She Found Love at the Top of Mt. Kilimanjaro

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Allison and Michael at Niagara Falls (Photo: Allison Fleece)

Who: Allison Fleece, 29, is from New York and Michael van Leeuwen, 36, is from the Netherlands and lives in Australia.

Where we met: Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

When: August 2014

Relationship status: Time will tell

(As told by Allison)

Our backpacks were filled to the brim, and the hikers were anxious to get to the mountain, but the crew was late (standard for Tanzania). This would be my fourth time leading a Women High on Adventure (WHOA) Kilimanjaro trip, and I never anticipated it to be much different than the other three times.

I was scarfing down a doughnut and coffee at the local hotel before the seven-day trek when a tall, handsome Dutchman suddenly approached me. “Hey, how ya goin?’” he asked. With a mouthful of doughnut and a smile from ear to ear, I tried to keep cool but answered with gibberish (which I’m sure wasn’t coherent English). We made small talk for a few minutes; he said his name was Michael and that he lived in Australia. Soon it was time to go, so we ended the conversation by saying, “See you on the mountain.”

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Mount Kilimanjaro (Photo: Allison Fleece)

Lucky for us, you can pass other hiking groups on Kilimanjaro every day, so Michael and I crossed paths many times, and “somehow” this charmer kept finding me. Whenever he was near me, I’d get butterflies, and I felt like a teenager again. In total, we probably had only three hours of conversation, but it was enough to know that there was an undeniable, set-your-heart-on-fire kind of energy between us.

When we got off the mountain, we didn’t cross paths again, so we never got a chance to properly say goodbye. He was heading out on a two-week safari, and I was flying back to the U.S. All I had from him were the memories of Kilimanjaro and a business card with his name and phone number in Australia. So, I did what anyone in this day and age would do, and tried to find him on Facebook. I never guessed, “Michael van Leeuwen” was such a popular name, so I had to sort through at least a hundred to find the right one!


Michael at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (Photo: Allison Fleece)

He eventually returned to Australia and saw my friend request, and we started talking. We chatted all day and night via text and FaceTime, our longest conversation being 5 hours and 19 minutes! We shared everything, from our interests and values to stories about our families and heartbreak. Surprisingly, the 14-hour and 10,000 mile difference didn’t seem to phase us. We’d wake up to each other and fall asleep to each other. It was love, and he immediately booked a flight to visit me in New York.

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Our fairy tale continued in New York, where I showed him my city and introduced him to family. We went hiking, took a road trip upstate, and visited Niagara Falls. It was a magical two and a half weeks and not nearly enough time, but I was heading out on a WHOA excursion to India, and he needed to get back to his company. We said farewell with a heavy heart, and a huge kiss, but we knew we were going to see each other in a couple months, when I would visit him in Australia.


The happy couple in Times Square (Photo: Allison Fleece)

Before we knew it, we were back in each other’s arms. I chose to visit him in Australia for a month, to give our relationship the time it deserved and because… it’s Australia! We went to beaches every day, hiked through national parks, visited Fraser Island and fell more in love than ever. I loved being there with him and seeing his life. Michael has such a kind heart, and he makes me laugh so much. It was just so easy to love him.

Like any couple, it wasn’t all butterflies and rainbows; we had our arguments and disagreements, but overall, I think those made us closer. When our month came to an end, we both felt an intense pain that seemed to only grow worse, and the goodbye at the airport was dreadful. I didn’t know I was capable of producing that many tears! It was complete waterworks the entire flight home, and I am pretty confident the person next to me thought I had epiphora.

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Allison visiting Michael in Australia (Photo: Allison Fleece)

The pain and sadness we were feeling was so intense because we both knew this goodbye was different. Our love was so strong and our respect for each other so deep, but timing in life is everything, and in that month, we realized that we were not in a position to uproot our lives. We both have careers we have worked so hard for, and we live in the cities we love.

It’s been more than a month since that last kiss and goodbye at the airport in Australia. Each day gets easier, but the uncertainties are still very present. Neither of us wants to let go of true love — who would?! We don’t know what the future holds, as lovers or as friends, because our hearts say one thing, and then reality kicks in. We are figuring it out and don’t have all the answers yet, but what we do have are incredible memories from a wild adventure that stretched across three continents. We created a beautiful story from a rare encounter on Mount Kilimanjaro, and no matter the outcome, we will have our story forever.

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