My Kili Climb: Highlights of an Incredible Journey

Courtesy of: Alice Stockton-Rossini The author (right) had legendary primatologist Jane Goodall (left) sign a photo of New Jersey students. She did ... on the condition the class would plant a tree. On top of the photo, she wrote, ‘Together we can change the world.’

When my mother shared a recent SandPaper article about two local women conquering Africa’s highest mountain, I thought to myself, what are the chances my husband and I would make the same climb, the same month in the same year, February 2019, from the same island? Evidently pretty good.

Of the 50,000 people worldwide who attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro annually, only 60 to 70 percent make it to Uhuru Peak, at 19,341 feet. We all made it, and coming from lives spent at sea level, that’s frickin’ amazing!

My husband, Giovanni, works for Ocean County and is a Ship Bottom volunteer fireman. I am a full-time radio reporter in New York City, and we’re always looking for a new adventure, so when we were invited by a long-time family friend to climb Kilimanjaro, we were in.

Our friend, Jeff Bonaldi, believed it was his calling to leave a lucrative Wall Street career to start Explorer’s Passage, a travel company that combines adventure with cultural experiences and environmental awareness. Ironically, Jeff once was a waiter at the Bayberry Inn, now The Arlington, in Ship Bottom.

We stayed at Weru Weru Lodge in Moshi and spent a few days immersing ourselves in our surroundings.

We toured the College of African Wildlife Management, where we explored one of the Marangu Chagga tunnels built by Bantu-speaking indigenous Africans, Tanzania’s third largest ethnic group, who live on the southern and eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro near Moshi.

The tunnels, built to protect the Chagga women, children and livestock during tribal wars, are barely big enough to stand in. By the end of the tunnel we had to crawl like snakes to get outside to the river. Somehow my 6-foot, 3-inch, 260-pound husband managed to literally squeeze through.

We met an elderly medicine man, Dr. Lello O Rabu, in the jungle. He has a botanical garden of herbs and spices with a sort of makeshift gazebo as a waiting room and a large sitting room off the side of his small home. He crushed what looked like pine needles from a bush, and when rubbed into my palm they smelled of mentholyptus and are used for respiratory ailments. He extracted bee honey from his own hives that he says cures sore throats, and he claims to have a blend of herbs and spices to cure cancer.

We visited a local family where the women, dressed in the uniquely patterned and brightly colored dresses you will see only in Africa, prepared local dishes for us to sample. They cooked bananas in every way imaginable for soup, meat and vegetable sauces. As we sipped coffee made from home-grown beans, more family and friends arrived to sing traditional African songs and dance for us, all the way back to our van.

At the lodge, our lunch guest, world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall, was waiting. She told us about a program she founded in 1991 called Roots and Shoots. Through this program, thousands of schoolchildren worldwide are planting trees, and on this day our group of 20 planted 40 trees at the foot of Kilimanjaro.

Goodall spoke of her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees and then turned her attention to climate change. “Don’t you find it strange,” she asked, “that the most influential creature to ever walk the planet is destroying its only hope?” I asked her about the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Agreement, and she retorted sarcastically, “What do you mean? Climate change doesn’t exist!” She is astounded by our president’s refusal to acknowledge his own scientists’ findings that the effects of climate change will have a devastating impact on America. I asked her what we as U.S. citizens could do, and she responded, “Vote for the right president!”

The next day we started our five-day climb to Uhuru Peak with a group of 20 hikers, most of them in their 20s, and 60 porters who effortlessly scampered up the rocky terrain and scaled the Barranco Wall balancing food, tents, cooking gear and clothing on their heads. They were a marvel as we, the sea level people, worked to adjust to the increasingly high altitude and thinning air. Thankfully, altitude medication worked for us, but several hikers suffered altitude sickness yet somehow managed to soldier on.

Our guides were our physical and emotional support and worked to keep our spirits up after long days on the dusty, rocky trail.

We sang, danced and embraced this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity before we returned to our tents at night and managed to lose every item we pulled from our bags. Socks, headlamp, toothbrush, toilet paper all disappeared yet reappeared only after screaming fits and head scratching that one hiker attributed to the fourth dimension inside our tents. That’s where the stuff goes, he surmised, and if we’re lucky, it comes back.

Hands down, the most amazing discovery was the Shewee. This device is a life changer for female hikers who may never have thought it possible to eliminate like a man.

The five days up were no problem. It was the two days straight down that kicked the Kili out of me. A gym rat and a hiker for more than three decades, I never thought my knees could ache so much for so long as I hiked downhill through the rocks and volcanic dust. I was comforted, however, when I later met up with some of the younger hikers who confided their knees also screamed, so age didn’t feel so much like a factor. But it was a month before I would squat again.

I sincerely hope more Americans take this incredible journey. Europeans have been hiking Kilimanjaro for decades. Reaching the summit is just part of the experience. It is really about the journey and discovering how much gas is left in your tank, letting the beauty around you infiltrate your thoughts, allowing your mind to roam, and interacting and exploring with your fellow trekkers.

When we returned to civilization, I was very disturbed to learn the current president of Tanzania had shut down the largest newspaper. I also learned John Magufuli has a habit of silencing those who oppose him. I pray Africa does not again fall into chaos.

Tourism is providing badly needed employment to young men and women who are proud to share this beautiful land and would otherwise live in abject poverty. It is a place where the effects of climate change are painfully obvious, and no matter what your political leanings, it’s a fact we cannot deny.

Plant a tree, think beyond tomorrow and remember, we get a chance every day to take on a new challenge and make a difference in the world.

When not hiking and climbing mountains, Alice Stockton-Rossini divides her time between New York City and Ship Bottom.





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