After 12 months of travel we left Jersey and the UK and were almost ready to head back home to Melbourne but not before completing the last leg of our journey. We wanted to end our trip on a high and what better way to do it than by visiting Tanzania and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Firstly, a little advice for those contemplating a Kilimanjaro trip. It is possible to turn up in Tanzania without having pre-booked. Some of the online prices quoted are excessive. We saw prices quoted in excess of US$5,000 per person. The reality is that there are numerous agents offering tours from the nearby town of Moshi and the city of Arusha, with tours leaving every day. Having said that, there are numerous reasons why you should arrive a few days beforehand. Firstly acclimatisation. Secondly, you may wish to walk with other hikers and it could take a few days to organise and find others wishing to do the same route as you. Thirdly, if you pay the lowest price, you are likely to get the lowest service and, most importantly the care and expertise you may need to rely on if you get into difficulty.
We paid US$1,500 each for the 7 day/6 night Trek and managed to get what we considered to be a reasonable deal by combining it with a 3 day safari to the nearby Serengeti National park. We used a tour company near to our accomodation called Nyange Adventures. Their reviews on Tripadviser were second to none.Some people do the safari after the climb but we decided on the safari first. We were aware of cheaper deals available to climb Kilimanjaro but were extremely cautious of who we used based on reviews from other travellers. Note that every hiker must have both a qualified guide and a cook accompany them up the mountain. Additionally, if you don’t fancy carrying all your food and gear, you will need 2 porters to carry both your gear/food and their own. Each porter is limited to carry no more than 20kg per day. As we had not been at altitude for over 6 months (since Peru) we weren’t confident that we could carry our own gear for 7 days at that altitude and opted to have it carried for us. This meant that for the 2 of us there were 2 guides, 2 cooks and 4 porters. 10 of us in total! What was interesting was that we saw only 2 hikers carrying all their own gear during the whole trek. Of course they still had a guide and a cook.
Note that if you save too much on the price of your hike, the team of guides, cooks and porters will be expecting more than the average tip from you at the end of the trip. So it may end up being a false economy. Whilst we were advised that we should “tip as we feel” there is clearly an obligation to tip generously. We had very little of our year’s budget left at that point but each of us still tipped around US$250 each to our team (we wish it could have been more…They deserve it).
There are several routes by which to tackle Kili. The shortest and steepest (Mweka) route takes 4 nights and is for the fittest, most confident and experienced of hikers. The longest (Lemosho) route, has a much higher success rate and takes 7 nights/8 days. As we had not been at altitude for some months we opted for the popular Machame route over 6 nights. There was an option to do this route in 5 nights, without the extra night’s stopover to acclimatise. In hindsight we could have done it in 5 nights but at the time we we aired on the side of caution.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area & Serengeti National Park
This 3 day, 2 night safari involved us being picked up very early from our accommodation in Moshi, collecting 4 other intrepid safari goers, who would be our travelling companions for the next 3 days and then driving via Arusha for 4 hours towards the entrance to the Ngorongoro World Heritage listed conservation area. Once in the park we drove for another 2 hours among herds of zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and other wildlife towards the entrance to the Serengeti National park, where we were greeted by Maasai tribesmen and women in their traditional dress.
We spent 2 nights camping out amongst the wildlife but at designated camps with 50 or so other tourists we never felt unsafe, although on a couple of occasions we were awakened by howls from animals unknown.
Amongst the highlights of this trip was the journey into the Ngorongoro crater, which is home to 1000s of animals, including, lions, cheetahs, rhino, giraffes and elephants. All of which we were lucky enough to spot, getting our jeep bogged next to a pride of lions and a visit to a Maasai tribal village where we both tried our hands at traditional Maasai dances.
Whilst we thoroughly enjoyed the safari, when we returned to our accommodation in Moshi we were both a little anxious as to what Kilimanjaro would deliver the following day.
Day 1 Machame Gate to Machame Camp – 1640m to 2835m
The mountain had been shy during the week or so that we had spent in Moshi. Although we could (in theory at least) see the summit from our guest house, we had caught only fleeting glances of it. We walked with our backpacks the short distance to the the Nyange Adventures office. Once there we checked and double checked our gear. We both needed to hire hiking boots as we hadn’t carried these with us during our year away, so we hoped that they would be kind to us. Vanessa also borrowed walking poles as she was concerned that her knee might flare up, as it had done towards the end of our cycling. She need not have worried.
Once our guides, chefs, porters and drivers had put a mountain of supplies and bags atop the jeep, we set off towards the mountain. There was just us and our support team, although there were plenty of other groups and hikers on the route. After about an hour’s drive, the last half of which was all uphill, we reached the Machame Gate, where we ate lunch and chatted with other hikers anxious to head of, whilst our guides sorted out the red tape (there was a lot of form-filling to be done).
After what seemed an eternity but was probably no more than an hour, we started walking. We took only day-bags with snacks, water and a change of clothes. Our backpacks would be carried by the porters, some of whom left ahead of us and would set up camp before we arrived at the end of the day.
Our first day’s hike consisted of a slow and steady climb from Machame Gate through the stunning rainforest that covers the South-West of the mountain. The first day trek on the Machame Route is a relatively long one (~11km) and took approximately 5 hours to complete. Our guide Robert insisted that we walk “pole pole” (Swahili for slowly), which for the 2 of us was difficult but he told us he had climbed Kili nearly 100 times, so we figured that he knew best.
The rainforest lived up to its name. Fortunately we had good rainwear and the hiking boots we had borrowed kept out any water. Neither of us fancied having wet boots for the next 6 days. By the time we reached Machame Camp we had been passed by all the porters carrying all the gear and we were pretty happy that they had managed to find a relatively dry and flat spot for our tent.
After we had changed into some dry gear, we had our blood pressure, oxygen levels and our heart rate checked. This became a daily ritual just before dinner and served as yet more evidence of the professionalism of our team. We were then treated to a delicious meal. It’s fair to say that the quality of the food during the hike was amazing considering the facilities. It never ceased to amaze us.
Day 2 – Day Machame Camp (2835m) to New Shira Camp (3750m)
We slept pretty well and woke up early. After an amazing breakfast, we packed our gear and were ready for the off
Fortunately the overnight rain had cleared, although the peak of the mountain was still not visible through the high clouds. The 2nd day’s trek was shorter than the first but relatively steep as we entered the low alpine zone which is characterised by moorlands and grasslands.
Today we were joined as we walked by our other guide Patrick, whose english was excellent. He was also keen to point out all the native flora, although we very quickly managed to forget most of what he told us.
Shira Camp sits on a plateau which potentially provides the first views of the peak (Kibo) and of Mount Meru to the West. However it was still cloudy when we arrived. Day two took us approximately 4 hours and we hiked a relatively short but steep distance of 5km.
As we had covered the distance quicker than expected, despite being told to walk “pole pole” by both Robert & Patrick on several occasions (we did try), we had time to take a short excursion walk to a nearby rock formation. Returning back to our tent we ate another delicious dinner and were lucky enough to catch some amazing views of the peak of Mount Meru (4,565 m) approx. 40km to our West before we headed off to bed.
Day 3 – Shira Camp 2 (3,750m) to Lava Tower (4,600m) and then Barranco Camp (3,900m)
It was pretty cold when we woke up the next day as the sky was clear but immediately we stuck our heads out of the tent we were rewarded with our first views of the top of the mountain. Spectacular but also a little scary. It looked so far away!
Day three is a long and tough trek. Only 11km in distance it involved a steep climb through both Low and High Alpine terrain East off the Shira Plateau through the ‘Garden of the Senecios’ up towards Lava Tower and the Shark’s Tooth rock formation at 4,600m and then back down via the Southern Circuit to Barranco Camp (3,900m).
For the first 2 hours we walked straight into the sunlight as we climbed through the fantastic rock formations that make up the Garden of the Senecios. We applied and reapplied sunscreen on several occasions.
At around 4300m in altitude the ground levelled of for a while, enabling us to catch our breath a little.
However, as we approached Lava Tower (a large rock formation) at 4600m, there was a noticeable drop in temperature. We stopped and sheltered from the icy breeze whilst we hurriedly ate our packed lunch and visited the local WC.
Heading off, we immediately descended via the Shark’s Tooth rock formation, which involved some of the more technial parts of the trek, particularly as the rocks were wet and slippery.
Fortunately, as we descended towards Barranco Camp the temperature rose slowly and the odd peculiarly shaped flora started to appear.
All up It took us around 6 hours to complete the day’s hike. Although we ended up at a very similar elevation to when we started from Shira Camp, it is arguably one of the most important days on the trek as it gives you a chance to climb high and sleep low which is important for proper acclimatisation.
We ate another sumptuous dinner. Had our vitals checked by our attentive guides and settled down for a good night’s sleep. As it turned out Jon only slept a few hours, waking at 2am and then unable to get back to sleep (in hindsight this was probably a side affect of the altitude). Vanessa continued to excel at sleeping, as is the norm.
The temperature plummeted overnight to well below zero, as the clouds cleared to give way to an incredible clear star-filled sky. Luckily our down sleeping bags continued to prove their worth. Venturing out into the frosty night air for a toilet break, Jon stopped for some time to gaze at the combination of the constellations above, the distant lights of Moshi off to the South and an amazing electrical storm far to the East. Simply breathtaking!
Day 4 – Barranco Camp (3,900m) to Karanga Camp (3,995m)
What an amazing start to the day. Clear skies giving us views of the summit behind us and many kilometres off in all directions. As we had opted for the 6 night/7 day trek, we sat and ate breakfast watching the hardy souls who taken the 5 night/6 day option head off early and immediately start the steep ascent of the Barranco Wall. Looking at how some of them were moving when they set off, we doubted they would all fair well.
Day four on the Machame Route begins with a steep traverse up the Barranco Wall; a 257 meter rock face that requires basic scrambling skills to the top of the Karanga Valley. The path then follows a series of inclines and declines to Karanga Camp (3,960 meters). Trekkers on the seven day route (like us) spend the night at Karanga Camp before continuing on to Barafu the following day. This additional day is beneficial in terms of acclimatisation.
If you are on a six day trek you will stop for lunch at Karanga Camp and then continue on along the Southern Circuit until it joins the Mweka Trail up to Barafu Camp (4,680 meters). For six day trekkers, day 4 takes approximately 8-10 hours to complete and covers a tough 9.5 tough.
We set off perhaps an hour later than the 6-day trekkers and we both enjoyed the technical element of the climb up the Barranco Wall. Whilst we had to tread a little carefully, our porters took it in their stride (all in a day’s work!).
We needed to cross the odd fast flowing stream but needn’t have worried as our guides were always their to lend a helping hand.
At around lunchtime we reached the top of our first climb of the day. We sat an a plateau of rocks, ate lunch for a while and watched porters and the odd trekker walk by against the eery misty backdrop.
A little later we set off again. After an hour or so we were met by a traffic jam, as we caught up with some of the slower moving 6-day hikers and their support crews who had set off ahead of us. This meant we had to be a little patient as we all clambered up the steep rocky trail but we were in no hurry.
Slowly but surely we picked our way past the line of trekkers and their guides. At the top of the climb the landscape opened up to reveal a barren rocky escarpment.
After traversing this section of the route we stood overlooking a valley, from which we could see our day’s aim…Karanga Camp, with a cluster of ant-sized trekkers making their way up the opposite side of the valley towards it.
Forty five minutes later, after a steep descent and an equally steep climb, we had made it to Karanga Camp. That was us for the day. A relatively short 4 or 5 hours hiking. It was only around 2pm. We both felt fit and very pleased with ourselves.
Our guides were pleased with our progress too and suggested that, after we had eaten an early dinner and had our heart rate, blood levels etc. checked, we walked at a leisurely pace, without our packs, another few hundred metres up beyond the camp, in preparation for the following day. As we did so, we got to speak to some of the 6-day hikers who still had a couple of hours walking to go that day. Some of them were looking very laboured and we seriously doubted that they would all manage to complete the climb to the summit in the early hours of the following morning. This turned out to be an accurate prediction for a few of them.
We, on the other hand, were doing well. We each constructed our own cairns to add to the hundreds of others already there. Then headed back down the hill to Karanga Camp for an early night.
Unfortunately Jon slept for only a couple of hours before waking again. Then spent the rest of the night wishing he had brought a book with him.
Day 5 – Karanga Camp (3995m) Barafu Camp (4,673m).
When we stuck our heads out of the tent, we were pleased that we had opted for the extra day to acclimatise because the weather was cloudy. What this meant was that if we had decided to hike on to Barafu Camp the previous afternoon, we would have been at the summit when it was shrouded in clouds. We were grateful and crossed our fingers for a clear dawn the following day (never a guarantee).
This was a pretty easy day’s walking for us. We set off mid-morning and passed the cairns that we had arranged the previous evening after a half hour or so’s ascent.
Our route took us along the Southern Circuit on a steady climb on rocky terrain and eventual joined the more direct Mweka Trail (we would use this route on the way back down). We noticed that not all of the hikers had the best mountaineering gear on. Hopefully they had a change of clothes for the summit climb the following day!
We arrived at Barafu Camp by early afternoon and took the opportunity visit Africa’s highest toilet, with one of the best views too.
After a hearty lunch we settled down for a relaxing afternoon, followed by a delicious dinner. We couldn’t believe how well we had been fed (all vegetarian too!) during our climb. The porters and cooks were happy to have reached Barafu Camp as they wouldn’t be joining us to climb to the summit the following morning and could look forward to a downhill walk with less food to carry the following day.
Our guides Robert and Patrick checked our heart rates, oxygen levels and blood pressure for the last time before the summit. These were so good in fact that our readings were as the same as theirs! They briefed us on what to expect the following morning and decided that as we had done so well to that point, rather than starting the ascent at the usual time of midnight so as to reach the peak at dawn, we need not start until 2.30am. We were happy with this, as it would mean less time in the cold at the top.
At around 7pm the sun set and we were advised to get some shut-eye. This was easier said than done as we were both on an adrenaline rush fuelled by a mixture of anxiousness and anticipation. Jon in particular, was struggling to sleep at all despite having only had a couple of hours sleep over the previous few nights.
Day 6 – Barafu Camp (4,673m) to Uhuru Peak (5,895m) and then Mweka Camp (3,100 m)
We were awoken (actually Jon had not slept) at around 2:00am with hot tea and biscuits. We had all our kit with us, including multiple layers of warm clothes, headlamps, water (more about that later) and snacks. The two of us and our 2 guides set off at 2.30pm with Robert leading the way and Patrick to the rear. The trek up Kibo is steep and slow. Ahead of us, snaking it’s way up the mountainside were dozens of small lights from the head-torches of other trekkers and their guides who had set off earlier in the morning.
We were very happy to see that the sky was clear, which boded well for a clear view at daybreak but also meant that it would be colder at the top. However, the temperature wasn’t much of an issue whilst we were climbing. The trick is to keep your momentum, taking one step at a time. We pushed on for several hours, slowly but surely catching, then passing the majority of trekkers whose head-torches were lighting the way in front of us. To be truthful, neither of us had any problems physically on the climb, although Jon was struggling to stay awake particularly on the more mundane parts of the climb as we followed closely behind Robert.
Approximately an hour before reaching the top of the crater rim, ice and snow became evident all around us, although the path itself was relatively clear. The water in both our camelbacks froze, despite the fact that we had been trying to avoid this by blowing the water out of the tube after we took a sip. Shortly after this Vanessa started to lose feeling in her fingers (despite 2 pairs of gloves) and Jon, who was already suffering from frost-nip following his recent blizzard folly in Northern France, had also lost any feeling in his hands.
We reached the crater rim just before dawn. As neither of us knew exactly what to expect, we initially thought that the sign for Stella Point (5,739m), was the summit. After a couple of moments Patrick and Robert explained that we hadn’t quite finished yet. We still had another 156 meters of altitude to walk around the crater rim to Uhuru Peak (5,895m). We took a moment or two to savour the moment at Stella Point as dawn broke. Luckily for us both, Patrick and Robert were happy to take photos, as neither of us could feel our hands.
We then had to muster the strength for the climb around the crater rim to Uhuru Peak (5,895m). In reality this was a breeze for us both. We were so excited to be able to see the summit that we almost ran the distance.
10 or 15 minutes later we reached the summit of Kilimanjaro.
After the customary photo at the summit we had a few minutes to admire the spectacular scenery and indulge ourselves.
Then all of a sudden we parted ways. Vanessa realised that she was very cold and mentioned to Patrick that she felt she needed to descend as quickly as possible. Patrick took this literally and the 2 of them headed off backdown the mountain as fast as they could go. Jon was taking a more leisurely approach and after spending an eternity putting his gloves back on, decided that he had better follow suit. With Robert leading the way the 2 of them also started to descend. Vanessa and Patrick fairly flew down the mountainside like a pair of mountain goats.
Whilst not dawdling, the adrenaline of the summit had started to wear off and Jon started to feel the effects of several sleepless nights and struggled to keep his eyes open during the long and steep decent. On more than one occasion he almost fell asleep on his feet, which is not recommended whilst descending a very steep mountain. The situation improved a little when he borrowed Robert’s trekking poles as the glacial scree was treacherous.
Anyway, after around 2 hours of rapid descending, Vanessa and Patrick arrived back at Barafu Camp, followed a few minutes later by Robert and Jon. We were both greeted by cheers and high fives from our team of porters and cooks, who were obviously very happy that we had both got to the summit and back in one piece. So were we!
Unfortunately though that wasn’t the end to the day. Firstly, Vanessa took a relatively short trip to the toilet and felt very nauseous when she returned to the tent. We were then told that, after we had eaten lunch, we could have a maximum of one hour’s sleep before we set off again. Jon would rather have had 10 hours!
Anyway, at around midday, we set off again as we still had an 11km descent to Mweka Camp (3,100 m) ahead of us.
The descent down the much steeper Mweka trail can be very gruelling on your joints. Trekking poles are highly recommended. As we descended the temperature rose considerably and we saw a number of porters carrying provisions up towards Barafu Camp over this shorter more direct route. We were also a little concerned to see a number of stretcher/trailers en route. One of them was being used to carry a climber who had not been able to make it succesfully.
This served to remind us that climbing Kilimanjaro is not a given. It also demonstrated how amazing the porters are, as they have to carry these things up there in the first place.
At around 5pm we arrived at Mweka Camp. It had been a very long day. We had walked for around 12 hours and were both out on our feet.
We ate a well deserved dinner. Crawled into our sleeping bags and slept a very long and contented last night on the mountain.
Day 7 – Mweka Camp (3,100m) to Mweka Gate (1,640m)
We enjoyed a relative sleep in and the fact that the temperature was a lot warmer than it had been over the previous few days. After the slightly awkward “Tipping ceremony” where we thanked each of the Nyange Adventure crew individually whilst telling them how much tip they were getting, we took a group photo and then headed off towards Mweka Gate.
Understandably the mood during the last descent is upbeat as the job has been done and we were all keen to get off the mountain and have a hot shower. The trek was a pleasant one through the lower rain-forested slopes and down to Mweka Gate (1,640m). The 9km took less than 3 hours.
Once we reached Mweka Gate we were presented with our official certificates. You get a green certificate if you reach Stella Point and a gold one if you make it to Uhuru Peak. From there we all jumped in the jeep for an hour long drive back to Moshi where we parted ways with the amazing Nyange Adventures team and promised faithfully to share with the world just how incredible they had been…and we meant it.