Last August a team of seven UCL medical students, of which I was one, set off to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. An action-packed six day climb saw us follow the Machame route, also known as the Whisky Route. We started at the Machame gate (1,800m) and ended at Uhuru Peak (5,895m), before the long climb down. We hoped to achieve the feat in aid of UCL’s Spectrum Volunteering Charity for whom we eventually raised more than £1,500.
As a group of UCL students, the excitement of embarking on a Tanzanian adventure had helped us get through “the dreaded second year”. But despite our months of meticulous planning, arriving at Machame Gate to start our trek felt strangely surreal.
If we needed an antidote to fear, it greeted us en masse: a group of lively porters and guides. This truly was a team expedition; our group included three guides and 12 porters who followed our every step, carrying with them our supplies and equipment. Our head guide Immanuel, or as he had us call him “The Big Joker”, provided us with a bounty of Tanzanian tales and knowledge about the philosophy of trekking and the history of the great mountain.
Perhaps the most fascinating story that Immanuel shared with us was of the origin of the name “Kilimanjaro”. One theory suggests a juxtaposition of the word Kilima, Swahili for “little mountain”, and Njaro, the local tribe name. Perhaps this was the locals’ little joke. I myself preferred the rival theory; Kilimanjaro is merely the European mispronunciation of the indigenous Chagga phrase “Kile-lema-irho”, which translates: “we failed to climb it”. An incompetence to climb matched by incompetence to pronounce, our guides were convinced the second theory held true.
As you can imagine, the stories and songs of our guides turned every trek into a real adventure. For our group, however, it was the language and culture of this inspiring region that played the central role in our trip. We were unanimous in our belief that had it not been for the expert knowledge, patience and genuine enthusiasm of our local guides, we would not have made it. The strange blend of their “Pole-Pole” (slowly-slowly) theory of steadiness and nonchalance in repeating “Hakuna Matata” (‘no worries’) is a convincing yet charming mask. It was a luring cover for their sheer determination and discipline, and an attitude that gradually seemed to rub off on us over the course of our trip.
On my return in London, I most often found myself presented with one of two questions: how on earth did you find toilets up there, and how did the group stay driven each day of exhaustive climbing? Ignoring the first (one becomes surprisingly accustomed to spotting a suitable rock to squat behind), the second drills straight to the heart of our group’s experience. Day by day the geography and climate transformed before our eyes, as did the people we met. The temperate zones changed from vegetative jungle to desolate Moorland to Alpine desert to an icy climb of surrounding glaciers. The mood of the group seemed to echo this metamorphosing pattern; each day somehow seemed both a distinct challenge and a fresh start.
I should mention here that our whole team did in fact make it to the top. In a gruelling night climb it truly was worth the pain! Atop the mountain, our only hope was that despite our comical attempts to triumph in Swahili pronunciation, just maybe our group’s show of bravery and durable optimism had gone some way to dispel the Chagga phrase, “Kile-lema-irho.”