23 August 2007

To the Roof of Africa

Kilimanjaro - Rongai Route
August 2007

This trekking expedition was organised through Exodus. I was accompanied by the usual culprits, Richard Pratt, Hayden Measham and Rod Shaw.

Day 1

First view of Kilimanjaro from the air
A two hour drive from Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania to the Kilimanjaro Mountain Resort, near Marangu. A nice spot, at about 1500m, with distant views to a hazy Kilimanjaro across nearby banana plantations, with occasional sightings of impressively large hornbill in the hotel gardens. Met the local agent, Eduardo, from The African Walking Company, who gave an excellent trip briefing.

Day 2

A slow start, departing the hotel after 1000 by Land Rover for a rough 2.5 hour drive north on dirt roads to reach the Nall Moru gate at 1950m. Adding a total team of 46 people (porters, cooks, assistant guides and chief guide Meke), we walked up through small villages, coniferous woodland and cultivated fields, mainly of maize, before reaching the rainforest belt, which was darker and a lot damper. ‘Pole pole’ (Swahili for ‘slowly, slowly’) was the order of the day in order to help acclimatisation for the big climb ahead. Eventually we reached the ‘heather zone’ with stands of heather and broom which towered above us, restricting views to the track ahead.

Setting off on the Rongai route to Kilmanjaro
We reached Simba Camp (2615m) after about three hours, registered, and then climbed another 100m to add a little more acclimatisation exercise, before dinner and an early night.

Day 3

After a poor night’s sleep, we were away by 0830 for a rather dull 3 hour walk up though giant heather, with limited views until we reached the more open moorland zone. Even here, views were restricted by mist. We had lunch at the ‘Second Cave’, with fog all around us. A lot of groups stopped here, so it was quite a crowded spot. As the day progressed, the sky cleared a little, giving tempting views of Mawenzi and the heavily eroded Hans Meyer Peak (5149m). For noting: this peak needs a special permit for climbing and the climb involves much steep and loose rock…not for the faint hearted!

Mawenzi, seen from the trail below the Kikelewa caves
The second part of the day involved a meandering four hour walk, rising from 3600 to 3715m, before finally reaching camp at Kikelewa Caves (3600m) at 1700. We had brief sunset views on Mawenzi and Kibo summits during dinner, but it remained cloudy for most of the evening. Another restless night on uneven ground beckoned!

Day 4

About to set off from camp at Kikelewa Caves, 3600m
Awoke to a brilliantly clear sky and the sight of a huge bank of clouds far below us. We set off early but got caught up in long porter processions as they raced to get to our next stopping point ahead of us. 

Porters on the trail
Vegetation en route to Mawenzi Tarn
Acclimatisation walk on Mawenzi to 4465m
Very frustrating ‘stop-start’ walking! We made a steady ascent to Mawenzi Tarn, another very popular camp at 4330m, with a quick lunch before a two hour acclimatisation walk to 4465m, scrambling up the ridge above the tarn. Fine views from the top.

Day 5

Camp at Mawenzi Tarn 4330m
 Dawn broke on Hans Meyer Peak towering above us. Yet another cold, restless night on sloping ground. Fortunately the strengthening winds of last evening had dropped. We were on the hill by 0810, with one of our number feeling very nauseous with mild altitude sickness. We crossed the lower end of the bounding ridge and started the long five hour plod across alpine desert known as The Saddle, into increasing wind and dust. We finally reached our final camp before the ascent, Kibo Huts, at 1310. The rest of day entailed lunch, rest and preparation for the night climb ahead of us.

Crossing The Saddle from Mawenzi to Kibo
View to Kilimanjaro from The Saddle
Camp at Kibo Huts, 4700m
Day 6

Awoken at 1130 and on the hill an hour later. No wind, thank goodness. The group moved well up to about 5000m, but one of our party then had to bale out due to sickness induced fatigue at this point.

A seven hour slog to the summit...not a lot of fun...
The ground slowly steepened and the walk involved a never ending series of zig zags across increasingly loose scree. Frankly, it was a long boring grind, punctuated by rest stops, and, variously, vomiting, coughing, nose bleeds and pee stops amongst many of the climbers we walked with on the hill. Walking in torchlight is always surreal, but the relative lack of acclimatisation by almost every climber must have taken the edge off this. The sun came up at about 0630, affording splendid views back to Mawenzi surrounded by the dark tentacles of early morning cloud. This raised spirits a little and stimulated us to forge up the steeper zig zags near the top of the slope before finally surmounting some easy rock which took us to the crater rim at Gillman’s Point, a lofty 5685m.

Dawn breaks over Hans Meyer Peak
Gillman's Point, 5685m...trying to force a smile!
Rod, Richard and myself were all wiped out at this stage, yours truly suffering from altitude sickness with the inability to fully get my breath and feeling slightly ‘out of it’. For example, I knew I had to get some shots with my SLR camera and get a GPS fix for Exodus, so removed my gloves to fiddle with equipment before realising that my fingers had gone completely numb with cold in under a minute. Not quite frostbite, but it took some real effort to get them warm again. Hayden went on to reach the summit (Uhuru 5896m), but reported that it had taken almost two hours to reach and that he, too, was completely ‘ga ga’ when he got there).
Our guides soon turned us around, and we descended at great speed, quite literally ‘skiing’ down the loose scree, losing 500m very rapidly. We reached camp in less than two hours for a much needed rest and some quick food.

Looking back up the interminable scree slope to the summit crater rim
In total, six of our team got to Uhuru, five of us got to Gillman’s Point, and one had to return early to camp due to illness. This was a good result, as statistics indicate that only 40% of all climbers actually reach Gillman’s Point. But it also serves to show that Kilimanjaro is a tough proposition for most people, simply because of the very short time to acclimatise afforded by the standard 5/6 day itineraries offered by the adventure companies. My firm view that many more would succeed (and enjoy) this climb if Mount Kenya were climbed in week 1 and Kilimanjaro in week 2, attaining ~5100m and 5896m respectively. Alas, all of us have limited time these days, so Kili will always remain elusive to many, but it will, in almost all cases, provide a unique and somewhat humbling mountain experience.
By 1400, everybody was down and had grabbed some rest, so we set off for our last camp of the trip, Horombo Camp 3720m, 2.5 hours below us, descending across alpine desert and dropping into the heather zone once more. Another early night!

Day 7

An early start from the busy Horombo Camp, the final morning involving a descent down a well made track known as the Marangu Route (or ‘Coca Cola’ trail to many, due to it being the most popular ascent route). Down through the heather zone again, pleasant easy walking on a well made surface, before reaching the Mandara Huts at 2727m after three hours, for a quick rest break. The final descent took us down through the rainforest, giving us occasional sightings of large colobus monkeys. We exited the national park at Marangu Gate, after a total descent time of 5 hours, a good effort!

Exodus team looking forward to a beer...
A celebratory beer, the presentation of certificates and the obligatory group photo, before boarding some interesting transportation to whisk us back to our hotel, just 15 minutes away.

Day 8

Waited at the hotel all morning, the experience enlivened by an earthquake which shook me on the balcony for about 20 seconds…quite normal around here apparently! Then homeward bound, via Kilimanjaro International and Nairobi.


Kilimanjaro is a straightforward mountain walk, and, until you reach the summit crater, is not the most enthralling mountain experience. Using the quieter Rongai route from the north means that crowding on paths and at camp sites is less intense than other routes, but this is not a place for isolation. Most climbers start the ascent on a Sunday, so if you want a more personal experience I’d recommend you seek itineraries that start up the hill on a Tuesday or Wednesday.
Altitude sickness affects almost everybody, and most attempt to mitigate this with the use of Diamox. It’s up to you, but I’d always vote for trying to climb without any ‘artificial aid’ - however, it seems that the age of the purist is fast disappearing!