Distance: 11.8 miles (although I missed the last 0.8 as a friend picked me up for a coffee...)
Type: Urban to rural
Terrain: Riverside path, fields, some roads and some muddy bits
I am lucky enough to live just outside the York City Walls. The downside about living in the city though, is that I typically have to get in my car to drive to some countryside for my walks. But I recently discovered that the Centenary Way starts right outside the York Minster, a mere five minutes walk from my house.
The Centenary Way was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the York County Council and was opened in 1989. It runs from York to Filey on the North Yorkshire coast, spanning 83 miles. Besides the Minster and Sheriff Hutton Castle, both of which are in this first part of the walk, it also includes the Howardian Hills and Yorkshire Wolds, letting you see Castle Howard and the abandoned medieval village of Wharram Percy. It links up the Foss Way, Yorkshire Wolds Way and Cleveland Way.
I confess that I was unsure of what to expect. Some of York's residential areas aren't exactly uplifting for the soul. I didn't really fancy an urban walk, but I headed out from the Minster after being pelted by a snow storm. The forecast was strong winds and they weren't wrong. The walk around the Minster is one I know well, starting from the Southern transept, heading down Chapter House Street and the haunted Treasurers House, before going along Ogleforth (so named as Vikings found owls living along a river there - I've been told - ogle meaning owl.) You pass beneath Monk Bar, one of the ancient city gates, cross busy Lord Mayor's Walk and then head down a little lane past a not very attractive car park. This is what I feared.
But that experience was short lived. I quickly found myself walking through the Groves, a residential area with a pretty snickelway running through it. Before long I popped out on Huntingdon road and got to walk along the Foss River.
I am amazed at how quickly you felt as though you weren't in a city anymore. Yes there were houses lining each side of the path, the Foss can be a bit grotty in places and the Nestle Factory is hardly a rural idyll (although the chocolate fragrance wafting overhead was lovely), but it was a peaceful, tree-lined river walk.
All the way from New Earswick to the outer ring road, the river was lined with houses that were lucky enough to have gardens with water frontage. Again, I wasn't aware that all these properties existed. There was so much green space and I was still in the city!
After walking along the river for a good distance, I finally ducked under the outer ring road where it immediately felt more rural despite walking past Earswick, another suburban village. The wild weather kept coming - intense sun one minute, rain, sleet and bitter winds the next. I eventually diverted from the river briefly to head through Haxby and along Towthorpe Road. This was probably the least fun bit as it meant walking on the grass verge alongside the road, with cars rushing by.
But it didn't last long and I headed off across fields once again in the direction of Strensall. I picked up the river again until at last I reached Strensall bridge. This would be a good place to stop if you didn't want too long a walk (about 8 or 9 miles). And there is a pub - The Ship Inn - in Strensall should you need some lunch. And there is a bus that runs back into York right past the pub.
However, I kept on going, following the river for another good long stretch. It's here you can tell that it used to be a canal and according to the guide, also has some Roman remains somewhere along the way. I was too busy dodging the mud to notice, as the path had suddenly turned into a bog.
As I reached an old metal footbridge, I had to veer away from the river, through a wood, across and field and past a farm. By now my feet were starting to hurt. I headed into the pretty village of West Illing and saw that there was just 3/4 of a mile left to Sheriff Hutton. However, I'd arranged for a friend to meet me for a coffee so she scooped me up and we drove that last bit. When a latte and chocolate brownie call, walks end abruptly!
There is a lovely coffee shop in Sheriff Hutton, so it's worth walking there for a spot of lunch or afternoon tea. There is a bus that runs from the village back to York, but it's infrequent so you may need to get a friend to pick you up or call a taxi.
All in all it was a lovely, a very surprising walk that took me from a busy city centre to peaceful, rural countryside, right from my doorstep. If you haven't explored it yet, give it a try.
You can download the entire Centenary Way route for free here
Why not join the Glamoraks community and meet other women to go walking with?
Millions of women put the happiness of others before their own. It's not something we intentionally set out to do. And we're not trying to be martyrs. It just happens. This is particularly true if you are a mother. We sacrifice our weekends, our hobbies, our careers so that we can drive children to and from their activities, cheer them on as they take part in their sports or clubs, and simply be there for them even if they don't want you there.
We become a spectator, rather than a participant, in life.
But it's not just kids that we put first. We tend to put our family, parents, partners, friends, jobs, cleanliness of our homes, and our voluntary work before ourselves.
Somewhere in your 30s, you look up from a pile of nappies and wonder where the old you disappeared too. Or perhaps it's in your 40s that you realise your teenage kids no longer want you around quite as much or your job just doesn't fulfil you anymore. Possibly it's your 50s when your children are leaving home and you're faced with a stark reality of having to redefine your role. Or it could be your 60s when you retire from a job you've done all your life or a health scare wakes you up to all you've been missing. Whatever your age, we all reach that point when we realise that we've put our happiness last and it's time to fix that.
I think this is what people refer to as a mid life crisis. But you don't need to sell your house and backpack around the world or buy a convertible car or have an affair with a toy boy (but hey, feel free if any of those appeal!) All you need to do is put on a pair of boots, open your front door and start walking.
There are numerous studies that prove the benefits of walking:
There are countless studies out there about the benefits of walking. But I want to focus on the last two on that list. Because those are the ones that I think women need most.
When you've spent years putting others first, even though you are immensely capable and probably juggle a million things with the dexterity of a circus performer, you don't feel successful. That's because you're facilitating things, rather than doing them. You're watching rather than experiencing it.
Walking is a very simple, low cost way to gain a sense of achievement and stimulate your sense of adventure. Perhaps walking around the block is a big effort for you. Perhaps walking further than 5 miles is a challenge. Perhaps walking on your own seems scary. Perhaps heading to the hills where you need a map to find your way seems brave. Perhaps walking for several days in a row would be hard core. What about taking on a mountain or an epic multi-month through hike?
Everyone has their own challenge depending on where they are in life. But regardless of the size of the challenge, by doing it, you will be flooded with a sense of confidence and self belief. And that is what will make you feel genuinely happy. Hidden inside all of us is a sense of adventure. When you tap into it, you will realise what you are capable of. It's good to feel a little bit scared or a tad uncomfortable. It makes you feel alive. And feeling alive is what makes you feel happy.
So I challenge all you ladies to take up the #FindYou challenge. Go for a walk. Walk further than you usually do. Walk a different route. Plan a walking weekend. Go out in wet and windy weather. Just head out. Embrace the elements. Let yourself discover things. Slow down. Chat to strangers. Get lost. You may just find yourself - and happiness - in the process.
You in? Tell me in the comments or join the Glamoraks community of women who all put their boots on to get happy.
Yesterday morning I was a bit cross. That is a euphemism for how much of a rage I was actually in. I grabbed my boots, filled my water pouch, shoved a waterproof jacket into my backpack and headed out. I needed miles of space to help me simmer down. But it had to be somewhere not too far from York and I wasn’t in the mood for my normal stomps.
I recalled having cycled past Kirkham Priory once, which is set along the banks of the Derwent River. A quick Google search showed a circular walk from the priory. ‘Right, that’ll do,’ I muttered and drove off.
Fifteen minutes later I found myself in the peaceful sanctuary of Kirkham. Getting out of the car, I turned to Google to check the route, only to discover that there was no internet signal.
Well the good thing about the UK is that you don’t have to walk far before you stumble upon a public footpath sign. So that’s what I did. Leaving my car at Kirkham Priory carpark, I walked back over the bridge and found a footpath sign pointing left along the riverbank. I vaguely recalled the walk being along the river, so I set off.
It was a pretty setting with the fast flowing river tumbling over a weir and the ruins of the priory brooding in the mist. I followed the path, which quickly resembled a bog. Cursing the fact that I hadn’t bothered with gaiters, I soldiered on still too cross to care how muddy I got.
After about 20 minutes I passed a fisherman relaxing in the perfect spot. He gave a cheerful greeting and told me that one of the bridges further along was down but that I should be fine.
I kept walking. It was hard work, the slippery mud making each step a good deal more difficult than it should be. I was feeling less angry but still hadn’t found my happy place. I kept walking.
After about an hour I began to wonder if I was indeed on the route I’d read about because it seemed to just go in a straight line along the river, whereas the route I’d seen online mentioned all sorts of diversions and was only 5 miles long. I checked my phone and there was just enough of a 3G signal to show me that I was indeed going in the entirely opposite direction to the one I was meant to be heading in.
Excellent navigational skills by me then.
I looked on Google maps and saw that the path would intersect a road eventually and that I could walk back to Kirkham along that road, which would be significantly easier than stumbling in the mud.
Shortly thereafter I came upon two lovely fishermen. Reet proper Yorkshiremen, who confirmed that there was a road up ahead, ‘just by t’bridge and t’mill.’ I asked them about the imposing building on the opposite bank and was informed it was Howsham Hall, a private residence. Not a bad pad really.
After a bit more of a chat, I carried on with a cheery, ‘Av a good day luv,’ ringing out behind me. My rage from the morning had dissipated. I began to feel a smile creep on my face.
As predicted by the fishermen, I soon came upon t’mill, an old building with all sorts of odd machinery around it. It was a pretty spot and I waved hello to some kayakers who were trying to drown themselves in the churning water below.
I ambled on toward t’bridge when a man, squeezed into a wetsuit, walked towards me in the opposite direction. ‘Had a swim?’ I asked. ‘Been kayaking,’ he said with a smile, nodding towards where the others had been. I asked him if I would find Kirkham by turning right on the bridge ahead. ‘Yes, but you should take a look at Howsham Mill first before you go if you’ve not seen it before.’
He explained how I might find it, what it was all about and wished me a pleasant day. Just as I neared the bridge, a long parade of tractors drove past in a riot of noise. Only in Yorkshire, I thought as the last of the farmers gave me a cheeky wave as he passed by. I crossed the bridge to the far side of the river, ducked underneath it and walked the short distance to the mill.
The kayakers had made their way there two and were tackling a slalom course complete with gates and masses of very fast flowing water. I had absolutely no idea that you could do kayaking like this so close to York. After watching them, a man came out of the building and walked towards me. I felt like a bit of an interloper, but said that the kayakers had suggested I come and take a look at the building.
The man was very happy to have a visitor and I was given a personal tour. Apparently Howsham Mill was built in 1755 by the family who owned Howsham Hall. They didn’t enjoy looking out from their estate windows onto a working mill (how ghastly!) so they had a faux hunting lodge designed and constructed by York architect John Carr to obscure the mill from view. It featured a lead statute of Diana, the hunter on its roof. The mill served the local area, grinding their grains and animal feed for 200 years.
The mill fell into disrepair in 1947 but in 2003, it was purchased and the Renewable Energy Trust was formed to save the building. It has since been completely restored, including a replica carbon fibre statue of Diana on the roof. A replica water wheel has been fixed into place and you can watch it churning away with impressive power. But even more impressive are two huge Archimedes screws that act as electricity generators. The power they generate not only gives the building electricity, but it’s also fed back into the national grid, which in turn pays the site money for continued redevelopment.
The entire place is now completely sustainable with rain harvested water, its own generated electricity and composting toilets. It is used as a place schools can take children to teach them about nature, history and engineering. And it can also be hired as a quirky, private venue. It’s still a bit rough around the edges but it’s a lovely space and I was very pleased to have found it.
I thanked the man for the tour and headed back the way I came. I saw the kayakers again, this time changing out of their wetsuits. ‘Worth the detour?’ the chap I’d spoken to earlier asked. ‘Absolutely,’ I said and thanked him for the tip. ‘You enjoy the rest of your day now,’ he said. Every single person I’d met on that short walk had been absolutely bloomin lovely.
By this point I was starving. That’s one of the problems of leaving in a huff. You forget to pack food. I picked up the pace so that I could get back home for a bite to eat.
My route back was along a very quiet road towards Crambe. As I approached the level crossing just outside the village, the station manager was just swinging the gates closed as a train was coming.
‘Ey up luv, I’ll hold ‘em open for ya. The train’s not here yet. By ‘eck, your face is red!’ I thanked him for holding the gates for me and explained that I was walking fast, hence the bright red complexion. He seemed to find it hilarious. He confirmed that I was heading in the right direction for Kirkham, and got back to his gates.
At last I came to a footpath sign for Kirkham – 1¼ miles. I followed it up a very steep hill, where a fellow walker sat with his picnic in front of him, admiring the view, which was spectacular when I turned around to appreciate it. After pointing me towards the right gate, I walked the last part of the route through a forest on the top of a hill, before rejoining the road down the steep hill into Kirkham.
The best walks are the ones you find by chance and manage to navigate with the help of friendly locals rather than a map. I'd stumbled upon a serendipitous three hour, roughly 7-mile walk dotted with some of a friendliest folk I’ve yet to meet on a walk. My anger had completely gone. Fresh air, a chance discovery and beautiful scenery had performed their tonic. It's amazing what you find when you just put your boots on.
What to take:
Wellies! Or good boots. A picnic for the spot at the top of the hill.
I did this walk alone, but it would have been fab with company too. If you battle to find people to walk with, join Glamoraks, an online global community of women who walk.
Throughout this series of blog posts, I have included tips on what you will need and what the experience is like. But what you seldom read about is what happens to you when you get back.
First of all, you will look at the incoming group of poor sods about to tackle the mountain and will smile knowingly into your beer, not wishing to be them for a single minute. And then you realise that the team who came down the same time we were about to head up were looking at us in exactly the same way.
Secondly, your body can have a delayed reaction to the exertion, high altitude and temperature extremes you've gone through. Here are some of the effects we experienced:
Yip – it’s all glamour. But is it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? No. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely.
Go back to day 1
Want to meet other women who like going on hiking adventures? Join Glamoraks.
Start height: 3950m
End height: 1800m
A 6am wake up call by our coffee porter, revealed a gloriously sunny day. The snow covered peak set against a bright blue sky seemed surreal. We’d been there. We’d done it. All the exhaustion of the previous day had gone and we could at last celebrate our success.
A brilliant breakfast of delicious (yes, really) porridge was followed by pancakes, fruit and Vienna sausages, which no-one except me seemed to like, so I ate my body weight in them.
It was our last time packing up tents, our last time of putting on filthy clothes. There was a spring in everyone’s step and laughter throughout the camp. Donations of kit were made to the porters, some of whom trek up the mountain in ancient crocs with holey socks and thin sweaters. They thanked us by singing and dancing for us again. We all joined in. It’s amazing what a bit of extra oxygen will do for you.
We bid farewell to the camp after group pictures and began a long, steep descent. The path started with more rocks to clamber down, which reminded tired legs of the pounding they’d taken the day before. Knees and toes put up a protest, but there is only one remedy – keep walking. We were joined by one of the guides Godfrey, who filled us in on plenty of local plant knowledge, local customs and tales from his portering days when he was required to carry 40kgs on his back, unlike the regulated 20kgs now.
We passed through Mweka camp and instantly the vegetation changed from alpine to rainforest. The path was smooth, gently sloping and shaded by trees. I couldn’t help myself – I had to walk fast. In fact I practically ran a good portion of it, just to feel speed for the first time in a week. Over pretty bridges, past incredible trees. The path just went on and on for about four hours.
Finally, just as my knees and toes were ready to throw in the towel, the end sign came into view.
And that’s when it happened. The feeling that I expected to get at the summit – but didn’t – kicked in. Tears. Lots of them. I’d done it. I’d gone there and back to see how high it was. It’s high. It was hard. But it was absolutely worth it.
A celebratory beer and samosa awaited us. The heavens opened in a tropical deluge. But nothing was going to dampen our spirits. We had just conquered the highest freestanding mountain in the world. We’d stood on the roof of Africa. We’d seen the curvature of the earth and watching the sun rise beneath us. We’d pushed ourselves to our limits and survived with a smile on our faces.
Thank you Kili. You challenged us. But we won.
Go back to day 6 - summit day
Read on about what happens to your body afterwards
Join the Glamoraks community of women who love to walk, hike and have adventures.
Climbing Kilimanjaro - Day 6 – Machame Route: Summit day - Barafu camp to High Camp with a stop at Uhuru Peak.
Start height: 4600m
Midway height: 5895m
End height: 3950m
Looking like Michelin men, we waddled into the mess tent at 11pm for some ginger biscuits and porridge with heaps of sugar for energy. Nervous energy fizzed through the camp as people faffed with their water bottles, wondering whether 3 litres would be enough but unsure whether carrying more would be too much on such a tough climb (Tip: take at least five and ask a porter to carry it for you). Head torches were adjusted, hand warmers stuffed around water bottles, into boots and gloves, layers were added or removed.
Finally at 11.45pm we set off, single file, pole pole. We were told that we would probably get hot during the first hour as it is steep, involves hauling yourself over some boulders and it’s not yet really too cold. They were right. But there was no way to remove layers, so zipping and unzipping became the order of the evening, not easy with bulky gloves on.
The path became more even, a steady zig zag traversing the mountain, nine steps one way, nine steps back again. As we looked up, we could see a row of gently swaying lights like a magical lantern parade, weaving up and up and up. No matter how far back you tilted your head, the lights continued until eventually it was impossible to tell which lights were head torches and which were stars. We had a long, long way to go.
As it grew colder, it became a mind game. Follow the boots in front of you. Listen to your music. Look out at the stars. Spot the southern cross. Look down at the far away lights of Moshi and Arusha miles and miles below. See the orange flashes of lightening storms in clouds far beneath us lighting up the sky like a Renaissance painting. One step. Another step. Breathe. Sip. Step. Breathe. Sip. Step. Take a moment to smile and revel in the awesomeness of where you are. Try to circle your neck, stiff from looking down. Try not to feel the three layers of waistband digging uncomfortably into your skin. Try to wriggle your toes to stop them freezing. Blow into your camelbak tube to stop the water in it freezing. Notice how the water you’re sipping turns into slush gradually, until eventually it freezes solid. Try to take the odd bite of an energy bar. Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
For seven hours we did that, stopping only for an occasional pee break. Any last vestiges of modesty are well and truly thrown to the wind on summit night. You can step off the thin path to pee, but there is nowhere to go. You will find yourself squatting – as I did – next to several blokes standing alongside you peeing. You can choose to show your butt or your ‘front bottom’ to the passing traffic stream. As it’s dark and they’re looking at the boots in front of them, they probably won’t notice. But if they turn their head torch onto you, your naked glory will be caught in their beam. You genuinely will not care. You will be too busy trying to figure out how to pull all your layers back up before your butt freezes.
At around 5am, the winds blew their hardest and coldest and it became increasingly difficult to hang onto any positive thoughts, which were driven away on the snow flurries. But soon thereafter we saw the first glow of dawn stretching in a pinky gold line along the curvature of the earth. It was magnificent and quite literally breath-taking, at such high altitude. That glimmer of light served as a tonic.
We watched as the line of gold along the horizon grew, casting a strange bronze colour across the mountain face we were still traversing. At last the burning ball of a star that we call our sun popped its head over the horizon and instantly night was gone. To look down on a rising sun is a magical experience and unlike any other I’ve had.
The euphoria of sunrise was short lived. We could now see the top of the mountain. Only the height of Snowdon left to climb, one person cheerily said…. The last push up the mountain to Stella Point is the toughest. Loose scree and dust, a steep gradient, very little oxygen and a path that never seems to end all start to take their toll on your good humour.
My chest began to feel as though it had icy needles in it. For the first time, I allowed myself to think ‘what ifs’. What if this is pulmonary oedema? What if I can’t breathe? What if I don’t make it? I had been ignoring thoughts like these the entire trip, but when your reserves are low, it takes every ounce of your mental strength to push them aside and just keep walking. Every step takes an epic amount of effort, despite a painstakingly slow pace.
Finally at about 8am we reached Stella Point at 5756m. A welcome cup of ginger tea helped revive me somewhat, but a walk to find a rock for a pee just about wiped about my final reserves. Looking along the rim of the crater, I could see Uhuru Peak in the distance. It was so close, yet it felt like an entirely different country.
Gradually members of our group arrived at Stella in varying states of health. Some – like me – were tired, breathless and having to dig into deep energy reserves, but were nonetheless well. Others were less lucky, seriously battling to breathe, looking green after a night of relentless vomiting, staggering with dizziness and disorientation. We learned two of our group had had to turn back at 5300m, four couldn’t continue from Stella Point, and one was practically carried to Uhuru Peak and who we later learned had cerebral oedema.
There wasn’t enough air to stand about, so we soldiered on to the final bit of the summit. It should be a gorgeous 45-minute walk with views over an ancient volcanic crater and carved glaciers glinting in the sunshine. But you don’t focus on that. You simply put one foot in front of the other in a determined effort to get to the top.
At last, you reach the famous sign. There is no moment of jubilation. Well there wasn’t for me. Relief flooded through my body that I had at last reached the top. But that was it. My focus was simply to get my picture taken (it’s a bunfight up there as everyone wants to get their shot) and get the hell down so that I could release some of the tightness in my chest.
After no more than 20 minutes at the top, I headed back to Stella Point. It was only at this point that I realised I still had to go down. Nine hours of walking and we were nowhere close to being done yet. They say that when you think you have spent all of your energy, you stilly have at least 40% in your reserve tanks. It was time to dig into those reserves.
The path down hill is different to the one going up. No gentle zig zagging traverses, just a scree slope to slide down. This might be fun if you had any strength left in your legs, but there were few who did. The dust kicked up by the scree gets into your lungs and it takes a huge deal of concentration not to trip over hidden rocks.
As you head down, the day heats up. All those layers you needed in the early hours of the morning are shed and added to your pack. The weight of your water, which you have now almost completely run out of, is replaced by the weight of your discarded clothes. Porters kindly took the daypacks of many. I wasn’t one of them.
There are no words to describe this downhill, three-hour slog. You simply want to get back to camp. It became apparent why those people we’d spotted the day before weren’t smiling. Nobody prepares you for the down. Everyone is too busy thinking about summiting. But getting to the top is just half-way. You haven’t conquered Kili until you get to the bottom.
I eventually staggered into camp around 12.30pm, having walked for just over 12 hours straight. I downed a litre of water, stripped off my boots and collapsed on my mattress, instantly falling into a deep sleep for an hour. I woke up coughing. The icy splinters I’d felt in my chest on the way up combined with the volcanic dust on the way down made for delightful grey sputum. Apparently it’s called the Khumbu cough, caused by low humidity and sub zero temperatures experienced at altitude and is thought to be triggered by over exertion. Tick, tick, tick. I was indeed a perfect Khumbu cough candidate.
Lunch – our first proper meal since 5.30pm the night before – was an eclectic affair of pineapple, pancakes, vegetables and chips. But no-one cared. It was fuel. There wasn’t much conversation, just thousand mile stares and lots of coughing. Despite us all looking like extras from a zombie film set, we had to pack up our bags and carry on walking. There is no water at camp to replenish our stocks and certainly not enough oxygen to spend another night at Barafu.
By 3.30pm we were back in our boots, trudging down the hill in fog. This path was however, a kind, gentle slope. Every step took us to more oxygen and strangely I felt stronger, rather than more tired the further I walked. The same can’t be said for some others who were feeling the exertions, particularly in their backs, knees and toes. Even with the extra oxygen, I was still ready to call it a day eventually.
We arrived at High Camp at around 6.30pm, after what seemed like the longest day ever. Once again the porters had beaten us to it and served us ‘plain soup’, which tasted remarkably like all the other soups but still felt like liquid gold going down. Chicken and rice followed. I vaguely recall acting as mother for both mess tents as everyone sat staring blankly, unable to help themselves.
We collapsed into bed. My sleep deprivation made me think that cleaning between my toes at this time was a good idea. It wasn’t. I gave up and passed out. The reality of what we had done drifted through my mind just as my eyes closed. We had summited Kilimanjaro!
Thanks to my hot water bottle and the extreme exertions of the day, I actually slept the entire night without having to pee, my first time in a week.
Start height: 3995m
End height: 4600m
I woke at 5am, listening to the sounds of the camp, before plugging in my audio book in an attempt to drift off again. I couldn’t. Although it was only Friday morning and we were only due to summit on Saturday morning, summit day would be starting on Friday night. We were in the final stretch.
I assessed the hygiene levels of my smelly clothes, shrugged and opted for breakfast instead. The usual porridge greeted us along with a jazzy new addition of Vienna sausages stuffed with vegetables. Eating is hard work. There’s lots of passing of cups and plates. The chairs either list dangerously as they’re set on uneven ground or slope backwards, ready to tip you out the tent. Someone acts as mother to help everyone else from having to get up, slopping ladles of porridge into tin bowls. The pill popping commences. General discussions about how everyone is feeling do the rounds. And then it’s time to head out again for another day of walking.
Standing on a rock, brushing my teeth before leaving, the clouds swirled around me, occasionally clearing to reveal the spectacular views. I was reminded of just how lucky I was to be doing this incredible challenge. It’s not glamorous. But it makes you feel alive. If you ignore the bustle behind you, it’s just you and the clouds on the top of the world.
The walk was a short, but steep one through the strange alpine desert until it kindly levelled out for a while. Rocks, dust, stones that sound like shattering glass, a few scrubby plants and very little air kept us company as we walked. Despite the ever-thinning oxygen, it was a jovial walk full of banter and laughs as we tried to take our minds off any nasty side effects. Cheese jokes. Debates about Wookie genitalia and indeed whether Wookie’s were male or female. It kept us smiling all the way up the steep climb to base camp.
We arrived at Barafu Camp, a barren, inhospitable place full of rocks and tiny patches of cleared ground for tents. Situated at 4600m, everything takes effort. Unpacking your sleeping bag, taking off your boots, trying to walk the 15 metres to the loo – it is all hard work that leaves you panting.
I had yet another toilet disaster upon arrival. The toilet tents hadn’t been set up yet and there was nowhere even remotely private to pee, so I raced into my tent and grabbed my urinal (a spare given to me by a friend). I had used it effectively for the last two nights so had no qualms about using it now. Except I forgot about the pathetically weak plastic which had obviously reached the end of its life. Cue pee all over me, my clothes and the inside of the tent. When you have very little air to breathe, trying to mop up pee with wet wipes and change out of wet clothes is exhausting. Such fun.
The weather at base camp is something out of the Book of Revelations. One minute it is so hot you can feel your skin frying. The next the clouds roll in, the winds blow and it is freezing. Hail is hurled down, thunder crashes below you and lightening zig zags the sky. It’s easy to believe you are losing your sanity.
Lunch was pasta, veg and fresh pineapple washed down with a briefing talk that made all of us wish we hadn’t eaten. Our resident medic explained what would happen on summit night. We could expect to vomit, get raging headaches, suffer from hallucinations, battle to breathe and potentially suffer from High Altitude Cerebral or Pulmonary oedema. So that was comforting. We were also told to expect 25km winds, temperatures of -15c and up to 20cm of snow.
We were advised to rest all afternoon. We didn’t need to be asked twice. Stumbling to our tents we noticed a stream of people who had obviously summited and were on their way down. Not one of them was smiling. Where was their elation and whooping and air punching? They looked like walking zombies. It didn’t bode well.
After ‘sleeping’ through thunderstorms, snow showers and melt-your-face off heat for a couple of hours, we had an early dinner at 5.30 and were told to get to bed as we’d be woken up at 10.30pm. You try and sleep when you have a carnival of emotions jostling inside you...
After zero sleep, we got up at the allotted time, got dressed into as many layers as we could and got ready to face the summit.
Start height: 3900m
End height: 3995m
For the first time since the walk began, I couldn’t face a morning coffee, probably a symptom of the altitude. But the nausea passed after a breakfast of porridge (again!), scrambled egg, toast and pancakes. By 7.30am we were ready to begin the big climb, but first we took in the incredible views that showed us how high up we had come.
We’d been warned about traffic on the Baranco wall as it’s a single file steep path up a rockface, with porters having to get by with their loads balancing on their heads. Thanks to our early start, we managed to get ahead of the bulk of the foot traffic and could simply concentrate on getting up.
The wall looks a lot scarier than it is – as long as you don’t look down. It was a day to put poles away and use your hands to scramble over the boulders. Looking for a place to put your feet and gripping a hand hold was actually fun and certainly took everyone’s minds off feeling ill. However, there is one particular part that will get the hearts of those afraid of heights thumping.
Called the Kissing Wall, you have to hug a rock and step across a gap with a good drop beneath it. A friendly guide waits with a hand outstretched to help you, but despite this, it still takes a deep breath and a leap of faith if you’re a vertigo sufferer like me. As I landed safely on the far side, it was though my body had to release the fear and adrenalin it had stored and I burst into inexplicable tears. I wasn’t the only one. Several of us all did the exact same. Altitude eh? It’s does funny things to your body and mind.
After two hours of boulder scrambling straight up, we got to the top. A fellow vertigo sufferer and I had a big hug at the top, before moving as far from the edge as we could.
Everyone amassed at the top, whooping that we’d conquered the wall and had a snack break and collective toilet visit behind the rocks. The mountain is littered with deposits from previous visits. You’ve always know when you’ve found a private toilet spot because of all the used tissue and piles of poo left behind. So you have a choice – privacy and revulsion, or a fresher spot where at least one person will be able to see you. By day 4, privacy was far less important than the ability to lean back against a rock with your backpack still on to use it as support both squatting down and getting up. The blokes had no idea how much easier they had it. Squatting multiple times a day with very little air to breathe is exhausting! Top tip: Do many squats as part of your training programme ladies.
Suitably lightened, we set off along a long path we could see stretching ahead through a valley. The rain set in. It was about this time that I realised my waterproof jacket wasn’t actually waterproof anymore.
We trudged on until our next campfire hove into view. Had we had wings, we could have flown across to it in minutes. Instead we had to traverse our way down the side of a steep valley that went on and on. Finally we crossed a stream on the valley floor and then had to head up the other side, which was just as steep, although mercifully shorter. As we lumbered up, the porters hopped like mountain goats up and down the path to fetch stream water for us to drink. Remarkable chaps.
We arrived at Karanga camp, situated at 3995m. It was our last camp before base camp and walking up to the tents took supreme effort. The lack of oxygen could definitely be felt, with our wet clothes not adding to our joy.
A hearty lunch of chicken, fried potatoes and greens, washed down with milo helped and we all set about trying to dry our kit in the brief snatches of sunshone. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the sun when it does come out at high altitude. It feels like a flame licking your skin and so our kit strewn across rocks and pegged on lines did dry.
A handful of us headed out for another acclimatisation walk, a relentlessly uphill trek through alpine desert, giving us a taste of what was to come the next day. We headed back for dinner of cucumber soup, rice and vegetable sauce. Carb stodge is what you need. It’s warm and filling and certainly helped me have a better night’s sleep at last.
We went to bed with the lights of Moshi every further away and the looming peak ever closer.
Start height: 3800m
Midway height: 4600m
End height: 3900m
After a hideous night’s sleep thanks to my mattress not being fully inflated, which meant being cold and uncomfortable, I was keen to get up and out of the tent. I’d been told it was best to sleep with as little on as possible so that the sleeping bag fabric is next to your skin and can do its job, but I was so cold I ended up wearing about 4 layers including my coat. Top tip: inflate your mattress fully or better yet, hire one of the mattresses the tour company offers, which are thick and warm and cost just $15 and you don't have to fit it in your bag..
Adding to the drama of the night, my uriwell device broke. I’d just got the hang of using it properly when it experienced one concertina too many and snapped. My tent mate understandably shrieked as droplets sprayed the inside of the tent. They were water droplets as I’d rinsed it, but everyone in the other tents enjoyed the, ‘Oh my god, is that piss inside the tent!’ Every day is a laughing day....
Breakfast again at 6.30am due to a long day ahead. It featured porridge that made me gag due to altitude sickness, but which quickly made way for sausage, egg and toast, which I was happy to tuck into. Every breakfast time looked a lot like a drug addiction clinic, as everyone lined up their various tablets for the day ahead: Malarone, Diamox, pro-biotics, vitamins, ibuprofen, paracetamol, rehydration sachets. Then there was the sun lotion application, water bottle refilling and bag packing.
By 7.30 we were on our way across the gorgeous Shira Plateau. Unlike the brutal ascent of the previous day, this was a gentle climb through alpine moorlands. We’d catch glimpses of the peak looming ahead of us, before the fog rolled in causing everyone to add layers and waterproofs.
Despite the climb being more gradual, breathlessness became a common factor as we gained height. Pole pole, sippy sippy, pole pole, sippy sippy became a mantra in my head as I listened to my ipod. Music is an incredible mood alterer. One moment a toe tapping pop song would come on, making me want to move faster than the requisite pole pole. The next instant Elgar’s Nimrod would come on and I’d be moved to tears by the enormity of what we were doing. There is something incredible about listening to a beautiful piece of music, looking up at a snow covered peak or the clouds swirling around you and simply thinking: 'I am here!'. It’s moments like that, which make you forget about the discomfort.
Mindset is such an important element in a walk like this. It is critical not to worry about what might happen or to dwell on how you are feeling. I found the best way to ignore any altitude side effects was simply to acknowledge them, congratulate my body for responding the way it was meant to, and then moved on. Complaining is a killer too. Focusing on the beauty around us and the once-in-a-lifetime privilege we had in doing the climb, helped keep my thinking positive.
I concentrated hard on my breath, inhaling deeply through my nose and slowly expelling the air through my mouth. I’d sip regularly on my water, holding it in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it. I’d let the clouds and the music swirl around me and just enjoyed it.
By lunchtime we’d made it to the famous Lava Tower, set at 4600m, another 1000m up from the last camp. The ever-awesome porters had raced ahead to set up the temporary lunch camp, cooked a fabulous lunch of pasta with chicken and made sure the toilets were ready for action!
Fully fuelled up and ready to carry on what was expected to be a 10-hour walking day in total, we left the eerie tower looming in the fog behind us as we descended down a steep rocky section into a valley, across a stream and then up again. Over the crest of that hill we made our way down again following a stream and walking through strange otherworldly trees that were apparently over 90 years old and which never lost their leaves.
I loved this walk and descending to a lower altitude made it easier to breathe. At last we arrived at the beautiful Baranco Camp situated at 3900m. It had views all the way down to Moshi in one direction and views up to the snow-covered summit in the other. It was, however, hard to ignore the wall of rock that stood between us and that end point. We’d be tackling the Baranco Wall the next day and for a vertigo sufferer, it didn’t look terribly appealing.
We had a flat pitch – yay! – no rolling into my tent mate in the middle of the night. I also got a washy washy wash and changed my clothes for the first time in three days. Whoop! Clothes up till this point had involved layers – thin walking trousers, t-shirt, thin midlayer, fleece gilet, waterproof outers and the option to switch between sunhat and fleece beanie. While walking you get warm. The minute you stop, you feel the cold. Good sunglasses, hand sanitiser, lip balm and tissues are other essentials to have on you at all times.
After getting clean, it was dinnertime. A treat of popcorn and mugs of tea served as an appetiser, before the main event arrived. Delicious leek soup with bhajis (or what could be described as savoury donuts) was followed with rice and mash with vegetable sauce. A warming mug of milo helped us to brace for the cold dash to the tents.
I used two mattresses, had a water bottle filled with boiling water to serve as a hot water bottle, attempted the naked sleeping thing, followed by layers of clothes. I was still cold and the altitude made it feel as though someone was sitting on my chest. So a restless night followed. I began to give up on ever sleeping well.
Day 4 and the Wall awaited.
Start height: 2800m
End height: 3800m
‘Hello. Good morning. Coffee?’ a little voice said outside my tent. I glanced at my watch. 6am. I’d been semi-awake for at least an hour listening to the sounds of porters making breakfast. Unzipping a tent was the lovely man who would bring coffee, tea or milo to our tents every morning to start our day with a smile.
Getting a coffee, I began the repacking process, trying to figure out how many layers I’d need. Although it’s cold in the morning and evenings, the day heats up, particularly as you hike up steep bits. Many thin layers is the answer.
I got some more washy washy water and attempted to clean my hands and face, using my mini Molten Brown bottle of soap, sponge and nailbrush, all of which had been recommended as a way to make you feel more human. It does help clear some of the grime, but it’s an exercise in futility. The minute you’re clean, you have to tie dusty bootlaces or sort out muddy poles. It is far easier to use wet wipes regularly and hand sanitiser even more often.
We headed to breakfast and got to experience our first porridge. I cannot praise the chefs enough on their ability to cook for that many people on just a camp stove, but I found the porridge hard to face. Every morning it varied in consistency. Day 1 was the runniest. Day 7 they seemed to have nailed it, or perhaps we’d just got used to it. The trick to making it edible was lots of sugar. I’m talking equal parts sugar to porridge. Bread with peanut butter, pieces of omelette and Vienna sausages made up the smorgasbord.
After a bit of waiting around for water – the only time on the entire trip where we had a water glitch (another incredible job performed by the porters) – we set off. Or should I say up. Almost immediately we began a steep uphill climb. Unlike day one, which had featured a tree covered path, with a few slightly steep bits, day 2 was determined to let you know that you were climbing a mountain.
Boulders, slippery rocks, expansive views, blazing sunshine, and scrambling using your hands, all got our hearts pumping. One of our group had a nasty slip and banged her head and eye, but made of sheer grit, she continued on, sporting a shiner.
Although technically a lot more difficult and steeper than the previous day, most people seemed to enjoy it more, thanks to the variety of the path. The lush rainforest had been replaced with alpine vegetation including trees covered in long, yellow lichen, which would have made an excellent substitute for Trump’s hair. Weird pineapple-shaped trees, caves and rock pools all added to the feeling that we were walking on the set of Jurassic Park.
The effects of the hard climb and altitude started to take effect, with some of our group starting to feel ill, breathless or headachey. For my part, I felt a dull pressure, rather than pain, in my head and occasionally felt a bit breathless. But that could have been caused by the steep climb. While we stopped to catch our breath, the porters charged past with their heavy loads. Much of the day was spent yelling, ‘Porters coming through, step to your left.’ Traffic is something you have to contend with on Kilimanjaro. It’s not like taking a hike through the empty wilds of Yorkshire. Every group has hundreds of porters and there many different groups all going up at the same time, some walking at a faster pace than others.
Looking at the people around me, I decided to take a pre-emptive Diamox as a preventative to altitude sickness. I didn’t feel bad and was genuinely enjoying the walk, but altitude is a funny thing. You never know when it might affect you.
At last we reached the ridgeline. The path flattened out and the sun came out, making it easy to burn unless you’re covered in factor 50 cream. The clouds bubbled below us leaving us to bake in the rays.
We got to Shira Camp early afternoon. After lunch, tent sorting and a brief nap, it was time for an acclimatisation walk. This optional short hour-long walk takes you up another few hundred metres, just to get you used to less oxygen. It supposedly makes you sleep better when you go back down again.
Arriving back at camp, the porters all gave us a welcome sing and dance. Lots of ogi ogi ogi, oy oy oy chanting followed the famous Jambo Bwana song. We got introduced to all the team and their respective roles. Maximum Respect (the group’s motto) was given to the toilet technicians, whose job it is to empty the little loos into the long drops. It’s incredible how much energy the porters have. They’d lugged all the kit up the steep slopes all day, set up all the tents, cooked our meals, set up the loos and prepared the water – yet they still had boundless energy to dance and sing and smile.
In contrast, many of our group were now feeling the effects of altitude sickness. Vomiting, dizziness, headaches, emotional meltdowns, breathlessness, nausea, and exhaustion all seemed to be cropping up.
I felt slightly breathless, slightly headachy and felt the odd bit of dizziness, but mostly felt fine….until I visited one of the loos after someone else had been in there! That brought on nausea fairly fast. Mostly, it felt like a cross between a hangover and morning sickness.
Dinner, for those who could manage it, was zucchini soup, followed by rice with spinach and okra stew, with skewers of some kind of meat (possibly goat?). It also happened to be the birthday of one of our team. The incredible chefs had outdone themselves by baking a sponge cake Mary Berry would have been proud of. How they did it on a camp stove remains a mystery.
Then time for bed. We’d reached 3800m, another 1000m in height gained. It was getting a lot colder at night and it didn’t take much convincing to get people to settle down fast.