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Railway Children to reconquer Kilimanjaro

Following the announcement that the charity’s colossus fundraiser will return, Adam O’Connor, RailStaff production director, recalls his unforgettable experience from 2010

Think back to 2009 and you might remember watching a group of celebrities take on the challenge of reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. It was a great challenge to undertake, and the coverage of the preparation all the way to the ascent was very good. 

Spurred on by this, Railway Children decided to organise ‘Train2Kili’ in 2010, its own challenge to summit Kilimanjaro. ‘Eight days on a mountain versus a lifetime on the streets’ was the tag line.

Katie Mason, Railway Children’s events manager, managed to get together 25 industry colleagues to take on the challenge. Originally Katie had approached myfather, the managing director of RailStaff’s parent company Rail Media, to take on the challenge for which he was keen to take part in. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for me, my mother would not allow him to, so the position on the team was offered to me, and I jumped at the chance.

Ten years on Railway Children has decided to organise a follow-up trek to Kilimanjaro. So, to encourage the next party of Kilimanjaro adventurers, I’ve re-told my own experience from 2010, through each camp on the way to the summit of Uhuru, detailed below. If it catches your imagination, watch the film ‘Lion’ and the 2009 and 2019 Red Nose Day treks on YouTube, then get in touch with Katie Mason at Railway Children and sign up. Trust me, you won’t regret it!

Arriving in Tanzania 

After months of preparation during which I gave up smoking in return for sponsorship and trained by running, hiking, playing hockey and badminton, the team set off for Africa. 

Arriving in Tanzania set my heart racing. Looking out the window of the plane and seeing Kilimanjaro at the same height as the plane brings it home to you. Kilimanjaro is 5,895m high. Toto got it right when they sang that ‘Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti’.

Day one: Rainforest Trek

The fully assembled group were ready to go. The trek started in the Lemosho Glades at 1,981m. This is the longest and most remote route to the summit Uhuru. After our first day of walking through the beautiful forests of Kilimanjaro we arrived at the first camp, Big Tree Camp at 2,800m. The forests felt alien, the trees heavy with hanging moss like a sci-fi movie.

Day two: High Altitude Desert

Then came Shira Camp One at 3500m where it started to get cold. We left the comfort and warmth of the forest and walked away through this high altitude desert. That night was one of the most perfect night skies I have ever seen. Every star was out and the Milky Way looked beautiful. 

Day three: Shira Plateau

Shira One to Shira Two was tough for me. It was my first dose of high altitude sickness. The day was very cold with some of the worst rain and hail we would encounter on the mountain. Despite the cold the climbers added an hour to the day’s trek by going up to Shira Cathedral. At the top the mist cleared. What a view it was. My jaw dropped in awe. My eyes had never seen such a beautiful sight before. When I got back to camp, however, it was a headache filled evening of feeling ill.

Day four: Southern Flank

After Shira two came the Lava Tower and another extremely cold day. We reached our highest point yet climbing up Lava Tower at 4600m. The altitude was hitting some people hard. Two people were quite ill but the whole team rallied round. 

Day five: Barranco Wall and the Karanga Valley

The team then set out for the mighty Barranco Wall. The mountain leader was being extra serious that day and made me assistant leader. I was placed at the back of the group with Mark Wilson, of TransPennine Express. I think this was the day I enjoyed the most on the mountain. The nerves soon went and I really enjoyed going off-piste with Mark and scrambling around.

Day six: Barafu Ridge

Then we left Karanga at 3900m and headed for Barafu, the final camp before summit night. My lasting memory of Karanga will be waking up, looking out of the tent and seeing that we were above the clouds. Everyone got on with the job of hiking to Barafu. It was a desolate place, and a very rocky camp.

Day seven: Summit Day

The big day finally arrived. After an evening meal of army rations full of calories to give us the energy to get to the top, I rested before setting off at 11.30pm. After an hour of walking I looked behind me and saw a trail of lights coming up the mountain. Arriving at Stella Point was very emotional. I am choking up just thinking about it. Everyone was physically and emotionally drained. Hugs and congratulations all round caused many of us to tear up with emotion. 

The toughest part was yet to come. I should never have stopped, as leaving Stella Point was agony. I had no energy and was running on backup. My water was frozen. I had a weird chemical taste in my mouth. Very slowly I shuffled my way from Stella Point to Uhuru, Kilimanjaro’s upper most point at 5895m. People at the top were sick with altitude sickness and falling about all over the place. Luckily for us none of our group were that bad.

After summiting, the downward trek back to Barafu for lunch was tough as energy was in short supply. After a short break at Barafu, the team continued down to Millennium camp, the end of a long day, 15-17 hours of trekking at high altitude. 

Day eight: Descend to Mweka Gate

Leaving Millennium camp for Mweka Gate was another good day for me. After a very long sleep my batteries were fully charged and I decided to join leader Andy and Steve Frost in running down the mountain. It was good fun, I got a good sweat on, and it was interesting overtaking porters for a change. 

The conversation on the way down was great and arriving at the bottom was joyful. We had done it! We had really gone and done it! 

Living alone on the streets

After their eight-day adventure, the mountaineers visited a Railway Children project in Tanzania to learn how sponsorship money is spent. 

Team members played football with Mkombozi project children, who won the impromptu international, Tanzania vs England and Scotland, 4-1 (pictured above). 

The most moving part was meeting the kids that will benefit from the money the group raised. They were all well spoken in English, and all clearly set on making their future positive. Hearing their aspirations to be musicians, artists, teachers and doctors was wonderful.

An unforgettable experience

As an original Railway Children Kilimanjaro trekker, I cannot speak highly enough of the charity Railway Children and the work it does, or how great it is to join in on one of their challenges. I can thoroughly recommend joining up to one of their challenges, apart from enjoying my whole time in Africa on the mountain, I helped raise money for the charity and I have met some great people who I have kept in touch with. Some of them even joined me to celebrate my wedding last year. 

Railway Children’s 2020 challenge will take place between February 1 and 13. For more information, head to www.railwaychildren.org.uk.