This Man Carried a Bathtub up Mount Kilimanjaro

Robbie Dowling left everything behind to hoist a bathtub and help the Amazon's needy children.
Robbie Dowling with bath at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro
At the top of the Mount Kilimanjaro © Robbie Dowling
By Phillippa Stewart

For more than 100 years, explorers have been climbing Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro. Difficult as the climb is — only 40 percent of the approximately 15,000 people who attempt to scale the mountain reach the summit — it isn't the world's most treacherous peak. So Irish adventurer Robbie Dowling decided to make his climb a bit harder, attempting the 19,341 climb with an 88-pound bathtub on his back.

This isn't the first journey 57-year-old Dowling has made with his bathtub, affectionately nicknamed “Sheila.” Nor will it be the last. In 2007 he sailed down the Amazon with the tub on his back, and he has plans to pull her across the Bolivian salt flats in October. Dowling is also concocting a plan to turn the bath into a flying machine and fly Sheila 4,000 miles from the source of the Amazon River to Brazil. And it’s all for a good cause — he’s raising money and awareness for Amazon Children, a charity Dowling set up to improve health facilities for children in the region.

We caught up with Dowling to find out what inspired him to take on his bonkers challenge.

Robbie Dowling lying on ice on Mount Kilimanjaro
High altitude and cold temperatures on Kili © Robbie Dowling First off, why on earth are you dragging a bathtub around the world? Why not another household appliance?

Dowling: Years ago I was asked by some friends: “What do you want to do before you die?” I closed my eyes and had a flash of standing in a bath on the Amazon River.

I also had a period of intense loss of many people that I loved, including my beloved son Mark. What kept me living was finding my bath and honoring a promise to Jazmin — a young girl who I found deep in the Amazonian jungle. She was 12 years old and very sick. This is how Amazon Children came to be, and why I want to build a medical center on the river. The bath is becoming an icon, a symbol of following your heart no matter what people say.

Robbie Dowling with Jazmin on Mount Kilimanjaro
With Jazmin – the inspiration for his charity © Robbie Dowling

Why is it called "Sheila"?

I had been alone for five years and was waiting for a woman who could connect with my principles, who was drop-dead beautiful, in my age group and who liked the jungle life — a tall order. I met her [Sheila] a month after I found my bath. I had a picture of her inside the bath to inspire me to not give up.

Robbie Dowling with crew and bath at Mount Kilimanjaro
Communal bathtime © Robbie Dowling

How do you actually pull her along? Is the bath modified in some way?

How do I pull?! Dear Lord, I wish! I carried the bath on my back all the way. There is a 1-inch box around the bath’s outer rim with a bar and a back harness. This simple technique allows the weight to be on my shoulders and not pull me backwards — although at times it did! My friend is an engineer and it was his design.

How much does the bath weigh?

Sheila is just under 88 pounds. The weight is double what porters are allowed to carry. I was told on the mountain that, in the old days, porters would often die with less weight.

Robbie Dowling selfie at top of Mount Kilimanjaro
Bathtub selfie © Robbie Dowling

What were your toughest moments?

On the first day, the sun was strong and there was no cloud cover. Inside Sheila, the heat was intense, with the bath being black and having no air circulation. Also, there was the physical shock of a 45 degree climb and no flat paths. The weight on my body was chilling after a mile. I had to put on a brave face so that the project would continue and joke about the effort — but inside it was killing me.

The final shove was climbing a 90 degree slope on moving silt. I had a 3 a.m. start, no sleep and was finding it hard to keep down food at high altitude after days of pushing myself beyond endurance. I was on this slope for five hours — each step was a miracle. My eyesight in my left eye was going and my lungs were unable to get oxygen. I was stopping every five minutes for water.

Robbie Dowling thumbs up whilst climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a bath
Thumbs up © Robbie Dowling

What reaction did you get when people saw you with your tub?

The reaction was off the scale! Porters would look open-mouthed. They would gather around and fuss over Sheila, lifting her up to feel the weight and then look at me as if I was a demon. “Why would a white guy carry such a weight?!” I was awarded the name “Lion” on the mountain — an honor. The fellow “gringos” (young men half my age) would avoid me in general. I was stealing their thunder.

Robbie Dowling climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
The heat in the black bathtub was unbearable © Robbie Dowling

Are you ever embarrassed?

Embarrassed, me? No! I guess I am a showman at heart and I love an audience.

What have your learned carrying your bathtub?

The ability to overcome any situation is a combination of mind, body and soul. Leave out one element and you have failure. Passion and love drove me on and I hold both in abundance. Oh, and possibly being a little bit of a “mad Irishman” helps!

Are you able to wash in it?

Wash? That would be disrespectful to Sheila!

Robbie Dowling tent and bath Mount Kilimanjaro
Carry it but just don’t wash in it © Robbie Dowling

What happens to Sheila at the end of the adventures? What's her retirement plan? Red Bull Soapbox Race?

Sheila and I may travel the world giving talks and running motivational workshops on following your heart. This will be a way to raise money for my medical center. I have sold everything on this quest. It has all been self-financed and finally I hope to find a publisher for my book and a documentary company to sell my footage to.

Any words of advice for anyone who fancies pulling a bath/kitchen sink/other household object around the world?

Prepare on all levels: mind, body and soul. Do an equipment check, have a backup plan, train and know the limits. Then say “screw that” and push on! Self-belief is vital. See the goal as completed before you even start!

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