By day two, the world down below already seemed like a distant memory. Time on Kilimanjaro works differently. Clouds roll in then subside like great waves, as if in fast forward, everything is constantly moving, shifting, changing, but the days seem to last forever.
Sometimes I feel as if the only thing that tells me that my steps are actually taking me somewhere is by the ever changing vegetation. By day three we’ve passed through dense, humid rainforest, into open, rolling moorland with long grass that hisses in the wind, then suddenly we enter a sparse world of dark, rocky alpine desert. Just like that – unannounced, as is the onset of the cold, again in stark contrast to time’s slow passage.
The porters move to a different clock – they pass us almost running, carrying both their bags and ours, as well as the tents, camp equipment and so on, which they pack up and set up every day. While I am always gazing up, ahead, looking for some sign of progress, for the summit, willing it to draw nearer, they keep their heads down, focused, as they march ahead. It’s just another day at the office for them.
But as we climb higher and the air grows thinner and yet heavier, we begin to adapt, to understand, to accept. There is something satisfying, therapeutic, about putting one’s foot in front of the other all day. Existence on the mountain is stripped of the superfluities we have grown so used to in the world below. Food, water, fresh air and movement, above all movement – this is our simple religion now. I’m not sure my purpose has ever been surer. Walk until you can walk no further. That is all.
With acceptance the passing of time becomes quicker, fluid, elliptical almost. Hours seem to pass in a brief moment, while my head allows my body to do what it is designed to do, without interference. It returns every now and again when needed, but for the most part it leaves my legs to place one foot in front of the other, and my lungs to draw deep breaths in and out, in and out. Nothing else matters anymore. Night, day, the wind, the clouds, the stars, the moon, the sun. It all comes and goes.
After what might have been long months or mere hours – I couldn’t tell anymore – we reach the summit as the sun is just beginning to rise. I look out across the land below and try to reattach myself to it in some way, but I can’t.
I’m too far away.
Now back at sea level in Cape Town, when I look back and try to remember our climb everything seems to move in fast-forward, and at first I want to tell my memory to slow down so I can catch my breath and take it all in. But if I did, I guess maybe it would all be too much. And despite the speed, there is a stillness and at once a music to the constant flow. What does the memory look like? What does it sound like? A little bit like this: