There's a scene in the classic 1937 film Lost Horizon where a woman from a remote mountain kingdom is brought down to civilisation and before our eyes is transformed into a raddled old crone and ends up as a pile of dust. That's a bit like how I felt when I returned to London last week after the journey of a lifetime. I'd left for Africa three weeks ago fit and raring to go. I returned with hands covered in windburn (looking a bit like witches' claws), a nose resembling a peeling Jersey Royal potato, I'd lost at least 7lbs and my bowels were on overdrive.
Three months ago we'd hatched a plan. We were to climb to the top of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa (19,340ft, 5,895m) and fly a kite on World Aids Day, 1 December. Our aim was to raise money for the Elton John Aids Foundation, which helps people who are HIV positive in this ravaged continent. Over coffee, Elton's partner David Furnish, Johnny Bergius (one of the foundation's directors) and I set out our training schedule. I looked forward to a challenging hike through a beautiful and remote part of Tanzania.
Most people climb Kili by taking the so-called Coca-Cola route, a dreary three-day slog up the western face. Helped by expedition planner Jeremy Gane, we devised a much more challenging journey, starting on the western flank of the mountain, and traversing it at 15,000ft before making our final bid for the top via the Barafu Ridge. With this nine-day itinerary, we hoped to be able to acclimatise better as well as visit parts of the national park rarely walked by tourists. It was the rainy season, so we had to prepare for all weathers, from scorching sun to sub- zero nights. Gane and Marshall and Challenges Unlimited, who organised our trek, prepared us for the worse. The list of kit they gave us was both comprehensive and daunting. We had endless discussions about fleeces, boots, thermal underwear and the correct number of pairs of socks.
Why Kilimanjaro? For hikers it represents one of the ultimate challenges - the highest free-standing mountain in the world, and one of the largest volcanoes. More than four miles high, it offers the chance to walk through four different eco-systems; tropical rainforests, moorland, volcanic plateaus and finally scree and ice. The mountain is made up of three different volcanic cones, Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo, the highest and youngest. Majestic and mysterious, Kili has inspired countless writers and photographers. Here's my diary of our trip.
Friday 23 November
A 45-minute flight from Wilson airport in Nairobi to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania, over vast tracts of deserted bush. Kili was already in cloud when we landed at the deserted (but rather grand) airport. We stayed the night at the pretty Moivaro Lodge, a 45- minute drive away, in individual thatched cottages on a coffee plantation near Arusha. I laid out my kit and Jeremy ruthlessly made me discard several T-shirts. We drank two bottle of really good South African Cabernet Sauvignon with supper, the last alcohol for a while.
Saturday 24 November
Awoke at 5.45 and meditated on the task ahead. Washed my hair for the last time. It took three and a quarter hours to drive to the end of the road at the Londorossi Gate. After an hour we'd left the tarmac and crept along rutted dirt tracks, climbing higher and higher, through rich farmland, fields of cabbages and beans. Mud huts gave way to villages made entirely of wood as we entered the forest. Children rushed out and waved at the Land Rover, shouting jambo (hello) every few minutes. I spotted colobus monkeys with thick white bushy tails in the trees. We signed ourselves in at the gate, giving our passport number, age and occupation. Very few people had been through since 11 September, probably only 20 or so. One New Yorker had written Tooth Fairy as his occupation. That raised a laugh. At the start of the trail, lunch had been laid out on a table complete with plastic chairs and a tartan tablecloth. …