“We, the people of Kilimanjaro, would like to light a candle and put it on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there is despair, love where there is hate and dignity where before there was only humiliation” – Julius Nyerere, 22 October 1959
I saw Kilimanjaro in December 2005 when our family undertook a safari to Tanzania and we spent 3 days camping in a Masaai reserve on its western slopes. I then toyed with the notion of climbing it, without giving it much serious thought until August 2007 when in Argentina on Ben’s rugby tour one of our parent support group regaled me with his Kilimanjaro climbing story.
The seed was now germinating. Fast forward one year almost to the day, and on 9 August 2008 I found myself looking out of the aeroplane window at Kilimanjaro and its environment which was to be my home for the next 7 days.
I committed in November 2007 and emailed numerous friends to entice them to join me. Their response was unfailingly negative for a raft of plausible reasons some of which made me reconsider my own decision. The most concerning was from my friend Lowell Jooste of Klein Constantia in Cape Town who advised that their very fit marathon running 40 year old paediatrician had tragically died on the climb.Apparently on average 20 Kilimanjaro climbers die per year out of the 20,000, but the odds reduce considerably with good guides and the right acclimatisation.
The upshot was that I was booked as part of a group of strangers until an old friend since my law school days in London in 1981, Adam Cooke, emailed me that as he had recently been headhunted he was going to be on gardening leave until September and was their space for him?.
Great news, especially as Adam turned out to be, and I would have expected no less, a great travelling companion with his insatiable curiosity and eclectic knowledge – zoology, languages, travel, botany, anthropology etc – plus his raft of travel stories from South America as a teenager (in search of the Sexy Lady), throughout Africa in the 1980s to his most recent family holiday in Guatemala where he did his final training walk less than a week before our Kilimanjaro trek.
The preparation was a lot of fun. I emailed everyone I knew associated with climbing and elicited a wide range of responses and advice, often conflicting. For example, an English friend who has done significant trekking in Nepal had the most novel advice for dealing with altitude sickness – take a paper bag and when in trouble inhale to get rid of the carbon dioxide.
On the physical side, apart from a medical check up to try to prevent me from going the way of Lowell’s paediatrician, I focused on upping my usual exercise routine and also doing some long walks with a weighted back pack. I kitted myself out with everything recommended on the tour operator list plus extras, invaluably helped in this by a friend in Sydney who had climbed Kilimanjaro the previous year. Ironically, completely independently of her, I booked the same Rongai 6 day route with the same tour group, African Walking Safaris (AWS). Her advice was especially valuable in terms of the size of my day pack, taking plenty of extras snacks, a metal water bottle which doubled as a hot water bottle at night, hygiene measures and extra warm clothing. So I departed Sydney in high spirits like a good boy scout – well prepared.
Travel agent and tour Operator
My hiking trip was booked with Arusha, Tanzania based African Walking Safaris (AWS) through their UK travel agent promoter – African Travel Reservation (ATR). The best feature of ATR is almost certainly its very detailed and informative website www.africantraelreource.com. Upon rereading the information post hike I am impressed how accurate and transparent they were in terms of the specific issues to consider and what to expect.
The local Tanzanian guides and porter team provided by AWS, plus the overall logistics once we started the hike, were faultless and they cannot be recommended highly enough. But from ATR’s side there were a few sharp practices in terms of some extra charges and miscommunication (e.g. failure to deliver on booked single accommodation, not relaying vegetarian food requirements for some of our group) and the ATR/AWS head office’s cavalier approach to my delayed baggage problem explained below was completely unacceptable at the time. However, with the benefit of tranquil recollection it now seems less important.
Pre climb – Kilimanjaro Mountain Resort Marangu
The hike started on a Monday, but to give myself a day to get over the 36 hour journey from Sydney I arrived on Saturday night at Kilimanjaro International Airport. There I was informed by the friendly official that my luggage, including all the gear assembled so meticulously over the preceding months plus first aid medical supplies in over-sufficient quantities, was still in Dubai where I had spent some unmemorable hours on my journey from Sydney via Bangkok and Nairobi.
So I checked into the Kilimanjaro Mountain resort at Marangu to await my luggage and fellow hikers. The latter arrived the next day, but not the former much to my ever increasing consternation. I occupied the Sunday morning with a tour of the Marangu village which is the home town of the Chugga tribe who have inhabited the Kilimanjaro foothills for the last 250-400 years. Everything is very verdant and fertile because of a combination of rich lava soil and high annual rainfall of up to 2300mm from being in the Kilimanjaro rain shadow. There were many trees and plants I recognised from Sydney (Norfolk pines, grevilleas, jacarandas) to remind me of the colonial heritage and I visited a few spectacular waterfalls which are a result of rainforest water percolating through the porous lava rock and emerging lower down.
The main crops are bananas – three types, one for cooking, one for eating and most importantly one for making banana beer – coffee, maize and beans. The area also has numerous underground tunnels where the Chugga people used to hide from the marauding Maasai who throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s raided the Chugga in exercise of the Maasai belief that all cattle belonged to them and so it was only right to take the Chugga cattle and inflict serious personal damage along the way. A trip down one of the tunnels, while interesting, reinforced my long held sympathy for troglodytes.
Adam Cooke arrived that afternoon and, guess what, he too had no luggage. His inside information gleaned while drinking beer at Kilimanjaro airport waiting for the next Nairobi flight in the forlorn hope it would contain his luggage, and entertaining and/or being entertained by South African couple Peter and Amanda and single British climber Becky, was that major luggage delays were a very common occurrence as the tourist season builds up. This of course fuelled my feelings of anger and frustration as having read every bit of literature over and over in preparation, there was no mention of luggage delay risks – only a throw way remark in parenthesis, and which I took in jest, to wear your boots on the flight in case the luggage is lost (ha ha). So I vacillated between despair, panic and anger.
After a quick Kili beer to celebrate our predicament and catch up on news, Adam and I went for a walk around the village. We made an impromptu stop at a local gathering where we accepted an offer to imbibe some of the local millet and banana based beer brew – an interesting cultural experience but probably ill considered given that we could not really afford to pick up a malady the day before our hike started.
Back to the resort to meet our fellow hikers and get the pre-climb briefing. Our local Tanzanian instructor with the improbable name Paulo, who had summitted Kilimanjaro well over 100 times, outlined the 3 golden rules:
1. Drink lots of fluids – about 4 litres per day.
2. “Pole Pole!” – slowly slowly.
3. Positive attitude.
Still no luggage for Adam and me (hard to keep a positive attitude on that one and in all honesty we were both extremely envious when another one in our group also sans luggage was informed during the briefing that her case had been found and was on the way). A telephone discussion that night with the Richard, the MD of AWS who was clearly not overly concerned about a predicament, quickly clarified our limited and most unsatisfactory options – either go tomorrow morning and hire what we could or we were on our own and pay separately for private porters without any agreed reimbursement or allowance for what had been paid to AWS.
So the next morning we set off for the Marangu hire shop about 25 minutes away with me wearing the same clothes in which I had left Sydney 3 days ago. .On route, Paulo received a phone call from Kili airport – my bag had arrived and they would put it in a taxi to be with us in about 2 hours!. Huge relief for me which I would have had difficulty hiding from Adam so I did not bother. We fitted Adam out as best we could at the second hand hire shop which was woefully inadequate and made an Oxfam reject shop look like Austin Reed. But another phone call to Paulo and, Hallelujah, Adam’s bag had also arrived! So my taxi on route from the airport to Marangu did a U turn back to the airport to fetch Adam’s bag as well. Bottom line; it cost USD90 for the taxi, 2 sleepless nights for me and one for Adam but as at Monday 12 noon, now reunited with all our bags and all hugely relieved, we were ready to depart from the Marangu Mountain Lodge and overall only about 3 hours behind the original schedule.
The other 5 climbers in our group comprised:
Brian & Heather Davis from Cumbria England. Both are qualified medical doctors, which I took as very good news as usually when organising an African tour party I try to ensure a few doctors (Evans and Karks, you know I am referring to you). Heather is in her early 60s and is a retired GP and, has a most refreshing no nonsense down to earth approach to everything. Heather is now involved in palliative care and after the trip visited various medical facilities in Tanzania with a view to doing volunteer work there next year. Brian is Scottish and as a leading specialist has worked and lived extensively in the United States and is currently a consultant with the UK’s MHRA. Their son had climbed Kilimanjaro and they were now also doing so on his seemingly casual recommendation.
The other couple were at the younger end of the age spectrum leaving Adam and me in the middle. Robbie Silverman & Karen Rutzick are Americans in their mid-late 20s – I should recall Robbie’s age as I think he had his 27th or 28th birthday on Day 3, incidentally the day after Brian & Heather’s wedding anniversary on Day 2 – who acclimatised for Kilimanjaro by doing the Otter Trail in South Africa which they only completed a few days before. Oh, and Robbie had already run 16 marathons in the last 8 or so years. Robbie is from Boston and now studying law at Yale after an undergraduate degree at Harvard, and had been doing an internship at the Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. Karen is from Oregon but has spent a lot of time on the east coast and resigned her Washington job as a refugee lobbyist involved in Darfur relief efforts to join Robbie on this trip.
The final member was Fred Buchanan who is a fellow Aussie from Brisbane where he works as an aircraft engineer for Virgin Blue. Fred joined us from a Tanzania safari and I think is hoping that when he gets back he can persuade his girlfriend to join him on his next African adventure as it really it most rewarding and not too dangerous. Fred was invaluable as our “altitude man” as his watch had on it not only the temperature had also altitude. His readings were initially a little different from the official information but of course he had no problem synchronising with an official beacon in due course.
They were/are a great group of travelling companions and we all shared many memorable and unforgettable moments.
Monday – Day 1 (1950m to 2600m)
The first leg involved a 2-3 hour road trip on a bumpy, dry and dusty dirt road to our start point on the eastern side of Kilimanjaro very close to the Kenyan border. We arrived with limbs and teeth suitably loosened from the car trip and met our support staff – all 28 of them for 7 of us. They comprised a main guide Makeke, his two assistant guides Sammy and Venice, probably the most important man descried as the “stomach engineer” but more conventionally known as the cook, a summit porter Adam, head porters and various other porters. All 28 of them were unfailingly outstanding and it is impossible to think of any way in which they could have been more helpful, supportive, efficient, friendly etc. Africa gets such a bad press generally, but we spent 6 days with these 28 local Tanzanians from numerous different tribes looking after us and they were superb.
After consuming our late lunch and making friends with Adam’s’ South African couple Pete and Amanda, we finally started our hike just before 3pm. We walked through cultivated areas firstly, then a short walk for about 45 minutes through the rainforest belt – which is much narrower on this dry Eastern side than on the Western side – then alpine scrubland before hitting the first camp site named Simba (but no sign of the animal in whose honour it is named) at a dusky 6pm. Makeke apologised for pushing the pace a bit (not too much pole pole) but explained that he wanted us there before the buffaloes come down to drink at the river about 100m before the campsite.
The campsite could best be described as a mountain lowlands refuge camp. I had chosen this Rongai route primarily on the basis of the AWS information that it was quiet (“Rongai is quiet a remote route …which retains a sense of wilderness, especially on the first few nights”), but here at the first site were at least 200 people crammed together Woodstock style – but at least it was not raining. It turned out, however, that Simba is a Kilimanjaro National Park Campsite and our next 2 sites complied with the AWS blurb by being off the beaten track and offering seclusion. But the porters set up tents, we had a wonderful first dinner and after being wished the usual Lala salama (sleep well) by the guides I was fast asleep by 8pm, a combination of jet lag and relief on the luggage front.
Tuesday – Day 2 (3600m to 3600m)
Tuesday dawned stunningly clear with the peak of Mawenzi clearly visible over our site. This is one of the three extinct or dormant volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro – Mawenzi (5,149m/16,992 feet) on the eastern flank, Kibo (5,895m/19,455ft) in the middle and on the western side Shira (3,962m/13,075 feet).
Thanks to Australian time difference, I was awake and up with the first activity which was “beddy tea” provided by the staff at 6am this was followed by “washy washy” and then breakfast and then on our way. Washy washy is a few inches of warm water which we had first thing in the morning and in the evenings at all campsites except the assault camp at Kibo Huts. So no shower from Monday am until Saturday night but, in all truth it was not that bad as we did not sweat and it is amazing how you can wash with a little bit of water. But don’t tell my kids.
We set off after breakfast with the madding crowd and walked through alpine moorland, comprising mainly giant heather, for 4 hours until 2nd cave. It was pole pole pole and other hiking groups kept on passing us but with hindsight our guides knew exactly what they were doing. We were passed early on by a relatively fast moving Asian American couple, he being easily recognisable by his large Stetson hat, only to find him later on motionless by the side of the path, gasping for air and looking decidedly unwell. Our porters had in typical style remained behind at the camp when we left, packed up our tents, cruised passed us with their 20kg loads and then had ready for us a cooked lunch. The food was excellent throughout – breakfast fresh fruit, porridge, superb omelettes bacon etc. At breakfast I concentrated on my favourite peanut butter and bacon sandwich and by the time we set off in the morning had usually had drunk a cup of each of hot chocolate, tea and coffee – rule No I, too much liquid is not enough. Lunch and dinner were almost always hot soup, hot main course and fruit or dessert.
Second cave had over 200 people there at lunchtime. Our mess tent was too hot in the warm sun – about 21 C – so I lay down outside for a brief siesta. Within minutes the guide Sammy was alongside me checking that I was all right, so typical of the outstanding care we received. The conversation turned to his infected cut finger with ironically the end result being that after a joint medical consultation with both Heather and Brian he was prescribed the antibiotics from my mobile dispensary. Sammy is Maasai, although unusually broadly build for one. He has been guiding for 5 years and his lawyer brother is married to a Japanese woman. All our guides were great, none more so than Sammy who radiated an inner strength and calm.
Another walk of about 3 hours during which we saw giant lobelias and senecios until the Kikelewa cave campsite at 3600m. The photo to the right with the campsite in the far distance gives a sense of the remoteness.
This was a beautiful campsite which we shared only with one other African walking safari group and of, course, our South African friends Pete and Amanda already reclining in folding comfort chairs when we arrived! I gave them some of my biltong which they clearly appreciated. I commented to them that I was sure that when we arrived at Uhuru Peak we would no doubt find them already there, avec deck chairs. The camp was really beautiful, we were all in good health except for Karen who had a headache triggering the consumption of the so called altitude diuretic drug Diamox, we had a great dinner and once again early to bed. By now we had worked out that choosing a flat ground tent was key to a good night’s sleep which is what I did and what I had, interrupted only I might add by Adam waking me at 4am to ask me for some toilet paper. (Adam seemed to think that our tour group would be interested in the details of his particular ailment, but Adam please be aware that it held no interest for me whatsoever.)
Incidentally, on the basis of the experiences of our group of 7, I have absolutely no idea whether Daimox is good, bad or irrelevant. I had in typical style over researched it and had it with me but accepted when I did not have luggage that I would do without it. Having got it, I then took it as did Adam. Karen also took it post headache, I am not sure of Robbie or Fred but I know that Brian and Heather did not. Also, my dose was 125g per day, Adam 250g per day and Karen 500g per day! So I am none the wiser.
Wednesday – Day 3 (3600m to 4300m)
Wednesday was acclimatisation day. We turned south way from the main Kibo peak of Kilimanjaro and headed towards Mawenzi Peak. It was a beautiful walk with a very steep climb initially and then a series of gently undulating valleys.
There was some buffalo dung on the track, and shortly after passing the 4,00m mark I saw some very old elephant dung. Incredible to imagine an elephant traversing the mountain at this altitude. We hit the Mawenzi Tarn (lake) camp at about 2pm. After the typical lunch we had a (well earned) rest until about 3.30pm when we went for an acclimatisation hike up the ridge separating Mawenzi tarn from the Kilimanjaro- Mawenzi saddle. We ascended to about 4600m along the spine of a ridge and this was probably as much “climbing” as the whole trip required even though this was still primarily a hike. While resting on the ridge we could look across the saddle about 6 km away to the Kibo Huts base and enjoy the late afternoon sun and the 21C temperature. This photo is of Adam and me resting on the ridge. Less than an hour later we were down at Mawenzi tarn and with the mist, shadow and wind it was close to 0C.
Another good dinner and a medical check up from our guides. Fred was not feeling too good by this stage but the rest of us were fine, but after Fred took some medicine he made a good recovery. Brian had a disturbed night (he referred obliquely to a similar indisposition to Adam from 2 nights earlier) but the rest of us slept well, me included as by this time a had worked out exactly what to wear and how to keep warm at the freezing night temperatures.
Thursday – Day 4 (4300m to 4700m)
I woke up early before the sun to video the first ray’s of the sun catching Mawenzi spires immediately in front of us and the Kibo snowfields away to our west. But in spite of having had the video camera for 7 years I forgot how to press the on button and could only take stills. Most frustrating and, although I felt fine, I can only put it down to altitude impairing my mental processes.
After the usual early start we headed across the saddle to Kibo Huts. As the ATR website so succinctly summarises it “ As you come away from the Mawenzi massif you feel like you are walking on centre stage… Kibo looms ever closer up ahead, wherein lies tomorrow’s nightmare.” Once we had traversed the Mawenzi ridge we were onto high desert saddle where nothing much grows except lichen and moss balls – although my guide book tells me there are in fact 55 species of hardy plants in this area – and there is no water.
Adam also spotted some fairly recent eland footprints (in addition to wild flowers and other infinite points of interest to him, he reality he really is the thinking man’s Indiana Jones!) and one of our group found a ladybird. The walk to Kibo Huts took us about 6 hours; our porters, seemingly unencumbered by their 20kg loads, managed it in 1 ½ to 2 hours.
Finally, Kibo Huts, which is well know to anyone who has climbed Kilimanjaro on the Marangu “Coca-Cola” route. It is an arid landscape with the camp located at the base leading up to the first summit point Gilman’s Peak. As Adam was happy to point out on few occasions, we only had 1200m left to do in 6-8 hours which was a pretty steep ascent. After lunch and an early high tea we tried to go to sleep in our tents at about 6pm ready for the 11pm wake up.
Next thing one of the porter’s radio, playing a Celine Dion song, blared out when I was fast asleep. I thought to myself “this is a novel way to wake us up”. It was actually 10pm but, too late, I was now awake. Putting on my summit gear of 3 pairs of thermal long johns, Colorado pants with my daughter Hannah’s ski trousers over the top, 3 thermal vests and sweaters plus goose down anorak plus Colorado windcheater, beanie, balaclava, neck scarf, 2 pairs of gloves and of course my day pack loaded with video camera, ordinary camera, 2 litres of water and plenty of energy snacks, I stumbled out to meet my fellow hikers in the mess tent for an 11pm breakfast. I still had spare kit – so I lent Robbie an anorak and Karen a balaclava.
Thursday night – Summit bid (4700m to 5895m)
We seemed to hang around the mess tent for an eternity as other groups left the Kibo Huts site and we saw their headlamps making their way ever so slowly up the switch back scree to the Gilman’s Peak summit nearly 1 km above us. In fact, headlamps were hardly needed as we very blessed with an unbelievably clear night, no wind and the bright light of a nearly full moon to show us the way.
Finally at 12.30am we were off, the 7 in our party accompanied by our 3 guides and 1 summit porter. One of our group, I think it was Heather, commented to our lead guide Makeke, “Why are you not carrying a pack?”. He responded with a smile and in his characteristic gentle and reassuring manner, “Because before too long I will probably be carrying yours”. As indeed transpired.
The information from AWS described this ascent as “a nightmare” so we could not claim to have been misled. I had read a fair amount about altitude effect so considered myself something of an armchair expert. The best way for me to deal with it was focus only on the feet of the person in front of me, from time to time pick a nearby landmark eg a rock, and concentrate until it was passed, but on no account look up and see how much higher we had to climb and do not look at your watch. The minutes dragged into hours and time seemed to stand still as we shuffled ever onwards and ever upwards.
But when the going gets tough, the guides get singing – Makeke in front and Sonny and Venice at the back serenaded us with African lullabies. We had specific points which we marked; William Rock at 5000m, Hans Mayer cave at 5150m were we stopped for a break (Hans Mayer was the first person to summit Kilimanjaro, in 1889 on 6 October, of course a day I would remember). Then another long struggle to Jamaica Rocks at 5500m where unbelievably the skeleton of a leopard was found in the 1920s. Obviously some leopards are even crazier than some humans, but maybe the craziest of all were the 5 wild dogs who in 1962 followed legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger and two others all the way to the summit at Uhuru Peak.
At Jamaica Rocks it was now about 5.30am, the moon had disappeared over the western flank of Kilimanjaro and the first signs of dawn were appearing. Our group had stayed together so far but here Brian simply ran out of energy. He commented that “I am having trouble putting one foot in front of the other” to which his no nonsense wife Heather in typically blunt style was heard to mutter under her breath “ What makes you think that you are the only one?”. Brian had in fact been feeling like this for some time but had soldiered on valiantly. Eventually only about 200m from the Gilman’s Peak summit he realised that he was falling asleep and if he did so would endanger himself and potential rescue guides, so reluctantly and selflessly decided to descend with Sammy escorting him.
The rest of us got to Gilman’s Peak at about 7am. By this stage my back pack drinking water had frozen so I had not drunk for some time and the cup of hot weak black tea provided by our irrepressible summit porter Adam was as welcome as any I have had. Time for a few photos, unless your camera was frozen as was mine, and then we began the last trek around the crater aiming for the high point Uhuru Peak about1 – 1 ½ hours away.
By this stage I was feeling totally drained by the effects of altitude – I had long realised that it was impossible to sip water and walk, or talk and walk, as not enough energy for both at the same time.
After what seemed an eternity circumambulating the carter we reached Stella Point at 5700m and the junction where the Machame route reaches the crater rim. Consequently there were a lot of new climbers and Adam asked me where these people came from. He alleges I replied “I don’t know and I don’t care” but altitude effect is such that I have no recollection of this conversation. What I do recall is that by this stage I knew if I had another rest I would find it almost impossible to start again, so, with the permission of Makeke, I kept shuffling on towards Uhuru Peak. Sometime during this final leg I got a second wind and I knew that I would reach Uhuru Peak. I thought to myself, “I have come a long way, and I will never be here again, don’t worry how long it takes you to get there, the important thing is to get there.” I had also thought I was on my own and that my camera did not work so I would not have a photo of me on the summit but that concerned me not at all – as long as I got there was all that mattered.
In fact the others were progressing behind me except for Adam who had stop at Stella Point because of altitude effects. Shortly behind me were Fred and the summit porter Adam. Shortly before the summit I waited for Fred and the porter Adam and we reached the Uhuru Peak mark together.
The view was stunning. On one side, the predominantly white crater was much larger than I had imagined and reminded me of being on the top of a European ski resort.. On the other side were huge glaciers at least 70-70 feet high with plenty of blue ice glistening in the early morning sun. In front to the north, when I went to the edge towards Shira, I could see through a gap in the crater wall to Amboseli stretching in the distance some 15,00 ft below. I took out my video camera knowing it would not work, but thinking I had to at least say I had tried it, and it worked! However my voice did not because of the emotion and so I did not blurb out the usual chatter, which is probably a blessing.
I am not sure how long I stayed at the summit, but before too long the rest of our party arrived and we all had group photos on the summit.
Friday – Descent from Kilimanjaro (5895m to 3720m)
The descent to our summit launch point Kibo Huts took about 2 hours, compared to the 8-9 hour ascent. As the altitude decreased so my breathing became much easier and the energy returned, although the initial journey back around the crater rim did included some small ascents which once again taxed me. After about an hour we were back at Gilman’s Peak with only the final steep descent left. I took out my climbing poles, the only time I had used them on the whole hike, and was quickly into “scree walking/running” which basically involved leaning backwards and running/bouncing down. I did not keep accurate times but I think the descent took 45 minutes as against the 6+ hours ascent over the same distance.
On the way down I found South African friends Pete and Amanda resting on a rock. They had ascended the Machame route successfully but Amanda’s knees were shot. We agreed to meet that evening at our final camp Horombo huts for a beer. About 2/3 of the way down the scree I also encountered a paraplegic who was winching, or more accurately inching, his way up Kilimanjaro. He would seemingly need to do about 50 revolutions of his winder to advance about one foot. There was a filming team with him making a documentary. It seemed to me his remaining journey would take months rather than weeks let alone days. Brave man.
Back to Kibo Huts where our guide Venice who had come down with Adam was waiting with Brian. After a hug from Venice, we waited for Heather who when she saw Brian ran the last 300m into her proudly beaming husband’s arms. A magic moment. Heather, we would have been disappointed with anything less. It was now some time between 10-11am so we had a brief rest and then a brunch/early lunch before the day’s final leg.
At this stage the next potential summiteers had arrived at Kibo and they included Adam’s airport friend Becky. There were naturally curious about what the ascent was like and we had the presence of mind not to tell them the truth as we then felt it – which would have been “you poor buggers, if you have any sense left turn around and come down with us right now.” One guy I felt especially sorry for was an English guy who said he was already feeling very under the weather. If he felt bad then….
The final leg was an 11km hike to the Horombo huts. The AWS website states “for some people the descent is a highlight. For others it is the worst part.” We chose the highlight. In the clear sunlight light and dark blue sky of 15,000ft altitude we crossed the saddle before heading down into alpine moorland and then through marshland dotted with giant plants. All the while we had Mawenzi in front or on the side of us and behind us the snow clad and sun drenched peak of Kibo. The 11km took us about 3 hours which include innumerable stops for photos, for Adam to wade across the marsh to inspect the botany and for me to search in vain for some interesting animal spoor.
Horombo Huts is another KNP campsite but unlike our first Simba camp AWS had done us proud and we had a private secluded campsite on the edge of a spectacular gully. The other plus feature was that it had cold beer for sale, our first alcoholic drink since the previous Sunday. As there were only 20 beers in total for sale, I suggested to Adam that we corner the market and buy all 20. We compromised on 10 but in fact were so exhausted that I managed 2, 4 others in our group managed 1 each and we gave the others to the guides.
Between setting off on Thursday night until hitting the sleeping bags early on Friday night we had ascend 1,200m, descended 2000m and hiked for 13-15 hours and, assuming little or no sleep at Kibo huts, been awake for about 36 hours. Exhilaration and exhaustion in equal measures.
Saturday – Final Day (3700m to 1650m)
The final day commenced with a ceremony with our porters and guiding staff. We handed out tips to each person and dispensed to them any surplus climbing gear. Brian and Heather did a great job organising all the tips, and Adam made a wonderful heartfelt speech on behalf of all of us. His speecb was translated into Swahili except for the beginning and end when he spoke in Swahili; a most impressive performance and very well received. The porter crew in turn thanked us and sang their Kilimanjaro song for us, framed against the backdrop of the mountain. A moving and special moment.
The final walk down was as superb as the previous day, probably better as we were more rested. It covered firstly alpine moorland and then patches of rainforest with open glades until after Mandara Huts it was full on rainforest.
We spotted some Sykes monkeys, others also saw Colobus monkeys, and we also witnessed injury evacuation Kilimanjaro style. This involved the victim lying prone on a central mono-wheeled brakeless bed being transported by one guy at the back holding on bobsleigh style, a guy in the front trying to prevent it careering down the mountain and 2 guys on either side trying to stop it tipping over. The patient was in clear pain as he was bounced over the rock strewn and bumpy path and wheneverthere was a flat smooth section the rescue crew broke into a fast run. No wonder the East Africans clean up in global athletics middle and long distance events especially the steeplechase!
At the bottom we also said final goodbyes to our guides and some of the other fellow walkers. The Stetson man (see Tuesday above ) was there claiming he had summitted without a problem but without his wife who got altitude sickness on day 2, and we were relieved to see Pete and Amanda with Amanda’ knees much recovered. I also said goodbye to Adam who was being dropped off at his cousin’s house.
After collecting our summit certificates at the Marangu gates, final hugs with our guides and collecting our stored gear from the Marangu Kilimanjaro resort we drove the final 2 hours or so to the Moivaro Coffee Lodge at Arusha, hardly believing when we looked out of the window to our right and saw the great mountain towering in the distance that less than 36 hours before we had been on the top. The shower at Moivaro was as good as can be imagined although Robbie and Karean had no hot water – surely a hanging offence from the Moivaro management – and we were all on a high pre-dinner as we reclined in the bar next to the fire and contemplated that it was over. Another AWS group was also there, as were a number of interesting characters – 2 Dutch ex-pats knocking back the whisky and a trio of chic French women with whom we had a chat – and the place had a real buzz of what I would imagine Kenya was like in the final colonial days. We all went our separate ways the next day although Heather & Brian and Karen and Robbie fortuitously met up in Zanzibar about 10 days later and just less than 2 weeks later Liz and I met ran into Heather & Brian at Nairobi airport. And of course Adam had to turn up on Sunday at Moivoro to collect his luggage!
It was all I had hoped and more. Some concluding observations:
• Going in a group was a lot of fun and I felt sorry for Pete & Amanda on their own. Apart from the benefit of making new and treasured friends, the stimulus and companionship of meeting and getting to know new people eliminated the boredom which I had been warned was a usual ingredient of a Kilimanjaro hike;
• The Tanzanian support staffs were magnificent in every way. It was humbling and we were privileged to be guided and supported by such people;
• The Kilimanjaro National Park authority is doing an excellent job in my view of balancing the demands of many climbers with the need to preserve the mountain environment and a sense of wilderness. I think they have got it just about right – they have banned all fires and require all rubbish to be removed (although why not give each hiker a litter bag and ask them to collect?) and all the campsites were well maintained and clean. Equally important, they have resisted any commercialisation so there is no motorised transport and, what would be even worse, they have strongly resited pressure to be allowed helicopter and airflights nearby.
• We were extremely lucky in terms of weather, no rain whatsoever and plenty of sunny days, and health-wise no serous aliments within our group.
• But it was still much harder at the end than I had envisaged, although with the right guides and sufficient acclimatisation time anyone with reasonable level of fitness and following the 3 golden rules can do it.
• It took us 4 ½ days to ascend and 1 ½ days to descend. In March 2000 a local Tanzanian Rogath Mtuy went from Marangu Park Gate to Uhuru Point and back to Marangu Gate in a 14 hours 50 minutes round trip!
• Allow plenty of time for your luggage to arrive!