KilimanjaroKilimanjaro rises like an empress from the savannah
Through the dusty, chipped windscreen of the minibus, I get my first good look at snow clad Kilimanjaro soaring high into an azure blue sky above rust red farmland and deep green jungle. It’s late-November 2014 and we’re en route from our hotel in Moshi to the Machame Gate to begin our attempt to stand on the roof of Africa at 5,895 metres. A wave of apprehension washes over me as I take in the sheer scale of this dormant volcano, its south-western slope garlanded by a veil of cloud that seems to hug it like a silken skirt. Over the course of the next week, we must cover a distance of almost 48 kilometres with over 5,000 metres of ascent and descent. The altitude will certainly make itself felt and I’ve heard stories of incredibly fit celebrities, including Martina Navratilova and Robbie Savage, climbing it for charity who have failed in their quest to summit. Statistics quote successful summit rates of between 45 and 66 per cent on all routes (and we have decided against taking Diamox); people die on this mountain every year. However, your chances of summiting improve the longer you spend on the mountain, so we have arranged a seven day trek. But there is also the weather to consider. We’re here during the season of the ‘short rains’ when the north-east monsoon brings moisture-laden cloud that falls as light rains, particularly on the northern slopes of the mountain. There could be a lot of snow near the summit…
We stop briefly at a small butcher’s shop shaded by a giant banana tree in the village of Machame, a series of tin and wooden shacks which sprawls for several kilometres along the dusty road to the park, where one of our party buys meat for our climb. In contrast to the two of us, sitting silently lost in our own thoughts, our guides, cook and porters, eight in total, are all in high spirits, talking loudly and animatedly in Swahili to each other as the minibus proceeds once more along the road to the Machame Gate. It soon appears through the tropical vegetation, a large wooden toblerone-shaped structure at the end of a line of small booths selling all those must have things you forgot to pack – matches, paper tissues, loo roll, batteries - and things you most certainly do not need, like Kili bracelets!
Setting out at MoshiMartin and I with our guide, Hamadi, outside the Keys Hotel in Moshi
We arrive in the car park to find it abuzz with activity. Porters and guides are milling around everywhere, unloading luggage, provisions and camping equipment from the roof racks of several minibuses. We join around twenty other trekkers sitting in a covered enclosure, while our team prepares our equipment. The area of the mountain is a national park which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is strictly protected. Consequently it is impossible to do this climb independently as you must have a registered and licensed Tanzanian guide and assistant guide(s) and a permit to climb which you pay for along with the park fees. Porters are supplied to carry camping equipment, food and our personal belongings (up to a maximum of 15 kilos per client) and to set up camp each day. A cook will prepare our meals. Rules governing 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.
While we wait in the shade, we tuck into the contents of the plastic lunchboxes provided by the company: a fried sandwich of sorts, two portions of fried chicken, a muffin, banana and fruit juice. I study our fellow trekkers, most of whom look young, slim and clad in new gear. A rather portly, middle aged German man in shorts and brand new boots is strutting around the compound seemingly impatient to be off. After some time, our guide, Hamadi, a tall, lean man in his late-thirties, instructs us to sign in at the park office where we must provide our personal details: name, address, nationality, age, occupation and passport number. We note that we are among the oldest trekkers; most are in their 20s. Indeed, the majority have recorded their occupation as ‘student’, although there are also a few doctors and engineers, a company director, a couple of consultants, a surveyor and a moose hunter…
There’s just time for a final visit to the bathroom containing a clean sit down toilet (the last for a week!) and Hamadi signals that our group is ready for the off. Our porters have already gone on ahead to set up camp and we pass through the green metal gates of the perimeter fence and past a wooden sign wishing trekkers a good climb. We have some 11 kilometres with an ascent of 1,210 metres ahead of us which traverses a gravel 4X4 road for the first three kilometres. The going is easy, but the heat and humidity is high. We soon turn into a well-maintained earthen pedestrian-only path which looks mysterious and enchanted, mottled with sunlight and fringed by a tangle of exposed tree roots. This weaves its way steadily upward under a dense canopy of tropical trees, some over 10 metres high from which lianas dangle. These include enormous camphorwoods, juniper, fig, olive and wild mango. My eye alights on several dazzling patches of pink and red flowers which are species of impatiens (Impatiens pseudoviola, Impatiens digitata and the yellow tipped tuba-shaped Impatiens kilimanjari). Sprays of fragrant pale pink begonias cascade through the tree canopy and their delicate flowers litter the ground. The cries of tropical birds periodically rend the air, although we do not catch sight of any to photograph.
Machame GateSetting off at Machame Gate
The track rises along the spine of a steep ridge, although the vertiginous drops to either side are largely hidden by the dense vegetation. The trail is quite steep in places and several series of steps are encountered which slows down many trekkers who are already clearly struggling, including the portly German, sweaty, red faced and panting profusely. We make a brief stop to finish off the contents of our lunchboxes allowing several porters to pass by. Beads of sweat stand out on their foreheads. I am amazed at the way in which they transport their heavy loads – balanced atop their heads – which gives them a very upright appearance and they appear to glide along.
En route to Machame HutStriding out along the 11 kilometre 1,210 metre ascent to Machame Hut through tropical forest
Just before we reach Machame Huts, the vegetation begins to thin out rapidly, marking the boundary between the cloud forest and the moorland heath. Through gaps in the undergrowth I spy an endless expanse of thickly forested ridges. Jungle gives way to spindly head high heather, juniper and podocarpus, garlanded with wispy pale green bearded lichen. We arrive at Machame Hut (3,021 metres) in just over four hours, having really enjoyed what turned out to be an easy walk up from the gate. We find our porters erecting the mess tent not far from the office where we have just signed in. The tent in which we will sleep is already up and hot water is brought to us to wash away the sweat of the day from our faces and hands. As the afternoon cloud begins to thin a little, we discover that our camping spot offers a grandstand view of Kibo Peak away to the east, and our mess tent is strategically positioned to take advantage of this panorama.
At Machame HutEntrance to Machame Hut (3,021 metres)
We decide to explore the camp for a spot to watch the sunset. The last trekkers of the day, including the portly German, are finally arriving in the camp. Beforehand however, a call of nature must be answered and I have my first experience of a long drop. I enter a dimly lit wooden shack half hidden in some bushes away from the camping area. It has no door, but once inside you must turn into an adjoining compartment which offers some privacy. There isn’t room to swing a cat and as I drop my trousers to crouch down over a narrow opening in the wet and soiled wooden boards, a cloud of flies rises with a low hum. Now hovering just feet from the hole, my nostrils are suddenly assaulted by the pungent sulphurous stench of human excrement, causing me to retch violently. This had to be the fastest pee in my life, and I literally bolt coughing and gagging from the long drop before I am physically sick, hitching up my trousers as I go, a source of great amusement to Martin. I don’t see the funny side at all. A quick pee is one thing, but I’m now dreading having to have a crap tomorrow morning!!
From a quiet spot in the west of the sprawling camp, we can see the twin sister of Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, which provides a dramatic backdrop for the flaming orb of the sun to slip behind as day one ebbs away. Not long after sundown, dinner is served by one of our porters. He raises the lid of a plastic tureen with a flourish; ‘cucumber soup’ he says dramatically, as its wonderful aroma fills the tent. I am famished and dunking slices of bread into it, tuck in greedily, helping myself to seconds. The next course consists of a generous portion of battered fish, chips and a mixed side salad, washed down with black tea. If all of our meals are such a grand affair as this, we’ll not be going hungry, that’s for sure!
Sunset from Machame HutThe sun sets over Mount Meru
Dinner complete, it is now pitch black and decidedly chilly; by degrees the camp falls silent as people turn in for the night. From outside our mess tent we can see Kibo Peak, its snows silvered from the light of an immense canopy of brilliant stars and the mere sliver of a moon. A thrill of excitement radiates through me as I anticipate climbing the mountain over the next few days. It has been a great start. The omens are good.
Starry night, Machame HutView from our first camp
I am still sleeping soundly when one of our porters brings steaming hot mugs of ginger tea to us around dawn. Poking my head outside our tent I am greeted by a clear and crisp morning. Sunlight is flooding over Mount Kibo, etched against a cloudless blue sky. Delicious smells are emanating from the nearby cook tent as well as a very animated conversation in Swahili between those inside. I am constantly struck by how loudly the Tanzanians converse with each other, which at times appears to border on arguing!
Dressed and washed, we decide to eat our breakfast outside to enjoy the scenery. The sun is very warm on my shoulders as I feast on a slice of succulent mango. This is followed by a bowl of porridge, with seconds readily available, washed down by black tea. We are surprised when a large platter of pancakes, toast, omelette and sausages is set down in front of us; our guide informs us that we will lunch at the next campsite, so we shamelessly demolish the lot! One of the porters brings us cool water which has been boiled for our bladders and we prepare to break camp. By now I need to answer a call of nature, the moment I have been dreading. This time I wrap a bandana around my mouth and nose to help prevent the stench and find a more modern long drop with a lockable door, tiled interior and no flies, which was just about bearable!
Breakfast, Machame HutA grandstand view of Kibo Peak
Day two is a climb of about 5.5 kilometres in a northerly direction with an ascent of 818 metres to Shira Caves Campsite (3,839 metres). Although short, it is a mildly strenuous climb involving some hands on scrambling along the spine of a rocky ridge and petrified lava flows fringed with lichen clad giant heather. We seem to set off at the same time as everyone else, and I can only imagine how congested this route must get in peak season. Umpteen porters struggle by laden with rush baskets and canvas holdalls atop their heads. I spy one carefully carrying two dozen carton-packaged eggs by a piece of string, another lugging a camping stove and gas canister.
Occasional splashes of colour betray the presence of crimson gladioli flowers nodding on delicate stalks; pale pink helichrysums (everlastings) with large saffron yellow centres, and dazzling flame orange, red hot pokers. As we ascend, the trekking groups begin to thin out a little which makes climbing a more pleasurable experience, although we are keen to avoid a brash and loud Spaniard with a shock of black curls and a grating American accent who seems hell bent on sharing information about his bowel movements and the benefits of farting at altitude with all and sundry. The final straw comes as 'El Cid' lets one go downwind which nearly floors us as we retch and gasp for fresh air in the thinning atmosphere! Fortunately we’re much faster than his group, one of the benefits we have over larger parties who must travel at the pace of the slowest member, and we soon leave him behind.
HelichrysumAlso known as everlastings, these flowers are common on Kilimanjaro
After trekking for almost two hours, a short scramble up naked rock to a viewing point gives magnificent vistas over the lushly wooded slopes of the mountain sweeping down to the African savannah toward Mount Meru, above which fluffy white dots of cloud float. Ahead of us, snow clad Kibo glinting in the brilliant sunshine begins to fill the sky. As we ascend higher the path narrows, weaving its way along the crest of a ridge and the cloud begins to thicken, hugging the lip of the Shira Plateau. Within ten minutes it has descended, shrouding the trail in grey mist which blows eerily across the landscape swallowing most sound. We are literally right at a small stream conveying glacial melt water tumbling down from on high before we hear it. Our guides, Hamadi and Hussein, stop to fill their water bottles.
En route to Shira CavesScenic viewpoint with Mount Meru in the distance
The vegetation begins to thin out now, more grasses and ground shrubs appear, and I spot the mountain thistle, Cardus keniensis, with its beautiful cluster of electric mauve heads. The giant heather is no longer as tall and seems to have less foliage; its spindly, skeletal limbs bedecked with bearded lichen look highly weird through the billowing mist. In a small gully below the ridge, I spot the first tree groundsels, unique to Equatorial East Africa, a peculiar plant with a trunk like a telegraph pole supporting dumpy candelabra shaped branches each sporting a terminal leaf rosette. These ones are quite small, but impressive nonetheless. After a clamber up an eight metre high rock face aided by some concrete steps, we pause for a short break on a small plateau where we encounter a pair of inquisitive white naped-ravens, large scavengers with brown heads and a white collar, whose coal black feathers have a petrol blue sheen. With their large, mean looking hooked beaks, I keep a sharp eye on this duo as they hop about totally unperturbed, hoping no doubt to steal some of our snacks!
White naped-raven (Corvus albicollis)This large bird is common on Kilimanjaro
Of interest to Martin, a geologist, are the fragments of obsidian that litter the ground formed from the rapidly cooled lava of an ancient eruption. He breaks one open to reveal its shiny black glass interior. The edges are razor sharp. As we progress higher, the undulating path is less distinct and involves climbing over and around large boulders with some tricky hands on scrambling. Several overhanging caves are encountered, one of which has a small waterfall pouring picturesquely down in front of it, a perfect spot to wash our dusty hands. Eventually, after just under five hours trekking, the terrain levels, sheets of petrified lava from an ancient eruption are encountered and a series of cairns appear through the mist as we enter the boulder strewn Shira Plateau.
Across from a small stream the Shira Caves Campsite sprawls in all directions amid stands of giant heather and we spend several minutes locating our camp in the billowing mist. The silence is punctuated periodically by the clatter of pots and pans, snatches of conversation from the porters and the raucous cries of white-naped ravens perching somewhere close by, but invisible in the gloom. It feels decidedly chilly as soon as we stop and we are glad to crawl into our tent for a nap before lunch. We are soon woken by Hamadi who informs us we must register our arrival and we set off in the cold greyness of early afternoon for the camp office, passing trekkers just arriving into camp, including the portly German. Hamadi and his assistant guide, Hussein, then take us a short distance away to see the Shira Caves, basalt roofs blackened by years of camp fires. He explains that the porters and guides used to sleep in here by the warmth of camp fires, but this has now been banned, as collecting firewood damaged the fragile ecosystem.
After a hearty lunch we retire to the relative warmth of our tent to read, listen to music and snooze before sundown. Martin is hopeful of a good sunset over Mount Meru, and we leave our tent to find an appropriate vantage point. On a petrified lava flow overlooking a deep gully well away from the noise and bustle of the camp, we wait to see if the cloud will lift. Intriguing vistas flash in and out of view before finally, the mist begins to magically clear. A ghostly saffron yellow ball hangs above the charcoal grey outlines of Shira Cathedral and East Shira Hill and beyond, poking high above the churning mist now tinted a warm shade of apricot in the setting sun, are Johnsell Point and Klute Peak, the highest points on the Shira Ridge. Behind us Kibo Peak, bathed in golden light, rises majestically and we are surprised how close it appears to be. Attention now turns to Mount Meru, the dramatic backdrop for yet another spectacular sunset. The last rays of sunlight catch the top of the boiling cloud alight in a thousand shades of chrome orange and vermilion before the sun sets behind the pyramid shaped volcano in a sky of burnished gold.
Mount Kibo in the setting sunThe view from Shira Caves Campsite
Dusk at Shira Caves CampsiteThe charcoal grey outlines of Shira Cathedral and East Shira Hill
Dinner is soon ready and we retire to our mess tent for yet another feast: asparagus soup followed by beef goulash with rice and green beans. Leaving the tent, the cold of night hits us like a sledgehammer and we are glad of our down jackets. Overhead, the sky is crystal clear and crammed full of stars. Despite the intense cold, we saunter some distance from the camp to a secluded spot to set up the tripod for some time lapse photos. Martin points out constellations we cannot see in the Northern Hemisphere and the Magellanic Clouds (Nubeculae Magellani), a duo of irregular dwarf galaxies, mere smudges in the night sky. Standing beneath the shimmering Milky Way with snow capped Kibo gleaming in the starlight is a truly exhilarating experience and it’s only the bitter cold that drives me back into our tent and where my down sleeping bag and booties await, warmed by a nalgene bottle of hot water!
It was frigidly cold during the night and upon unzipping the tent, I am surprised to see that ice crystals the size of spear tips have burst through the thin soil all around. The tent is silvered with frost and I am thankful that we brought our own Thermarest sleeping mats which we placed on top of the foam mattresses provided by our trekking company for extra insulation. A high-end down sleeping bag is essential and I have brought my trusty Rab Andes 800, good for temperatures down to -22 degrees centigrade. Packing woollen long johns, a long sleeved merino base layer and down booties to sleep in turned out to be a good idea too. In fact it was so cold that Hamadi and his assistant guide, Hussein, had crammed another two of our party into their tent, while the four others huddled together for warmth in the mess tent. The sky is piercingly blue and the atmosphere crystal clear as I stroll across camp to use one of the long drops. It is a bad choice, as the previous occupant had a poor aim. No one needs to be confronted by a freshly laid turd steaming on the wooden floor boards before being truly compos mentis!!
Breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge, pancakes, omelette and sausages are served in our mess tent. We leave the flaps open and I watch, amused at the antics of the cook from a nearby group, who is quite a character. ‘Rasta Man’ sports an impressive set of dreadlocks which he wears beneath a woollen cap in the colours of the Jamaican flag, but it is his bright pink lycra leggings that really catch my attention. All the other porters seem to know him and he is clearly popular among his peers who jest loudly with him.
Today will be a tough test, intended to aid in the acclimatisation to altitude. Moving from the western to the southern slopes of Kilimanjaro, the route covers a distance of around 11 kilometres with an ascent of 788 metres up to Lava Tower at 4,627 metres, followed by a descent of 641 metres to Barranco Huts at 3,986 metres. Our cook, Salimo, brings us a packed lunch rather similar to the fare we had on day one and we set off slowly from camp, our boots crunching on the hoary ground. The trail starts off relatively benignly, meandering across a small stream fringed with phallic shaped lobelia and rises gently across the ancient lava flows of the Shira Plateau studded with enormous boulders blown out eons ago in one of the volcano’s violent eruptions. It’s not at all dusty on account of the ice protruding though the thin soil, but this soon begins to melt as the sun strengthens leaving the ground damp underfoot. With Kibo now filling the sky in front of us, its Penck Glacier gleaming white, we make our way steadily eastwards. We pass many other trekking groups, including the portly German, sweating heavily and struggling upwards like a wind broken horse, and people who have stopped to attend to blistered feet or who are feeling nauseous. Higher up, the trail passes contorted lava outcrops and strange wind sculpted basalt boulders, where only the hardiest plants – wiry grasses, lichens and helichrysums - seem able to cling to life.
En route to Barranco HutsThe trail crosses ancient lava flows on the Shira Plateau which is studded with enormous boulders blown out eons ago in one of the volcano’s violent eruptions
As we pass the junction with the Lemosho Route, the cloud begins to boil up from the plains below, obscuring views of a low range of hills and rocky outcrops. Not much further on, the trail splits in two and we join the South Circuit Path. Through the mist blowing across a broad, sloping plateau of dull grey and brown lava slabs strewn with boulders and ragged yellow grass, I finally see Lava Tower. The porters (and struggling trekkers) take a more direct route to Barranco Huts here, 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. The air feels very chilly, my hands are numb, and we stop to wrap up in warm layers before heading on, our pace now considerably slower as the altitude kicks in. ‘Pole, pole’ (‘slowly, slowly’), says Hussein in Swahili with a reassuring smile, as the distinctive tower-shaped rock standing proud of the surrounding landscape inches ever closer.
En route to Lava Tower (4,627 metres)Lava Tower is essential in following the mantra ‘climb high and sleep low’ in order to boost your chances of summiting
On arrival at Lava Tower, we find a sheltered spot to eat our packed lunches and enjoy a grand view of the Western Breach, a distinctive gap formed by an ancient lava flow on the western outer rim of Kibo, which is drifting in and out of the cloud. Here we encounter more white-naped ravens, who are loitering about on the nearby rocks, waiting for a chance to swoop on a stray snack. But it is the lightening fast four-striped grass mice who steal the show. They put on quite a performance for us as they attempt to raid our lunchboxes!! Our appetites are unaffected by the altitude and we consume our lunch with gusto. Just as we are donning our rucksacks ready for the off, I see El Cid and his group arrive. He looks wan faced and slumps heavily on to a nearby rock. He doesn’t have anything to say for himself today; the altitude fortunately seems to have silenced his tongue, and hopefully his derriere!
Four stripped mouseBeware the lunch box raiders at Lava Tower!
The trail to Barranco drops down steeply between enormous pillars of shattered basalt to a small stream which we cross, only to rise again before undulating gently across a barren landscape of rock and gravel. It then plunges down steeply towards a gaping valley on the southern face of Kibo where the campsite, still hidden from view, is sited about a 10 minute walk from the South Circuit Path. I begin to feel a bit tired as we trudge downwards towards Barranco and Martin is walking in just his base layer after feeling that he was overheating. As we approach the camp, the landscape is enlivened by pretty glacier fed streams, some cascading down in small waterfalls, numerous two metre high lobelia and a stand of candelabra-branched groundsel trees (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari), many almost ten metres tall, which form an impressive avenue of sorts into the camp. Silhouetted against the glassy luminescence of sunlight through mist they appear vaguely humanoid, ghostly sentinels spreading their arms wide as if to embrace weary trekkers.
Route to Barranco HutsA stand of candelabra-branched groundsel trees (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari) form an impressive avenue of sorts into the camp
After signing in at the camp office, we are glad to crawl into our sleeping bags for a nap before dinner. Martin complains of a slight headache which is apparently quite normal on this leg of the trek. He drinks plenty of water and takes a couple of Ibuprofen and by dinner time he’s feeling fine again. A rather grand sounding ‘Swahili carrot soup’ is served with gusto by our waiter followed by a delicious main course of ground beef in tomato sauce with pasta and vegetables. We’ve actually only gained 147 metres since leaving Shira Camp but the day has been a long and tough one. Feeling pretty tired, and eschewing yet more magnificent views of the night sky, we turn in early.
We are woken from our slumbers by the noise of other groups nearby and I can clearly hear the booming voice of Rasta Man above everyone else. It’s another bright, sunny morning, but churning columns of cloud are already beginning to boil about Kibo’s summit which suggests that most of today will be spent walking in mist. The trail to Karanga Hut, a distance of just over 5 kilometres with an ascent of about 300 metres, starts with a near vertical scramble up the famous Great Barranco Wall, jokingly referred to as the ‘Breakfast Wall’. Many of our fellow trekkers are beginning to leave camp as we saunter into the mess tent for our breakfast. I can’t say I’m sorry to see the back of El Cid and I certainly wouldn’t want to be climbing the Barranco Wall directly below him with his backfiring habits!! He and the other groups are making an early start as they have a long day’s trekking up to Barafu Hut; they are climbing the mountain in a day less than us. Reduced to mere dots, we follow their progress as they and their porters move slowly up the switchback pathway of the cliff face which is still largely in shadow. I swear I can see Rasta Man in his bright pink leggings! Although not technically difficult and with little real exposure, the ‘Breakfast Wall’ is hands on and strenuous due to the altitude and has the potential to be really tedious in the peak seasons, as people are undoubtedly forced to queue for slow moving climbers.
Breakfast at BarrancoOur mess tent (far right) at Barranco Huts
Apart from a group of four South Africans, we are now the only people left in camp. Kit packed and ready, I visit one of the recently built long drops which has a door and interior tiling and having just been cleaned by the camp caretaker, is thankfully not an unpleasant ordeal. We then set off to scale the 300 metre wall which is nowhere near as hard as it looks. Across a boggy section and over a small stream, we stop to stow our walking poles by a block of rock as big as a house and then begin the scramble up the groundsel-dotted slopes of the zig-zag trail that weaves its way over, around and through rock outcrops and boulders. I really enjoy the challenge of the climb which is such a difference from the relentless slow walking of yesterday. The mist has come down as expected, but this results in a pleasant climbing temperature and I can imagine how uncomfortable it might get in direct sunshine. The porters make the climbing look so easy, and I marvel at their agility, strength and remarkable balance, as one of our team sails by carrying our kit bag on his head. The trail rises in stages, and it’s impossible to see the actual top of the wall until you’re almost out of the gorge.
Barranco WallScaling the 300 metre high Great Barranco Wall, jokingly referred to as the ‘Breakfast Wall’
The wall scaled, we pause for snacks before beginning a gentle descent to the bottom of a gully enlivened by heather bushes, the odd tree groundsel, lobelia, vibrant yellow patches of Euryops dacrydioides and pale green African wormwood. The trail climbs in a south easterly direction past an old porter’s track to Barafu, the use of which is now prohibited. It’s not hard to see why. As Hamadi is pointing it out, a loud rumble and cloud of dust signals a rock fall from a cliff right above this old trail. The route now undulates through a series of small valleys before entering a barren stretch of alpine desert, where only rust red lichen encrusts the lava boulders and straggly grasses sprout from the dusty ground.
Trail to Karanga HutThe route is enlivened by heather bushes, the odd tree groundsel, lobelia, vibrant yellow patches of Euryops dacrydioides and pale green African wormwood
The weather suddenly takes a turn for the worse and it begins to drizzle. Despite being the season of the ‘short rains’, we have not had any up until now, but we are prepared and stop to don our waterproof ponchos. We won't win any fashion prizes for wearing these! They fit over our backpacks and make us look like a pair of hunchbacks! The light rain driven by a blustery wind is a hindrance, repeatedly clouding our glasses as we cross this exposed section, before we approach the steep descent to the lushly vegetated Karanga Valley which offers some shelter. Hamadi takes us on the steeper of two trails which is rough and muddy in places and traverses exposed rock which is slippery from the rain. I am concentrating hard on moving safely downward, but in spite of this I suddenly lose my footing on some loose rock and begin to slide sideways, overbalancing and gathering speed as I go. An inevitable bad fall is broken only by Martin whom I gratefully career into. My impromptu hero instantly lets himself down by claiming he feels as if he has just been hit by a charging rhino, a comment that Hamadi and Hussein find hilarious!! Shaken, I continue and am greatly relieved when we arrive unscathed at the valley floor.
A stream fed by glacial melt water runs through the Karanga Valley, the last source of water before the summit. Teams of porters are busy collecting and carrying heavy canisters of water on their heads up to the camp which is sited on a windswept rocky slope below Kibo’s southern flank. A short, steep climb below a semicircular overhanging rock formation which Martin identifies as a windblown conglomerate, brings us to Karanga Hut. I smile as I read the words ‘Zombie Land’ scrawled on the rock face near the camp which lies at an altitude of 4,034 metres, over four kilometres above sea level.
The trekkers who left Barranco early and had stopped here for lunch have already departed for Barafu Hut, leaving just a handful of porters washing up and packing away the lunch utensils. One by one they leave and the camp falls pleasantly quiet. Apart from the four South Africans, we are the only other trekking group at Karanga. Popcorn and ginger tea are brought to us to snack on before lunch and we have the rest of the afternoon to relax, read and snooze. By sundown, the cloud has vanished and we can see the immense rocky hulk of Kibo rising above the camp, eternal snow and glaciers smudging its southern face. Dinner is once again a true feast comprised of pumpkin soup, followed by fried chicken, salad and chips. The importance of a hot and hearty meal cannot be underestimated, not only for its nutritional and calorific value, but also for its morale boosting qualities. I especially love Salimo’s soups and really look forward to these each evening.
Kiliamanjaro GlaciersGlaciers spilling down from the slopes of Kilimanjaro as seen from Karanga Hut
Although I have read a description of Karanga as ramshackle and resembling a refuge camp, I cannot say I share this opinion. I relish the remote solitude of this place, the quietness, the exhilarating feeling you get when you stare up into clear Equatorial night skies. A kaleidoscopic display of stars illuminating the Kersten and Decken glaciers tumbling down from Kibo, the colourful glowing canvas domes - tents of our fellow campers - and the lights of Moshi shimmering on the savannah far below, are indelibly seared into my memory.
Night sky, Karanga HutTents glow in the dark like M&Ms at Karanga Hut
Hot mugs of ginger tea arrive. The sun has already risen and peering through our tent flaps, I see it’s another glorious morning. Today involves the push up to Barafu Hut sited at 4,662 metres, a distance of less than 3.5 kilometres, the final staging post for the summit assault. I make my way downhill to a wooden long drop, bracing myself for the worst. For minutes I struggle to open what appears to be the door, only to discover as I walk round the back that it has no far wall!! Three sided, it is open to the wind and anyone using it during peak season will be visible to all those people who have pitched their tents below it!! At least this loo with a view doesn’t smell too bad!
Loo with a View!Long drop at Karanga Hut with Mount Kibo in the background
After the usual extensive breakfast fare, we break camp, our packing regimen by now perfected to a tee, and begin the relentlessly steep upward slog in a north easterly direction towards Barafu. We soon hit a plateau of sorts, the trail marked by a series of cairns which are useful in the mist that has predictably descended and now billows across this blighted place. I spy only a few patches of bright yellow everlastings and some desiccated lichens clinging stubbornly to basalt boulders as we descend into a wide, barren alpine desert valley reminiscent of the Martian landscape. Bathed by strong radiation during the day and subject to excruciatingly cold temperatures at night, virtually nothing can grow here. A short scramble up a cliff face and a further steep pull which really saps my energy, brings us to Barafu camp which means ‘ice’ in Swahili, due to its proximity to the Rebmann Glacier, now riding the north west horizon. It’s sleeting slightly as we walk into camp and sign in at the office. Sited on a desolate spine of rock crowded with clusters of tents, Barafu is a busy, noisy, uncomfortable camp, where people are too nervous or dog-tired to really relax or enjoy themselves. Doing the trek over seven days means we have arrived here well before midday which gives us the opportunity to have two big meals and a good sleep before the summit assault.
The trail to Barafu HutVirtually nothing can grow in the lunar landscape at this altitude
The slog up to Barafu HutSituated at 4,662 metres, Barafu Hut is less than 3.5 kilometres from Karanga, but the altitude makes the going slow
Porters serving the groups that had made their summit attempt a day ahead of us are loudly packing away their remaining gear, and in the distance I catch sight of Rasta Man heading off down the mountain. I wonder how his group fared? As we emerge from the mess tent after a lunch of vegetable soup, fruit, beef stew and rice, it is snowing lightly. The cold is intense, the wind penetrating. We don our Rab down jackets to avail of the long drops which, despite the altitude and deep cold, are still gutwrenchingly smelly. Back in our tent the conversation between us is minimal. Lost in our individual thoughts we prepare ourselves mentally for the summit attempt. I listen to the soothing music of Philip Glass, Martin reads a book. It’s hopeless trying to sleep as the camp is simply too noisy with people coming and going and porters shouting at what seems like the top of their voices. After a dinner of sweet potato soup, followed by copious pasta in a rich vegetable sauce which fills us with the carbs needed for the summit assault, we try to grab some sleep.
Barafu Hut (4,662 metres)The busy, noisy campsite at Barafu Hut where it's impossible to relax before the ascent of Kilimanjaro
I sleep surprisingly well and Martin has to shake me awake around 11.00 pm after one of the porters rouses us. Adrenalin flowing, I instantly dress in my summit gear: a pair of thick woollen hiking socks and a pair of liners; merino long johns; mountaineering trousers; long sleeved winter merino base layer; a light weight woollen mid layer; Rab generator smock and GoreTex jacket. We make our way to the mess tent where ginger tea and biscuits await us. Here we sort out the remainder of the kit we will carry about our person and in our rucksacks: Rab down jackets; head torches; down mittens and woollen liners; balaclavas; bandanas; polar fleece hats; sunglasses; sunscreen; lip balm; first aid kit; a camera; spare batteries; some high energy snacks; a flask of hot ginger tea and the nalgene bottle of hot water which had been warming my sleeping bag for the past few hours.
Hamadi, Hussein and another assistant guide enter the tent as we are silently sipping our ginger tea. I have little appetite for the sweet coconut biscuits. Filled with apprehension, I'm trying to banish all negative thoughts from my mind. I eye these three highly experienced men with hundreds of successful summits between them. We have entrusted them to ensure that we reach the highest point of Africa safely and come back down alive. Hamadi runs a final check list with us and after giving us reassurances about his confidence in our climbing ability and acclimatisation, we exit the tent around midnight. The ground is icy and white with sleet as we begin our climb of almost five kilometres with an ascent of 1,233 metres to the roof of Africa. Lurid sheets of lightening perpetually illuminate the eastern horizon less than an hour into the climb, providing a thrilling light show, but I am mightily relieved to learn that the storm is moving away from, not toward us. There are only a few other people making a summit attempt and we can see their head torches bobbing about in the blackness below. As we gain height, the cold becomes intense. Clouds of our own breath sparkling with icy particles are momentarily trapped in the beams cast by our head torches. Snow begins to fall steadily and time becomes inconsequential as we concentrate on merely putting one foot in front of the other.
Our guides sing quietly to us as we struggle upwards against the altitude. Martin begins to feel it first. Only a couple of hours into the climb he slows down and begins to feel sleepy and nauseous, pausing regularly to lean on his walking poles. I am alarmed when he begins to retch violently and as these episodes become more regular I fear his summit attempt is drawing to a premature close. We stop so he can lie down in the shelter of a small cave to rest for a while. The decision to quit must be his and if he decides to retreat, I resolve to return to Barafu with him. However, he hasn’t actually vomited and following this break, he informs us that he is OK to continue. After Hamadi gives him a careful check over, the assistant guide takes his rucksack and with him keeping a reassuring hand on Martin's back, we soldier on. Stopping has chilled me to the very marrow. My hands are numb and my fingers literally stinging with the cold. I’m relieved to be moving again.
By degrees, the eastern sky begins to lighten, the only sound, my laboured breathing and the crunch and squeak of fresh snow beneath my boots. In fact, the snow turns out to be a blessing as it’s not deep enough to slow us down, but deep enough to carpet the nasty loose scree slopes that can test the resolve of even the hardiest trekkers. Mawenzi Peak, crowned with charcoal grey cloud tinted vermilion by the golden orb of the rising sun which turns the snow beneath our feet rose pink as we ascend the zig-zag path to Stella Point, is a sight I will never ever forget.
Dawn over Mawenzi PeakThe unforgettable sight of sunrise from the zig-zag pathway up to Stella Point
Until now, I had experienced no ill effects of altitude whatsoever. But then suddenly and unexpectedly, as if someone had literally tripped a switch, all my energy drains away. The feeling isn’t unpleasant, it’s actually mildly euphoric and I feel as if I’m walking above the ground not on it. The remainder of the climb proceeds in this semi-dreamlike state. Seeing that I have slowed down, Hussein relieves me of my rucksack not far below Stella Point, the wooden signpost for which is a very welcome sight indeed. My eyes fill with tears as it sinks in that we have made it to the crater rim together. I embrace Martin, proud and in awe of his mental stamina, the grit and resolve he has mustered to reach this point. The cloud has now cleared giving us wall to wall azure blue sky and we spy the small Ratzel Glacier etched in brilliant detail in the morning sunlight to the far right of the Rebmann Glacier which has been a constant companion on our ascent. Far below, the African savannah is spread out like a never ending map in all directions. I shall carry the memory of this moment to the ghats.
'Pole, Pole'...The slow ascent up the zig-zag path to Stella Point
Stella Point (5,756 metres)Our team at Stella Point
After a cup of energising hot ginger tea and the ubiquitous group photos and hugs of congratulation, we set off for Uhuru Peak which is still about an hour away. This involves a gradual ascent of 170 metres around the crater rim, offering incredible views of the inner cone and the Rebmann Glacier sloping down the mountain like giant layers of meringue. Martin has now rallied considerably and is making steady progress ahead of me. Although I am really enjoying the climb, I have to stop every few hundred metres as I simply run out of steam. I deeply appreciate the presence of Hussein, his simple acts of kindness and the easy companionship that has arisen between two people whom fate has thrown together. When I falter, I feel his hand on my back to steady me, when I flag, he offers comforting words of reassurance.
Rebmann GlacierThe glacier slopes down the mountain like giant layers of meringue
Travelling ‘pole, pole’ so as not to get out of breath, we inch our way towards Uhuru Peak which eventually floats into view, marked by a couple of distinctive signs. Around eight hours after we had set off, we are standing on the roof of Africa. Together. We share a few tears when the realisation sinks in that we are almost six kilometres above sea level; below us the mighty African continent spreads out for as far as the eye can see. As it's not peak season, we have the summit entirely to ourselves as we leisurely capture the moment on camera for posterity. While the guides are busy chatting together, Martin leads me underneath one of the signs and drops to one knee. I look at him through bleary eyes as he asks me to marry him. This is the highest point in the world we have reached so far together and what better place and moment to pop the question? We embrace as I accept his proposal and our guides cheer when they learn what has just transpired.
Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres)Atop the highest point of Africa and the world's highest free standing mountain
After the cheering subsides, Hamadi signals it’s time to leave, conscious of the fact that we are both affected to varying degrees by the altitude. We beat a hasty retreat from the summit, arriving quickly at Stella Point now shrouded in cloud. From here we take a slightly different path back to Barafu, opting for a faster route involving the descent of a narrow valley via hair-raisingly steep snow-covered scree slopes. There is a virtual white-out as heavy snow falls on our descent but we feel our strength rapidly returning the lower we go. At Barafu we are allowed a one hour nap before lunch and then have to pack up our kit, a tedious task when you're physically and mentally drained. We then immediately break camp to head down through the arid alpine desert via the Mweka route to High Camp, a quiet and scenic spot set amid thickets of giant moorland heather. The fragrant smell of wood smoke from the caretaker’s hut guides us into the camp, established in 1999 when the mountain literally swarmed with thousands of climbers hoping to welcome in the new millennium from the summit. Indeed, many groups now prefer it to the lower camp at Mweka which is crowded, noisy and prone to flooding during heavy rains. The clean, modern long drops here are certainly 5* rated after Barafu!
Taking Five at High CampIt was great to arrive at High Camp, a quiet and scenic spot set amid thickets of giant moorland heather
I sit across the dinner table from Martin in our candlelit mess tent still in a dreamlike state, not from the altitude, but from exhaustion following the exertion of the day’s incredible events. We don’t say much to each other, but just grin knowingly and repeatedly over a filling meal of leek and potato soup, and spaghetti with a spicy sauce. Once inside my down sleeping bag, I am too tired to rerun the day’s events in my mind and am asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow.
A dull, overcast day greets us as we emerge from our tent for breakfast. It has rained heavily in the night, although I was too comatose with fatigue to hear it. There is a real sense of purpose at this camp; the porters seem keen to get the cook and mess tents packed away quickly today. A descent of around 2,150 metres over 11 kilometres from here to Mweka Gate through the heath and cloud forest awaits us and we too are keen to hit the trail in order to get back to our hotel in Moshi where a hot shower and cold beers await!
From High Camp, the trail weaves its way down over the crest of a lava ridge which offers fine views of the heavily forested southern slopes of the mountain. I'm really enjoying this walk, but the ground is very rough underfoot in places and I know it’s wise to be careful and not to be too blasé about where to plant my feet. Most accidents happen on descent to tired climbers with weary limbs. Indeed, we pass two strong young men carrying stretchers uphill, a thankless but necessary task. I wonder how the two casualties that recently occupied those stretchers had fared? Giant heather draped with lichen is now interspersed with protea, a bush with pretty vanilla-coloured blossoms whose ancestors grew in Gondwanaland 300 million years ago. In the undergrowth, we spot vibrant patches of purple wild thyme and pale pink geraniums. A slight rise is encountered as we approach Mweka Huts (3,106 metres), for now eerily deserted until the next wave of climbers descend on it later today.
Descent to Mweka GateFrom High Camp we had a descent of around 2,150 metres over 11 kilometres to Mweka Gate through heath and cloud forest
Mweka Huts, like Machame Huts, is situated at the juncture between moorland heath and cloud forest, and before long we are walking along a shady but very slippery pathway beneath a dense forest canopy. The gradual although relentless descent on tired limbs is not to be underestimated! However, the jungle flora provides a magnificent distraction: impatiens, begonia, gladiolus and wild blackberry blossom pepper the undergrowth, while many of the trees, trunks coated in thick moss and bristling with parasitic ferns, are enormous. Some actually grow in the centre of the pathway. There are no other groups ahead of us on the trail and our quietness is rewarded by sightings of black and white colobus monkeys in the tree canopy, while on the track ahead we spot a family of blue monkeys. Hamadi also alerts us to the presence of a dik-dik, a small, shy antelope which is barely visible in the jungle undergrowth.
Finally, Mweka Gate appears in the distance where our minibus is waiting for us. I am overjoyed that my feet have not played me up for even a nanosecond over the past week. I've not suffered any blisters or even a pressure point and my Zamberlan boots have passed another rigorous test with flying colours! Our concerns about the weather proved to be unfounded and opting to do the trek outside of the peak seasons meant we were able to enjoy true moments of peace and solitude which would be far more difficult when the trails and camp sites are crowded, busy and noisy.
Mweka GateFinally, Mweka Gate and the park exit!
We pause for a photograph at a wooden congratulation sign and then head to the office to officially sign out of the park. We note from the register that not all of the trekkers who had gone for the summit the day before us had made it. The portly German managed to reach Barafu, something of a miracle in itself, several others were satisfied attaining Stella Point. El Cid was one of those who did stand on the roof of Africa, which will undoubtedly give him bragging rights for all eternity! Hussein confirmed to the park ranger that we had successfully reached Uhuru Peak in order for us to receive certificates stating so. Formalities over, I head to the bathroom. A clean, sit down flush toilet is utter bliss after squatting for a week over those stomach churning long drops! Looking in the mirror above the basin as I wash my filthy hands, I barely recognise myself. Face sunburnt and slightly swollen, dirty hair a mass of dreadlocks to rival those of Rasta Man, I look like I've been to hell and back!!
Signing out!I sign the register at Mweka Gate before leaving the park
An hour later and we're back at our hotel in Moshi. Here we take that much dreamed about hot shower and later celebrate our successful climb over numerous cold beers with our guides, porters and cook. They are presented with their well earned tips, and we receive our precious gold certificates to take home along with many priceless memories of our climb to the 'Roof of Africa'.
Celebration Time!Our group celebrate a successful summit attempt at the Keys Motel, Moshi
As I gaze down proudly at my certificate, I still cannot believe that I have scaled the world’s largest free standing mountain to stand astride the highest spot in Africa. To climb Kilimanjaro is a journey of both mind and body, a voyage of extremes and superlatives where you learn to push yourself to new limits. You discover as much about yourself as you do about others. But if I’d learnt anything surmounting this mighty mountain, where every breath in the rarefied atmosphere was hard won indeed, it was this: life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.