My friend Chan and I went to Aja Monet’s spoken word gig recently and Aja asked the crowd ‘what does vulnerability mean to you?’ For me vulnerability is actively trusting a stranger to save your life. On Kilimanjaro I trusted Dickson to do just that.
The descent of the mountain begins. I had fulfilled my dream. I got to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. And like a runner who just wants to collapse after crossing that finish line, my body wants to do the same. But this is not possible. We have to go down. During the first three hours of the descent, my breathing is extremely laboured and at times painful. It feels like an alien is trying to claw its way out of my chest. I do not understand this as I have never had breathing concerns in the past. A colleague of mine who had climbed years ago said the mountain had also affected her that way. Take deep breaths. Count to ten. I am apologising to Dickson for being so slow. He says ‘pole pole don’t worry’, you are strong, you can make it. He reminds me that I made it to the summit.
Sometimes the well trodden path down is quite clear. Other times, not so much. And there are other paths to choose from. Dickson and I play a bit of a game for a while where I attempt to choose the path he would choose. Sometimes I am right and he says good. Other times he opts for other paths as it would be a route that would be easier for me or it is a path that I did not see at all.
The sun sets. We continue walking down to Millenium camp which I do not think was the original plan . But due to my pace Dickson contacts ahead to let them know that we were arriving. He is in constant communication with Lorien and others, letting them know about our progress and giving them instructions.
This camp is beyond the rocks, beyond the ridge, hours away in the far distance. I am in the middle of nowhere with a man I met only a couple of days ago, with absolutely no-one in sight or within shouting range. And not once do I feel unsafe in Dickson’s company. I trust him completely to take care of me and lead me to safety. He is the consummate professional, sure in his sense of self, knowledge and experience of where he was going. He holds my hand guiding me. At my weakest, his hand feels like my only anchor in my fight to breathe. He tries to distract me from my 90 year old woman wheezing and coughing by pointing out the stars to me. And the night sky was amazing! The clearest I have seen of all the nights. An amateur astronomer’s dream. I could see the milky way and make out several constellations.
Dickson talks, humms at times. At times I try to sing (‘try’ being the operative word). Chronixx ‘Most I’ is the song which came to mind every single time. I pray to my dead sister and brother, my uncle, my grandmother. I pray to them to give me strength. I recall wing chun and my classes with my teacher Raymond and the discipline he taught me. When practicising exercises such as bon sau, lap sau, our arms and shoulders would ache with effort. Raymond would then say when you feel you can not do anymore, push yourself to do ten more. I remember what Raymond says and push myself to walk ten more steps, twenty more steps. I think of every single incident, experience, relationship that has been extremely challenging physically or emotionally I have overcome to draw strength from. I think of my family and draw strength from them. And I draw strength from Dickson, the captain, his ever calming presence, solid as a rock, reminding me that I can do this, I will not break, this mountain will not defeat me. Privately, he may have felt otherwise but he did not communicate this to me in any way. He makes sure I drink enough water, eat, rest.
I have time to seriously look at my life. Am I happy with where I am? With who I am? Who and what is important to me? Who and what adds value to my life and makes me happy? Motivates me? Inspires me? What relationships do I need to put more effort into? And which ones I do not? Do I support my family and friends enough in their endeavours? Who supports me and my goals? What other things do I want to accomplish? Is everything I do just about me or do I help others? Am I always on social media watching other people live their lives commenting, liking everything and sharing nonsense? On that mountain, I vowed to make more changes.
We continue walking. I look at Dickson and begin to think that he is some kind of superhuman. How is he not showing any signs of fatigue at all? We have been walking for what seems like an eternity and this man continues. Initially meeting Dickson, I thought ‘this is a serious, reserved man. He won’t say much’. However, this impression quickly evaporates. I have found that although Dickson appears very serious and he does takes his work seriously, he likes to laugh and is funny! He seems unflappable and has an easy way with his team whom he cares for. He is a natural leader and his team automatically looks to him for guidance and follow his instructions. He trusts in the abilities of his team and lets them get on with it. He is extremely observant and I think it is very much underestimated just how much he observes about people and their true character. His cares for his family deeply and is a spiritual man. By the end of this descent, Dickson is committed to my list of truly good men that I know.
After rocks and boulders, there are trees. I am trying to look for tents in the darkness which would mark Millenium Camp. All I could see are trees and they started to resemble tents. Dickson laughed at me later for that. He calls ahead. We don’t hear any response. But it is late. Maybe they are all asleep. But we can see lights in the vague distance. We walk for another hour. And there it is. Millenium camp.
We started climbing to the summit of Kilimanjaro at 10:30 pm Friday night. We got to Millenium camp at 1:45 am Sunday morning. We had no more than ten minute breaks. 27 hours. DICKSON AND I HAD WALKED FOR 27 SOLID HOURS. Looking back now, I still can’t believe it. In a way for me this is an even bigger achievement than getting to the summit. 27 hours. Damn.
Captain asked whether I was willing to carry on to Mweka camp which was about another 5 or 6 hours walk. I told him,’ if we have to walk any more tonight, you will have to carry me’. We stayed at Millenium. Food never tasted so good! But I couldn’t eat it all. And tea. Dickson is insistent that I drink it all. It’s meant to be therapeutic. I sleep in a bed! Woo hoo! All beit still in a sleeping bag but on a bed! Never felt so comfortable.
I am so conscious of how I smell. No. I don’t smell. Let me get this very accurate shall I? I stink. I stink of Deep Heat and hand sanitiser, baby wipes and over 27 hours of unwashed sweat. Include in that concoction, the various medication I had to take before and during this trip seeping out of my pores. I have not had a shower or bath in over six days. I fall asleep fantasizing of a nice hot power shower. The last I look at the time, it is 2:08 am.
I am woken up at 6:30 am by Dickson after a couple of hours sleep so we can start the descent to Mweka camp. In that time a member of the team Bulbul comes to accompany Dickson and I down to Mweka. He brings up with him Beechams Kelly had sent up. She had heard I was unwell. I wake up, with my quad muscles seriously killing me. It is almost impossible to walk. But Deep heat, stretch. I need to get ready for at least another five hours walk. I look outside the window and with the peak of kili visible, I am able to see where I have come from. The porters in all the English they can muster congratulate me warmly, with big smiles as I have breakfast and on my way to the bathroom. Well done Rasta. One or two called me super rasta and lioness. Funny the names I have picked up on this trip. I don’t feel like a lioness at all or super come to think of it.
Heading down to the Mweka camp, Dickson, Bulbul and I are cheerful. We are walking through the forest and it is a lovely day. We laugh at the last 27 hours. I am teased. Dickson retells parts. How I mistake trees for tents. I retell when I am asking Dickson how much longer. Dickson tells Bulbul that I had wanting to do this for over 15 years and they laugh. Not sure at whether it took so long or this is something I would want to do. My breathing is so much better. Almost back to normal as we descend. This part of the forest is not so quiet. We hear birds. Dickson whistles and the birds respond. He points out to me the passion flower which can only be found on this mountain.
We get to the final gate. I am not sure who is more relieved, me or Dickson. We look at each other, grin and burst into laughter. I take pictures with the plaque, sign the register that I made it, answer questions about my locks and where I am from. Asante sana. I am very happy to have made it too.
I arrive at the hotel. My family had called. They were so worried! They had heard about Kelly on Facebook but there was no mention of me. I alleviate their worries. Yes I have arrived at the hotel. Yes I got to the top. Yes I am ok. Yes I have taken pictures. Yes I will send pictures. Please tell mum and dad in St. Lucia and my uncle that I am ok and I made it. Yes I will tell all the stories soon.
Staff such as Babagi ask if I made it to the top and give me the biggest smile when I say I have. They all seem to be so proud of me. Shower, masseuse. Priorities. The captain Dickson has now become a friend of mine for life.