At 5,895 meters above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa. Every year adventure seekers take on the perilous and, at times, fatal six-day challenge in a quest to conquer self, personal glory and a view very few people get to see in a lifetime.
On July 18, Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi stood atop the peak. It indeed was a battle of mind over matter and even for an avid hiker and marathon runner a test of attrition like nothing she had ever experienced.
“I do not think you need to be the greatest or fittest person in the room to summit Kili. It is more a mind over matter situation than it is a physical push. Obviously, you need to have some of the fitness, but that is not the crux of the matter. It was difficult because of altitude. Most of the time you summit and walk through the six days not feeling like yourself. You have nausea. There is a consistent headache, you are exhausted. Some nights I had terrible insomnia because of altitude. It is a very challenging environment to be in.
“What helped me to summit successfully was my mind and mental resilience, to push through all of those elements that come when you summit. I do not think I have ever done anything that challenging. I am a marathon runner. I would like to believe I am an avid hiker. Fitness and strength is not foreign to me, but for some reason when you are up on a mountain with low oxygen levels, the ball game is quite different,” said Ndongeni-Ntlebi.
Although the treacherous hike had always been a bucket list item for Ndongeni-Ntlebi, it was not just for personal glory she made the gruelling journey.
The Komani-born journalist was part of the Trek4Mandela team that hikes Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Imbumba Foundation Caring4Girls initiative, a project that “empowers young girls and affords them access to menstrual hygiene support.” Every year, with the exception of 2020 which was cancelled because of Covid-19 restrictions, Imbumba Foundation has taken a Trek4Mandela team to Tanzania, helping more than one million girls along the way.
The 31-year-old’s journey to the top was inspired by the tragic death of South Africa’s famous rally racing driver, Gugu Zulu, who died making the trek.
“I got involved with the organisation through a fitness industry acquaintance who happened to be a friend of Letshego Zulu, Gugu’s wife, and also a friend to the the Trek4Mandela founder. It has always been on my bucket list. It has been at the back of my mind since I saw Letshego speaking at Gugu’s memorial. I marvelled at the level of the strength she showed, wanting to go back the following year. It was something that kick-started my journey.
“I wanted to join their group, but after some internet searches, it did not really go anywhere. It was only after some years that the organisation was suggested to me and I was invited to join them. I have been part of activation they have done and have seen how impactful this initiative is to underprivileged girls and how something so basic to someone else can be a luxury to some.”
The trip was led by Sibusiso Velane, the first black African to summit Mount Everest. A team of nine women and one man joined from the UK. “It was very challenging, but with a great community of women, it was small and intimate, which made it easier. We interacted in a very beautiful way.”
Ndongeni-Ntlebi is a senior health and wellness journalist now based in Cape Town.