Two mountains by 12 women in 11 days
MY MOTHER and I peered out into the dark Tanzanian night as we bumped our way along Arusha’s main road. We were about to rendezvous with 12 women in an attempt to scale two peaks in the next 11 days — Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro.
We had been planning for almost a year after being spurred on by my sister, Lisa Marshall, a trainer and co-owner of Wild Women on Top, a Sydney-based organisation which trains women for endurance treks and trails.
The following day, Ilboru Safari Lodge, our base in Arusha, was a hive of activity as we packed and checked gear and reported for our final briefing with The African Walking Company, whose guides and porters would become our family for the duration of our adventure. The bus arrived and we loaded our kit bags, strictly limited to 12kg each, and day packs, groaning with snacks, rain gear, water and walking poles. After an hour’s drive we arrived at the entrance below Meru, where we met our assigned ranger and our head guide, Florence, and his team.
During the first two days along the steep, often rocky trail, we passed through a spectacular forest with prehistoric-looking trees draped in moss and lichen and admired the red-hot pokers. We caught glimpses of Mt Meru as we cooled our feet in an icy waterfall and looked forward to the delicious, hearty meals prepared for us by Trophine, our "stomach engineer".
On the afternoon of the second day we reached the top of Little Meru (3,800m) and gazed across at Big Meru, our next objective; we would start the climb in eight hours.
We were woken at midnight and after a quick breakfast of hot porridge and sweet tea we set off under a clear night sky blazing with stars. It was to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life; a long, energy-sapping climb up a series of switchbacks followed by rock-scrambling and trudging over endless volcanic scree, sand and dust. We reached Cobra Point just in time to watch the sun rise over Kilimanjaro. It spurred us on for the hardest part of the climb to the summit, Socialist Peak, at 4,566m.
The descent was mind-numbing, feet screaming to be released from boots; when we arrived back at the Miriakamba huts that afternoon, we calculated we had been awake for close to 39 hours. We agreed Mt Meru was vastly underrated and deserved more respect.
The first day of our "Kili" trek, after yet another long, bumpy, dusty drive, started at base camp where our 56-man crew was assembled, consisting of seven guides and 49 porters. Such a big workforce is required to cart up all the tents, bedrolls, food, gas cylinders, portable toilets, gear bags, water, medical kits and even eggs, individually wrapped in banana leaves.
It was a comfortable walk to Shira One, through heather and into the moorland, Kilimanjaro ever present on the horizon. From here on our campsites were stark, rocky, dusty and barren; temperatures, much lower than on Meru, made layering essential in the late afternoons.
The hike to Shira Two took nearly six hours, passing through heathers, lobelias and everlastings, all putting on a show for us. Day three began like all the others with a gentle, early morning wake-up call from one of our guides and "beddy tea" — a steaming mug of sweet, black tea consumed while still in our sleeping bags.
A seven-hour hike took us through the last of the heather and into a wasteland of volcanic rock, a climb up and over Lava Tower, down glacier rock and ice and eventually into the valley to the Barranco campsite with a spectacular view of Barranco Wall, which would challenge us first thing in the morning.
But Meru had prepared us well and we enjoyed the steep, exhilarating climb to the top, bringing us even nearer our goal. It was a Sunday and the guides provided a soundtrack to our footfalls with a chorus of hymns on our way to Karanga Camp. Lunch was platters of potatoes, salad, brinjal tempura and vegetable pies, preceded by leek soup — heaven!
Our last short walk was to Barafu Camp at 4,600m — the place of ice — our launch pad for Kili. I managed a three-hour nap, dressed in all my summit layers, before our 11pm wake-up call. It was a moonless, clear night and the whole Milky Way was spread out above us.
With only our head-torches to provide light, we picked our way up the steep slope amid loose slate and rock, the only sound the breathing of those in front and behind. The zig-zag switchback to Stella Point seemed endless and as it became colder, we moved more slowly.
We reached Stella Point (5,735m) at 6am with a palpable sense of relief as we gulped down the lovely black tea and sheltered from an icy wind.
The morning light was beckoning, the glaciers glinting in the sunrise and the sky a gorgeous, electric blue as we made our final traverse across the ridge to reach the summit at Uhuru Peak (5,895m) with the clouds below us and the snow beneath our feet. What an emotional experience it was; an almost out-of-body encounter in an other-worldly space. The cold was piercing as we gloried at the sun revealing our surroundings, which had been cloaked in darkness.
The descent back to the base camp took three hours and we skied down the loose scree using our walking poles. It was exhilarating and dangerous and my chest felt it was about to burst; our eyes stung from the volcanic dust; knees and legs screamed for rest but the body kept going and the mind was filled with the realisation we had achieved what we set out to do.
After a scrumptious lunch at Barafu we began our further descent to Millennium Camp at the edge of the rain forest and that night, instead of sleeping above the clouds, we were wrapped among them as they ghosted into the camp and enveloped us.
Next morning it was time to say "goodbye" to the mountain and to our wonderful crew with dancing and singing to send us on our way down through the magnificent rain forest to Mweka Gate and back to Arusha. After a night of laughter, tears, Champagne, and an amazing Swahili feast, it was time to say goodbye.
As we flew away from Arusha, Kilimanjaro remained towering above the clouds, where we had stood on its peak just 48 hours before.
•The African Walking Company +255 (0) 754 562 151.
• Wild Women on Top: www.wildwomenontop.com
• Ilboru Safari Lodge: www.ilborusafarilodge.com