Photo: Stig Nygaard
1. You are going to lose all self-respect and dignity.
Before you even get going on day one, believe me when I say that all hope and dignity that you might have salvaged from the bottom of a litre of Jack Daniels is going to go out the door. During the long-haul flight to Tanzania, you’ve likely already had the shits and your hiking buddies have captured a video of you snoring louder than your granddad for four hours.
It’s only going to get worse from there — you’ll be washing in your undies out of a bucket in a campsite full of people and everyone will know all about your bowel movements and crazy anti-malarial nightmares. You’ll soon be pulling your trousers down around your ankles in barren mountain wasteland, with nothing to hide your bare body but a half-dead tree. You also won’t care, after all, you are wild mountain (wo)man now.
2. Elevation’s a bitch.
Mother Nature is a cruel mistress, and she’ll knock you down when you least expect it. Most likely at 4,000 metres AMSL when you can’t even scrape together the energy to eat a roast potato without vomiting. It doesn’t get everyone, but you can be the fittest, most active super-human in the world and still be struck down with nausea, killer headaches, and even madness. Arm yourself with more water than you need, and when the porters tell you to poli-poli (slowly-slowly) really do go slowly slowly, it keeps that altitude sickness at bay. Unfortunately, if it gets you bad, the only way to make it stop is to head down.
There are certain drugs you can take to stave AMS (acute mountain sickness) off, but they of course come with side effects. Don’t get too excited, this isn’t the Inca Trail and you won’t be given coca leaves — shame — but prescription tablets called Diamox from the doc. Trial them at sea level, and see how many times you have to pee. I’ll give you £20 if you beat my 8 times an hour.
3. Distance is just an illusion.
As a general rule, if your next stop looks like it’s about 30 minutes away, it’s more likely to be two hours. If you ask a porter how far camp is, he’ll tell you 20 minutes. He is lying. It’s three hours, minimum.
4. This is going to be the last time you’re ever okay with rice.
Now don’t get me wrong, the food on Kili is just what you need — stodgy, full of carbs and sugars, hot and covered in the sauce we like to call hunger. But after a week of eating rice, you really don’t want to touch the stuff again. Until you opt for a takeaway curry when you get home, that is.
5. The Lion King is going to become your jam.
Hakuna matata actually does mean no worries in Swahili. Simba means lion and Rafiki means monkey. Who’da thunk it? Kudos to you, Disney.
6. Maximum respect will always go to the porters.
The wonderful men, the porters of Kilimanjaro, really do earn your maximum respect (and not just because they’ll make you sing it with them). They’re up before you in the morning and wake you up with a cup of tea in your tent before they carry everything, including the kitchen sink, at a running pace to get past you and set up at the next camp before you’ve even had lunch. While you’re huffing and puffing and feeling like your legs are made of lead, they’re bounding up rocks and laughing and singing the whole way, with the weight of your world on their backs. They wear flip flops and hoodies, not hiking boots and down-jackets. They are the most humble people I have ever met, with the biggest smiles that stretch from ear to ear who teach you that hakuna matata really is a motto to live by. Maximum respect, indeed.
7. Summit Night: that’s all you need to think about.
Summit night is something else. Emerging from your tent at 9pm to have dinner for breakfast after going to bed at 2 in the afternoon is disorientating at best, but when you get going, the whole ordeal lingers somewhere between hell on earth and the most boring 10 hours of your life. Hour after hour after hour after hour of trudging up-hill at a snail’s pace, with nothing to see but the ass in front of you slowly growing icicles and a trail of head-torches zig-zagging towards the sky. You can’t drink because, well, it’s -30C and your water has frozen. You can’t eat for the same reason. You can’t carry on walking because it’s just so damn horrible but you also can’t stop for fear of getting hypothermia. Hours without words. Hours without being able to breathe properly. Everything hurts, everyone is silent. But the comraderie between your fellow hikers is what keeps you going — you may not be speaking to each other, but there’s always a hand to hold or a square of chocolate popped in your mouth when you need it most.
8. Uhuru Peak is going to be busier than the Eiffel Tower in summer.
You’ve made it. All the way to the top of Kilimanjaro — 5,895 metres above sea level and you want your picture taken at that damn sign to prove it. But you’re gonna have to fight for it — those pictures you’ve seen of a deserted summit are not the truth. The queue to the sign is really long, moving at a manageable pace for your altitude level, but long all the same. People get really grouchy, will shout and will try and stop you getting your picture taken, but don’t stand for it. You’ve earned this.
9. But it’s going to be worth every step.
It’s tough and you smell, you’ve pushed far beyond any comfort level you thought you had and all you’ve done is think about pizza for seven days. You’ve shared a tent smaller than a public toilet cubicle with someone who smells just a bad as you and you’ve got so much dirt engrained in your pores you wonder if you’ll ever be clean again. You probably thought about giving up and wondered over and over why on earth you willingly put yourself through something so horrible. But when you finally reach that summit, when you finally break over that ridge and see the curvature of the earth and the sun rising over Africa, you know it was worth every painful breath and pus filled blister.