or three times a week, and lots of yoga to stretch, relax and strengthen core muscles. I worried that I wasn’t doing enough and struggled to find time for it all, with the swimming in particular falling away.
Stories came in on the email from my fellow trekkers describing their training programs. One guy spent each lunchtime for a year walking up and down the twenty-five floors of his office building in Ottawa, carrying an ever-heavier pack. He called it ‘gasp’ training. Tales came in of bulging quads in the gym, triathlons, mountain climbing, and even exercising while breathing through a straw with your nostrils pegged (supposed to simulate decreased oxygen). I needed to step up my ladylike regime.
I decided to go climb some mountains myself, or at least walk in the bush with boots and a pack. This appealed on many fronts: I would be doing something I greatly enjoy (as distinct from the gym); it would be closest to what I’d be doing in Africa; it would test my gear and equipment; and, best of all, it would feed the soul as well as train the muscles. I boldly planned to do one major walk per month until the climb.
January saw me in Tasmania, my home state, with my Uncle Neil and his grandson Jimmy, standing at the foot of Mt. Roland adjusting our packs. Neil is sixty-eight and Jimmy is fifteen. Mt. Roland is, I suppose, millions of years old, a beautiful blue dolerite mountain that rises over 1,200 metres up from the green and chocolate patchwork farmlands around the little town of Sheffield, on Tasmania’s North-West coast. My mother and grandparents, and Neil too, had been born in the shadow of Roland, and it is an icon in our family. We adore it.
Driving out to Roland takes you through patchwork farm fields where potatoes and hay grow and the occasional flock of sheep grazes. The journey travels along winding back roads, in and out of pine plantations and up over the farm hills until the mountain itself rears in the background, purple and rocky against the soft foreground. As you approach the foothills, the craggy rock face is hidden from view while you find your way through its skirts of rough bush and diminishing farm fields. You draw up at the side of a dusty country road, which ends where a narrow bush track beckons upwards.
There are two alternative routes up – the easy way and the hard way. As to the easy way, you approach the mountain from the southern side and have a long but less steep trek. The intrepid trio (having fortified themselves with a Devonshire morning tea at a country café in the little town of Sheffield, Roland’s closest metropolis) were instead planning an assault on the north face. Here we now stood, I looking like Mallory or Irving as they attempted Everest in the 1920s, with a heavy pack (for training purposes), my trekking poles, and faithful old Scarpa leather boots. Neil had his lunch in a small day pack and Jimmy had a baseball cap. We set off.
Now, this may be the first you have heard of Mt. Roland. It is indeed beautiful to look at, from a distance. But if you ever wish to climb it (and I don’t want to discourage you), consider taking the easy route. The ‘front’ face is steep. I mean really steep. The track that begins in lush bushland that runs right up into the foothills of the mountain is soft underfoot and very pretty, but steeply sloping, so much so that it’s hard to get traction. Neil, who is a fit man, began very shortly to stop and pant alarmingly after every few steps. I wasn’t much better myself, but I was possibly at less risk of a heart attack. Jimmy, for his part, strolled ahead, occasionally waiting patiently for the old folks to catch up. I consoled myself with the thought that, if the need arose, Jimmy could probably scarper down the hill and fetch help in about five minutes flat.
We made our laborious way up through the forested foothills, taking many rest stops. Then the trail mercifully flattened out a bit as it began to traverse across the face of the mountain. We came to some big boulders and climbed up through them. Eventually this became a rock-scrambling exercise – one of my least favourite activities, since I have a poor sense of balance and generally manage to frighten myself witless. About eighty percent of the way up, a long stretch of small, tumbled boulders appeared, heading straight up a gully. I came very close to giving up on the whole enterprise. After all, the aim was to get fit, right? Summiting was really only secondary, right?
I tried bushwhacking a trail through jungley undergrowth to avoid the rock scramble, but nearly lost my way doing that. A bit of ‘cooee-ing’ located Neil, well on his way up the rocks, and I gingerly joined him. Jimmy was ahead somewhere, probably sitting on top eating a sandwich. Heart in mouth and feeling very insecure, I picked my way on hands and feet up and over the rocks and completed the last bit of the trail to the top. Yay!
Fabulous views back down over the agricultural plains and all the way to the sea were our reward. Plus a sit-down and lunch. On top of Roland is a flat alpine meadow. We wandered about a bit, taking photographs to prove we were there, and scoffing at the namby-pambies who came up the easy route.
Then the descent. You always think it will be easier going down, but it so rarely is. Barely had we started down Roland than disaster struck. In front of me, Neil took a slip climbing over some boulders and fell, head first. His glasses shot off and he cracked his forehead on a rock. Jimmy was just ahead and came bounding back, looking worried. I was a little above, and climbed down to the scene of the accident. Together we got Neil to a more or less upright position. We were perched on boulders at this point, there was no track to speak of and nowhere to stand properly. Blood was flowing copiously from the gash in his forehead, but thank goodness he seemed alert and coherent, not concussed. I had a few first aid supplies, and staunched the flow and applied a bit of bandage. We retrieved his spectacles, which had survived intact. No need to send Jimmy for help, thankfully.
Now we just wanted to get off dear old Roland as fast as possible but it took us several more hours to descend. Possibly the most difficult section of all was the steep path in the foothills, which had caused so much puffing on the way up. Descending it was hell. Smooth, slippery dust underfoot made sliding inevitable. I finally came up with an awkward technique of placing my feet sideways. The muscles in my legs took a beating that day, mostly from this descent, and I could barely walk for days afterwards.
The whole excursion took about seven hours but we drove home triumphant, Neil and I battered and bruised in various ways, and Jimmy completely unscathed. He may have found the whole thing a bit boring; he didn’t say much. But I believe he enjoyed the Devonshire tea.