Stephen Balfour talks to Vegan Life about his venture in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on a plant-based diet
At the start of 2014 I agreed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Two immediate problems struck me when I made the commitment. The most pressing issue was my fear of heights – perfectly fine in enclosed spaces like high towers and lifts, but I am less than okay (slightly terrified) of environments like mountain tops and exposed mountain ledges. Given the financial commitment involved I decided that I would tackle this by signing up for some hypnotherapy to ‘cure my affliction’!
The second issue that concerned me was food related. Starting my research, all the blog posts and websites re-iterated the importance of keeping your body adequately fuelled to provide the required energy to get you up the hill. Food also has the added benefit of helping your body cope with the rigors of altitude as you progress further up the mountain. With this in mind, one of the first questions I asked the various trekking companies was ‘could they accommodate my vegan dietary requirements?’ Initial engagement with trekking companies left me fearing the worst. The first company, a reputable one at that, said they would be able to accommodate my diet no problem and that they often even carry live fish up the earlier camps! No, I didn’t understand that answer either. It’s fair to say I gave them short shrift. Unfortunately company number two didn’t fair much better. An air of vagueness surrounded their responses, and when they informed me that their desserts would be dairy ‘free-ish’ (they genuinely used that term) I began to feel extremely concerned that I would be carrying my own food up the mountain.
Panicking slightly, I decided to post a question on the VEG (Vegan Edinburgh and Glasgow) facebook group. Following a few useful hints and tips from some of the members I then won a watch when a group member, Victoria Bryceson, who is now a good friend, announced that she was taking a group up Kilimanjaro in aid of International Aid for the Protection and Welfare of Animals (IAPWA). Better still their group was going in September (the same month we had planned to go) and my dietary requirements would be catered for! My next step involved convincing my carnivore friend to go up the hill with a bunch of vegans. With his blessing we gave our commitment and set about planning our trip. The next six months involved some intensive saving and some frantic fundraising (a trip to Kili is not a cheap venture).
The trip started well with Emirates providing some pretty tasty (for an airline) vegan food. When we arrived at the hotel, my friend Reg and I met with another of our group and headed into town. After a frustrating trek round town I was getting concerned at the prevalence of meat being sold, with next to no veggie, let alone vegan options on offer. Thankfully we eventually found a restaurant that sold curries and other ‘European style’ dishes. My enquiry regarding which vegetarian sauces were dairy and egg free was also well satisfied and we returned to the hotel with full bellies.
The following day we met with the trekking company, Adventure Alternative, to have our induction meeting. Satisfied the trekking company had sufficient dietary information, we then headed into town to find the restaurant ‘Milans’ which was listed online as being vegetarian and vegan friendly. We weren’t disappointed – the food was amazing. Whilst I was delighted, I think my friend Reg was glad to see the back of the restaurant as we must have eaten there three times in a row before departing for our hike.
On the hike itself we were staggered by the food on offer, both in terms of quality and quantity. Breakfast included delicious fresh fruit, a type of porridge (mixed reviews on that one), fried potato, tomatoes, savoury pancakes, toast, tea and coffee. Lunch alternated between packed lunches and (more often) involved full sit down meals where again the food was plentiful. Dinners were incredible three course affairs with soup, normally a choice of five main dishes (four of which were vegan), plus a myriad of dessert dishes followed by copious amounts of tea and coffee. The spreads were even more impressive considering all this food and equipment had to be carried up the mountain!
Whilst we were staggered at the amount of food offered, as the altitude rose, tiredness levels increased and as such our appetites began to wane. It’s fair to say that by the time we made it off the mountain our stomachs were in need of a break from the mountains of food as much as we were in need of a break from the mountain itself. Trek over, we said our sad goodbyes to the rest of the group the following day as Reg and I headed off for a four day safari. We were to be accompanied by a very cheery cook, and a less than cheery driver.
On the first day’s drive we bought our food from a local restaurant which served their food in ‘munchy boxes’. God how I came to resent these boxes; the food on offer was everything that our previous food had not been, with fresh food replaced by fried, greasy offerings. Worried about the cross contamination from animal fats and that sort of thing, I decided to just consume the fruit and juice. For the next three days we ‘enjoyed’ breakfast which could’ve fed busloads of kids at a time. Lunch comprised of the ‘delightful’ munchy boxes. Dinner involved three, sometimes four course dinners. Some of the food (munchy boxes aside) was amazing and all suitable for vegans, but it was simply too much.
Returning to Moshi, we arrived at our small hotel on the outskirts of the town and decided to grab a quick beer. I ended up chatting to the only other guest staying at the hotel, a young German woman called Addie. As we blethered I was amazed to discover she too was vegan. More fascinating to me was the fact she couldn’t care less that I was! I was intrigued but as we chatted the reason became clear as she explained that veganism has really taken hold in Germany, particularly in Berlin where it was commonplace and just accepted as being part of everyday life. This notion really excited and inspired me. As we were finishing our second beer she told Reg and I she was planning to meet some other German friends in town for a bite to eat. When the venue was declared as being Milans, Reg opted to stay at the hotel while my mouth salivated at the prospect of yet another visit to my favourite vegan restaurant in Africa. So how was the food? I think you know the answer to that one. And as for the hypnotherapy and fear of heights, well that’s another story…
Stephen lives in Scotland with his family that includes three dogs, three guinea pigs, a cockatiel and two budgies called Percy and Bino (all rescues). Stephen campaigns on animal welfare issues and is a board member of the Edinburgh based charity OneKind. Stephen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org