Every year, over 35,000 people set foot in Tanzania specifically to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. As the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, Kilimanjaro is a place of myth and legend. Climbing it may not require any technical skills or special equipment, however, the journey is not to be taken lightly, climbers need to be prepared and understand what lies ahead.
This wasn’t my first time up Kilimanjaro and it won’t be my last, but it was the first time I had climbed with a team so passionate about a cause: climbing to raise funds for elephant conservation. The driving force behind the group was Australian zookeeper Bradd Johnston, from the Askari Project. ‘Askari’ is the Swahili word for soldier, and a particularly appropriate word when used in connection to the current urgent need for elephant protection. The funds raised by the Askari Project support the operations of The Tsavo Trust in Kenya, whose pilot, Josh, would also be climbing the mountain.
Many of the group had never trekked before and most had never climbed either. This was going to be a trip that took them out of their comfort zones and made them confront their personal inner strengths and weaknesses – after all, the summit of Kilimanjaro (at 5,895m above sea level) is not only the highest place in Africa, it is also the one of the highest points in the world that can be reached without mountaineering equipment. There are many routes up Kilimanjaro, but we had opted for the seven-day Rongai Route as this would allow the group five days to acclimatise before their final assault on the summit.
After a fairly long drive we finally reached the start of the Rongai Route. Our path wound through towering pine trees and the occasional colobus monkey was spotted. We walked at a slow pace up a steady slope, letting our legs get used to the idea of walking. The only way to tackle this mountain is inch by inch, unless, of course, you are one of the super fit porters who climbs it a couple of times a month. We had 38 of these porters with us, and they sped past us with the group’s luggage, camping gear and water supplies balanced on their heads.
We reached the first camp by afternoon, and the group set about getting comfortable for their first night on the mountain. From my tent I could hear them settling into their sleeping bags and getting used to the idea of camping life. I knew exactly the sort of thoughts that were going through their minds: “Will I be warm enough or should I put on a pair of socks?”, “why didn’t I go to the loo before I got into my sleeping bag?”, “where did I leave the torch?”… finally, the rustling and fidgeting stopped and the group settled down to sleep, serenaded by the sonorous snores from one of the group.
Day two to four
Dawn came on day two and the team were greeted with sunshine and a small bowl of warm water to perform their daily ablutions. Despite probably having slept pretty fitfully, all were in remarkably good spirits. After breakfast we set off for a pretty uneventful day’s journey to Camp Two.
Setting off on the third day, we headed to Kikilewa Camp; a pretty steep climb where the pace started to slow as people began feeling the effects of the increasing altitude. Having told them all that this camp was my favourite and the most scenic, it was a bit disconcerting to watch the mist roll in, hiding the view and blanketing the camp in clouds right up until just before departure time the next morning!
We reached Mawenzi Tarn by lunchtime on day four. In the afternoon I dragged the team off, very much against their will, on a cold and damp acclimatisation ‘stroll’ up in the hills behind the camp, promising them a spectacular view of the mountain and the route we would be taking the following day. Sadly though, the clouds once again refused to cooperate and having trudged for an hour up the hills there was no view to be seen at all!
Day five dawns…
We had a long day ahead of us. We needed to reach base camp, Kibo Huts, as early as possible in order to ‘rest up’ because just before midnight that night, we would be setting off for the summit. After a relatively short, roller-coaster-style walk across the moorland, we had a long haul across the ‘saddle’ – the flat, barren, desolate area between Mawenzi and the Kibo crater. The path to the summit is clearly visible and, for many of the group, it appears terrifyingly vertical… reality starts to set in. The last hour of the walk is a relentless slog as oxygen deprivation for number of the group really kicks in.
Everyone is a little subdued after arriving at Kibo base camp, where we have lunch and a summit briefing. A nap, light dinner, another nap (or at least some fitful snoozing!) and then at 11pm it is time to wake up. This is it! A cup of tea and a few biscuits later, I line them all up and after a few last-minute instructions and motivations before we set off at midnight, zig-zagging up the slippery shale slope.
In the dark, with only our head torches lighting the way, I can hear rasping breaths all around me. It’s a crisp clear night, the stars seem very close and the moon is full. It takes a while for the group to get into ‘climbing mode’: heads down, focusing on the feet of the person in front, not looking up, down or sideways. The cold bites hard – temperatures are between -5ºC and -15ºC. All around I can see the head torches of other groups strung out along the trail like fairy lights.
Plodding on for what will ultimately be nearly eight hours, the team finally reached the top. Unfurling the banners they have brought with them, they pose for photographs to prove they have conquered the mountain and have the world at their feet! Everyone savours the moment. I’m sure they all felt it was hellish at times, and their bodies certainly took a hammering, but they are have achieved what they set out to do, and raised both awareness and funds for the future of the continent’s elephants.
Climbing for elephants
Elephants in Africa are under serious threat, primarily due to large scale poaching for ivory and also as a result of conflicts arising from elephant/human interactions. It is estimated that 25,000 elephants are being killed in Africa every year. This works out at approximately one elephant killed every 15 minutes!
The Tsavo Trust is a Kenyan not-for-profit organisation which works with the Kenyan Wildlife Services. Since its inception in 2013 the Trust’s efforts have helped reduce elephant poaching by 50%. Last year alone their plane flew over 700 hours, covering more than 52,000 miles, monitoring and patrolling the Tsavo area in Kenya. These efforts resulted in the recovery of more than 1,000 snares, numerous poacher campsites being located, 142 arrests being made and 62 poached elephant tusks being recovered.
The trust has a three-pronged plan for conservation in Tsavo: a wildlife conservation project (which includes the Big Tusker project); a community conservancy programme (including involvement with a Save the Elephant programme called the Elephants and Bees Project); and an animal welfare programme, which is a rescue centre for the care, rehabilitation and release of orphaned, injured and sick indigenous small mammals.
The Elephants and Bees Project has developed a programme capitalising on elephants’ natural aversion to bees. The project has come up with a crop ‘fencing’ system, where interlinked bee hives are ‘triggered’ by crop raiding elephants, the bees emerge scaring off the ‘invaders’. An innovative elephant deterrent and a clever solution to potential human elephant conflict, with a remarkably high success rate.
Supporters of these projects were all putting themselves to the test, lacing up their trekking boots and putting one foot in front of another on Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money to support the conservation of African elephants. In the end the Askari Project raised over US$12,000 from the Kilimanjaro climb! Go to the Asakari Project website to find out more and donate.