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Mount Kilimanjaro: A summit of purpose and a hope to be heard

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OPINION: Tracey Duncan says her Mount Kilimanjaro journey was phenomenal.

By Tracey Duncan

My Mount Kilimanjaro journey was phenomenal. It made me realise how mentally strong I really am. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2020 and it was a dark time in my life. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to achieve things in life again.

In August 2021, as a former Mrs Deaf South Africa, Be the Best Version of Yourself Foundation and the Miss, Mr and Mrs Deaf South Africa organisation chose me to be part of a team of previous pageant winners to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds to give deaf children the gift of hearing. I’m grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

My trek up Mount Kilimanjaro was humbling. I saw how high altitude, can break you mentally. It’s not about how physically fit you are, it’s about your mental stamina. On day one and two I got altitude sickness – I had a pounding headache and exhaustion.

I became anxious about how I was going to summit, because I already had symptoms, and about if it got worse as I climbed higher. I also experienced minor hallucinations because my medication became less effective as we climbed higher.

We climbed through lush, green rainforest for two days, then dry land for four days. Our leading guide, assistant guides, and doctor told us to walk slowly, “polepole” in Swahili, and drink lots of water to cope with the higher altitude.

We hiked from hut to hut and our 15kg duffle bags were carried by our amazing porters. We were served home-cooked meals for breakfast, lunch and supper. A warm basin of water was brought to our huts to wash off the dust. On the fifth day we hiked to Kibo hut, slept for 4 to 5 hours and woke to prepare for summit night.

We started hiking at 11pm, and it took six hours to reach the top. During the hike, I felt exhausted. It was steep and felt very long. It’s only 3.9km from base camp to the top, but because of the high altitude it takes longer as we had to walk slowly.

The terrain was volcanic ash, so with each step we took we slipped back. Three of my teammates turned back because their bodies couldn’t handle the altitude and it made me scared. I started doubting myself and there was a point when I wanted to give up.

But I remembered why I was doing it – giving the gift of hearing to deaf children – and pushed myself to the top with the help of my guides. They carried my hiking bag and reminded me to drink water and take a snack. A few metres to the top, the leading guide came back and took my hand and we reached Stella Point, the first peak.

We had another two peaks to go before reaching the top. Eventually, we got to Uhuru Peak, the highest point, and I was overcome with emotion. I had made it despite the challenges.

The view was stunning – clouds everywhere as the sun was rising. It was the hardest but also the most amazing experience.

Duncan is a graphic designer from Cape Town and an advocate for deaf awareness and mental health