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An ode to Mount Kilimanjaro: The daunting roof of Africa

Nyaga Dominic It might surprise some that the decision to summit Africa’s tallest and the world’s highest free-standing mountain was far from easy to make. The more I thought about it, the more I experienced an intense build-up of both excitement and fear. While I drew enthusiasm from the prospect of seeing the world from the top of the highest mountain in Africa, I also felt afraid because I knew that mountains are not without risks. Climbing a mountain is a journey that requires careful planning, preparation, and determination, and it can be an intense and emotionally charged experience.

What eventually tilted the scales towards my departure for Tanzania was the overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride that I had experienced earlier in 2022 over the Easter holidays when I successfully summited Mt. Kenya. After the feat, I traveled back home for festivities to join family and friends, and only then did I entertain fully thoughts of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro before the end of the year.

Many famous mountains, such as Mount Everest, K2, Kilimanjaro and Kenya have been climbed by thousands of people from around the world. Throughout history, there are various recurring motifs on mountains’ recreational and sacred nature and their role in shaping cultural and spiritual practices. One is the following: in any story concerning ascending a mountain, the principal character is about to have an encounter with the divine, a way to connect with nature and gain enlightenment. It is also an opportunity to experience new cultures, to reflect on one’s goals, values and priorities, and it can be a powerful and transformative experience.

From a point of view of a terrific historical account by my guide and porters, Mt. Kilimanjaro is an important cultural and spiritual symbol for the people of Tanzania and for many climbers the world over. The mountain is considered a sacred place by the Chagga people, who have lived in the region for centuries, and it is an important part of their cultural and spiritual traditions.

For climbers from around the world, Mt. Kilimanjaro is seen as a challenging and iconic mountain to conquer. Being the highest peak in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world makes it an attractive and prestigious goal for many hikers and mountaineers. The mountain is also located in an area with diverse and varied landscapes which can make the climb especially rewarding and memorable. Many climbers are also drawn to the mountain for its natural beauty and the opportunity to experience the changing seasons and weather patterns as they ascend.

Overall, the cultural and spiritual significance of Mt. Kilimanjaro reflects the enduring human fascination with mountains and the natural world. It is a place that inspires awe, challenge, and a sense of connection with something larger and more enduring than the self.

The way I see it is that mountains are symbolic of the very pinnacle human persons are always striving for in their attempt to climb the ladder of life. Therefore, as an antidote to the implicit limitation inherent in any human being, the pursuit of mountain peaks can be likened to an aim for higher targets in life which, ardently pursued, fortifies one against the vicissitudes of existence.

The journey to the top

Standing on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro is a truly unforgettable and life-changing experience. The journey to the top is physically and mentally demanding, and it takes anywhere from five to nine days to reach the summit, depending on the route taken. Having used the scenic Machame route through the Barranco wall, the ascent is steep and the air is thin, so the body has to work harder to get enough oxygen. The thin air also means that the weather can change quickly and dramatically, from sunny and warm to cold and snowy in just a few hours.

Yet, there are deeper reasons why I was compelled to summit through the Machame route. It is one of the most popular and scenic routes and is a 6-day trek that covers a distance of approximately 40 miles (65 km) round trip, depending on the specific route taken. The route starts at the Machame gate, located on the southwestern side of the mountain, and follows a winding path through the rainforest and moorlands to the alpine desert and eventually to the summit.

As you ascend the mountain, you will encounter a variety of notable landmarks and features, including the Barranco wall, which is a steep, rocky section of the trail that requires some scrambling, and the Lava Tower, which is a large, rocky outcropping that marks the transition from the moorland to the alpine desert.

Other notable landmarks along the Machame route include the Shira Plateau, which is a wide, flat area with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, and the Western Breach, which is a steep and rocky slope that leads to the summit of the mountain.

Overall, the Machame route is known for its challenging but rewarding nature, with stunning views and diverse landscapes that make it an unforgettable experience for climbers.

Interestingly, whether as an experienced hiker or a beginner, young or old, Kilimanjaro offers its first lecture on life through a variety of different regions as you ascend the mountain. Just like spring, summer, fall and winter remind people of the seasonal nature of life, so do the regions within the mountain.

The journey begins in the relatively easy-to-climb lush, tropical rainforest at the gate (base) of the mountain where one encounters a wide variety of plants and animals, including towering trees, exotic flowers and colorful birds. Next on, offering some stunning views of the surrounding landscapes is the moorland zone: a region characterized by rolling hills, grassy plains and patches of heather.

Part of the most challenging zone is the alpine desert which is a rocky and barren landscape that is often battered by strong winds and freezing temperatures. The air is thin, and the weather is unpredictable. Every day before leaving a campsite, the guides insist on warm clothing, good boots and hydration.

But, of all these, the most challenging yet rewarding stretch is one that leads to the summit of the mountain, which stands at an elevation of 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level. Early midnight, a trail of head torches cuts across the darkness through the twist and turns up the mountain.  The going was tougher than you can imagine –  hands and feet go painfully numb, the head pounds, water bottle and devices such as camera battery freeze and nausea gets the better of you.

Those who make it to the top on time for sunrise experience the indescribable golden moment as the sun lights up the glacier and peaks, and the pink sky turns the ground into a glittering carpet of icicles. The view above the clouds is breathtaking, with a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding landscape and the endless expanse of the African plains below.

The sense of awe and wonder that comes from standing on top of the world melts the stinging pain from the extremely low degree and that feeling stays with you long after the descent. A moment of euphoria where hikers are filled with mixed feelings; no wonder many cry happy tears filled with relief, exhaustion and ecstasy. Looking below Africa is a reminder of the vastness of the natural world and the limitless potential of the human spirit.

Concerns about climate change and tourism

Compared to just a few decades ago when Kilimanjaro was covered in a thick layer of snow and ice, today, much of that has melted away. I could not help but realise the melting glaciers as soon as I stood on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The disappearance of the glaciers on Mt. Kilimanjaro is just one example of the devastating impact that climate change is having on our planet. Rising temperatures are causing sea levels to rise, more frequent and severe natural disasters, and the displacement of people and wildlife.

In fact, when I descended the mountain and returned to the busy world below, I read an article from the Voice of Africa which confirmed the fears that struck me as I made it to the last stretch of the mountain. U.N. experts say the ice cap on Africa’s biggest peak, Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, is among the famous glaciers predicted to melt by 2050 because of climate change. But the consequences of inaction on climate change go far beyond the loss of majestic natural landmarks.

Besides the deleterious effects that have been attributed to climate change, my biggest concern is the future of tourism from which the locals predominantly earn their bread and butter. When managed responsibly, tourism has proven to be a powerful force for good, bringing economic benefits to local communities and helping preserve and protect our planet’s natural beauty. With the developing fears, there is a need to develop actions that reduce the carbon footprint to save natural treasures.

However, it appears to me that it is not too late to turn things around. To reduce our carbon footprint and help mitigate climate change impacts, we need to reduce energy consumption and enforce the COP27 agreement to establish a new fund for loss and damage finance.

Lessons

While at the Kilimanjaro International Airport on my way back to Kenya to join the festivities, the kind flight attendants noticed my hiking bag and immediately recognized the reason for the tour. In their ever-radiant style and well-polished Swahili language, they said to me, pole sana ila hongera. Upon departure, I looked at the majestic Kilimanjaro reaching through the clouds, a glittering beacon of African beauty. Many key lessons, including those integral to my love for the law and its beauty, came to mind.

In the legal profession, like in any other field of practice, the hours that go into preparation relate to the art of true lawyering. Going to the mountains mentally and physically unprepared can be likened to a lawyer who is in the habit of arriving in the court having not prepared, expects to make mincemeat of the judge, devastate the opposing counsel and if it is a tribunal, intellectually overwhelm its members in two minutes. It is a recipe for disaster!

Due to the thin mountain air in the high elevation region, one pants heavily gasping for that oxygen we take for granted at the low altitude. In such circumstances, there is a need for teamwork and leadership. With these values, people can work together and support one another to achieve great things. Given the warmth and generosity of the people of Tanzania exuded by a team of porters who carried our gear and the citizens who welcomed us into their homes, I was constantly reminded of the kindness and hospitality that has for so many decades distinguished the African people. Their welcoming spirit is a constant reminder of the importance of treating others with respect and compassion, no matter where we come from or what language we speak. That, as Natasha Muhoza says, treating others kindly is not an act of charity. In reality, no difference exists between us all.

Perhaps the most profound lesson I learned during my time on Mt. Kilimanjaro was the power of the human spirit in the face of struggle, determination and perseverance in life. The climb was far from easy, and the temptation to give up was always a lurking predator. However, at the end of the day, the sense of accomplishment and personal growth that comes with tackling such a challenge is truly life-changing.

But beyond just the personal growth and sense of accomplishment, there is so much to be gained from immersing oneself in the beauty and majesty of the natural world. The stunning vistas and breathtaking landscapes of Kilimanjaro are a testament to the incredible diversity of our planet and a reminder of the importance of preserving these natural wonders for future generations. In a world that can often seem narrow and insular, a journey like this can help to open our eyes and hearts to the vastness of the world around us. It can help us to see ourselves as a part of something bigger and to feel a sense of connection to the planet and all its inhabitants.

Conclusion

Would I climb Kilimanjaro again? That is a question that must contend with the prospects of Mt. Everest and other adventures that are yet to be ticked off the bucket list. Like any challenging activity in life, climbing a mountain offers an opportunity to reflect: to examine life beyond the mundane, self-seeking, and impulsive nature that may withdraw one from achieving that which one holds in the highest regard. It is a way of testing human limits by challenging them physically and mentally; a sheer attempt in giving up what is weak and unworthy.

Overall, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro can be a deeply personal and rewarding experience that offers the opportunity for self-discovery, growth and accomplishment. I encourage others to consider summiting a mountain, whether it be Mount Kilimanjaro or any other peak. The sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that comes from reaching the summit is truly unparalleled. For me, the lessons I learned – on resilience, perseverance, and the power of the human spirit – will forever be engraved and continue to inspire me to take on new challenges and positively impact the world. It is a clarion call to strive to be stewards of the natural world and work to preserve it for future generations.

Nyaga Dominic is a Kenyan Lawyer based in Nairobi and the Editorial Researcher of this publication. He can be reached at dominic.nyaga@strathmore.edu/nyagadominiclaw@gmail.com

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The Platform for Law, Justice & Society is published by Gitobu Imanyara & Co every month principally to offer a platform for informed and critical discussion of the National Values and Principles set out in Articles 10 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya.

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