Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Where it All Began

Sybil Pretious recounts her first adventure, an ascent on Mt Kilimanjaro

“The birds have vanished into the sky        
And now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains.”
Li Po

My backpacking adventures started late in life though I have always loved camping and the outdoors – a legacy from my parents. My passage to starting these adventures reminds   me that when an opportunity presents itself, take it. It might be right, it might be wrong. All paths can be changed, and nothing is set in stone. But if you don’t follow an opportunity you will never know and you will never grow.

My light bulb moment happened. In 2003, looking through the ‘Situations Vacant’ column in a local newspaper while living in Durban, South Africa. My eye rested on an advertisement for a post at an International School in Maputo, Mozambique. Without a second thought I applied immediately. I didn’t tell my husband (who turned out to be against the move until the salary was revealed), until I was interviewed by the head of the school and offered the post.

My time in Mozambique demonstrated the answer to something I had doubted for a very long time (35yrs to be exact). I discovered that I was able to function perfectly well on my own –manage my finances and my daily life in a foreign country where I did not speak the language. I had long been considering divorce but could never quite plucked up the courage to ask my husband. I know, it sounds ridiculous and pathetic, but I am sure there are some who will resonate with this.

2005 was a watershed year for me. I climbed both a personal and physical mountain and my life changed unrecognisably. My divorce went through in July of that year as my husband realised my need to be on my own. We had been married 38 years.

 In August, I prepared to climb Kilimanjaro.

This was my first real backpacking adventure. I was 63 and I had three beautiful daughters and three grandchildren. They were the bonus of my long marriage. 

   Mt Kilimanjaro –  Five Vegetation areas

Mt Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania. It is a dormant volcano and is the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 5,895 metres and covers five distinct vegetation areas – the base in villages and agriculture; rain forest; moorland; Alpine desert and the frozen summit. Not many people believed the reports of the missionary, Johannes Rebmann, in 1848 of a snow-capped mountain so close to the equator.  Sadly, the ice cap is rapidly diminishing as climate changes.

I was to climb with a party of five covering a wide age range. A friend, Bruce, who wanted to celebrate his 60th birthday climbing the mountain and a family of three from Tasmania — Tim, Wilma and their 10-year-old daughter Anneke.

We chose to go the ‘Coca Cola’ route because being rank amateurs, it was the easiest but not that easy as we soon discovered. Our plans included not only our magical journey to climb Kilimanjaro but also to take a safari to Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. This writing however covers only the Kilimanjaro experience.

In preparation I walked every morning as normal, took up tai chi and in the last couple of months joined a gym to strengthen the right muscles. I think the tai chi was the best preparation both physically and mentally.

The advertising blurb about Kilimanjaro said that you need be only moderately fit, but I think it takes more than moderate fitness to be conquer a mountain peak. Fitness plus strength of mind and spirit are factors while summiting. Even then you might be foiled by altitude sickness.

We prepared mentally by visualizing ourselves triumphant on the top and we had screen savers created by Bruce showing the mountain and us superimposed at the top. I asked the students in my grade 1 class to draw pictures. One showed Bruce at the top and me below with my hand out saying, “Help me!”

 “We’ll see…,” I thought.

And made a mental note that I should take no notice of what others thought of my capabilities. Motivation should be internal.

I purchased clothes, and equipment we needed to take. The boots were the most important item. They had to be half a size bigger than your normal size so that on the descent, laced really tight, your toes would not be bruised knocking against the inside end of the boot. I was intrigued with the special underwear and tops which would apparently ‘wick-a-way’ all the sweat and smells of a heavy day of trekking and also keep the skin dry. Even the trousers were of a material that was light and quick drying.

 We were expressly told not to take cotton clothing and denims both of which retain moisture and you don’t want to be wearing cold wet clothing in the freezing weather higher up in the mountain.  The really heavy gear for the final ascent we could hire at the Springfield Hotel in Moshe.

I was the first to arrive at the Springfield Hotel, the launch point for all climbers. The next morning, I walked into Moshe along a dusty road. I didn’t take note of how I got there and after an interesting morning I started to make my way back. I was lost and turned down a street only to end up in a village. A pleasant young man said he would call the Headman who spoke very good English. I tried to appear confident and told him where I was going.

“Ah, I will send my son to show you a short cut.”

I couldn’t believe what I said next,

 “No, he will hit me over the head and steal my clothes.”

The wise Headman just laughed.

“You will be alright.”

Feeling embarrassed at my outburst I then enjoyed a pathway far more interesting than the road I would have taken. It was a lesson in trust that took me on wonderful journeys with local people in many countries. We passed through villages, huts, women washing and singing, men carving and talking, children waving and shouting, “Jumbo” and “Ha-llo” to show they had learnt one English word.

On reaching a place where he could direct me to the hotel, I said a big thank you and gave him some dollars which delighted him. Once again, I was treated to the goodness of human kindness and realised that I needed to trust.

The remainder of our party arrived the next day.

Having acquired our outer coats with fur lining, pants and two sticks we were ready. Bruce and I were called Mama and Papa throughout our climb!  I was shocked to find that the local people at the hotel worked 10 days in a row with one day off in between and their hours seemed to be from morning to night.

On the 16th  of August, we arrived at the Marangu Gate to register and meet our two guides, Raymond and Kilian,  fit young Tanzanian men who did the climb regularly to fund their children’s education. They could only do this for a few years as the toll on the body is punishing.

We set off on a wet drizzly day in our smart boots, wick-a-way underwear, warm jackets, slacks and raincoats through the steep, slippery, misty rain forest.

 Everyone who climbs Kilimanjaro is encouraged to heed the words, “Poley, Poley” meaning “Slowly, Slowly” and we did because that was all we could manage. The beauty of the forest passed in a fuzzy, drizzly gently blurred outline of moss, trees, creepers and drops of rain, unappreciated as it should have been in normal times. I found myself helping Bruce when he slipped and fell. It was an instant reaction to help. He was annoyed. Finally, we arrived at Mandara Hut, where we stayed in A-frame huts.

 My appetite surprised me. I devoured a gigantic amount of hot stew, vegetables, rice and mealie meal (cooked ground maize) plus pudding, obviously needing to replace the energy expended during the six-hour hike. And slept soundly.

Next day after an enormous breakfast including my favourite mealie meal porridge with butter and honey, another six-hour climb to Horombo Hut at 3720m.

The six hours seemed never-ending, the height increasing as we walked up,  down and up again, over rocky terrain, loose rubble,  smooth terrain; every muscle crying out but I discovered that I could prime my mind to assist my body.

The flora changed into heath and moorland and we sited the strange-looking giant Lobelia and Groundsel trees and surprisingly, Protea. Then on the penultimate day,  the Alpine desert — bleak, white dust, draining.

We saw people collapsed with altitude sickness being carried on stretchers down the mountain and passed various groups and exchanged greetings — a Japanese group and a Diabetic group. Their camera man interviewed us because of the diversity in our ages asking how we would feel after the climb. I waffled on but Bruce put it succinctly,

“Tired!” he said.

Throughout the climb if I felt my energy lagging, I would match my breathing to my footsteps, muttering rhythmically,

“One-step-closer, one-step-closer.” That was my mantra, concentrating my mind in meditation. It helped, as did Tim forging ahead and holding out jelly-babies as incentive. Anneke skipped and sang the first couple of days, but this changed as the air got thinner.

The third day, we climbed up to Zebra rocks and back down again as an acclimatization exercise. I had taken Diamox for altitude sickness and I was fortunate not to suffer. On our last day Anneke developed a headache and vomiting which was a sign of the sickness. The only cure was to go down to lower heights.

At Kibo Hut, at the base of the final ascent, Bruce had decided to go no further, Anneke was not well enough, and Wilma stayed with her. Only Tim and I would attempt this.

I gave myself Reiki that night to calm me and aid my sleep. We would be leaving at midnight.

I woke up to Bruce saying,

“You don’t have to go, you know.”

I was so irritated and angry. I was prepared. I was keyed up and ready. I shouted at him,

“Why are you doing this?” And ran out into the night in my night wear.

The freezing night was black pitch, the full moon a silent shimmer and stars mind-silencing bright. I stilled my turbulent thoughts, gazed at this heavenly sight and closed my eyes, sensed the calm and breathed the re-vitalising air.

I realised then that there will always be people who try to dissuade you about a path you wish to take but you will know in your heart what you need to do.

Calmed, I returned and dressed for this final push. We did not need our lamps in the brightness of the moon.

The way up was steep, convoluted with grey loose scree underfoot. It was difficult. So often I wanted to give up. I hardly talked. Tim and Kilian went ahead. Raymond stayed with me. Six hours later I sat at Hans Meyer Cave, ate some biscuits and watched the sun rise over Mt Meru. I needed its energy.

“The mountains are calling. I must go.” John Muir.

The next hour was a blur. Tim had already summited and was on the way down. He waved as he passed us, and Kilian stayed with Raymond to go up with me. It was a great effort to draw air into my lungs and my mantra got slower and slower to match my steps. But the mountains of my mind and spirit kept me going.

I remember asking if there was a mug of hot chocolate for me when I reached Gillman’s Peak (which used to be the summit until it was usurped by Uhuru Peak). Raymond laughed as I clambered wearily over the last enormous rock to reach 5681 metres.

It had taken me longer than normal to reach that point and I had a decision to make. I could have been selfish and continued to Uhuru Peak, but I knew if I did that it would take too long. Our party would have to stay another night at Kibo Hut, and this was not in our plans.

Wearily I told Raymond that we needed to descend.

This was the scariest part, as to save time we descended in a straight line down, Raymond and Kilian on either side of me.

I collapsed onto a bunk and tried to sleep for three hours.

Feeling hardly resuscitated I joined the others for the descent which would take two days as opposed to the four days taken to climb up Kilimanjaro. I needed to rest quite often but didn’t want to hold the others up. It was a case of pushing myself to the limits.

Tim, Wilma, Raymond — our guide, Anneke, Bruce and me. Tim and I proudly with our certificates. I had not brought my South African flag

From that moment on I was hooked on both backpacking and mountain climbing.

This climb had taught me that I had reserves of determination and strength that I had doubted before. It also taught me that selfish ambitions sometimes have to be relinquished for the good of the group. And that there are wonderfully helpful people wherever you go.

Many physical feats and forward movements in life are possible when influenced by the mountains of the mind and spirit.


Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.



5 replies on “Where it All Began”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s