Blood, Sweat & Compassion
Sorted’s very own editor, Steve Legg, reached new heights (literally) as he took on the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro for charity. After living to tell the tale, here is the story of his great adventure…
There are some things you need to know about me before we go any further. I don’t camp, my sense of adventure doesn’t foray beyond food and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to admit that I’m scared of heights (and certainly not in such a public forum), they are not one of my favourite things. Climbing Kilimanjaro has never once featured on my bucket list, it’s never even been shortlisted for it, but there’s one more thing about me you must know – I find it hard to say no to a challenge.
So when the child development charity, Compassion, approached me and asked if, as an Ambassador, I’d like to climb to the roof of Africa to raise money for the work they do, I was gob-smacked to hear myself say, “Why not?” With that verbal betrayal, my life swiftly descended into lists of equipment, hours of googling and a training regime that made the dog threaten to leave me. If I was going to punish myself on a mountain, I was at least going to give it everything I had.
The Adventure Begins
We flew into Nairobi Airport in Kenya and were swiftly assailed by the sights, smells and sounds of Africa. And, the heat. This trip was at the end of January – Britain was pretty much knee deep in water and we hadn’t seen the sun in what seemed like years. The heat quite frankly was so welcome that if it were possible and not deeply embarrassing, I would have got down on my knees and kissed it. I didn’t, but I breathed deep the smell of baked earth, took in the noise of the hustle and bustle of people going about their day and people-watched to my heart’s content.
From Nairobi we drove to Tanzania along a potholed highway that saw us shoot forwards in our seat every time the driver slammed his brakes on to save us from being swallowed into the craters that filled the road. The road slowly took us lower and lower and the heat soared as the landscape turned to classic Savannah with acacia trees and scrub bushes as far as the eye could see.
With trepidation we spent our last night of comfort in a lodge at the foot of the mountain, took one last breath of Wi-Fi to call home and attempted to sleep in the shadow of our challenge. If I’m honest, there was a moment when the deep blue pool, the live Premiership football on the TV and the sun loungers nearly won me over but, come morning, I faced the mountain, pulled on my boots and stepped forth into a whole new world. It was an amazing world. There are a number of routes up Kilimanjaro, pioneered by various intrepid explorers who love this kind of thing. The route we took, the Rongai route, is meant to be the least scenic but it was impressive all the same. We traversed rain forest, moorland, alpine desert, snow fields and ice cliffs as we walked 22 miles and ascended to 20,000 feet over five days. Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa and the highest free standing mountain known to man. It is majestic with its crown rising through the clouds. It’s the kind of place that makes you believe in God.
It was challenging from the start, not least because two of the keys to getting to the top in one piece (and according to our leader only 60% of people achieve that), are “pole-pole” and hydration. Pole means slowly in Swahili and this was a hard pill to swallow. In training I had been walking nearly 5 miles an hour. The painstakingly slow ascent needed to combat the increase in altitude felt sluggish and slow. This hare was struggling to walk like a tortoise. And the water! We were advised to drink five litres a day – that is a lot of water and what goes in must come out. Let’s just put it this way, I’m a man who has to take a toilet break on a trip to the supermarket.
We travelled with an astonishing team of 54 porters and guides who took care of our every need. It was embarrassing how easily they carried our gear and how far ahead of us they could get in such a short amount of time, but they were our greatest encouragers. They woke us at 6.30am for “washy washy” and tea (I never drink tea, but this was ginger tea meant to help with the altitude so I closed my eyes, thought of England and drank up) and cooked the most amazing three course meals – a dazzling array of dishes to tempt our diminishing appetites. They were my heroes, these smiling capable men who cheered us as we struggled to do what came with ease to them.
Each night we camped in a different terrain, each one bleaker and colder than the last until the night before our final ascent we went to sleep not just fully clothed but in our jackets, hats and gloves. We were woken just before midnight, forced some more food down ourselves and set off for the top.
I have never done anything so physically challenging in my life. Impatience at the pace was a thing of the past, the lack of oxygen meant that every step took will power. Ten steps required a break to catch a breath. The whole team were stooping and stumbling like wizened old men and most, on top of that, were fighting the effects of altitude sickness. That final climb took eight hours. Eight hours of ten steps at a time. Eight hours to trek three miles and climb 4000 feet. Some didn’t make it and watching people be carried down put the whole expedition into focus. I’d underestimated this mountain, but I was determined to make it – ten steps at a time and ten steps at a time I did.
The view from the top
Looking back, I’ve said I wouldn’t wish that last night’s summit climb on my worst enemy but the view from the top, the sun rising over the horizon revealing ice fields beauty as far as the eye could see, the elation of getting to the top, maybe it is worth it. It’s a memory that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. My inability to say no to a challenge may well have taken me into my worst camping nightmare, but it also got me to the roof of Africa and that is something I’ll never forget. Sometimes, failure really isn’t an option.
Doing it for the Dads
But manly claims and bold statements are not really what got me to the top. It wasn’t a mystical combination of ginger tea and garlic that enabled me to sit atop the highest freestanding mountain in the world. The children of Limuru got me there.
In Limuru we were still a long way from a flimsy tent amongst the rocks in the rarefied air of Kilimanjaro. We were in the hill lands of Kiambu, a lush green, tea growing area that sits in the hills above Nairobi. We were visiting a project, partnered with Compassion, called Ngecha. Here we met Miriam and her staff who are literally devoted to changing the lives of the children they work with.
It was a world away from the plush hotel we had just left; corrugated iron buildings, stained red from the ochre earth that surrounds them, housed children sitting squeezed three abreast on desks watching their teacher explain things on an old blackboard. It was old fashioned and basic but it worked – the smiles on the children’s faces spoke volumes.
Here was an oasis for children, a place where they were deeply loved, and a place they could find food, receive medical attention, grow their minds and nurture their souls. It was a place which promised hope and a future.
I’d brought along a few magic tricks and gave them a short show and as I watched their faces, saw their reactions and heard them giggle I realised again that these children were like my children. Their characters, their mischievousness, their dreams were just the same. And I knew that their dads would be just like me, probably not magicians in obscenely bright shirts pulling lights out of children’s ears, but men who deeply love their children. Men who desperately want to provide for them, to make them smile, to watch them grow, to see them reach their potential. I wanted to help them do that. I wanted to empower these men to be the fathers they want to be – great fathers, fathers who raise amazing children. And that is what got me up the mountain.
Over the years, I’ve had my own times of struggle. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never had to live in a corrugated hut watching my children starve, but I have had days when I didn’t know how I was going to buy the next meal, I have had days when I didn’t know if I was able to keep the roof over our head and I have had days when I quite simply didn’t know what do with my beautiful kids – didn’t know which decisions to make. And in those days I have had the great fortune to have some amazing people around me. People who gave me advice, people who took my kids under their wing, people who left bags of shopping on the doorstep, people who told me I could do it.
I have belonged to a beautiful community; I want to bring more people in and have realised that by sponsoring a child through Compassion, I can do just that. When I sponsor a child I bring him into the community – him, his family, even his village and I share with him the goodness that that brings. It’s more than just sending a bit of money and providing a bit of food, it gives dignity, value and justice. It helps a man hold his head high again. We should be able to hold our heads high. So as I climbed this mountain, struggling for breath, shuffling like an old man, the thing that kept me going was knowing that I was doing it for the dads. It made the blood, sweat and blisters all worth it.
From Issue 40 - April 2014