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Approaching the Roof of Africa

In an ascent of Kilimanjaro, discovering a dreamy moonscape, hearing the sound of silence and probably not hallucinating

I came to Mount Kilimanjaro, the fabled roof of Africa, because I wanted to experience the glory of God as manifest in the beauty of nature. My wife and I were in Africa to see the Rwandan genocide sites we had not visited last year, and to attend our son Mendy’s Rabbinical ordination in Pretoria, South Africa. Squeezed between two extremes of horror and celebration, we wanted to push ourselves to the limit of our own endurance in order to be uplifted by a wonder of the world that can only be seen from its summit of 19,341 feet. I also wanted to bring my Judaism with me to one of the portals of the world, to prove that Jewish observance can be maintained at every time and at every place. Finally, in the 25th year of our marriage, I wanted my wife and me to share an experience of unique solitude and togetherness, to accomplish something jointly that pulled us away from the noise of modern life and threw us into the serenity of an alternate universe atop the world.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is akin to immersion in a weeklong Sabbath. There is no electricity. Your phones, for the most part, do not work. When they do, you feel a small sense of disappointment, but it’s a concession you make because you of course have to check up on the kids. Okay, I confess. I called the office as well. Bathing is out, although for your own comfort, and especially that of the people around you, you wash daily in a small basin of water.

Kilimanjaro has provided me with many firsts. It is the first time in my life that I ever heard the sound of silence. It turns out that the sound is not an invention of Simon and Garfunkel. Moving away from our camp, yesterday, at 12,500 feet, I walked to find an inspiring place to recite the afternoon prayer of Mincha. I ambled over a ridge, faced north towards Jerusalem, and looked down at the ocean of cloud that was thousands of feet below me and engulfed the Earth. Suddenly, the utter stillness and total silence began to chime in my ears. And I heard it. The ringing sound of nothingness. I began my prayer, pouring my heart to a creator who was responsible for such resplendent beauty and solitude. Since then, we climbed this morning another 3,000 feet. For us, it was a slow, hard, sludge. But the rule of the climb is single file, and I walked right behind my wife. Her determination and resilience is like an invisible rope that is pulling me up the mountain. The air gets thinner and thinner as you ascend, but the scenery becomes ever more magical and surreal. You pass through four zones before the summit: Cultivated, Heather, Moorland, and Alpine Desert, the most interesting and dreamlike of all. Nothing grows here, and it’s closest resemblance, although I have no plan to hike there, is the surface of the moon.

Finally, we have reached the base camp to the summit, the final step before we reach the highest point of the world’s most mysterious continent. The air around us is tinny. Breathing, while not difficult, thank God, is definitely a strain from our sea level home in New Jersey. We have, thankfully, thus far avoided altitude sickness due to the expert guidance of Onest Mtuy our head guide, and the deliberate but slow pace of James Utanga, our assistant guide. I have had some mild headaches, but they have disappeared once I gulped some water. Still, one of the telltale signs of altitude sickness is disorientation and hallucinations, and it is therefore for you the reader to decide the extent of my exposure from the rationality of this prose.

Earlier today, my guides thought I had lost it completely when I demonstrated signs of a Napoleon complex — until my wife assured them that I had suffered from it all my life.

We are fortunate to be with the world leader in Kilimanjaro climbs, Thomson Safaris, whose mastery of logistical detail is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Their detailed accommodation of our kosher requirements – using only brand new utensils and granting us supervision over an all vegan diet – was the icing on the cake.

It takes a team of twelve to fifteen to bring you up the mountain. At first, as a white Westerner, you experience a sense of guilt. This little army just for us? We are not that important. But then you start hiking and you hear the stories of the porters, all of whom are strong, friendly, with fascinating personal tales of the tribes whence they stem. In a country where the average wage is less than a dollar a day, the porters rely on a salary that is considerably more to feed their families. Most are married with children. The Kilimanjaro climbs, they tell me, are an absolute essential part of the regions economy, employing, ultimately, tens of thousands of people.

It’s now approaching the time for us to suit up and get ready for temperatures at the top of the mountain that hover, on average, at ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit. If you are reading this column, you are bearing witness to two miracles. The first is the miracle of technology that actually allowed me to dictate this column from more than 15,000 feet. The second is the glorious miracle from God that I am still alive to tell the tale.

Pray for me that in about seven hours, when we arrive at midnight, I will make it to the top, at which time I will attempt to take off three or four layers of clothing and put on my talis (prayer shall) and tefillin (scriptures in leather boxes donned for prayer) to offer thanks to God from one of the highest points in the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.