“Pole pole,” our guide Joseph calls back to us from his place at the head of the line.
The words are a warning in Swahili to slow down, save our feet, our breath, our energy.
We carefully watch his bright orange hiking boots strike the dirt and try to emulate his slow but steady pace.
But it’s surprisingly difficult to walk slowly. It’s harder to balance among the loose shingle and tangled shrubbery. It also makes the final destination seem even further away – if that’s possible.
Today, we’re walking for around seven hours. SEVEN HOURS.
I am just thankful that no blisters have as yet started to form.
Fortunately, the scenery provides a convenient distraction from the endless plodding with its constant changes. Lush rainforest at the start has now thinned out to scrub-like moorland.
Four hours in, we pause to refuel in a cave hewn into the mountainside.
As if by magic, a tasty three-course lunch is pulled from clattering pots in the craggy corner. We fall on it fast, to prevent it from disappearing in a puff of smoke, but the guys dishing up the food ensure our plates are piled up at least once more.
Stuffed and satisfied, drowsiness starts to set in, but before the eyelids can so much as start to droop, the tin plates are cleared away and we’re off again.
We brace for another three hours of trekking until we reach our next camping spot – Kikelelwe Camp at 3,600 metres.
Dust starts to swirl around us menacingly, wrapping us in a dense and earthy coating of grime. I can feel the filth sucking moisture out through my lips and every pore of my skin. Already, lunch seems like a distant memory.
“Sippy sippy,” comes Jo’s next command.
Obediently we suck from our water bladders, fearing dehydration and mindful of earlier warnings that we should be drinking between four and five litres a day.
But our bodies just aren’t used to drinking so much in such a short space of time. The need to pee comes frequently and urgently.
“Pissy pissy,” someone at the back of the line calls forward to Jo.
He laughs patiently as the line grinds to a halt once again, and the sound of zippers opening takes over the undergrowth as darkness and damp close in.