It's been two weeks now, since I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, and it's been two weeks since the passing of Gugu Zulu. All introspection during that time has led to the realisation of just how tender and fragile life is. One moment someone is there, and the next they are gone, and often there is no preparation for their departure.
My most treasured memory on the mountain was the 10 minute-long conversation I had with Gugu on the Sunday morning before our hike to Kibo hut, our last base camp before summiting. I found him standing on a rock overlooking the cloud cover at Horombo hut, having sat through the sunrise. We had a chat about life in general and how we needed to work hard for our families and our daughters.
We both agreed that life as we knew it had become different since entering fatherhood, and what it meant being entrusted with raising daughters that we could one day be proud of. Gugu's eyes lit up as he told me how he missed hearing the sounds his daughter Lelethu makes when she is tired and about to fall asleep.
As we parted ways, little did we know that he would never get to hear the sound of his daughter's voice again. That Sunday night at 11pm I woke up to prepare for my journey towards the highest peak on the African continent. I heard that Gugu had been sent back down the mountain as he was unwell. It took me nine gruelling hours to reach the summit, suffering altitude sickness throughout. We descended from the summit and I looked forward to reuniting with other members of the team.
When I first heard the news that Gugu had passed away after we had summited, it did not sink in immediately. I remember sitting with my head in my hands at the dinner table as I tried to make sense of what I had been told. I just could not believe it, and kept hoping someone would tell me that the news of his passing was not true. The triumph of having summited the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro was now completely dwarfed by the death of my dear friend.
Coming down the mountain from base camp on Tuesday, I had a lot of time to process what had happened over the previous 24 hours. As I began to come to terms with the fact that Gugu was no more, I thought about the love he had shown for his wife Letshego over the years that I had known them. When I finally saw her back at the hotel, I had to put my grief and emotional turmoil aside to provide a shoulder to cry on for a grieving widow. It was during the brief chat that I had with her then that I realised how I needed to cherish each and every moment that I spend with my family going forward and make the most of the time I've been granted with them.
It was only when we got back to South Africa, at the news conference at OR Tambo International Airport, that all the emotion I had bottled up inside myself burst, and I broke down as our expedition leader Sibusiso Vilane expressed his disappointment at losing a climber for the first time. I had tried to be strong for those around me but at that moment, I broke down.
In the days since then, Gugu's remains have been laid to rest in a funeral, fitting for a hero like him. There is still little comfort at this early stage. Instead, this is a time for reflection, on what I shared with Gugu, and what I have learnt from him, in his life. It’s also an opportunity to see how I can wrestle order from the chaos of his death for myself, but also for as long and as much as they will let me, for the loved ones bereaved by his passing.