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From the Cradle of Humankind to the Roof of Africa (and a lot in-between)

Last fall, I spent a few weeks travelling in eastern Africa, mainly Tanzania, to explore and experience, but also so myself, Gayland Panko, Kevin Pilsworth, and Max Pilsworth could summit the Roof of Africa — Mount Kilimanjaro in Kilimanjaro National Park

[Exclusive to the Moose Jaw Express]

Last fall, I spent a few weeks travelling in eastern Africa, mainly Tanzania, to explore and experience, but also so myself, Gayland Panko, Kevin Pilsworth, and Max Pilsworth could summit the Roof of Africa — Mount Kilimanjaro in Kilimanjaro National Park.

This is the (highly condensed) story of that expedition:

Sitting in the Education Centre in the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, I am thoroughly pleased with the clay art pieces that my students have produced in my CREATEabilities class. I enhance them slightly with some enamel and acrylic highlights in order to add depth and verismo. The goal is to make them look old — very old. That's because the students have produced examples of African cave art. Cave art is the oldest form of storytelling, and the oldest form of art itself.

While in Arusha, Tanzania last fall, I visited the largest art gallery in Africa: The Cultural Heritage Centre. I could have spent days wandering through the impressive buildings, enjoying the endless array of African paintings, carvings, textiles, etc. Upon exiting the Centre, I was compelled to stop and digest a very large and heavily textured painting of cave art with one of my travelling companions, Gayland "Big Country" Panko. 

"I'm going to get my students to reproduce this when I get home!" I boldly stated to Big Country. 

I've always found cave art and petroglyphs fascinating, wondering about the person who made the creative marks, and the details of his or her perhaps not-so-simple life thousands of years ago. Eastern and southern Africa are excellent places to learn about cave art, with Africa often referred to as the Cradle of Humankind.

After all, the uber-important Olduvai Gorge and Ngorongoro Conservation Area are both located wholly within Tanzania.

Summitting the Roof of Africa

My time in Arusha was completely relaxed and painless compared to the previous ten days in Africa, which was consumed with the real reason myself and my three expedition mates were there: To summit Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa, and one of the world's Seven Summits.

"Big Country", Kevin Pilsworth, Max Pilsworth, and I had been successful a few years ago in climbing together to Mount Everest Base Camp. 

This one was quite different, and in some ways significantly more gnarly than what we experienced in Nepal. We trained hard for this one, spending time in the Colorado 'fourteeners' for our high-altitude training.

I have to say I am very proud of my teammates for pushing through their own personal challenges in order to successfully complete the summit assault. Only a team member really knows what it took for a teammate, or themself, to reach their goal.

In the words of Sawyer Buettner, "I'm from Moose Jaw, so, we're a gritty group."

A climb such as this is not for everybody. Most of the time, it is not fun. More than fifty per cent who attempt Kili tap out. Many people simply do not possess the genetics to be successful. Some of it is a blur, kind of surreal, but you keep going because of your experience, training, and a desire to push yourself to beyond maximum.

It is painful, dangerous, and potentially fatal. There are places on the mountain where, if you slip, you can have a very bad day. You work harder and harder with vertical gain, yet available O2 levels decrease with altitude. At almost 20,000 feet of elevation, for example, you have to work with approximately 47 per cent of the O2 available at sea level.

Altitude affects everything, and is the biggest challenge. It affects sleep, the ability to digest food, your appetite, and causes headaches, nausea, and lightheadedness. Summit day/night is a bear. You have a four-hour climb to Barafu, where you spend the day trying to rest, although the continuous singing and dancing of the Tanzanian porters and guides make it almost impossible.

Gear is packed and repacked several times, you force yourself to eat and hydrate, you take Diamox to delay acute mountain sickness, and at 11:30 p.m. our head guide Kibacha unzips our two-person tent and says, "Let's go!"

Outside, our team of 20 make their final preparations. The night is very dark and cold, and the wind bites our faces. We adjust our packs, turn on our headlamps, and start to climb, knowing the effort required for the next 15 hours. 

The guides remind us constantly to "pole, pole!", meaning 'go slow' in Swahili.

Some of the ascent is a very dusty series of switchbacks, and some sections require full focus on rock bands, with hands and feet scrambling. We rest often, finding a rock or ledge to sit on, sweating profusely and sloppily gulping down water. Our guides give us a sickeningly sweet powder that they call "Kilimanjaro cocaine." Looking up, I see a long line of headlamps heading to the top; it seems so far away.

At 5:45 a.m., the sun rises over eastern Africa, giving hope to all the climbers. It's beautiful and warm, and the view is the reason we are on the mountain. No photo can truly capture it, nor can it be fully described with words. 

We reach Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa, before 8 a.m. After taking pictures, we begin the long, painful descent. We spend the night at Millennium Peak, where our appetites start to return, fuelled with the joy of success.

The following day, the descent continued rapidly, entering different climatic zones as the altitude decreased. Making our way through a wet, hot rainforest at the end, we reached the fresh food, Coca-Cola, wine, and beer waiting for us. Eventually, we boarded a bus back to Moshi, capital of Kilimanjaro region. We had our first showers in a week, slept in beds, played cards, and watched the many monkeys playing on our hotel roof.

Safari in the Serengeti

During our last week in Africa, we toured around the Serengeti on safari. This is where we really noticed and appreciated the uniqueness of Africa, in terms of wildlife, environment, and how the people have adapted to their world.

The Maasai people survive and thrive with their cattle on the sparsest of land, living in huts that have remained unchanged for thousands of years. 

We were able to witness up close (very close) lions, hyenas, wildebeest, elephants, hippos, giraffes, Cape buffalo, baboons, cheetahs, mongoose, and many more. Resting on the deck of a yurt and looking out onto the vast expanse of the Serengeti before heading over to the dining tent for dinner is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. 

We departed the Serengeti by a small aircraft on October 7th, noticing as we did that Israel had been attacked by terrorists. From Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, we noticed that we deliberately flew northwest above the Red Sea — avoiding Sudanese and Libyan airspace en route to Dublin, Ireland.

I have been blessed with the health and means to have experienced many big adventures like this one in my life, and I won't soon forget the beauty of the land, and especially the people.

-Mark Gilliland

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