Hiking Kilimanjaro “The Roof of Africa”

December 13, 2018

As one of the famed Seven Summits and the highest point in Africa, hiking Kili has been on my bucket list for quite some time now.  I was thrilled when dates finally lined up to do the hike in conjunction with a work trip in neighboring Uganda. 

 

Trying to dig through the numerous trip reviews online, I found it difficult to distinguish substantial variations between hikes and services offered, but the popular route choice out of the seven possibilities seemed to be Machame which was later confirmed by my guide.  I chose the seven-day route to be on the safe side in case I had any troubles with altitude, but actually finished easily early on the 6th morning which left an extra day at the end to visit a local village and hike out to a waterfall and explore a nearby coffee plantation.  It turned out to be easy to adjust the itinerary depending on how I was doing with the hike, which was reassuring in case there had been any problems.  After all, as one of the mantras of Tanzania says- Hakuna Matata or no troubles!  

 

I ended up selecting Kilimanjaro on Foot as the company for hiking with because they provided the quickest responses and were able to accommodate slight variations to the schedule since the work trip was not confirmed until a few weeks before departure.  While there was some initial confusion with them upon arrival about meet up times for departure on the hike, the team that went up the mountain and the rest of the trip went extremely smoothly and I would happily recommend them.

 

The Machame Route is known as the “Whiskey” route because of its comparatively longer and steeper path which is recommended for those with some hiking experience. However, due to the beautiful and varied scenery on this route, it has become a substantially more popular route resulting in larger numbers of crowds hiking during the high season.  Reading that description ahead of time my assumption was that the trail would be moderately challenging, but after starting the hike I quickly realized that it was far easier than I had anticipated.  While the summit climb was freezing cold and definitely challenging, there was plenty of hot food, rest time, and well-kept trails making this hike easily accomplished by anyone in relative fitness shape that is willing to endure several days of uphill walking.  

 

Time of Year- while the mountain is technically open for climbing year round, the best times of year are January to mid-March when it is warmest and there is least chance of precipitation followed by late June through October.  However, during these times there tend to be the largest amount of group climbs and a heavy traffic flow of hikers. The rainy season typically lasts from the end of March through June and November through early December. It is important to keep in mind though that at any time of year the weather on the mountain is quite unpredictable and can rapidly change from clear sunny skies to a downpour moments later.  It is best to schedule the hike during the dry periods but remain prepared for the rain. 

 

My limited preparation for the trip after making the booking online involved using the stair-stepper at the gym with a weight pack about once a week in addition to my normal workout routine. That being said, it is definitely advantageous to be in good physical shape before making the climb to improve your chances of completing Kilimanjaro. Again, it is not a strenuous or difficult hike but does require endurance to be able to physically climb continuously for several hours every day. It is also recommended by the tour companies to be able to carry weight even though many offer porter services. For the packing list of what was provided by the company and my recommended additions/changes, click here.

 

 Day 1- At sharply 7am I was packed and ready to step off on the hike eagerly waiting for the arrival of the vehicle that was supposed to pick me up. At 8:30 a car pulled up with the guide who provided the in-brief for the hike and completed a gear check before departing for a quick errand.   I was scheduled to be in a group, but found out that morning the rest of the people in the group were delayed because they lost their luggage in Nairobi, so my solo trip up the mountain became truly that as it was just me and the team of porters.  About 9:30 a van returned and we loaded up my bag before stopping by the market to purchase supplies for the trip.  Finally, we checked in at the Park Services and started up the trail around 1300.  

 

Less than 30 min into the hike the ominous sound of thunder started rumbling overhead giving us a short heads-up before a downpour started that lasted nearly the next hour. Thankfully the first day was very short and an extremely easy trail where my guide, Joseph, told me ‘pole pole’ meaning ‘slowly slowly’ numerous times, a term that I became well acquainted with over the next several days as he constantly reminded me to maintain a slow steady pace. As the scenery slowly transitioned from rainforest to moorland we arrived less than three hours later in Machame Camp (2,835M) and began setting up for the night.  

 

My tent had a small area for a table where I was served all my meals, starting that first night with a candle wedged into a baked bean can to provide light as the sun quickly dipped below the horizon and what appeared to be a million stars came out in force.  Even that first night I was not able to finish nearly half of the food as they constantly served far more than necessary!  It was absolutely wonderful though to have full hot meals three times a day plus hot tea and I grew to thoroughly appreciate the small snack with tea they provided me upon arrival to camp each evening. The standards were complete luxury camping and hiking compared to training in the Marine Corps and it really felt like vacation. Before bed, Joseph came and provided the brief for the next morning with what to expect on the trail, what clothing layers to wear, what to put in the day pack, and the timeline of events.

 

Day 2- At 6:45 I was woken for morning coffee and breakfast before we began hiking about an hour later.  The well-kept trail was similar to the day before with a gradual incline that was only slightly steeper and rockier as the moorland scenery became shorter and shorter vegetation. While clouds rolled overhead, the rains thankfully held off the entire afternoon. Again I found that maintaining the slow and steady pace was one of the most difficult parts, but was continually reminded that to be successful it was important to acclimatize on the way up.  After several hours of hiking the day ended at Shira Camp (3,750M) which provided glimpses of the distant peak whenever the clouds would blow past.  Right before dinner we did a brief hike up to a higher crest for acclimatizing and to see the old caves where climbers used to take shelter from the elements.  After the dinner and briefing, it quickly became dark out and with a lack of tea hut or common areas for socializing, I took advantage of the shorter daylight hours and headed to bed around 8. 

 

Day 3- Starting with the same morning routine, we trekked up and down through a ravine 7km up to Lava Tower Camp where we stopped for a hot lunch under the tall rock tower, which was off limits for climbing due to the weak rocks.  As explained by my guide, the climb this morning was especially important because it was a more rapid ascent to a fairly high altitude. Doing well on this day greatly assists the guides in knowing how well summit morning will go with the altitude change.

 

After our break at Lava Tower (4,600M), we continued another 3km down to Baranco Camp (3,900M).  We set up camp near the edge of a ravine, but again in a location that provided a clear view of Kilimanjaro whenever the clouds disappeared. While it did not rain that evening, the weather continuously changed throughout the day from brief periods of intense sun to very cloudy cold periods with strong winds resulting in a sun/wind burn that lasted for several days.  After laying down for a quick rest before dinner (yes, naps were even scheduled into the day which was fantastic), I woke up to the sound of faint singing. Climbing out of the tent I saw a crowd gathering just up the hill so I quickly hiked up to find a large group clapping and singing some local songs about the trail, Tanzania, and of course- Kilimanjaro.  As everyone joined arms and moved with the beat, I was thrilled to join in.  This was the only time that I actually saw camaraderie between the different groups as everyone sang and clapped along with several of the guides leading the songs.  The lack of community over-all though was largely disappointing to me and several of the hikers that I spoke with because we had all expected some form of social gathering in huts or around fires at night. Unfortunately, everyone largely kept to themselves through the hike, but that did make it a truly fantastic opportunity to disconnect from the whole world for a week. However, the few I did meet were quite awesome, each on their own adventure and one came to my rescue sharing his battery charger.  On day 2 I had realized that I forgot my battery charger back at the base, but thankfully Sammy, a legend I met on the trail, kindly shared his with me which gave my phone just enough charge to snap a few photos at the top!

 

Returning to my tent just in time for dinner to be served, I excitedly told ChaCha, who brought my meals to the tent every meal, about the singing that had just happened.  He replied that the team with me would also sing and quickly rallied the group who came out and performed an even better version of several of the songs.  ChaCha then explained the songs in English afterwards during dinner, contributing to my nightly lesson in Swahili words (see a few key words below to get a head start on useful vocabulary for the trail!). 

 

Day 4- After waking up to a beautiful sunrise, we started up the Baranco Wall which was one of the more interesting parts of the trail because it required playing mountain goat with careful concentration on footing.  It only took about an hour to pick up the mountain though and the views at the top of the sprawling landscape stretching far out below were some of the best on the trail.  Continuing on, we passed through Katanga Camp (3,995M) where we paused for lunch.  If the trip is a seven-day hike, this is the stopping point for the night in order to allow hikers some additional time for acclimatization. However, since I was still feeling strong we pushed on to Barafu Base Camp (4,673M).  

 

At this point the terrain had transitioned from Moorland to Alpine Desert meaning it was mostly large boulders and rocks, yet the trail remained easy with a gradual incline.  We arrived mid-afternoon at Base Camp but had an early dinner in order to get some rest before summiting that night.  Joseph gave me the final brief from which I took away the following: wear every layer of clothing that I packed, put water bottles upside in the pack so the cap would not completely freeze shut, and use the headlamp not a flashlight because even with two pairs of gloves I would not be able to leave my hands out of my pockets for more than a few minutes at a time. After packing my daypack and laying out seven layers of clothes, I zipped into the warm sleeping bag for a few hours of shut eye.

 

Day 5- Just after midnight it was time to wake up and start bundling up.  The snow had already piled up outside the tent and I could hear the winds howling as I drug myself out of the comfort of the warm sleeping bag. We started the climb just after 1am in the typical ‘pole pole’ fashion, which I was finally thankful for as we began the long arduous climb up the icy rocks and snowy path.  Looking up the mountain there appeared to be a twinkling path to the top with numerous climbers already ahead of us on the trail, but I followed Joseph's advice and kept my concentration on following his footsteps precisely.  Slowly but surely we made our way up the mountain on the steep narrow path, passing nearly every group trudging along.  Several climbers were full of false motivation (there is no amount of caffeine that could have made it real that cold and dark) and their hoots and hollers could be heard for quite some distance after passing them until it eventually returned to near silence except for the wind still strongly blowing snow around us.  

 

After nearly three hours, we reached the point of no return on the trail where it is recommended to continue even if someone gets altitude sickness because they are so close to the top. We pushed on in the dark for another 45 min to the next big marker, Stella Point (5,756M) where we paused for a water break, but I was far too cold to stop moving and sit so we continued to press upwards. In under an hour, we made the last push to Uhuru Peak (5,895M)- the final summit!

 

 As we reached the top just before 5:45 where the wind was blowing snow so hard that it was hard to open my eyes and I refused to remove any layers for the pictures.  But then the sun finally crested over the horizon and brilliant red hues stretched across the sky until finally the mountain below that we had been hiking all morning was illuminated.  The view was breathtaking and despite the extreme cold as we hustled back down, we stopped at several points to snap photos of the dazzling landscape stretching to the horizon lit by the early morning rays over the clouds.  This was worth every arctic inch we had slowly traipsed over going up the mountain!

 

We arrived back at base camp before 8 and got to take a small nap before packing up to return down the mountain.  After a short rest and some breakfast to recharge, we packed up and headed back down across the vast alpine desert.  After a few hours we made it to High Camp (3,950M) but continued to push until arriving at the Mweke Camp (3,100M) for the night.  Enjoying a full meal and weather which stayed clear most of the evening, made the final evening on the mountain very enjoyable and it was markedly warmer than the previous few nights. 

 

Day 6- The final morning started early and the eagerness from everyone in the camp to complete the journey was palatable.  People were singing songs and chatting loudly already by 6:00 as the entire camp was hurriedly packed up.  We had breakfast, the crew sang several final celebration songs, tips were distributed to everyone, and we rapidly sped down the mountain.  Perhaps it is my lack of coordination, the rushed descent down the slick muddy trail, or likely a combination of the two that resulted in me frequently sliding and ultimately taking one hard fall.  Yet we were one of the first to make it off the mountain (I remain thoroughly confused why people were literally running down and was quite disappointed to not find cold beers or some worthwhile prize waiting at the bottom). Arriving at the gate before 10, I did my final sign out of the logbook and used a real toilet for the first time in days before hopping in the van to head back to the hotel in Moshi.  Joseph presented me a certificate stating that I had officially completed the climb to the summit and then it was time for a hot shower and of course a nap in a bed!

 

A few other items of note:

 

Facilities: Drinking water is boiled or treated by the porters and is readily available until the final ascent.  I was actually quite surprised to discover that there were restroom facilities at each camp along the trail, some much nicer than others, but all were Turkish-style toilets with a hole in the ground.  Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  There is no running water for showers, but most evenings a basin of hot water was provided to wash hands and feet with and obviously baby wipe baths and dry shampoo greatly help with maintaining hygiene on the multi-day trek. 

 

Tipping: One of the things I was unprepared for was the expectation for tips for the whole crew.  The final night my guide gave me the recommended amounts which quickly added up. Estimates for the 3-4 porters per day is $10, (1) food server is $13, (1) cook is $15, and (1) guide is $25. That comes out to $83-93 per day multiplied by 6-7 days is approximately $575 which is expected to be distributed on the last evening before the final descent meaning that cash needs to be withdrawn ahead of time.

 

Airports: Moshi, the starting city, is about a 40 min drive from Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), which most of the hiking companies offer transportation to and from as part of their package.  Arusha is the alternate airport which is about a 90 min drive, but Dar es Salaam and Nairobi would require much more logistical coordination making them far less practical choices.   Due to the high volume of tourism traffic though tickets into JRO are very reasonable. Also visas on arrival are available for $100 USD but note that the bills must be printed after 2006. 

 

When deciding which route to take, more info about each can be found at:

https://www.ultimatekilimanjaro.com/routes.htm

 

The company that I used and also books safaris and trips to Zanzibar:

https://www.kilimanjaroonfoot.com/safaris/kilimanjaro-climbing-tours/

 

Packing List Recommendations for Kilimanjaro can be found by clicking here.

 

A few key words to learn in Swahili to help on the trail:

 

Thank you                       Asante

Welcome                        Karibu Sana

How are things?              Mambo?

No Problem                    Hakuna Matata

Slowly Slowly                 Pole Pole 

Give Five                       Nipetano

Good Morning               Habari Za Asubuhi

Good Night                   Usiku Mwema

Sleep Well                     Lala Salama

Tomorrow                      Kesho

Today                           Leo

Mountain                      Mlima

Peak                             Kilele 

Water                           Maji 

Good Job                      Kazi Nzuri

Congratulations              Hongera

 

 

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