Parcham-e Iran on Mount Kilimanjaro

By Amir Khosrow Sheibany
May 18, 2001
Written for continued from Part Two

Part Three

First Day

It was initially a nice stroll, walking through the clearing made in the woods, it wasn't too steep and there was no problem breathing. We learnt that most people fail to reach the summit because of a lack of oxygen, not lack of strength. It is a fact that most women who attempt this climb make it to the top. Presumably a woman who comes all this way to do such a crazy thing is determined to make it. As lack of oxygen is the key stumbling block, those who smoke are more likely to make it to the top than those of us who abstain.  I guess their brains need less oxygen or is it that they use their brains less?  

Afternoon of first day, having nearly cleared the forest. Kilimanjaro is on left, Mawenzi is closer and on the right.

That first evening in camp we were exhausted and ready for a good night's sleep. Sitting by the fire as the sun was setting, eating our first day's rations, I saw a group of men in Army uniform with AK-47 machine guns enter the camp area. They were marching towards me with a fierce look in their eyes. A few moments later they had surrounded me, machine guns pointed. And who should be their leader, no one less than my old friend from the morning, the chief from the base camp, with a hand-cuff in one hand and looking seriously pissed-off that he had to make this journey up. He screamed and screamed. ? I can arrest you! You have no right to put your flag on OUR mountain!!? Anyhow, they took the flag, went to the other end of the camp area to get a drink and prepared to make their way down again.

I was quite shook up. Did he really come all this way up because of my flag? My friends said, it?s lucky he didn?t arrest me, and that they have a spare ski pole I could use in the climb, so not to worry.

But I was not going to let it be. I quickly starting writing a letter, while my friends protested that I should forget about the flag. I wrote to the commissionaire of Tanzania national parks. I said I had no intention of leaving the flag up there and how disappointed I would be with this holiday because of this experience, after all, I said, if he looks in his book of flags, he will notice that no country sports a flag like it at the moment. I handed the letter to the soldiers and assumed they will either dump it, or it will get to its destination in a few months time.

Second Day

The second day we had gotten out of the forestation and into the shrubs, and it was getting quite cold. The plants were a bit more exotic and rough. The stress and pressure had begun to build up on us though we did not realize it then. The ski poles started to become useful as we stopped quite often to sit and I used it as a stick to get up again. We had the same food again that night around the fire and I knew that by the third night I would be sick of our culinary delights of stale Cadbury chocolate and local sandwiches.  I yearned for a gourmet meal at one of my favorite London restaurants.  But this night I slept outside our cabin instead and looked straight up into the stars.

I'm last on left. Two had already given up by here. We were not the fittest team to hit on Kilimanjaro!.

After the second night we woke up to a treat from nature. The clouds were just below us, and as the orange sun came up, through them we saw a beautiful, spectacular display of colour. It was at this point that our two friends from England gave up. They were getting heart palpitations, and much preferred to start the safari, the next stage of our holiday, early.

I got another surprise. The commissionaire of Tanzania or Kilimanjaro national parks must have read my letter that previous night, agreed with my position, and ordered some poor chap to run up with the flag and give it back to me with an apology.

Third Day

Volcanic landscape. I' walking towards the ice cap.

This was a tough day. We saw people coming down from the peak with frostbites, some obviously in quite bad condition. The landscape had become quite barren. It was cold - we had to wear our jackets- and it had become a steeper ascent. We stopped chitchatting with each other in order to conserve our energy. The air had gotten increasingly thin. We approached camp 3, the last one that we would sleep in before the final ascent to the summit. This last resting-place was at 4700 meters, higher than  Mount Blanc, the highest point in Europe. [FYI: The peak of Damavand stands at 5670m]

Legend has it that one climbs Mount Kilimanjaro to find out who one?s friends really are. A few weeks before us there had been two celebrities, Tim Jefferies and Elle Mcphereson, attempting to climb this same mountain, just prior to getting married.  I can see why. In the civil world of Western Europe, you meet friends in cozy surroundings with not a lot to worry about other than social graces and protocols, ?tarofs? and ?ada?, and ?tashrifat?. Here, where there is no running water let alone a shower, there is no such luck. The pressure builds up with stealth and you get irritated that you have not washed, irritated that your toilet is a hole in the ground, irritated that there is no waiter to take your order. Soon there is tension between you and your friends.   You start skipping a few considerations and courtesies. Eventually, you either get on each others nerves enough to start a verbal fight, or you find you are friends enough to get over all this and help each other out. At least one of our friends didn't show himself in a good light, and the mannerism of another suggested a character different to that we had previously known. The flag became one of his reasons to be annoyed with me. It was in everyone?s face he moaned, it proves I?m not part of the team of friends but in fact on my own personal mission. Though most of the others said, they didn?t feel intimidated by the flag or distracted by any greater meaning of why I had brought it with me, not every one was a happy bunny at this point.

Late at night of 3rd day. We would wake at 1 am next day to make it to Gilman's point at 6am

I was left to figure out why there was such a reaction to this flag I had brought with me. It didn?t even mean anything to any of these people around me, and yet its presence got heartbeats pumping faster.

Fourth Day

By now the going was really hard. Two more friends (the French residents) gave up. They were going blue in the face with the lack of oxygen. It was cold, it was hard to breathe. It was pointless. Why go to all this pain to get to the top?

Just a hundred meters or so before Gilman's point where most climbers sit down at about 6 am to watch the sun rise over Africa, two other friends gave up (the Lebanese and the Belgian). They felt they might make it to the top, but then they wouldn?t have the energy to get down, and it was starting to look dangerous.

Gilman's point where many climbers end their trip. Technically the highest point was another 1.5 hours walk away.

So now it was just me, with one assistant guide. I was totally exhausted. If it was not for this flag, and having told everyone in London that I was going to come back with a picture with it from the top of Kilimanjaro, I would have rather given up too. After all, I was on a lunar landscape, freezing cold, not able to breath properly. All the pain could end just as soon as I say those warm, cozy words,   ?I give up..?

View of Mt. Mawenzi from Gilman's point (top left), From Gilman's point to Uhuru (top right), Start of 3rd day (bottom left), Huts for climbers on first night (bottom right).

I nearly did give up. With every breath I was thinking to myself, "I?m not going to make it !" "I?m not going to make it !" "I'm not going to make it !" But this was my national flag. For centuries my forefathers had gone through a lot more pain and heartache for this flag than a shortness of breath! It was the words of the assistant guide to another climber, that finally got me off the ground. ?no mon? he said in his heavy, deep, accented voice. ?You cannot give up now. In just a few hours mon, you?ll be on top of A-F-R-I-C-A?

With these inspiring words, I got up and made it to Uhuru (meaning freedom) Peak, the highest point in Africa.

The silver box in the photo below contains a book that you sign. It is at the peak.

And here is a Swedish girl who was at the peak at the same time I got there. Nothing like a hug and a kiss to warm ones soul.

Well, I did it. Another one and a half days march would get me to base camp and a nice, warm safari with the others. Also I had made up my mind what I was going to do, out of those 3 options (from part one) present for us.


Article continued in four parts. Part four next week.