The 2017 Trek4Mandela expedition to the summit of Africa’s highest mountain in honour of Nelson Mandela will be a doubly emotional occasion, as climbers remember professional racing car driver Gugu Zulu, who died during last year’s summit.
Zulu’s wife, Letshego Zulu, is part of this year’s Trek4Mandela climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and believes it is fitting that she finishes what her late husband started. Former champion racing car drive Gugu Zulu died from respiratory failure while attempting the same climb last year.
She joins other well-known South Africans, including Hlubi Mboya Arnold, Penny Lebyane and Cecile Raubenheimer, in the final ascent on 18 July, Mandela Day. The summit is done to raise funds for the Caring4Girls initiative, which focuses on young women’s health.
The team, which began the journey on 14 July, is being led by the country’s top climbing expert, Sibusiso Vilane, the first black African to summit Mount Everest, which he did twice. Other team leaders include international mountaineering pioneers Kirk Bouffard and Werner Gruner.
Speaking to TimesLive before leaving for Tanzania, Zulu said she decided last year that she would be a part of this year’s Trek 4 Mandela climb up Kilimanjaro.
“Even as I was descending last year [following the death of Gugu]‚ I knew that I had to return. I had to do it for him. I had to do it for me. I had to do it for the people this initiative helps support. I want to honour my husband and I’m going back in memory of him. I know it is what he would have wanted.”
In the months following her husband’s death, Zulu admitted she struggled to come to terms with life without him. “I was on autopilot but I am fully aware now of what is happening. I have had to prepare for this climb emotionally and it has been difficult. I still haven’t completely processed everything that has happened but I am taking it one step at a time,” she said.
The support of her husband’s family and friends made the decision to return easier, said Zulu. “They have always supported our adventures and they were fully behind me on this decision. They simply asked if I was sure and if I would be strong‚ and then wished me luck. They know that the cause of helping girls is a special one for me and Gugu because we have a daughter.”
The Trek4Mandela campaign raises awareness of the challenge for girls and young women of lack of access to sanitary pads. Funds raised from public donations during the climb are used to supply pads and other female hygiene products to schools and underprivileged areas in South Africa.
Zulu is carrying a South African flag with her up the mountain and is planning to raise it at the summit in honour of her husband, who, she said, was proud of his country and of the life and work of Mandela. “[Kilimanjaro] is a world heritage site and so I won’t be able to erect a monument to him but I will carry a flag. Most importantly, I will carry his spirit with me and we will conquer‚” she told TimesLIVE.
Trek4Mandela team leader Vilane said the organisation of this year’s summit was done to the strictest climbing regulations to avoid a repeat of last year’s tragedy: “This year I am not going to split the group. We are going to stay together each step of the way, which will give me enough time to assess everyone and make the right call.”
Vilane is notable as the first black African to climb Mount Everest; he summited the world’s highest mountain in 2003 and again in 2005. He is one of only a handful of Africans who have completed the Seven Summits – climbs to the highest points on every continent. Vilane has a strong connection to the Kilimanjaro climb, and calls the Trek4Mandela expedition his most fulfilling event.
“There is a need for the provision of sanitary pads for girls in school. This shouldn’t be an issue in the 21st century so I decided to take the lead on this climb as I fully support the cause,” Vilane told IOL News in the run-up to the 2017 climb.
In 2012, the first Trek4Mandela, the team comprised two climbers – Vilane and Richard Mabaso, CEO of the Imbumba Foundation non-profit organisation that started the Caring4Girls initiative. The 2017 climb includes more than 110 climbers and team support members.
“The climbers are sending the word out,” says Mambaso, who is again climbing this year. “[It is] generating support on their platforms as well as through media. There is a need not only for sanitary pads but also education and awareness.” The initiative hopes to support more than two million girls by 2020.
Follow the climb on Twitter as the #Trek4Mandela expedition unfolds with news, images and video from the top of Africa:
For more information on how you can contribute to the Caring4Girls cause, visit the Trek4Mandela website
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