Into Africa

Text and photos by Nathan Stables, ETA 2017–19

Surmounting Kilimanjaro, one of the world’s seven summits and the tallest mountain on the African continent, cemented that travel experiences are not all sunny beaches and lazy afternoon cocktails after a day of being herded around on tours. Travel is a luxury, but while traveling we are able to test our limits and our ability to thrive in harsh and unfamiliar environments.

This past January when I started the trip in Africa, I learned things that contradicted my preconceived notions about Kenya and Africa. Nairobi is green and lush, a byproduct of the altitude, surrounding mountains, and precipitation there. I’d grown up picturing Africa as a large desert or vast savannah, but Nairobi reminds me of a tropical spot like Panamá (where I briefly lived) and has more nature preserves than where I live now in Cheongju.

The second thing made me feel extremely ignorant but Kenya, like Tanzania and Zambia, is a former British colony and so the majority of Kenyans speak Swahili and English. Though I should’ve known that, I was surprised that I had less of a communication barrier there than I do in Korea.

My friend David, who invited me, planned the trip primarily to raise money and awareness for a non-profit he co-founded, Crater Creations. David inspired us to fundraise for projects like educating the Kisharu youth and starting local businesses and we were fortunate to meet the individuals that are working to further development in the community. Climbing Kilimanjaro was the main draw for people to join the trip, but interacting with Kisharu was just as special.

Kisharu is just one community of the Maasai ethnic group. The Maasai people are scattered across Kenya and northern Tanzania and live a nomadic lifestyle; there are an estimated 850,000 to 1.5 million Maasai people but the total cannot be determined definitively. We learned from Daniel, a prominent member of Kisharu who speaks English, Maa (the local language), and Swahili fluently, that Maasai are highly respected.

After a few days, we left Kisharu for Tanzania, full of hope that Crater Creations will make a huge impact in the future and that the climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro would go smoothly. When planning the ascent, we chose an eight-day climb (six days up and two down) over let’s say a five-day climb to maximize acclimation time to the altitude and to enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery.

Our group of ten climbers was accompanied by 28 others including: three guides, two cooks, and porters to carry the tents and larger bags. That might sound like overkill, but it’s a big part of Tanzania’s economy and tourists coming to hike Kilimanjaro provides jobs for many local people.

Some days were shorter, while some days were long and grueling. Climbing Kilimanjaro felt like we were traveling through different lands, the base of the mountain more tropical jungle and the peak a bleak winter snow scape. The first few days were just a few hours of hiking each, culminating in 13 hours of hiking (including reaching the summit) on the penultimate day. As we went higher and higher, we felt the rush of almost being at the top of the world.

Reaching the peak after hours of mental anguish (we left from base camp at 12 a.m. and finally arrived at the peak at 6:30 a.m.) and possibly slight dehydration delirium, we were blessed with the views of a lifetime. The peak was still overcast, but the sunrise began to peek gently through and the sunrays were sparkling even brighter above the cloud horizon. I wasn’t just happy to survive the morning trek from hell, but I felt whole in that moment and very connected to the Earth and my own body. My biggest takeaway from this trip was the pureness of feeling utterly alive at the top of a mountain at dawn, having gotten there by persevering through the fatigue and not distracted by daily worries.

After interacting so intimately with Kisharu and our Kilimanjaro guides, I had a newfound appreciation for what it means to be a good traveler. I realized that my favorite moments have always been adventurous and spontaneous and that travel is the perfect platform to seek out these opportunities while also giving back to the local communities you’re visiting.