KILIMANJARO, Tanzania—From a distance, Kilimanjaro looked like a Bundt cake with white icing drizzled haphazardly over the top, as if I could reach out and sneak a taste; after all, I’d come to devour it.
The day we were to start our seven-day trek, we drove over two hours from our Arusha hotel to the Machame Gate, and at some point the mountain disappeared from sight. Where’d the top go? I wanted my eyes on the prize.
I flipped to my prior day’s notes. We’d been briefed on what to expect and then gone on an easy enough acclimation hike on Mount Meru, a dormant stratovolcano. The day’s reflections read, “I need to chill. Relax on pacing: This isn’t a competition.” Need to chill I did: Climbing Kilimanjaro is not about racing to the summit, it’s about what you see and learn about yourself along the way— lessons that may come to you months later.
It had been a particularly rough year of brain injury rehab and several major surgeries when I decided to “go climb Kili.” It was an amount of slowing down—physically—that I could barely handle mentally. Somewhere along the way I remembered that walking up big tall mountains was something I’d always wanted to try. The pictures looked stunning and seven days on a mountain like Kilimanjaro would offer some “me time,” right? Also, I figured doing something athletic would make me feel like my old uber-athlete self.
Prepared to purchase a few days of peace at any cost, I booked my first hike since high school with travel company Abercrombie & Kent. To be clear, this “sport” ain’t cheap. The gear is expensive but it does keep you alive after all, and then there are the flights.
Also, whether seasoned mountaineer or newbie, one must use a guide service to climb Kilimanjaro. It’s the law. Services vary in price and amount of coddling provided, and this is what makes Kili such a great place for those with big-mountain dreams to start: A seasoned guide oversees the trek and makes all the critical decisions.
On the Climb
Early on, I turned my attention to the others in my group. Our guide, Dismass, had a summit success rate much higher than the mountain’s overall rate, and after unofficially interviewing him, I decided to trust him implicitly. Our group of eight climbers was comprised of two 50-something married couples, one with their 21-year old son, the other couple calling Kilimanjaro yet another one of their “S.K.I. trips.” (That means, “spending kids’ inheritance.” Fascinating concept.) The remaining three of us were 20 and 30-something solo female travelers. We quickly bonded, and at the end of day one, we enjoyed dinner at Machame Camp as if we’d known each other for at least a week.
As we plugged along from camp to camp those first few days, save for the views, I only felt calm while taking in the vistas. (In hindsight it wasn’t calm. I was awestruck.) Otherwise, I was focused on deep breathing and drinking water, which helps combat acute mountain sickness. Slightly paranoid because of my coordination and balance problems, I took to looking down at my own foot placement, messing with what I’d determined to be my only source of solace—the view. Trying to manufacture the om state of my dreams was frustrating. Early on, I was deemed the most talkative of the bunch. Wait? I was talking?!
Our daily march into a new camp was met by the porters and cooks singing the Jambo song:
Tembea pole pole. Hakuna matata!
Utafika salama. Hakuna matata!
Kunywa maji mengi. Hakuna matata!
Walk slowly, slowly. No trouble!
You’ll get there safe. No trouble!
Drink plenty of water. No trouble!
I enthusiastically took to the daily jingle. As I recall, I’d smile and try to sing along, but actually, I was clapping and dancing, twirling even, with shrieks of delight, prompting those around me to join. I know this because I saw it on video later; I was not aware of my exuberant behavior.
Looking Too Hard in the Wrong Places
I hadn’t naturally gravitated towards my preconceived notions of peace. I’d found it, unbeknownst to me, while fully consumed in the moment.
Not being able to embrace the peace and quiet and self-induced solitary time I’d come for, I was comforted by the knowledge I’d made new friends. Walk slowly, we did. Get there safely, we did. Drink plenty of water, we did. At dawn on day six, our group stood together with Dismass on the Uhuru peak, in front of the iconic sign posted on the summit.
I separated myself from the bustle of the rest of the world, forgot my problems, and found a way to “just be,” without judgment. It took drastic measures for me to realize that sort of lightness can exist. I recommend climbing Kilimanjaro for the views, an opportunity to push yourself, and for the feeling of accomplishment. But the peace that I had to leave the country to find, you can find it anywhere.
Amanda Burrill sees through an adventurous lens, typically focused on culinary and travel. Her education includes a bachelor’s in archaeology, a master’s in journalism, a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, and wine and spirits credentials earned while living in Paris. She is a U.S. Navy veteran, Ironman triathlete, high-alpine mountaineer, and injury connoisseur who ruminates on UnchartedLifestyleMag.com
Africa’s Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s Seven Summits and the world’s largest freestanding mountain. The best months to climb are January, February, and September. There are several routes to the summit and not every service guides every route, so choose accordingly. The route I took, Machame, is known for being very scenic, and because the mountain creates its own climate, ascends through five different climate zones starting with rainforest and ending with the arctic zone.
My Rookie Mistakes to Avoid
1. Tying boots too tight or layering on too many socks actually cuts off circulation, making your feet much colder. Two pairs of socks, max, and a moderate lace-job are key.
2. Skimping on a reliable day pack will leave you with sore shoulders. While a Kili day pack only weighs 20–30 pounds, a dedicated 30-liter mountaineering pack with wide shoulder straps and belt to distribute weight to your hips will make a world of neck and back pain difference.
3. I brought my military-issue sleeping bag, rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit and entirely too huge for my frame because I didn’t want to purchase an expensive bag. I also wore all my layers to bed inside the bag and still felt cold. Splurge for the 0-degree Fahrenheit bag in your correct size. A too-long bag is OK if you intend on stuffing it with clothes.