It’s an unforgettable experience to achieve a dream you’ve nurtured your entire life.
Such was the case for Bill Jollie, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his wife and son as part of an Ujuzi African safari to Tanzania and Uganda. The day he reached the summit was also his 58th birthday.
“I’ve wanted to climb Kilimanjaro since I’ve known about Africa,” Bill said. As a teenager, he was fascinated by Africa, reading the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, Alan Moorhead’s White Nile and Blue Nile, Hemingways’s Snows of Kilamanjaro, history of Boer War, anything he could get his hands on. “I’ve always been interested in the continent, but it was those early experiences that cemented that desire. Africa was a land of mystery, romance and danger.”
Bill is a seasoned hiker. “Some of my earliest memories are hiking and climbing with my father.” He’s climbed Mt. Washington, the Tetons, Selways. “I’ve climbed every mountain range in Alaska except the Aleutians.” He’s also climbed in Italy, France, Austria, Greece, and elsewhere. He gave up technical climbing when he had small children, but he was always interested in a challenging hike.
Despite Bill’s international hiking experience and his fascination with Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro remained elusive. He always kept his eye on the possibility of climbing the mystical mountain, but knew it required permits, and he could never seem to find permits available during the times he could travel.
“I called Ujuzi and thanks to Anne Medeiros’s initiative, we got permits for a trek that started on New Year’s Day. Then we built the rest of the trip around this trek.”
But it wasn’t just procuring the permits that made Bill’s Ujuzi safari memorable, it was the overall design of the trip. Although Ujuzi was busy planning his lodging, safaris, and other elements, he did a little research on the best lodge to stay to prepare for his climb, eventually discovering that the lodge other climbers recommended was the same one already booked for him by Ujuzi.
“I have the highest regard for Ujuzi Travel. They really listened to us, got to know us, what we love about the outdoors. It was an extraordinary trip. Down to the tiniest detail, like getting us the best seats on the plane, even having our layover in Amsterdam, which is the easiest airport to wait in. They were so thoughtful and mindful about the details,” Bill said.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is difficult, but possible for anyone in good physical condition. “Because it starts at the equator and goes to 19,500 feet, you essentially walk from the equator to the pole,” Bill said. “Doing so, you pass through the climate of every region on earth. It’s the highest you can climb without carrying oxygen.”
There are cases of altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening. People who’ve traveled from all over the world to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro may be turned away or sent back down the mountain at any stage of their climb — even just before they reach the peak — because they show worrying symptoms. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, no matter how physically fit they are. On the flight over, Bill’s wife, Joanie Oullette, who was 56 at the time, read an article about how Martina Navratilova had been forced to abandon her own ascent to Mt. Kilimanjaro. If a woman as fit as Ms. Navratilova couldn’t avoid altitude sickness, what hope did they have?
“It’s an issue of acclimation,” said Bill, advising all climbers to listen to their guides. “The guides deliberately try to stay in the background, but they’ll say, ‘Slowly, slowly.’ No matter how slowly you think you’re going, they want you to go slower.”
Hikers can choose from four well-known routes up Mt. Kilimanjaro, but Bill and his family chose the one colloquially known as “The Whiskey Route,” which is not the easiest option. The easiest route is commonly called “The Coca Cola Route.”
“The Whiskey Route keeps you up at higher elevation longer over the six days,” said Bill. “In our opinion you need that time to acclimate.” On researching ascension completion percentages — the percent of people who successfully summit Mt. Kilimanjaro — Bill found that it’s higher for the Whiskey Route than the Coca-Cola Route.
Bill’s party included three guides, eight porters and one cook, along with his wife and son. It took six days to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, but Bill and his family successfully climbed it. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges. After camping at Berafu one night, the next morning’s plan was to first scale the Great Barranco Wall, also known as the Breakfast Wall since it’s the first challenge after breakfast.
“It’s a bit of a technical challenge,” Bill said. While climbing, his wife, Joanie, asked their head guide, Elias, if anyone has ever fallen. Without hesitation, he responded, “Oh yes, it happens all the time.” Joanie asked, “Have you seen anyone fall?”
“He paused. You could see him remembering each instance before replying, ‘Yes, three times. They were all right. We carried them off the mountain.’”
“Now the precipices are very steep. Outhouses cantilever over the edge and there’s no horizontal space to pitch a tent,” said Bill. “You really feel like you’re on the top of the world.”
The final ascent, like all great climbs, begins well before dawn. “You’re on the trail at midnight and want to get to the subordinate peak by 7 a.m.,” said Bill. “Every climb has a scree field and you’ve got to cross it when it’s frozen or it’s like walking on ball bearings: you take a step and you slide back ¾ of a step.”
Bill and his family woke that night to hear their porters reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. “We don’t speak Swahili, but we recognized the cadence,” said Bill. “I asked Elias about it and he said, ‘That’s right. We’re praying for you that you make it tonight.’”
Although the challenges of the climb are not to be underestimated, neither is the beauty. As Bill recalled the final climb, he said, “You look down at Mt. Meru and it’s like looking out of an airplane. You look up at the stars and feel like you can reach out and touch them, but you’re actually too tired to raise your arms above your head.”
Even Bill was not immune to some of the side effects of the altitude. “It gets colder and colder, and you get more and more tired. You can’t get enough oxygen in your lungs and your mind starts to play tricks on you.” At one point, Bill hallucinated, thinking a loose strap on his wife’s backpack was a mouse, only realizing the truth just before he reached out to brush it off.
Still he was healthy enough to complete the climb. “I don’t remember most of that last stretch. The only thing I remember is another individual arguing with his guide. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a good idea. I know who’s going to win that argument.’”
Limited numbers of people ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro. With the variety of paths up the mountain, approximately 100 people come from all directions on any given day, merging together in a single line. “You can see them all, you’re all wearing headlamps. I looked back and thought it looks like a giant centipede as they all shift right and left around boulders and other obstacles. The Tanzanian park authorities do a great job keeping it orderly, you don’t feel crowded.”
Bill and his family reached the summit around 9 a.m. “We were really lucky because we had good weather. If it’s snowing or really windy, you can’t get up there. I climbed the highest peak in Wyoming 3 times before I could reach the summit. But that day on Mt. Kili it was very cold, but windless and cloudless.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We probably spent 10 or 15 minutes up there. Enough to do a long, slow 360-degree turn, take pictures, hug our guides, hug each other. Then you have to get out of there because someone’s coming to take your spot. Then we went down to take a nap.”
Bill said that the descent was more difficult for him because of arthritis in his knees, making the process very painful.
“So we pulled ourselves off the mountain, got a certificate and bought a t-shirt. It’s customary to take your guides out for a meal and beer.” Even after their work was done, the guides once again exhibited their graciousness. Bill’s family’s truck broke down and the guides sent their truck to pick them up. “‘It’s OK, we’ll walk,’ they said. ‘The hotel will send another truck.’”
At the hotel, the staff was considerate and gracious. “They were like, ‘Oh, you climbed Kili! That’s great! You must have a lot of dirty laundry.’ And they did all that laundry — overnight — at a special rate for climbers instead of the hotel rate.”
Bill and his family still had a full Ujuzi safari to enjoy. “We were over there for a month,” said Bill, who highly recommends such an approach. “How can you go over there and not see this extraordinary land populated by these amazing beasts, wonderful flowers, wildly different sets of ecosystems. Papyrus marshes, high plains, crocodiles, hyenas, cheetahs. You can’t over there and not go see that. After the climb you’re in wonderland, and you’ve earned that reward.”
On safari, Bill and his family saw all of the “Big 5” game: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. They also saw a cheetah, one of the most elusive animals.
“We were driving through the Serengeti and we see a bunch of vultures on a fresh carcass,” Bill recalled. “Every species of vulture in that section of Africa was on that kill.”
Their guide spotted a water hole and suggested they drive over. “There was a cheetah, sitting on the overlook, licking its paws, looking very satisfied.”
They saw several lion prides, the largest of which was of eight lions. “The youngest of the young are playing and wrestling. Then there’s the adolescent males lying on the road who flash into action in an instant. You constantly hear from the guide, ‘You have to get back in the truck, they’re very aggressive.’ One minute they’re 40 feet away from you, looking the other way, then they are right up on you in one leap.”
Bill sensed a difference between animals in Africa compared to animals in North America. “I’ve been around big animals that can be dangerous before, grizzlies, bison, but in Africa it’s different. In North America the animals, even the carnivores, don’t immediately attack. In Africa, lions perceive you as food. But even herbivores perceive you as a threat so they’ll charge. They’ll all charge with homicidal intent.”
One of the more humorous moments was a night at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, when Bill and his son Sam had stayed up after Joanie had gone to bed. “The lodge has a little sign that says please ask for an armed guide to take you back to your room. Sam and I look at each other and think, we’ve backpacked through Yellowstone. But a little voice says, ‘You are in Africa.’” So they called for the armed escort.
“Our hut was all the way at the end of a row of huts. Maybe a 10 minute walk. We asked him, ‘Do you get animals here?’ And he says, ‘Yes, just two nights ago there was an elephant outside and he was making a terrible racket, the poor people couldn’t get out of their cabin for four hours. Last week there was a lion. And almost every night we have buffalo come to get away from the lions and they are very disappointed there are humans here. Of course, they should be disappointed because we’re visitors, they’re the ones who live here.’”
The next morning as they left the hotel, they’d only driven maybe 30 yards and there was a buffalo in the trail and another peering out from the bushes.
Despite the dangers, Bill couldn’t say enough about the wonders of Africa. “It’s a place of incredible beauty, there’s so much wildlife.
On the safari, they tracked gorilla. “They’re very soulful animals,” said Bill. They were quite the contrast from Bill’s chimpanzee trek, when the chimpanzees had been into some fermented fruit. “They were drunk! They acted just like drunk humans!” he recalled.
In another example of Ujuzi’s thoughtful planning, they went to the regional hospital in Bwindi because Joanie is a nurse. As a bonus, the hospital tour also included exposure to traditional medicine. “It was what we used to call a ‘witch doctor,’” said Bill. “He showed us the herbs he uses and described what chants he uses with them.” It was an example of Western medicine collaborating with traditional medicine. “They work very effectively together. That tour wasn’t something we asked for, but Ujuzi is very thoughtful. You’re going to spend a lot of money on airfare and lodging, you might as well take advantage of a place like Ujuzi and maximize the value.”
Bill says he absolutely wants to return. He recommends that travelers spend time learning not only about the animals and landscape, but also visiting with the people, including those in rural areas with more traditional lifestyles. As Tanzania and Uganda experience more urbanization, traditional ways of life are changing, but they continue to have an important role in East African culture. Getting to know people from a different background can give you a fresh take on the world, as well as your own values and culture. “Everyone should go,” he says.