How Not To Climb A Mountain In Africa
I’ve so enjoyed reading about Lynne’s successful mountaineering exploits in recent editions of ‘What’s On’ that I’ve decided to (figuratively) put pen to paper to tell you about a spectacular failure.
I have to take you, dear reader, back to East Africa where Lynne had her successes on Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro before she went further afield to the Himalayas.
The failed adventure in which I was initially a willing participant was to scale Mount Meru, a more modest 4,562 meters high lump of a collapsed former volcano which is located in northern Tanzania, a distance of some 70 kilometres from the aforesaid Kilimanjaro which peaks at some 5,895 metres.
At this point some background context would be useful. The year is 1964 and the country, then called Tanganyika, had gained independence from the British a year or so previously. I was with a group of some 40 young people. A week or so previously we had arrived at an agricultural training school in the town of Arusha, to spend three weeks on an intensive Kiswahili language learning course prior to being dispersed across the new nation as volunteers engaged in diverse development related activities.
Mount Meru, some 20 miles distant, loomed large behind the school. Of course we were all young and enthusiastic and all equally determined to pack as much of Africa as possible into our time there.
The plan was apparently simple, and we were advised by our teacher it would be as follows: be driven to the foot of the mountain on a Saturday morning, walk up towards the summit all day following a track through the lush tropical forest, find a hut to stay the night and on the Sunday morning strike off to the summit on the now gravelly / rocky path.
So, on that fateful Saturday morning we all set off aboard the school’s ex-army canvas sided flat bed lorry with a lot more enthusiasm than we had suitable equipment or preparation.
The first bit of the ascent was easy as we ambled through the coffee plantations on the lower slopes as we exchanged our newly learned greetings of “Jambos” and “Habari ganis” and “Habari za kazi” with the farmers tending their coffee vines on their “shambas”. Leaving the farms, the ascent started to get steeper and the surrounding vegetation somewhat denser, but we were following a sort of path and the spirits were high.
Then we found to our dismay that we were no longer following a path. But what could go wrong? As long as we kept ascending we would be going in the right direction! Remember, the forest was fairly dense and we didn’t really have a clue as to the direction we should be going. Apart from “up”. But as we progressed “up”, we would be met by a steep “down” into one of the many ravines that radiated out from the peak. And so on and on until both darkness and exhaustion overtook us without the possibility of reaching either the elusive hut or indeed any other semblance of shelter.
So, somewhat dejected, we decided to do the best we could to spend the night in the forest, lulled into a fitful sleep by serenading sounds of Africa all around us, only to be sharply awakened by various scary and unidentified animal noises.
We survived the night and next morning we started to retrace our steps back towards civilisation, up and down again across the steep ravines. Eventually we emerged from the forest into the coffee growing “shambas” to be greeted by the farmers with a cheery “Habari za safiri?” (How is the journey?). East African polite convention dictates that a negative answer is not given to such a request for news and the correct response is always “Nzuri sana” (Very good indeed). Whereas, under our breaths, we were actually saying “Mbaya kabisa” (As bad as it can get)!
So, late that Sunday evening we returned to the school, footsore, tired, starving, but happy in the knowledge that in our first week in Africa we had not only been lost in the forest, but we had been able to practice some of our newly acquired Kiswahili in real life situations!
As an end piece I would add that a year or so later I did climb to Gilman’s Point on Kilimanjaro as part of a properly resourced “expedition”. On reaching that summit I had never been as cold and tired as I was that day, nor in my subsequent 55 years. In those days before the onset of climate change there was certainly a lot more snow and ice on the summit than is present today.
A further footnote. In preparing for this piece, I did a bit of googling and found the following:
Mount Meru is a serious three to four-day trek and although it is often used as a practice run by those hoping to summit Kilimanjaro, the smaller mountain is actually the more technical. A guide is mandatory on every trek and there is only one official route up to the summit. The route is well marked with huts along the way offering simple, comfortable beds. Unofficial routes on the west and northern sides of the mountain are illegal. Acclimatization is important, and while you won’t need oxygen, spending at least a few days at altitude before attempting the climb is highly recommended.
Well, in the light of this, we never stood a chance did we?