I do not like hiking. I don’t think I ever have. Before my four brothers and sisters came along, my parents were much more adventuresome and we would hike sometimes. But we would usually site see in much more interesting ways like skiing, mountain biking or horse back riding. Hiking is just so…boring. Or so I thought.
My team leader approached the team several weeks ago with a proposal to hike the tallest peak on our island at over 4000ft. An island friend had come to him trying to organize this trip so he wanted to get our opinion. He asked the group to raise their hands if they were interested. If there was enough interest, he would let his friend know that he could begin looking for guides and a ride to center of the island. Everyone raised his or her hand, except me. No one seemed to notice, so I was in the clear. If I wanted to hike, I could jump on that bandwagon. If not, I could gracefully bow out, stating that I didn’t raise my hand in the first place.
The day approached and our team leader took pains to tell us what we might expect. While he’d never climbed this particular peak and didn’t know anyone who had, he had done a fair amount of island hiking and had had his share of miserable trips. It could rain, he said. The hike could take longer than advertised (our hike had a estimated range of 3-6 hours). Bring extra socks. Bring snacks. Bring a raincoat. By this time, not wanting to miss the team bonding that would inevitably occur on this long excursion where there’s nothing to do but talk, I had determined to tag along.
That morning I woke up and packed my Camelbak backpack. I had extra clothes and socks, my raincoat, flip flops (for after the hike) and a liter of water. I put on green khaki capri pants, a t-shirt and tennis shoes. I wrapped a bandana around my head, completing my “gringo” get-up, as the Brazilians on our team put it.
Eight foreigners and four islanders (one friend, two guides and the driver) crammed into a mini van, which we’d commandeered for our ride to the base of the peak. It took about an hour, bumping over poorly maintained roads on mountainsides, through fields of cloves, passing hardworking farmers. I was unable to appreciate the beauty that we passed, as I was stuffed in the very back seat and sitting on the edge of the seat that had lost its cushion. With every bump in the road, jagged metal cut into my bottom. So I sat there eyes closed, concentrating on remaining silent as I watched, in my mind’s eye, my butt turning black and blue.
We couldn’t have arrived at our destination any sooner. I jumped out of the van and was ready to get started. The peak loomed in the distance. We all took pictures in front of it, ready for the unknown…or so we thought. Just a few minutes into the hike we gathered in a circle and prayed for protection.
We started off on a road, which quickly turned into a one-person path that ran along the edge of a mountain. It was a path for farmers, well-worn and winding through fields set on the mountainside, fields of cassava and ginger. The white flowers of the ginger plant filled the air with a sweet fragrance. I walked along the path, one guide in front, one behind. One male teammate and I quickly outpaced the remainder of our team and we even lost their voices as the plants grew closer and taller and the path grew narrower. After about an hour and half, we came to a small building, with a veranda and trees for shade. We stopped there and waited for the rest of the team to catch up. It was hot and not yet 11am. My bandana was soaked with sweat when I removed it from my head, but mopped my face and neck anyway.
Once everyone had arrived, snacks were passed around, water was guzzled and we returned to our journey in high spirits. In minutes, we had come to “the lake”. All of us had heard of this fabled lake. One of my island friends had told me that one day several foreigners had gone swimming in the lake and disappeared beneath the surface never to be seen or heard from again. Another similar story was that if you dive into the water you come up on another island (we liked this idea of cheap travel between islands). We had also heard rumors about spirits inhabiting the water. The bottom line is that islanders do not swim in the lake. While some may laugh at these superstitions, I believe that there is usually some truth behind seemingly unfounded fears. Ever see “Dante’s Peak”? Our island is volcanic; maybe it gets super hot? Maybe there’s a crocodile? Maybe there are deadly bacteria? Maybe there are spirits? I sure didn’t want to find out!
More pictures were taken at the lake and then the real hike began. The path became less traveled as we climbed. The fields thinned out and trees took their place. This was nice because it provided us with some much-needed shade. Our group stuck closer together; we were all within earshot, as the going got tougher. Our guide must have been in his 50’s or 60’s. He wore plastic flip flops. I followed directly in his wake as the path became steeper and as I bent over to grab handholds, he just walked right up the mountain without holding anything! As my breathing began coming in short gasps and my bronchitis reemerged making me wheeze and cough up phlegm, he just relaxed on the path ahead waiting for the slow, out of shape muzungu’s to catch up.
But then the mountain became steeper. The guide was now using handholds- roots, vines, rocks- whatever was available. I was getting tired. I asked the guide if it was far. Yes, it is far. Oh man, what does that mean? What does he think is far? But I had already pushed my local language to its limits just asking that questions. There was no way for me to elicit additional information. Three hours into our hike, one and half hours into the hard climb, I saw a clearing up ahead. I could make it! I pushed ahead to the top, so excited!…to be at the half way point. We had made it to the ridge that would take us to the actual mountain we were supposed to be climbing. Holy moli. I thought about just sitting down there in that small clearing and telling everyone I would see them on their way down. But that could take hours with the pace we were going! I would be so bored and hot. Plus I didn’t want to miss the view which was supposed to allow us to see three other surrounding islands! So I pushed on.
The climb became even more dangerous. We were in deep jungle now, clinging to roots as our lifelines. We climbed hand over foot, asking the person in front or behind us where to put our feet or what root is not rotten or which rock is steady. It was treacherous and my muscles were already overworked. I kept a running commentary of prayer going on in my mind. This was scarier than I had expected.
Four and half hours into the hike we found a level spot of the path just big enough for us to stop and have a conference. We hadn’t yet reached the top and in five and half hours it would be dark. We knew we couldn’t climb down in the dark and no one had a mind to spend the night on the mountain. We decided to continue climbing for one more hour. If we didn’t reach the top by then, no matter where we were, we would turn around and descend.
I was spent. If someone had elected to stay right there on that stretch of path, I would have joined him or her. But I didn’t want to be the only one to miss out on the view. So I kept climbing, trusting that I would be given the necessary strength. And I was. Half an hour after that decision was made, we reached the top. It was a beautiful clear day. We would have seen for miles in every direction had the view not been blocked entirely by trees! That’s right. No view. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was a dead bat hanging from one of the trees. That was kind of weird.
After resting for a while, the reality of our descent began to hit. This was not going to be easy. None us are truly experienced mountain climbers. Two in our group were wearing Chaco sandals. We weren’t prepared, so we prayed some more. And then we began.
It was slow going. Our muscles were shaky and unsteady from too much exertion. Some were slower and our group broke into two. I was with the second group, taking each step carefully. Everyone was exercising caution. But it wasn’t enough. There was a particularly sketchy part of the trail, where the path fell away to about two inches for your feet and handholds were few and far between. You had to hug the mountain and scoot along the ledge. Myself and another woman had already successfully traversed this section. One of the men was attempting to cross when something went wrong. His foot slipped and he lost his handhold. He was carrying a heavy backpack and the weight pulled him backwards over the ledge. I watched, horrified, as he tumbled, somersaulting in the air. The trail switched back under the ledge and I heard myself scream as he hit the trail 10 feet below. But he didn’t stop there. Face first he flew down the side of the mountain, until two trees halted his descent. The first thing to hit was his head- he crumpled. In those split seconds after he hit, I was sure he’d broken his neck. After that initial thought, nothing else entered my mind except that I must get to him so I raced down the mountain after him and stopped my descent with my feet on the very same trees into which he had just face-planted.
He moved. I exhaled. He pushed himself away from the tree. I almost collapsed in relief. He’s ok, he says. I look at his face and the skin is scrapped away from an already forming goose egg on his forehead.
Is anything broken? I don’t think so.
Can you walk? I think so.
Can you get back to the trail? Yes.
He just stands up and walks right back to the trail. Our team doctor was with our slower group, so he was able to check for concussion and ask more informed follow up questions. But he really was fine. It was a miracle. Really. At the very least, a fall that far, and the way he hit that tree…I shudder remembering it. After many minutes of emotional recuperation for him and his wife, we continued. The adrenaline pumping through my veins began to diminish and that’s when my emotions reappeared. All the emotions that my body wouldn’t let me feel in a crisis came crashing down on me when the crisis was over. Fear mostly and some anger. There, crab walking down the steep terrain, I started to cry. I knew it was ridiculous so I didn’t let myself cry a lot. I had stopped by the time we met up with the group in front of us.
We did make it down the mountain, obviously. Once we reached the easy trail, I broke away from the group and walked quickly with just the guide. I needed to process; I needed to not talk; I needed to just be alone. I made it back to the taxi before nightfall and waited for my companions to stagger in as well. It took ten hours in total.
On the trail, one teammate made a joke about me writing a blog about the experience. What great life lesson would I pull from this adventure? It’s taken me a week to consider his question, something that was said in jest. We were naïve. We were unprepared. I’m sure there were things we could have done better, but we were also over confidant. But we did one thing right. We were covered in prayer. People back home pray for each of us everyday and I cannot begin to express my appreciation for that. And we also prayed many times with each other and I’m sure each of us prayed independently and God answered. He is faithful.