The tale of the trek 

How octogenarians Martin and Esther Kafer climbed Kilimanjaro, set a world record and found both hope and despair

click to flip through (5) BY SUE OAKEY-BAKER
 

Page 9 of 10

I hug everyone and say, "Congratulations."

When I get to Esther, she says, "I didn't do very well."

"What do you mean?"

"I was so slow."

All I can do is laugh. "OK everyone, remember this is not the top. We'll have a quick drink, put on sunglasses and sunscreen and then keep going to the top." We are at 5,719 metres and I point around the crater rim to antlike objects, people at Uhuru Peak, the summit. It is only 176 metres higher and a few kilometres but will take us over two hours. We are at extreme altitude.

The views of Mawenzi, the four jumbled glaciers of the crater, the sun illuminating a blanket of cloud below us are spiritual. We are in the heavens.

"I don't think I can take another step. I have to rest." Martin is exhausted from the walking, the lack of sleep and the altitude. But he keeps going. Later, I ask Martin and Esther how they kept going.

"You always get to a point in the mountains when you are tired and don't think you can go on, but from experience you know your body can do it."

At 9:30 a.m., the whole 2012 Ascent team stands together in front of the green sign that says, "Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak." There are hugs and tears. Our moment of triumph. The similarities with Alzheimer's stop here. There is no cure for the disease. There is no moment of triumph. And we are able to go down into thicker air.

Esther and Martin sit side by side in front of the sign and perform their most important monologue in front of the video camera.

"My name is Esther Kafer and I am so happy that I made it to the top of Africa."

"My name is Martin Kafer and I am happy to have done the same as my dear wife, to whom I have been married for 59-and-a-half years and this is one of our peak experiences together." He smiles and then I help him up.

We descend and, incredibly, after 12 hours of hiking at altitude, Martin and Esther run down the scree. Martin doesn't think it is so surprising. "Our bodies, having done thousands of steps in the mountains, remember how to do it."

For the next two days, we descend on the most popular Marangu route, a well-worn road surrounded by lush palm tree-like groundsel, giant lobelia, golden grasses and heather trees. Groups pass by us going the other way, on their way up the mountain. When they ask Esther and Martin if they made it to the summit, Esther says proudly with a smile, "Yes, I did and I'm 84."

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