In June 2021, I interviewed Ebulani on her momentous journey up Mount Kenya. What took me by surprise was that she made her 4,985m ascent to the famous Lenana Point only a year after becoming a hiker. That post was the highest read of 2021 and the fourth highest in all my years of blogging. I think what won her the hearts of people around the world was how she described, in such detail and great sense of humour, her passionate climb up the mountain. Who can forget her intense craving for porridge, how unbelievably cold she was even layered with thermals, the fiery battle between her body and mind, and her victorious pose as she stood atop that majestic mountain, remembering her grandmother and all those who had come before her. I’m so excited to have her back on the blog to share her latest adventure – her climb up Mt Meru in Arusha, Tanzania which at 4,566m above sea level is the fifth highest mountain in Africa!
Your last interview was the highest read of 2021! What do you think it was about your story that struck a chord with so many people worldwide? Sho! Time does fly. I can’t believe it was that far back. I think my honesty and my childlike spirit could have struck a chord with people. When I look back, I still can’t believe I did not give up on this mountaineering hobby. It is so addictive! I remember being on Mt. Kenya and telling myself, “This is the last time and once we are down that’s it. Knit a sweater or something!” That has not been the case, but I must say I have enjoyed connecting with others around the world and getting inspired by their stories.
And now you’ve made it up another incredible summit! When did you first hear of Mount Meru and what inspired you to climb it? I first came across Mt Meru… must have been 10 years ago, on my first trip to Arusha, Tanzania, by road. It is only 4 hours from Nairobi, so it does not make sense to fly. I was an intern for some NGO and was being sent to represent them at a conference. I was excited and as green as yesterday’s grass – you know the one that has not been stepped on or the one the cow has not eaten! What I remember seeing is this huge mass covered in fog. I wondered what mountain it was. A few days later, early morning at the hotel, is when I noticed its mass properly. Eish, it was so intimidating. I was told by the locals that it was Mt Meru. It was so green and it did look like a silent giant. I did not ask much about it.
Fast forward… I’m not sure what inspired me to even want to climb it. I’m being honest! Maybe I needed a mountain to climb during Easter but I was also curious as to what I would find up there. There is a whole other life up there and silence that I so want. I think I need to change my approach and have mountains inspire me instead of being curious as to what I will find up there!
What lessons from previous adventures did you draw on as you trained for Mt. Meru? From my previous adventures, I would say I never stopped looking forward to the next adventure. I always continued hiking and if I missed out on a weekend due to work, the FOMO would almost kill me. I think the outdoors has become such a part of me that it’s really inseparable. At one time in my life, this was not for me. You would not catch me camping and I used to think people who camped were just crazy! Today I can’t wait to get out and be free…
…Sorry I went off there… I think what helped me this time round is the fact that I had done some high altitude hikes. I was very intentional with them. I knew that I did not want to do any forest hikes (which I do not like very much) and also because the weather has been nice and hot. Some of these high altitude hikes become very difficult when it rains as a number of these places are steep. At this point I did not have Meru in mind. I was just hiking for fun and also because I wanted to have a different experience in the Aberdare Range (160 km long mountain range of upland, north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi). Such beautiful places and yes, I did have a few Out of Africa moments staring into the savanna before the animals would come back home.
Which route did you take? How long did the climb take and how many overnight stops were there? There is only one way up and two stops. By the time you reach the last (2nd) camp you can start your summit early in the morning from 12am depending on your speed and many factors. You can choose to come back down and spend the night at the 2nd camp, or go down to the 1st camp and spend the night there. Roughly it can take you three days.
Tell me about your journey to the top and the interesting (and crazy!) things you experienced. On Day 1, we went up to the first camp which is from the Momella Gate (entry of the Park) to Mariakamba Hut about 8km forest walk with a few shortcuts. This is where two things happened – I came across this massive amazing fig tree that would make me want to go back to Meru. Just to stare at it and get another beating from the mountain!
The second thing, which has left me traumatized and my life will never be the same again, is the smell of cooked rice. It will, and I repeat, never be the same. A number of times I’ve been in the forest and have joked about this smell of someone cooking rice, “Should we look for stew?” I’d say… well, the joke was on me. I’ve often been told that, it’s the smell of a plant. In this case, the ranger gave me a look, just nodded and said “Yes, the plant” and something about photosynthesis, pushing me to hurry out. I was wondering why he cut me short and was practically running out of the forest with me trying to keep up. It’s only when we made it to camp that he told me, “That smell – that’s a snake or snakes. It means they are nearby and could be shedding.” The shock, till today, I’ve been trying to vomit out the air I have always enjoyed! Rice is just not the same. I am beyond sick to my stomach with the thought. Apparently snakes smell of cooked rice or mashed potatoes. And just like that my childhood has been ruined!
What you need to know about Day 2 is that it is a very steep affair. It’s from Mariakamba Hut to Saddle Hut which was about 11 km steep as can be, going up. The journey had a number of red ants that you just didn’t want in your pants so you had to move a bit fast and slow down in other parts. It’s all so cool as it’s still forest.
What you had to watch out for were the buffalos but they were just eating and minding their own business further in the forest. Spotted some Dik Diks and apparently I passed a buffalo but I was not aware. The smell was strong but I was so focused on trying to get to a flatter place that I didn’t see it. It was covered by some vegetation, but its smell was very strong. It was only after I walked past it then I asked, “What was that smell? Whatever it is, it needs a bath!” My guide smiles and tells me we walked past a buffalo. I was shocked, but this one hit me a bit later and I think we were coming down the mountain. I was still processing the rice and snake situation which I am having a hard time with!
There were other interesting things like the flowers, OMG, so beautiful and the birds singing. I don’t ever think that I will become a bird watcher, that’s not my thing, but plants, there is just something about these pretty things that puts a smile on my face. I did take a lot of plant pictures and lost track of time. However, they were such a great distraction from the long climb.
We got to the back of the elephant which is the halfway point, took some pictures and continued. We left a little later for the last push. We started at 2.30am, still walking in what was left of the forest. It was still going upwards.
What surprised you the most about this climb? I was not expecting to be crossing from one end holding a chain, so that I do not fall in the valley. It’s a good thing I could not see clearly where I was going. But again it was too late to turn back. I thought that this was just on one side of the rock. There were two other places waiting for me.
At one point I had to use my behind to help me get across as I was overthinking too many things. The moon, I think it was a full moon as I could see down the valley, not so clearly, but you could tell that it was far down. It not being so high the weather changed a bit at around 4am but got warmer at 5am. By this time we were at the summit zone. We pushed slightly higher and by around 5.30 we could see the sun almost starting to come out. We had the perfect spot for pictures and so we waited and took our pictures then continued our journey past 6.30am.
What other challenges did you have? The weather decided not to be a happy camper and fog came out of nowhere. So it was a good thing that we had taken pictures. I was told 200 metres to finish but someone forgot to mention that metres on a mountain could mean eternity! At one point, there was rock climbing, more walking, you name it. And of course I was peeing endlessly. I would have to find a spot and just alert the team I have to pee and just do it. It looked like a direct access but this mountain makes you zig zag and when you think you’re about to get there, nope! You’re far from it. It just makes you call yourself for a couple of meetings and ask yourself questions that even you can’t answer!
With all this drama, what encouraged you to keep going? Mentally, I had told myself that I’m up for this challenge, but also I knew I had the strength to finish. But anytime I thought I was finishing a new surprise would emerge. There were several fake summits. I had to ask myself if this was really a hobby or if I need to enrol myself in therapy. This mountain had endless jokes. The good thing is that the weather was a bit confused at some point. It was not sure whether it should rain or shine or what the deal was. Had it rained, I would have cried. And not just cried but had the ugliest cry humanity has ever seen.
After all this, how did it feel finally getting to the top? My frustrations as I was going up were also due to low sugar so I stopped to refuel when we spotted the flag in the fog. I thought I was seeing things. It was the flag but you would still have to climb to get to the summit. I cannot express my feelings of finishing this challenge. This mountain was showing me flames on the grill! Getting to the top at that last minute, I don’t know where the strength came from, as now I was telling the team, “We have 5 minutes to take pictures and look cute while at it! We don’t want people to see how we suffer going up. No sweating just smiling!” It felt amazing being up there at the highest point and nothing mattered.
The views were beautiful. I felt lighter, so much joy, what an achievement… then the thought of going down kills it for a moment!
I love how you look so incredible at each summit! So you then start your descent… I don’t know where the strength came from for going down but I was ready.
We went down to Camp 2 and initially we were meant to go to Camp 1 but the team and I thought it best to spend the night at Camp 2 so that the next day we would just leave early and descend all the way and not have to spend a night at Camp 1. I was also avoiding that whole snake situation. I was not ready for that! We went up what they call Little Meru which after being on its mother seemed like the easiest task. Climbed it fast before breakfast at 6am.
So even after all the adventure, you decided to reach another summit! What motivated you to do this? I really do not know why I did it but I guess I still had energy left! Little Meru is literally in the middle of Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Meru. Feels like a mother-father-son situation. The bed of clouds made one feel like taking a nap. This is the same feeling I’d had the day before.
What were some highs and lows as you descended? After coming down Little Meru and having breakfast, it was home time. I just wanted a bath. This wet wipe situation was a bit much and it was only Day 3 but I was so done! I had really enjoyed my time and was feeling some type of way but once I started going down, I could not wait to get to camp. It was so steep but luckily it had not rained so the ground was not slippery. The bit that I was most worried about was towards the end as it was crazy steep. Had it been wet, for sure there’d have been a few falls. I was avoiding the red ants as we were back in ant territory. Probably a low was coming down, I had loved the peace I felt up there. No worries, no thoughts – just nature and the sound of silence.
There are lessons in every journey. What lessons did Mt. Meru teach you? There is no rush. Pace yourself and it does not matter what time you get to your destination. This I learnt by observing others. Some people would get to camp so exhausted and low on energy. The best you can do is pace yourself and go at a good speed not to tire yourself as you need all the energy to go up the mountain and back down. You’d rather be tired once you are done than half way. No one will carry you down. The chances of you rolling down are pretty high.
Looking back at all your adventures, what was different about this one? I feel they have all been so unique and different in each and every way. From the flowers, you name it. This one was different because I went at it alone. I planned my travel with my contact (Sambatreks) and everything went according to plan. I could not have done this trip with others as it was not meant to have been that way. There will be many of these, I feel. However, my heart sang and it was at peace. I am looking forward to more of these kind of trips.
And we are looking forward to following you as you embark on those new trips! As always, you’ve taken us on a beautiful journey with so many different emotions – just for you, I’ll stay away from rice for a few weeks! Thanks for taking us along on your adventures – showing us your free spirit, your humour and above all, your grit and determination to complete what you start. If you’d like to connect with Ebulani, check out her Instagram.
I’m joining Kooky Runner and Zenaida on their link up, Tuesday Topics. I’m also joining the Runner’s Roundup with Mile By Mile, Coach Debbie Runs, Confessions of a Mother Runner, Runs with Pugs, and Laura Norris Running! Be sure to read their blogs and catch up with other runners from around the world.