Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest point in the African continent at 5,895 metres and one of the Seven Summits, is one of the most well known climbs in the world. The area of the mountain is a national park which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this dormant volcano undoubtedly adorns the bucket list of many international climbers. An exciting and extremely rewarding climb with incredible scenery marked by strange and distinct ecosystems, it is a goal that is eminently achievable for any fit hill-walker. Indeed, some MVers have already stood at its summit.
The Machame-Mweka route, a distance of almost 48km with over 5,000m of ascent and descent, is one of the most popular up the mountain. Our climb took place during the season of the ‘short rains’ in November 2014. This turned out to be a great idea as the weather was actually very good overall and the route much less busy and congested than it would be during peak season, allowing us moments of true solitude. We opted to do this over seven days to aid with acclimatisation to the altitude, but it is common to do it over six days too. It is impossible to do this climb independently as you must have a guide and assistant guide(s) and a permit to climb which you pay for along with the park fees. Porters are hired to carry camping equipment, food and your personal belongings (up to a maximum of 15Kg per client) and to set up camp each day. A cook prepares your meals. Rules concerning the weight each porter can carry are strictly enforced and a weighing station, which must be used to check in and out of each camp, ensures that even the garbage is accounted for. Failure to comply means heavy fines are inflicted on the offending trekking group and this consequently deters littering. Apart from the odd fag end, we found the entire route to be rubbish free. We believe in sustainable tourism and always try to use local companies so that our money benefits the immediate economy as much as possible. This time we used a Moshi-based company named Kilismile who were well organised, well equipped and half the price of a British or Irish-based company. We were the only two clients in our group but some other companies on the mountain combined climbers to make up larger groups.
The route begins at the Machame Gate on the south-western side of the mountain, where you will have been transported from your hotel in Moshi or Arusha by your trekking company. After registering your personal details at the park office, a climb of around 11km with an ascent of 1,210m through lush cloud rainforest is undertaken to reach the first camp at Machame Huts. Be prepared for the heat and humidity. The first 3 kilometres is along a 4X4 road before a well maintained pedestrian only gravel/earthen track is reached which weaves its way steadily upward through a dense canopy of tropical trees, some over 10m high, with an abundance of flowers including begonias and several species of impatiens. Just before you reach Machame Huts, the vegetation begins to thin out marking the boundary between the cloud forest and the moorland heath, characterised by spindly head high heather garlanded with wispy pale green lichen. At Machame Huts (3,021m), you get your first sight of the snow clad Kibo Peak away to the east, while the twin sister of Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, provides a dramatic backdrop for the flaming red orb of the sun to slip behind as day one ebbs away.
Day two is a climb of about 5.5km in a northerly direction with an ascent of 818m to Shira Caves Campsite (3,839m). Although short, it is mildly strenuous involving some hands on scrambling along the spine of a rocky ridge and petrified lava flows fringed with lichen clad giant heather. Occasional splashes of colour betray the presence of gladioli, helichrysums and red hot pokers. The views over the African savannah toward Mount Meru and snow clad Kibo glinting in the sun above, are incredible. Small streams conveying glacial melt water tumble down from on high, shiny black obsidian litters the ground and several caves are encountered along the route. Keep an eye open for the inquisitive white necked raven. Eventually the terrain levels as you enter the boulder strewn Shira Plateau where the campsite is situated on moorland heath offering amazing views up towards Kibo, now inching ever closer. It was frigidly cold during the night at this campsite and ice crystals had burst through the ground.
Day three is a tough test, intended to aid in the acclimatisation to altitude. It covers a distance of around 11km with an ascent of 788m up to Lava Tower at 4,627m, followed by a descent of 641m to Barranco Huts at 3,986m. From camp, the route gently meanders across small streams and weaves its way around contorted masses of lava outcrops and huge boulders in an eastward direction. The vegetation is sparse, just the occasional bright patch of helichrysums, wiry yellow grasses, or the phallic shaped lobelia growing close to the streams. The porters (and struggling trekkers) take a more direct route to Barranco Huts, omitting Lava Tower, but this is now seen as essential in following the mantra ‘climb high and sleep low’ in order to boost your chances of summiting. Feeling the altitude (and the intense cold) we found ourselves moving ‘pole, pole’ (Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly’), making Lava Tower for lunch. Here we encountered lightening fast striped mice, who put on quite a performance for us as they attempted to raid our lunchboxes!! The descent to Barranco Huts in a southerly direction was steep at first through a barren landscape of shattered basalt rock and across a stream. It then levelled out, only to descend steeply once more towards Barranco Huts, a picturesque camp perched in a gorge on the southern slope of Kibo. Here the landscape is dotted with lobelia and unusual candelabra-branched tree groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari), endemic to Kilimanjaro, which form an impressive avenue of sorts into the camp.
Day Four to Karanga Hut, a distance of just over 5km with an ascent of about 300m, starts with a near vertical scramble up the famous Great Barranco Wall, jokingly referred to as the ‘Breakfast Wall’. This might be somewhat tedious in the peak season as trekkers are forced to queue for slow moving climbers. It’s not technically difficult, but it is hands on and strenuous due to the altitude. After a rest at the top there is a gentle descent into the next gully where you climb in a south easterly direction through a number of small valleys and across a barren alpine desert before another short but steep descent to the lushly vegetated Karanga Valley, the last spot for water before the summit. A short, steep climb brings you to the windswept Karanga Camp (4,034m) perched on a rocky slope below Kibo’s southern flank. Many fellow trekkers continued on up to Barafu Camp, leaving just a handful of us at Karanga which fell pleasantly quiet. A kaleidoscopic starry sky illuminating the Kersten and Decken glaciers, the glowing tents of our fellow campers and the lights of Moshi shimmering far below, are indelibly seared into our memory.
Day Five involves the push up to Barafu Hut, sited at 4,662m, a distance of less than 3.5km, the final staging post for the summit assault. The route follows a relentlessly steep upward slog in a north easterly direction, the way marked by a series of cairns, useful in the mist that billows across this blighted place, before traversing a wide, barren alpine desert valley reminiscent of the Martian landscape, where virtually nothing grows. A short scramble up a cliff face and a further steep pull brings you to the Barafu camp which means ‘ice’ in Swahili, due to its proximity to the Rebmann Glacier now riding the north west horizon. Sited on a ridge, it’s a busy, noisy, uncomfortable camp, where people are too nervous or dog-tired to enjoy themselves. Doing the trek over seven days means you arrive here well before midday which gives you the opportunity to have two big meals and a good sleep before the summit assault.
Day Six begins at around midnight after a cup of ginger tea and biscuits. We set off with three guides to tackle the almost 5km and 1,233m ascent to the roof of Africa in the deep cold of night. Lurid sheets of lightening illuminated the eastern horizon as we began our ascent, providing a thrilling light show, and, as we gained height, the cold became intense; snow began to fall heavily in the shafts of light cast by our head torches. Time became inconsequential as we concentrated on merely putting one foot in front of the other. Our guides sang quietly to us as we struggled against the altitude. It affected us in different ways. Mcrtchly felt sleepy and nauseous before 5,000m, whereas Kernowclimber had no ill effects until not far below Stella Point when all of her energy suddenly drained away. The feeling was not unpleasant: mildly euphoric and the remainder of the climb proceeded in a dreamlike state. From just below the brutally steep zig-zag slog up to Stella Point, the sight of Mawenzi Peak crowned with charcoal grey cloud tinted red by the vermilion orb of the rising sun, which turned the snow beneath our feet rose pink, is something neither of us is ever likely to forget. However, Uhuru Peak is still over an hour away from Stella Point, involving a gradual ascent of 170m around the crater rim, offering incredible views of the Rebmann Glacier and the inner cone. The weather had now cleared giving us wall to wall azure blue sky. After a break for photos at Stella Point, and travelling ‘pole, pole’, we inched our way towards the summit, which eventually floated into view, marked by a couple of distinctive signs. Again, as it was not peak season, we had the summit to ourselves as we captured the moment on camera for posterity. Past a large boulder near Stella Point, now obscured in cloud, we took a slightly different route back to Barafu over very steep snow covered scree slopes. There was a virtual white-out as heavy snow fell on this descent but we felt our strength returning the lower we went. At Barafu, lunch was provided and a short rest was permitted before we broke camp to head down through the arid alpine desert to High Camp, a quiet and scenic spot on the moorland.
Day Seven involves a descent of around 2,150m and 11km from High Camp to Mweka Gate through the heath and cloud forest. The section passing through the moorland heath is particularly scenic with many proteas in blossom and we were treated to the sight of colobus monkeys in the cloud forest. The steepness of the descent on tired limbs is not to be underestimated! At Mweka Gate you have to register your details at the office, and your guide must confirm that you have summited in order for you to receive a certificate: green for Stella Point, gold for Uhuru Peak. A sit down toilet (after the revolting smelly long drops of each camp) was as welcome as the sight of our mini bus which took us the 45 minutes back to our hotel in Moshi where we celebrated our successful climb over numerous beers with our guides, porters and cook, and were presented with our gold certificates.
For those MVers who think they might like to have a crack at Kilimanjaro, the video link below will give you an idea of the terrain and what to expect. For those who have already bagged it, the film will hopefully jog some memories.
Also see http://kernowclimber.blogspot.ie for a full account of the trek