At this time of post-university limbo, it felt appropriate to reflect on one of my biggest achievements to date. Exactly a year ago today, my summit dream on Mount Kilimanjaro ended. At 5000m, after several hours of disorientation, fainting, and hallucinations, I was turned back suffering from altitude sickness. Hindsight is both a gift and a curse – I’ve never been able to quieten the very small voice asking whether or not it was really that bad, maybe I should have just pushed on. But when those guiding you, who have a wealth of experience and a far greater understanding of risk, tell you to go back down, I was powerless to say otherwise. After months of planning, fundraising, and preparing, I returned from the mountain unsuccessful, but healthy and alive.
It is with a strange, out of body, dreamlike view that I remember that trip – and rather than hindsight covering my eyes in a rose hue, I can remember the pain, struggle, and difficulty, but am beginning to appreciate my time in Africa more and more as the months move on. The week I returned, I vowed never to go back there. Now I can see it for what it was – an incredible experience that tested me on every level and one that I want to conquer for good. I now feel I have a far greater respect for mountains than ever before, knowing that for all the macho go-get’um in the world, sometimes you have to listen to what it’s telling you and stop. But it also revealed more about me than I ever thought, and not just during the trek.
Organised by a company for students, the hike was followed by an optional holiday to Zanzibar, one which I am very glad I chose. Zanzibar is by far the most beautiful country I have ever seen, with turquoise sea, pure white sand, and the most breathtaking sunsets – only marginally beaten by the views of the Milky Way from my night-time lavatory explorations from my tent. However, it also revealed to me a part of Africa that I was unprepared for; a culture we’d not been told about. I admit that I wanted a selfish, relaxing break after the mountain, and didn’t want to think about anything but the waves and my books. And for the majority of the time I did just that – but I hadn’t been prepared to feel so unsafe, so wary, and so lost at the same time. I can’t help but look at the pictures with a tinge of sadness at how uncomfortable I felt alone in my hotel room, the windows covered in mesh rather than glass, or lying on the beach with one eye always watching the people on the shoreline. My family all live in South Africa, where I was born, so I am of course aware of the differences between that continent and Europe. But it was a level of unease that jaded a lot of my memories, and is something I never want to feel again. It has put me off exploring similar countries any deeper than to enjoy their holiday resorts – yes, the scenery was idyllic and beyond any film, but that is as far as I now want to go.
Nevertheless, as I look back, still somewhat unbelieving, I can do so with a more educated eye – not shadowed with the romanticism of the mountain dream, nor completely corrupted by disappointment or fear. I can see it for what it was. The chance to test every part of myself, spend two weeks with twenty incredible people who I now call my friends, and witness a whole different part of the world in the most intimate way. As I now spend my summer desperately awaiting job offers, feeling stuck in some kind of purgatory, it is nice to remember that I did achieve something great, pushed beyond my limits, and returned with a quiet determination. I can finally say, one day, I’ll do it all again…