Taking on the ‘Mountain of God’

Stevie Matthews at Mount Kilimanjaro.
Stevie Matthews at Mount Kilimanjaro.

‘Walk with me, Oh my Lord’ is one of my favourite hymns, but never more so than when I am taking part in one of my ‘adventure runs’.

In 2014 I did not do any such events so I decided to do a trek earlier this year to Mount Kilimanjaro, or ‘Mountain of God’ in Swahili. Anyone who has completed one of the several routes will understand why it is called this: majesty, beauty and a presence.

I chose to do the Machame Route. I would like to say it was because it is regarded as the most difficult. However, I liked the idea that it is also known as the ‘Whisky Route’, (a drink I am partial to).

I got off to a bad start. Having decided to fly to Moshi via Amsterdam, involving an overnight stay, I found myself lost in a famous area where polite ladies do not walk — all I wanted was to find somewhere peaceful to eat the cream and honey waffles I had bought.

Back at Schipol the next day, I joined several hundred others heading off to Tanzania to climb mountains, go on safaris, or continue on for a relaxing holiday in Zanzibar. When we landed very late in the evening the temperature was still 30 degrees centigrade, and an horrendous journey in a 4x4 on a dirt track, in keeping with an extreme rally-cross course, followed.

At a briefing the following afternoon I met my ‘team’ — chief guide, cook and five porters. My team were all Chagga People and Christians, mostly Roman Catholics. My guide was called Barrakka, which translates as ‘Benediction’. He was born on Christmas Day and his mother regarded herself as blessed. He was so wonderful and knowledgeable about the mountain, I felt that I was blessed to have him.

One of the young porters, Stephen, decided to be my ‘waiter’, and insisted on bringing every meal, washing water, etc, to my tent. Each morning he made light work of squashing my Antarctic sleeping bag into its stuff sack — something I could not have done without breaking an arm or leg, or both.

The route started at the Machame Gate, at about 1,800m. I was fascinated by the many porters packing their baskets, all to be carried on their heads. Tents, cooking utensils, food, cleaning materials, baggage, and my own personal toilet tent! How this came about I know not, I was fully expecting to have to use an oxygen cylinder and take my chances with the drop toilet arrangements. Those familiar with mountain trekking will understand what I mean: for those uninitiated, best not to think about it.

Finally, the porters set off, and then it was time for Barrakka and me. Over the next six days I learned just how wonderful those guides and porters were.

Their friendliness, with courtesy, is unlike anything I have known, save in Nepal. Every day, they had the tents set up and a hot, welcoming drink and snacks ready. And always, there was the welcoming Kilimanjaro Song and dance. I did learn it, but most of the Swahili I picked up is now lost on me, save the general greeting, ‘Jambo’ (hello), and ‘N’kuma matata’ (no problem).

In the six days of trekking, I witnessed an amazing variation in flora, fauna and scenery. All ecological zones are represented, from bushlands and cultivated grasslands, through dense rain forests, heath-like, unfertile terrain, an alpine desert with its wildly-fluctuating temperatures, and my real love, the stark, beautiful glaciers and volcanic, snow-capped craters of the summit.

On day three, Barrakka asked if I was bothered by mice. My negative reply produced a relieved smile as he pointed to a beautiful, tiny, green-coloured rodent with strange lines on its back. The ‘tree or rock mouse’, or rather a nest of them, would probably be my companions that night as it is quite common for them to scramble into the tents. Unfortunately, the little creatures are also quite a popular culinary favourite.

Traditionally, the ‘summit push’ starts at midnight or the early hours, perhaps so that we do not see what we have to face.

The day before had been particularly cold and wet, and I found that, unusually for me, I could not eat much in the few remaining hours. This was not good, especially as the porters had arrived late at camp due to the conditions, which meant there was not a great deal of time to rest before the ascent.

The night was beautiful: very heavy frost, clear sky, and an anticipation in the air. There was not a lot of talk from climbers — the odd sob, someone being sick or struggling to breathe, and the sad decision of others not to continue.

About 2.30am, I glanced left and saw the enormous face of a glacier looming like an ice castle; to my right, a faint, sliver of light was appearing in the sky – dawn, and immediately above, a black sky with more stars than I could ever have imagined. I paused for a moment to take it all in. It was His Mountain — and I was on it. I cannot say how special that moment was: even on the summit, I was never so overjoyed and humbled as at that time.

Onward and upward, slipping, clutching at the air when there was nothing else, we climbed on. Approaching the summit was almost a stroll on the flat in comparison to what had gone before.

Uhura Point was by now bathed in brilliant sunshine, albeit intensely cold and windy. There were groups of people who had already summited; all having our unique moment underneath the wooden board with the legend ‘congratulations!’ and taking pictures — a moment of glory.

Barrakka and I shared a cup of steaming hot milk, and made our way back down, assuring others on their way up that it was ‘only a few metres more’.

Barrakka was laughing. He said he was amazed how strong I had been for such a small ‘dada’ (sister) and kept his promise to reveal the meaning of what all the porters had kept shouting at me — ‘Simbaled’, meaning ‘lioness’. I was not sure whether to be pleased or insulted!

The descent was surprisingly hard as it was extremely steep, with seemingly endless slippery boulders and scree, and having virtually no sleep from 6.30am the previous morning, I became increasingly tired.

In a very lonely spot, Barrakka stopped beside a large mound of small rocks: it was a memorial to porters who had died on the mountain, each stone representing a life. Simple, but so beautiful and a privilege to witness.

Getting back to the rain forest and the prospect of snuggling into my sleeping bag for the last time, I felt at last that I had ‘done a good job’.

The final day took us back to Mweka Forest. A certificate of achievement was presented and now it was my turn to give my team their tips and some old clothes. My Gortex jacket and one of the old down ones were a perfect fit for Stephen. Barrakka took the larger down jacket. I also gave Stephen my rosary beads, which had been blessed by the late John Paul II, and for which he had shown great reverence every time he saw me with them.

And so back to Springlands Hotel for a very hot shower and a little local sightseeing to Moshi, the orphanage, Lutheran Cathedral and Christian hospital.

God had permitted me to safely climb His Mountain, and the memories and joy will last forever. He is calling me back to Africa soon, in search of the Ark of the Covenant — Ethiopia, here I come.