History Students Climb Mount Kilimanjaro

This post comes from second year BA History students Josh Oliver and Sam Webber.

So, for those of you who are unaware, the two of us spent a two-week chunk of our Summer in Africa, specifically Tanzania. The main purpose of our visit was to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro – the tallest mountain in Africa – to raise money for ‘Dig Deep’, a charity that works to provide clean water and sanitation to children in south-west Kenya. You can read more about their mission here.               

Josh (left) and Sam (centre)

We began our climb on the 25th of August with a team of around thirty or so. We had several main guides who were great and told us about the history of the mountain, about Tanzania, and its cultures and traditions. They even taught us some basic Swahili, their native language, which proved to be the only real-life opportunity to say ‘hakuna matata’ (no problem). On day three of the climb we could see the peak of Kilimanjaro clearly for the first time. It was at this point that one of our guides informed us that Uhuru Peak (the tallest point of the mountain and our final destination) actually used to be the shortest peak of the mountain. We learned that there once were to be two higher peaks, but one (Shira) was destroyed in a volcanic eruption 200 years ago (as Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano), and the other two (Mawenzi and Kibo) melted together to form Uhuru Peak.

Our guides also told us a lot about the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964, in which the people of Zanzibar fought to overthrow the Sultan of the islands after becoming independent from the United Kingdom. After the war was won, Zanzibar united with the nation of Tanganyika to become Tanzania – a combination of the two names. The guides also spoke to us about Hans Meyer, a German geologist who was the first person recorded to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro in 1889, although they acknowledged that it was more than likely that native Africans had probably done this beforehand without acknowledgment. They also spoke of Gertrude Benham, an English explorer from London who was the first woman to conquer Kilimanjaro in 1909, something she did completely alone, as her porters feared that the melting snow was somehow bewitched.   

It took us five days to climb to the top of the mountain, and only one day to get back down to the base. The hardest part of the experience was definitely summit night. We were awoken at 11pm and started our ascent to the peak at around midnight. The two of us had to scramble up to the peak in the dark with only headtorches to light our way, with temperatures reaching around -7 degrees Celsius. It was so cold that our water was freezing in the tubes of our Camelbaks. Altitude sickness was also a big problem, causing headaches and sickness for a lot of us. While drinking water helped to alleviate the symptoms (as water contains oxygen which the brain is struggling to obtain at those altitudes), it became very difficult to drink once it was starting to freeze. We finally summited at about 9am after nine hours of gruelling hiking in freezing conditions and little to no oxygen – but it all became worth it once we were stood 5895m above sea level and on the nicknamed ‘roof of Africa’, the world’s highest free-standing mountain. 

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