On this sunny, snowy Valentine’s Day morning, I woke to a beautiful bouquet of roses from my love and we baked a chocolate heart shaped cake to enjoy for dinner. As we are still on a Covid-19 lockdown here in Ontario, it’s a quiet February 14th at home with no dinner out or movie to attend.
As I scroll through my Facebook Memories, I’m soon reminded of a Valentine’s Day that was anything but a quiet day at home. In fact, I’m not sure that any Valentine’s Day will ever top the one I had in 2008, while I was living in Kenya. A day that included singing, Valentine date requests and a slaughterhouse. Of all the travel stories I enjoy telling and re-telling, this is definitely one of my favourites!
If you had asked me growing up what my travel goals were, I would have given you a long list, which included travelling to all the continents, visiting all the countries my Grandma had travelled to and more, seeing the wonders of the world, and on and on…but climbing mountains was never something I had really thought much about. In fact, if you had asked if summiting mountains was a goal of mine, I would likely have just laughed—at least until I spent several months living in Kenya, and found myself climbing Mt. Kenya. It ended up being a tough but very cool adventure, and I thought, Well, now I can check climbing a mountain off my life list and move on!
Climbing bigger mountains definitely wasn’t in the plans until some members of the group who I had volunteered with in Kenya in 2008 started talking about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. After debating my plans to never climb another mountain, I decided it would be a great adventure and I’m never one who likes to be left behind or miss out on a great experience…even if it is a challenging one.
So this is how, exactly ten years ago today, I found myself in Moshi, Tanzania, having an early morning cup of Kilimanjaro coffee while waiting to meet our guide and set off on our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We met our guide, Julius, who told us to call him “Whitey,” an interesting nickname for this tall, dark Tanzanian guide. We all introduced ourselves and headed over to the Ahsante Tours office to pick up any rented gear and have a briefing before setting off to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We arrived at the Machame Route Gate, at a height of 1800m, got signed in and met our assistant guide, Benedict, or “Benny.” We took a group shot to mark the start of our trek and by 10:45am, we finally started making our way up the tallest mountain in Africa.
We spent the day hiking and chatting away, something that slowly died down on subsequent days as the air got thinner and our energy levels dwindled. But for now, we were fresh and excited. The setting today felt like hiking through a jungle, with some steep muddy parts thrown in to challenge us.
In between Whitey regaling us with songs, including a soulful rendition of “Hakuna Matata” and laughing and yelling out encouragement to us as we hiked along, I had some questions for him. I wanted to know how many times he had climbed this mountain, and he told me he quit counting at 120. 120?!? For me, once proved to be a challenge. I cannot imagine trekking up and down this mountain well over 120 times. (He is still a guide today, so I can only imagine what his count is now!) He’s been working on the mountain for 7 years, beginning as a porter at 18 years old, quickly working through the ranks to assistant guide and doing all the required training to become a lead guide. He told me becoming a guide was his dream. He grew up in Moshi and spent his childhood looking out at Mt. Kilimanjaro, knowing one day he wanted to climb it. Once he did, he couldn’t wait to bring others up his beloved mountain so they could see the beauty for themselves. We were definitely in good hands with him, and his love for his job and the mountain were unmistakable. He said he feels most at home on the mountain, and when he’s gone, he can’t wait to get back.
Around 5pm, we made it out of the jungle and into that evening’s camp, already set up and waiting for us. After settling into our tents, we met in the dining tent for hot chocolate and popcorn. Then we walked up to the ranger station to check in that we made it through day one, and then Whitey led us in what became a nightly routine of singing and dancing all together with our guides and porters.
This was a team bonding time, which became a little harder each day as our energy waned. But no matter how tired we were, we always mustered a last bit of strength for this fun. A perfect way to end each day of trekking!
The food prepared for each of our meals along this journey was delicious, made even more so by how hungry we were by the end of each day and how impressive it was that they were making pumpkin soup, pasta dishes and tasty desserts on the side of a mountain!
After dinner each night, Whitey came in to brief us on what the following day would entail and ask each of us to share our high and low moment of the day—another great daily tradition of this trek. Bedtime came early each night as we were always exhausted from the day.
“Now I’m in my tent, writing about day one by the light of my headlamp on Mt. Kili, 3000m up. How cool is that? Amazing!” — Journal excerpt
Day two began at 6am with a knock on the tent. “Jambo, good morning! Tea for you!” I opened the tent to find steaming mugs of chai tea waiting, a cozy way to start the morning, still wrapped up in my sleeping bag.
Breakfast was at 7am, before starting the day’s journey at 8am. Whitey told us today would definitely be “Pole Pole,” which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. He had told us from the start this was how we would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and repeated these words often throughout the trek. Pole Pole was certainly the mantra of today as we made our way mostly uphill on a six-hour trek.
We stopped for lunch around 12pm and then made it to camp around 3pm. All day today, the scenery was beautiful. We woke up above the clouds and by lunchtime had climbed above a second layer of clouds.
In the distance, you could see the summit of Mt. Meru in Arusha peeking out from the clouds. We were now up at 3,800m. We climbed up to 3,900m and then back down a bit to sleep and let our bodies adjust to the altitude. “Climb High, Sleep Low” was another mountain mantra that helped us to safely acclimatize.
Tonight’s camp was at Shira Cave, so after settling in, Benny took us up to see the old cave.
“The sunset tonight was incredible, going down through the clouds, behind the hills, and the view of the peak was amazing. It’s so beautiful and peaceful up here. After dinner, once it was dark, the sky was lit up by 1000s of stars. Gorgeous. Tonight was one of the most beautiful sunsets and starry skies I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking!” — Journal excerpt
Once again, day three began at 6am with another steaming cup of chai tea at our tent door. A girl could get used to this kind of wake up…even if it is earlier than I would like!
Another incredible view this morning up above the clouds, with the summit stretching high above us and the sun just starting to streak through the clouds.
Our highest point today was Lava Tower at 4560m, a very cool rock formation created by volcanic activity on the mountain years ago. The tower stands 90m tall and is a beautiful backdrop for a much-needed resting spot by this point in the trek. We went back down to 3950m to sleep.
Every time I’d ask Whitey how much farther, he’d tell me we were almost there. Finally, about nine hours later, it was true! Each day, our singing and dancing ritual got a little more challenging, but still no one could resist celebrating the end of another day of trekking and being closer to our goal of reaching the summit.
On day four, after about 20 minutes of hiking, we arrived at Barranco Wall, a challenging climb up 257m. We went Pole Pole for sure here, trying not to lose our footing. We carefully made our way up this part of the trek, our guides helping us across the tricky parts.
As we got to higher altitudes and trickier spots, we had both Whitey and Benny, plus Francis and Joaquim, two other guides in training, with us at all times to help us along and make sure everyone was still doing okay with the altitude.
Today was when things really got tough. The higher altitudes and steeper parts were challenging and we were moving at a turtle’s pace. Even if we wanted to go faster, I’m not sure many of us could have done anything other than go Pole Pole.
Camp tonight had by far the best bathrooms—still just a squat hole in the ground—but this one had a cement floor, instead of the usual wood. And even better, the contents weren’t up around the top! (Some days it’s the little things that bring you joy!) Whitey gave us a pep talk as part of the briefing tonight and we all went to bed early to prepare for the summit.
We were woken up at 11:30pm to get ready and had hot chocolate, popcorn and porridge. I was dressed in as many layers as I could manage because it was freezing in the pitch-black night this high up on the mountain. We set off just after midnight, with only the stars above and our headlamps to help guide our way. You could only see what was right in front of you, which was likely a good thing, because if I had seen how far and high I still had to go in the freezing cold, I might have crawled right back into my warm sleeping bag!
We took a break about halfway up.
“When you looked out across the darkness, you could see the red/orange line of the sun beginning to rise above the clouds and there was a tiny sliver of a crescent moon just above the cloud line. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, and for a moment, I forgot about being freezing and exhausted and just stared out at the beauty, taking it all in.” — Journal excerpt
The higher we climbed, the harder it got. My muscles burned and near the top, my breathing became more laboured. We made our way through the snow and ice closer to the top, past the glaciers.
Whitey said he’d already seen a dramatic decline in the size of the glaciers in the seven years he had been climbing Kilimanjaro due to global warming. It was still an impressive sight, but I wonder what it used to look like?
We stopped for a tea break, before slowly continuing along the snowy, rocky trail to Stella Point. From there, we only had an hour left to go, but that last hour felt like we were hardly moving, everyone inhaling deeply, trying to get enough oxygen to take our next slow step.
Finally, around 8am, we rounded the last bend in the trail and made it to the summit, 5896m up. Making my way over to the flags and the sign saying, “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak,” welcoming me to the highest point in Africa, I burst into tears, exhaustion and excitement flooding over me.
Even though I wanted to quit at least 100 times today, I had made it. I could check climbing the highest mountain in Africa off my travel list!
Watching the sun rise over the rooftop of Africa is a moment I will never forget.
Those of us who made it to the summit got a group shot and quickly took our photos with the sign. Then, about 15-20 minutes later, we were on our way back down. Such a long way to go for such a short stay, but with the high altitude, we couldn’t linger.
We made it back to camp eleven hours after leaving it, toenails bleeding from the impact of heading basically straight back down, slipping and sliding through the gritty sand. After a nap and lunch, we packed up and hiked another two hours or so to that night’s camp. Today the highs were all about making it to the top and celebrating that victory!
The final morning after breakfast, we gathered for one last dance party before packing up and heading down the rest of the mountain, about a five-hour journey.
Back at the hotel that night, after having my first shower in six days (which was amazing), we met for one last dinner all together and toasted our success with cold Kilimanjaro beers.
Climbing mountains may not have started out on my life’s travel list, but the fact that I made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro remains one of my proudest travel experiences. Standing at the top, smiling through my tears and watching that incredible sun rising to the “Heaven of Africa,” as Whitey put it, is definitely a moment I will never forget.
I always knew I enjoyed a challenge and was not a quitter, and completing this trek cemented that for me. But now I’m seriously through climbing mountains…I think!
For some singing, dancing, hiking and commentary on this beautiful but challenging trek, check out the video below!
Eight years ago, I was making my way up Mount Kilimanjaro. Our days started with a cup of chai tea and ended with group singing and dancing. It was a six day journey and one of the hardest things I have ever done. Long hot days of walking, cold nights in tents on rough ground, holes in the ground for washrooms and no showers. By the end, we were all physically and mentally exhausted. Beginning the last section of the climb at midnight felt almost impossible, but getting to the top, just as the sun was rising over the ‘rooftop of Africa’, is a memory I will never forget!
Ten years ago today, on my 24th birthday, I set out on my biggest adventure yet. I had recently graduated from theatre school and was looking for something completely different to do. I researched various travel companies, looked at backpacking options and read about volunteer trips before finally deciding to head to Kenya to volunteer in an orphanage. I couldn’t think of anything that would be further away from my current life and thought it would be an interesting and challenging way to kick off my 24th year on earth.
Heading in, I knew it would be an adventure. After touching down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, making my way through customs and heading out to find my ride into the capital city, Nairobi, I knew immediately that my time here would be a completely life-changing experience.
I arrived in January 2008, while the country was still in the midst of the violence that erupted following the election on December 27, 2007. I had been following what was happening closely and speaking with members of the Global Volunteer Network (the organization I was going with) who were currently in Kenya to decide if I should be pulling out like some of the others had – and like I’m sure many of my friends and family hoped I would. But in the end, I decided I was still going. It was a clash of tribes and at this point, no foreigners had been harmed. I knew I’d have to watch where I was going and stay away from the growing number of rallies taking place, but overall I still really wanted to go. So on January 12th, after one final wave and “Happy Birthday” from my tearful mother, I boarded the plane and headed to Kenya to meet the handful of other volunteers who still elected to start that week. After a couple days of orientation, we were sent out to our placements. Some were working in schools, others at local hospitals, and some, like me, were based in various children’s homes. I was placed at the Manaseh Children’s Home just outside of Karen, Kenya with another volunteer who happened to be from Canada.
Manaseh Children’s Home
As we pulled through the gates, we were greeted by a number of the home’s 32 children screaming hello and waving. I was immediately pulled into hugs by the woman who ran the home and the kids, and although it was all very overwhelming, I knew coming had been the right choice.
View from my window
We quickly settled into life at the children’s home, helping with meals and homework, figuring out what days the water was working to shower, playing outside and trying to infuse as much love as possible to these kids who so badly just wanted to be hugged. The children here ranged in age from 4-16 years old, and while some spoke more English and were able to communicate with us easier, we had no trouble communicating with laughs and smiles as we ran around outside or worked on homework questions.
Working on homework
Many of the kids here would finish their homework only to ask us to make them more questions. They so desperately wanted to learn and knew how important getting an education was to improving their life. I learned that primary school is free to attend, but you need to be able to afford the uniform, leather shoes, books and lunches, so school is still out of reach for many Kenyan children. I asked why some of the children here weren’t in school and was told they didn’t have the money to cover all the fees. I had put on a show to fundraise before I left so I’d be able to help with things like this and soon all the kids were in school. We’d visit the classrooms the kids went to and lead them all in songs and games. Walking into a kindergarten classroom to find all the kids quietly drinking tea and waiting for their next lesson is something I’ll never forget.
After purchasing some soccer balls, we’d spend many afternoons playing soccer games in the back field and hours sitting around cutting up mangos and passion fruit while the kids taught us Swahili words and laughed hysterically when we’d mess them up. They would entertain themselves for hours playing with an old water bottle or an empty yogurt cup as real toys were few and far between here. Some days, I’d spend hours getting my hair braided and re-braided by the girls wanting to practice or teach the younger ones.
Getting my hair braided
We spent time in the kitchen learning how to make chapati, which were my favourite and a rare treat around the orphanage for special occasions.
Learning how to make chapati
A typical meal here.
Generally, our meals consisted of rice or ugali and whatever vegetables the owner could get for a discount (usually meaning they were close to being bad). Meat was a rare treat and usually only happened when one of us went to visit a local butcher (for more on that experience check out my Kenyan Valentine’s Day post!) Most nights would end with everyone gathered around the living room after dinner and at least one child climbing into my lap and falling asleep.
While I was there, we’d also have weekly volunteer outings, where those of us placed nearby would go for dinner or a movie or visit a local attraction. We went camping in the Ngong Hills (careful to put all food away at night so we wouldn’t attract the local lions), and visited an animal orphanage where I got to pet a cheetah!
Petting a cheetah!
But my favourite outing of all was visiting the Giraffe Centre where you could pet, feed and kiss the giraffes!
Visiting the Giraffe Centre
Twiga (giraffe) feeding- one of the Swahili words my kids taught me!
Having a moment with this giraffe at the Giraffe Centre in Langata, Kenya.
We took a bus trip to Mombasa and Diani Beach, where we slept in tree houses, swam in the warm Indian Ocean and visited a local eco park.
Sleeping in a treehouse at Stilts in Diana Beach
This 100 year old tortoise loves having his neck scratched.
Walking along the white sand beach of the Indian Ocean.
A few of us also headed north to climb Mount Kenya, not quite reaching the summit as a nasty storm was coming in. Our guide told us he could get us up, but couldn’t guarantee he could get us back down. We decided the last couple thousand metres weren’t that important and headed back down, only to be stopped while a rogue elephant was chased away!
The sun rising over Mt. Kenya
With everything going on in the country, my flight home was cancelled, allowing me to stay longer and experience more. We had a pizza party movie night, where most of the kids tried pizza for the first time (many didn’t like it). We also had cake and ice cream for Valentine’s Day, but most of them let the ice cream melt and then drank it as it was too cold.
Having a pizza party
Valentine’s Day party
I went to the boys’ boarding school for parent night and met their teachers, learned to make beaded jewellery, and helped fund an outdoor kitchen so that they’d be able to cook their meals even when it was raining. Imagine not being able to get your stove to start if it rained and trying to cook on an open fire indoors, creating thick smoke throughout the house. Things like that really opened my eyes.
Visiting the older boys at school
Building an outdoor kitchen for the home.
For the most part, my time there was safe and uneventful, though one night a couple of weeks after arriving, we awoke to screaming coming from next door. Next thing I knew, it seemed like the whole village was up and running around outside. I sat crouched by the window, trying to see what was happening. The next morning, the owner explained that the house next door was broken into and the whole village heard the screams and went out to chase the thieves away. At this point, most people didn’t bother calling the police. They just dealt with issues on their own. We were told that two got away. I never asked what happened to the third. We were also told they weren’t professional. When I asked what the difference was, he explained that if they were professional, they’d have guns, and we could all be dead. Very eye-opening.
It was also a surreal experience watching the news each night. The home had two channels, a local one and the BBC. We’d spend the evening watching horrific scenes of what was happening in the country we were currently living in. I always knew when a particularly bad day had occurred when I’d get a panicked phone call from my parents just making sure I was okay. I was careful about where I went and thankfully the feeling I had that I’d be okay when I decided to come followed me through my time here.
Before leaving, I went on safari to the Maasai Mara with another volunteer. What an incredible experience it was seeing all these animals up close and sleeping out in luxury tents under the African sky. (This was the only time I had a hot shower while I was in Kenya!)
Giraffes striding across the Masai Mara
When it was finally time to leave, my kids each packed a chapati for me to take home (customs had a laugh at that as I tearfully explained that I couldn’t leave them behind). After lots of hugs and tears, I finally got in my taxi to head back to the airport. Leaving them all behind was harder than I ever could have imagined it would be, and as I sat in Heathrow on my stopover wrapped up in my Kenyan Kikoy, eating my chapatti, I had to fight the urge to turn around and head right back to the children and experiences that had so greatly impacted my life.
Coming home, I had trouble adjusting back to life here. It took me quite awhile before I could go grocery shopping without crying over the fact that we have 25 kinds of chips, while they survived most days on rice.
My time in Kenya definitely showed me what was important in life – friends, family, experiences, love, and understanding for those who are different from you.
These kids had lost everything and yet were more loving and caring then most of us ever will be. They played with garbage and ate the same meal day in and day out and I never once heard anyone complain. They were always willing to help each other, and although there were fights (as there always are with large groups of kids), the disagreements never lasted long.
Enjoying fresh mangos
Playing in the trees
It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since my first trip to Kenya. I still remember everything so vividly that at times it feels like I’ve only just returned. While I’ve had many other amazing travel and life experiences since then, I’m not sure I’ll ever have another that will turn out to be quite as life-changing as this one was.