Better late than never, I finally got round to writing a short(ish) recap of my Kilimanjaro trek.
I flew to Kilimanjaro after spending a day in Nairobi, so I arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport at about 8.30 am, thinking I had an hour or two to wait until the rest of the group arrived. Turned out it was actually a 4.5 hour wait, in the arrivals area of the smallest airport I’ve ever seen! But eventually we all met up, and after a very long minibus drive (thanks to a traffic jam caused by a lorry hitting a bridge) we arrived at our accommodation, Weru Weru River Lodge, and were all a little surprised at how nice and luxurious it was! We spent the afternoon packing our bags, weighing and repacking our bags, meeting our guides at the pre-trek briefing and eating as much carb-based food as possible from the buffet.
We set off around 8am in our minibus to Machame Gate, where we had a bit of a wait while the guides and porters distributed all the gear between them for weighing. We used this time with filling up water bottles, another briefing and many trips to the loo! We finally starting walking around 11am, past the ‘starting point’ sign and into the rainforest. It took a while to get used to the ‘pole pole’ pace (pole pole being the Swahili phrase meaning ‘take it slow’) – it’s surprisingly difficult to walk as slowly as you need to on Kilimanjaro! We also quickly got used to the call of ‘rafiki!’ to warn each other that there were porters on their way past, going at about triple our pace and normally balancing several things on their backs or heads. Serious respect for those guys (and girls) who do that every day.
The first day of walking was relatively gentle (even if it didn’t seem it at the time) and we quickly got into the rhythm of a slow pace, reaching for a water bottle every time we heard the call of ‘sippy sippy’, and regular stops for snacks and bushes.
Eventually we got to the end of the rainforest and found ourselves at our first camp, and before dinner the guides and porters all gathered together and treated us to a brilliant song and dance followed by ice breaker games and our contribution to the dancing, The Macarena…
Day two was an early start, setting off at 7am so we could get to Shira Camp by lunchtime to fit in an afternoon stroll and help acclimatise to this altitude. Day two was also the day we found out just how dusty a mountain (and tents, clothes, bags and nostrils) can get. I got through an awful lot of wet wipes throughout the day just to get my hands back to flesh colour.
Apart from being dusty, the walk was a bit steeper than the previous day and very hot – for some reason I hadn’t realised it would be so warm as we ascended!
I had been feeling absolutely fine altitude wise, but after stopping mid-morning for a snack and loo break, I started to feel quite lightheaded and this developed into a splitting headache. I tried to sleep it off when we got to camp but woke up feeling worse and struggled to lift my head off my
pillow bag of clothes – luckily though, my bladder got me up and I decided I would join the group going on a little extra hike. This was the right decision as the short hike completely cleared my headache and also provided some beautiful views of Mount Meru and the landscape at dusk.
The day started with porridge, same as every morning… We set off nice and early to reach Lava Tower by lunchtime. The route was starting to get steeper by this point, and I decided I would stick to the back of the group and take it slowly. Several people were starting to feel the effects of altitude by this point, and after the previous day’s headache I didn’t want to take any chances. The added benefit of this was walking with Sandra, the group doctor who had to stay at the back of the group and who was absolutely full of hilarious stories.
We got to Lava Tower for lunch, to find our mess tent and toilet tents there ready and waiting for us. As this was by far the highest we had been so far at 4700m, we stayed there an hour or so to acclimatise and then continued.
Then came the bit I had been secretly dreading – the downhill. As the Machame route follows the philosophy of “climb high, sleep low”, I knew there would be some downhill sections on the way up, and I knew that my dodgy knee probably wouldn’t enjoy them. So I took my time and again stuck to the back of the group, really not enjoying myself as I was petrified of damaging my knee before getting to the summit. Then it started to rain and basically the whole afternoon was just not much fun for me!!
It was a relief to get to Barranco camp, where we had a wonderful view of Moshi below and of Barranco Wall, our challenge for the following morning. We also discovered how true it is that the weather can change in an instant on the mountain, with clear skies one minute, rain and wind the next and then back to a lovely starry night.
We had a very early start on our fourth day, meaning up at 5am and walking by 6. It didn’t take long to get to the base of Barranco Wall, which is the most ‘climby’ section of the hike where we had to use our hands to clamber up some steep sections. I found this bit great fun, and as we had set off so early we had the path to ourselves and before we knew it we had reached a plateau at the top, where we stopped for some group photos and more snacks.
Then came another downhill, right down to the bottom of Karanga Valley. Again, I took my time on the downhill and ended up a little way behind everyone else, but they waited for me at the bottom before we started back up the other side of the valley. This was quite a steep climb and seemed to take forever, but our reward at the top was our mess tent and a delicious lunch at Karanga Camp. This is the camp that anyone doing the slightly longer hike will stay at overnight, but we just stopped for lunch and then set off to Barafu.
At this point it started raining again and the next couple of hours were a pretty miserable plod through the rain. It was a good reminder of how lucky we had actually been with the weather, as it could have easily rained a lot more than it did and we would have all been miserable all week. We plodded on in our soggy clothes though and thanks to the open terrain we could see Barafu Camp in the distance long before we got there.
We got into camp around 4pm and had a quick snack and then a summit night briefing before getting our kit ready and eating some dinner. Then it was bed by 7pm to try and grab a few hours of sleep.
Summit Night & Day 5
After a pretty sleepless few hours we were woken at 11pm and tried to force down some breakfast (/dinner?) before setting off at midnight. The pace on summit night was even more ‘pole pole’ than the rest of the hike as we were ascending more steeply and obviously at a higher altitude. It took about an hour just to get to the edge of camp, as Barafu is such a long spread out camp. A lot of the rest of summit night is a bit of a blur, apart from the fact my hands, toes and nose were numb with cold but the sky was so clear and the moon was so bright that we barely needed head torches. A couple of hours into the hike I started getting bad pains in my back, which wasn’t ideal, so one of the guides, Eric, kindly offered to carry my rucksack for me.
My main focus was on counting down to sunrise, which I knew would bring with it warmth and extra energy, and on the zigzag path I found my heart dropped a little every time I turned back toward the East and the horizon was still dark. Eventually though, the sky began to turn orange, which created a breathtaking scene as the light started to spread over the immense African plain. At this point we turned a corner to see our group of guides offering out cups of tea; even if it’s not something I normally drink, that sugary tea was a lifesaver! From then on it wasn’t long before the sun was up and we started to regain feeling in our fingers at toes.
Now seems a good time to mention how lucky I was with the altitude. Apart from my second day headache, I barely felt any effects of altitude – I think I had seconds at every meal and didn’t really experience any shortness of breath. Others in the group weren’t so lucky, with most people experiencing either loss of appetite, upset stomachs, headaches or breathing problems.
This meant that for me, my main problems were the cold, my knee and my random sore back. As we got nearer to Stella Point, which is just below the summit, and the path got steeper, my back was so sore I was pretty much in tears. But knowing there was only another 45 minutes or so to the summit, I downed some ibuprofen and we set off on the last leg. By this point it was fully daytime and the views of the glacier and the crater rim kept us going until suddenly we could see the summit sign!
We spent about half an hour at Uhuru Peak, taking photos and generally congratulating ourselves and each other. While most people were eager to get back down to relieve headaches and get their breath back, I loved being at the summit and I was absolutely dreading going back down the mountain with a sore back and dodgy knee…
I won’t go into detail about the next few hours because it was pretty awful heading downhill. But let’s just say that most of the group got back to Barafu Camp about 2 hours before I did and I could have happily never walked anywhere ever again at that point. But, we had lunch at Barafu and then packed up our stuff and carried on down to Millennium Camp, our last camp of the trip.
After a lovely sunrise and some breakfast we gathered with all our guides and porters for a last singsong and the presentation of tips, which we all contributed to as a thank you for all of their hard work looking after us throughout the trip. Then it was time for the last hike down to Mweka Gate. We got some amazing views of the rainforest, the town below and even saw some Columbus Monkeys in the trees. This to me seemed like the longest of any of the days, and it was the most amazing feeling when we finally heard in the distance the singing and general noise coming from the gate.
We had a bit of waiting time while we were signed out of the park so after making the most of the running water, we all went through our kit bags and donated any spare kit we could to our guides and porters. This is really helpful as warm clothing and kit can be expensive and hard to come by, and it was a great way to give something back after all they had contributed towards such a great week!
On the way back to the hotel we stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant, which was lovely but I think we all really just wanted to get back to shower. Which we eventually did, before our celebration dinner at Weru Weru River Lodge in the evening where we received our certificates and indulged in some well-deserved beers!
For more photos I have made an album on Flickr, and there should soon be a video up on YouTube as well.