It is not every day that a group of associates decide to climb the highest free standing mountain in the world and also the tallest in Africa – all for a good cause. But this is exactly what 18 Coca-Cola associates from Kenya and Tanzania did in October when they set out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise funds for a little-known school in Moshi, Tanzania in what was probably the most perilous journey any of them had ever taken.
Built in 1976 on the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Shrimatunda Primary School enjoys beautiful views of one of Africa’s most famous geographical features. However, the view of the school itself stands in stark contrast to the breathtaking snow-capped peaks of the mountain it faces, with the student population of 850 occupying 15 classrooms and sharing dilapidated learning and sanitary facilities with the 32 teaching and non-teaching staff at the school. That it is located just a stone’s throw away from Bonite Bottlers Limited, one of Coca-Cola’s independent bottlers in the North East of Tanzania, meant that we could not ignore the plight of a community whose contribution to our business cannot be understated. A visit to the school is enough to drive one to want to do something about its deplorable conditions, and if setting out to summit Africa’s highest peak was what it would take to raise funds to give some dignity to this community, then Coca-Cola Ambassadors were going to do it.
The journey that would take us six days began with two bus rides – one from Nairobi and another from Dar-es-Salaam – with the two teams meeting in Moshi, a dusty tourist town East of Arusha. Although the team had been preparing for this trip for two months prior to setting off on the expedition, nothing could have prepared us for the sheer physical and mental demands that the four days of ascent and two days of descent would impose on us.
Our journey, dubbed ‘KOnquer Kili,’ begins on Sunday, the 6th of October at 2 p.m. East Africa Time. We have a quick lunch at the starting point, aptly named the ‘Coca-Cola Route’ because vendors previously sold bottles of Coca-Cola along this route, and set out after the formalities of paperwork at the gate.
Sixty porters carrying our food and luggage accompany us up the mountain. But even with most of our luggage carried by porters many of us struggle to haul backpacks filled with three litres of water and other items uphill. After hours of trudging up the slope we reach the first camp site. The greenery is beautiful but the cold is biting, and after walking for 12km the reality of what lies ahead begins to dawn on us.
We quickly check into a boarding school style dormitory, change into warm gear and regroup for dinner: tea, popcorn, cucumber soup, fish fillet and vegetable curry. The key, our ‘doctor’ (he’s not a real doctor, but he knows what needs to be done having acquired his skills on his 130 trips up and down the mountain) says, is to ensure proper hydration by taking lots of liquid. He also makes sure we better manage altitude sickness, which has gotten the best of even renowned explorers such as Adrian Hayes, by taking half a tablet of Diamox every morning and again at mid-day. The doctor also maintains a routine of a daily check of oxygen levels in the blood and heart rate to be sure everyone is acclimatizing well.
On this journey, no one will shower for six days; the trick is to skillfully wipe down every morning and after a trek. By the end of the first day, two of our colleagues Chris Loiruk, Bonite Sales Manager, and his General Manager Zoeb Hassuji have dropped out for health reasons.
On Day Two we walk over six hours to Horombo Hut, the 2nd camp up our route. Midway, we sight our ultimate target Uhuru Peak, looking so close yet still so far. Those with cameras zoom in and take pictures, making our target look much closer. It is mostly for psychological reasons because this leg has proven to be extremely punishing. Not only is it steep, it is freezing! We have managed for the first time for most of us to walk in a shroud of cloud. The breeze is strong and the cold is biting, temperatures have dropped to -8 degrees celsius and many in the team have started to visibly suffer.
On day three Peter Njonjo, General Manager East Africa and leader of the team, decided to give the team a pep talk on noticing that morale was waning. He psyches us all up with his speech on the mentality of winning against the odds.
“When we put our mind to something, we succeed. The spirit of winning demands that even when physically exhausted you mentally strive to overcome the challenge. Getting to the top is of this mountain is a feat that will have a huge impact in how we approach other challenges that we face daily in our personal, social, professional spheres,” says Njonjo.
It’s only much later, when we’re back in Nairobi, that he confessed that the pep talk was just as much for him as it was for the team, because he was anxious and exhausted.
The third day of our ascent is a day of acclimatization. We walk 3.5km to Zebra Point (named so because the rocks there have zebra stripes) to acclimatize to the altitude ahead of the final climb to the peak. The team was now anxious knowing we will have to walk for over 15 hours to get to Uhuru Peak. Not an exciting prospect. It is an excruciating trek we are told; we will walk the first eight hours to Kibo Hut, at the foot of the highest peak, rest for five hours, then do another seven hours to the summit, return to base and walk another three hours to Horombo Camp for the descent.
The most punishing leg of our journey begins very early from Horombo Camp at 3700metres above sea level to end at Kibo Hut, some 4700m above sea level (ASL). On the way, as we reach the last water point on the mountain, you can almost feel members of the team summoning all their inner strength just to keep putting one foot ahead of the other. We encounter a few tourists suffering from altitude sickness being wheeled down on an improvised push cart christened by the team ‘Kili Express’ for medical attention. Many start to doubt whether they will make it to the top despite coming so far.
A colleague, Salim Kamalaa, takes a photo of the lady being carted down but soon suffers the same fate after altitude sickness got the better of him. In retrospect it was a bit ironic because he had been nicknamed ‘The Mountain Goat’ because of his speed during the initial stages of the ascent as he picked nimbly among the rocks and pebbles to set the pace for the rest of the team.
With three associates down our focus now is to rest and get back up to accomplish our mission. Our routine on Day Four is different. We have an early dinner, retire to bed at 6 p.m. for four hours of sleep then wake up for a hot cup of tea at 10:30 p.m. so as to set off on the final climb by 11:30 p.m. We dress in very warm clothing: warmth is more important today than ever before. We’re each wearing a pair of thermal trousers, a fleece jacket, a pair of cotton trousers, a warm cotton jacket, waterproof jacket, balaclava, a hoodie and hand gloves. These should protect us from temperatures of up to -20 degrees Celsius at the peak. By the time we begin the last trek most team members have either totally lost the appetite for climbing or are sick but braving it. We have to climb up 1100m within 7 hours.
On this last day, all the pep talk, mental strength and physical training in preparation for the climb is put to the ultimate test. There is no exercise that prepared us for the steep, slippery, zigzagging slope that seemed to mock us as we undertook the final ascent in the dark of the Kilimanjaro night. With three peak points standing between us and our victory, it takes everything we have to keep climbing. The first team only manages to reach the first peak – Gilman’s Point – eight hours after the start, which is at about 7:15 a.m.
Barely standing at the first peak and unsure of the next group’s arrival the breakaway team braves another excruciating two hours of walking to reach the final destination: Uhuru Peak, standing at 5895 metres above sea level - Africa’s highest point. What an achievement! Despite the bitter cold, with colleagues barely recognizable in their various physical states and shapes, the smiles are inevitable.
The next team arrives and while most look like they are on their last breaths, the celebration at the top is energetic, with a Coca-Cola flag, Kenyan flag and a Coca-Cola can placed at the peak to commemorate the climb. The feeling at the top is indescribable; the beauty of the sight only made sharper by the knowledge of the struggle it took to get to the top.
Everyone is ecstatic as they slide downhill for another three hours to Kibo Hut for a short rest and quick departure to Horombo Hut for a sleepover before returning to base.
A day later we completed our descent and after walking 10 hours that day, nothing tasted better than an ice-cold Coke. The next day after a successful descent, we visited Shrimatunda primary school to join the teachers and pupils for a walkabout. We couldn’t help but reflect on the worthiness of the sacrifice; the smiles on the children’s faces and heartfelt “thank you’s” from the teachers made it all worth it. Thanks to the team, the school fraternity will finally enjoy some dignity when using the facilities, courtesy of the USD 30,000 raised by the brave Coca-Cola Ambassadors and the funds they raised, friends, family, the bottling system and the Business Unit.
The money will go towards: rehabilitation of sanitation facilities and installation of new storage tanks, increasing water supply through strategically placed hand washing and drinking points, improvement of water usage through training of both students and teachers and establishment of forums that will support education, dissemination, discussions and information sharing on lessons learned for teachers, children and parents on school sanitation and hygiene. All this to show that we live our values, and RAIN is just one programme whose goals we are determined to achieve. No matter the sacrifices it will take on our part.
Bob Okello is Public Affairs and Government Relations Manager at the Coca-Cola Central, East & West Africa business unit.