Meet Saray Khumalo, an award-winning mountaineer, Mandela Libraries ambassador, mother of two boys and now the first African black woman to summit Mount Everest.

1. When did your interest in mountain climbing start?
It started in 2012 with a bucket list item, Mount Kilimanjaro. While preparing for it we did a lot of hiking and trekking for multiple days – sometimes crossing into Lesotho. After doing Kilimanjaro the bug bit as they say!

2. How do you prepare for an expedition?
It’s a lot of commitment, especially since it wasn’t my first attempt. It’s knowing what works and how other people that were stronger than me during past expeditions trained. In 2014 I mainly did gym work, and when I got to the mountain I found that the people who had done a lot of cardio like cycling and running were very strong and they fared quite well at high altitudes. This prompted me to start cycling and running, but it takes a lot of dedication. I train every day, but I try to switch it up. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I stretch, and then I run on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Friday is my rest day, so I do BODYTEC then. I try to go to my physiotherapist once a month just to make sure that everything is in order. And closer to the expedition I train twice a day, in the mornings and in the evenings. That’s what’s worked for me, but other people might have another way of preparing. The difference with something like Everest or big mountains is that if you go unprepared, it could mean the end of your life or of those you are climbing with. So I think it’s important to have the dedication and commitment. You also want to enjoy it and take in the beautiful nature, without being in pain the whole time and the commitment to training prior to the expedition gives you that.

3. How long did the entire trip take and was it difficult for you to be away from your family?
A normal expedition takes about eight weeks, but we took about six weeks from the start to summit. My kids are 21 and 16 and we talk about everything because it’s not just about being away but also the risk that comes with mountaineering. So it’s kind of a family sport for us, it’s almost like I’m not the only one who is on the mountain. We joke about taking life-preserving steps because I can’t control whether I will survive or not but I can control the level of unnecessary risks I take. That level of commitment is something I hope will give them comfort. It’s not just my kids – my mother always wants to know what is happening, so I have to tell her that I will be contacting the family often and let her know when I’m going to be out of contact. It’s just having that open communication and telling people what you’re doing which makes people outside of the expedition enjoy your success as much as you because it becomes their journey too.

4. What did you tell yourself during the toughest parts of the climb to help you stay motivated?
It can get quite hard, and sometimes it’s not even because the climb is difficult, but because you’re away from everything you know for so long. Expeditions can sometimes be emotional, especially when you get to a point on the trail where something happened in your previous expedition and you start reminiscing. I have a beautiful song by Mary Mary that’s called Can’t Give Up Now that I play, it says: “There will be mountains that I will have to climb, and there will be battles that I will have to fight but victory or defeat, it's up to me to decide.” During the times that it didn’t work out in my expedition, I still saw it as a victory because I learnt something. The climb is bigger than me, I’m doing this because I love it but also believe that somebody else will benefit as it’s not just about me, it’s about the people who have supported me. It’s about showing my kids that if you keep pushing, you’ll get something and I’m hoping that they will learn a lesson from it. That also keeps me going during my expeditions. 

5. What advice would give to someone who wants to start mountain climbing?
Well, I think you should try and read up about it. Start small; hiking locally is a good starting point. Also, ask people with experience. On my Facebook page Summits With A Purpose, we have started engaging people on the subject and answering questions like, “How do you choose your bag” or “How do you choose your boots” because I’ve discovered that a lot of what I know I’ve had to ask and I’ve had to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s now time to pay that forward and share with those that are interested.

6. You are an inspiration to African women, can you share a tip with our female readers about chasing their dreams?
I think one of the biggest things is to stop waiting for people to give you approval. If you believe in it, show us what it’s all about and we’ll cheer you on. We can’t continue to wait for other people to change our circumstances and change our lives. We need to take control, and it’s not going to be easy, but we need to keep stepping because the summit is always a step away. It’s also not just for black African women, but for women in general, we need to stand up and be confident in our own capabilities.

7. Can you tell us more about the charities you’ve been involved in?
Initially, Kilimanjaro was a bucket list goal, but we raised money for a home in Benoni for street kids, it’s called Kids Haven and they look after about 180 to 200 kids. One of the kids there just couldn’t believe that I’m black, I came from the township and I was able to do something for them – the goal was to raise about R200 000. She asked me, “Do you really come from the township?” and “You look like me, can you really do this?” My heart sunk, and I just thought to myself, does she believe that she has to be something else in order to do something big. I made it my mission to show kids like her, and my own, that it doesn’t matter where they are or where they come from, they can step on top of the world and get what they want. I decided that I wanted to climb the 7 Summits across the world, and make a difference. I then chose to focus on education, because I looked at where I am and I think I’m here today because someone invested in my education. So the first time I went to Everest, I did it for the Lunchbox Fund – they go and make food for kids during a break at school and they actually have studies that show that the pass rate is higher. If you give the children food at home, the people at their house are also hungry so they’re eating the food. If you give it to them at school during break, the kids are forced to come to school and they learn, at break time they eat and then they go back to class. When I went to Everest in 2015 I was a Mandela Libraries ambassador, and my commitment was to build at least five libraries. I have built four: three in Gauteng and one in Kwa-Zulu Natal. This year I raised money for the Dr Thandi Children’s Foundation, she took about 25 orphans and she helped them from primary school all way to varsity. I have met some of them, they are accountants and engineers. I think it’s just amazing what she’s done. Here’s a name that we maybe don’t even know about, and she’s doing incredible stuff. It talks to literacy, education and it creates employment and contributes to a higher unemployment rate.

8. What’s next for Saray Khumalo?
My plan is to do the 7 highest peaks on the 7 continents across the world, and also the North Pole and The South Pole. Everest is the 4th of the 7 summits and I’m hoping to go to Vinson in Antarctica at the end of the year. Most of the climbs I’ve funded myself, so it’s been a little bit difficult but I’m hoping that with the interest Everest has captured that I’ll get more sponsorships to continue the journey. Only 66 people in the world have done the Explorers Grand Slam and none of them are African female or South African so I think it’s something we need to get going and set an example for the next generation of female climbers.

MEET SARAY KHUMALO MEET SARAY KHUMALO Reviewed by Jet Club on June 21, 2019 Rating: 5
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