Looking down into the crater of an ancient volcano, vast enough to hold a small town, brings a sense of euphoric freedom. My feet perched on the crater rim, it felt as if I could take off like a bird whenever my heart desired. The thin air on Mount Kilimanjaro makes one feel light headed, and near Uhuru peak the ecstasy of summiting can be almost tipsy. Thank God I am a teetotaller. The cold in the early morning climb can make one crave a little brandy- I might have attempted to fly in that case.
In 1991, I was 18 years old and knew my mind pretty firmly. Volcanoes were my calling. Nothing inspired me more than pictures of red flaming lava spilling into the air, nothing made me live like the touch of rocks- all textures, colours and shapes; nothing intrigued me as much as stories of earthquakes and eruptions from history. I would give my right arm to study geology and volcanoes- yet that was not enough.
Two university places came my way- one in exploration geophysics, the other in medical college. My parents holding the purse strings had the final say. Medical college it was- albeit kicking and screaming.
Geophysics was no career for a woman with soft feet and small hands according to my parents. They laughed themselves silly to think of me trying to complete field tasks in the wild. My father’s stock phrase of sarcasm for years to come would be ‘My daughter’s going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro!’
Years passed and teenage anger mellowed into adult resignation and perhaps a little pity at my parents’ safe and cloistered views on life. Medical college gave me my wonderful husband and a daughter to die for- no mean thing but somewhere during my night shifts or a busy clinic, a chain rankled, the volcano called.
Fast forward to 2013. I would turn 40 that year. I decided to choose a gift for myself- a trek to Uhuru Peak. When I told my parents, they thought I was joking. When I mentioned dates and tour organizers, the message sunk in. My father’s voice held a touchingly helpless plea when he said, ‘You are really going? You mean to say you are really going?’
It was me and an adventurous friend. We trekked up the Rongai route soaking up every minute, every sight, the changing topography and vegetation with every step. On the fourth day we reached the camp at Kibo Hut. The summit rose powerful, steep and challenging before us- snow crowning the peak like a sparkling tiara.
We started in darkness, the next morning. The trail lit up ahead of us by a series of head torches, undulating up the volcanic slope, like a giant glow worm. We saw dawn break and the sky turn rosy. Two hours into our hike and we could see ahead, a group of fellow travellers who had started an hour or two before us, starting to flag. Mount Kili was throwing out its most challenging day.
My friend had started to slow down. Our guide took a tough decision and sent me ahead with the assistant guide while he stayed on with my friend, helping her to continue at her own pace. We ploughed ahead.
Suddenly the crater rim loomed temptingly close. A gap in the rock wall showed a beckoning glimpse of glaciers and frozen waterfalls. We were almost there.
Cheers erupted from enthusiastic, joyful co-travellers as we scrambled on to Gilman’s point. A few energy bars and it was onto Uhuru Peak, its flag fluttering at the top of Africa.
I sat on the rim of the crater, my dusty walking shoes dangling over the edge, the crater floor hundreds of feet below. I had summited Mt Kili. I had seen a volcano in sombre glory. I had touched a crater rim. It was time to put the simmering anger to rest, once and for all. A time to break the chains. It was time to make peace and unburden the soul to stretch like a soaring eagle.
One day my daughter will bring my ashes up here and scatter them to the winds over the crater. I will fly over the crater like a bird. Till then I will let my heart soar above Kilimanjaro, unfettered at last.
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