Climbing Kilimanjaro is inexplicably appealing. So when Global Adventure Challenges asked if I would lead a charity group along the Machame route this October in their bid to the summit I gaily abandoned memories of hideous previous ascents and started to pack every piece of warm clothing I own.
The trek starts 62 kilometres or 7 days South West of Uhuru Peak, the top, but the adventure begins when you leave Kilimanjaro Airport for the two hour transfer. We traveled through Tanzanian farm land, burnt under the heat of the dry season, weaving through lorries loaded with cattle and maize. Homes built like stick sheds collected into communities by the roadside and we caught a glimpse of a life much different to home. Children danced in groups or clung to the luggage racks on bicycles and women stalked purposefully through the dust. Men reclined in the heat outside hairdressers or shops selling car parts and juice. Our journey took us through banana and coffee plantations and then into the busy city of Moshi where we reached our lodgings with an appetite for more of this country.
That evening before dinner I took the group, weary from a night and day of flights, to a rooftop under the shadow of Kili to go through what to expect over the course of our adventure. We talked about the route, teamwork, kit, food, water, health, hygiene, camping and altitude. And after some debate about how diluting orange could affect the freezing temperature of water we settled comfortably for the evening.
An early start the next day took us to the Machame Gate to register our presence on the mountain and to meet our 43 local crew who would be carrying our bags, setting up camp and cooking for us along the way. Then it was straight up a modest track where we quietly started our assault on Kilimanjaro. Fittingly it begun to rain as we started through the lush forest that cloaks the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro. Thunder rumbled through the day as we slid our way upwards on muddy paths. Colobus monkeys dived through the branches above us and blue monkeys hid shyly from our chattering passage. The perfect jungle experience. The pace was “pole pole” or slowly slowly in Swahili, the only way to approach an altitude climb. At 2850m by the end of the day there were no major altitude issues but I could feel the familiar tug on my breathing. A reminder of what was to come.
As dusk crept in the rain kept my group tightly in the mess tent and there wasn’t the usual wandering from camp in search of mobile signal. I kept quiet this time about the wilderness of our position. Buffalo, elephant, leopards and lions have all been encountered around these camp sites. A buffalo is a fearsome predator, the most prevalent animal killer of man in Tanzania. Your only chance is to lie flat, ideally in a dip, with your arms close to your sides and hope that its curved horns cannot scoop you into mortal danger. Our camps were guarded, but there was no way I was going far to pee in the night and no-one was going to be adventurous in this weather.
The next day we continued up through the lush forest in still wetter weather. However the slow pace gave us plenty of opportunity to revel in the plant, bird and wildlife. Lobelia, giant camphor trees and tree ferns abounded and tiny sunbirds danced in the leaves. As we reached higher ground the vegetation changed and we entered a grander area with tall yew trees standing proud, old man’s beard lichen tumbling from the branches and swaying in the breeze and yew berries bursting with the smell of the forest as they crunched beneath our passing footsteps. It all changed again as tall heathers emerged and mixed with Kilimanjaro Protea and grasses and the trees stayed lower. Bird lovers noticed swifts and swallows who had not long before perched on our telephone wires in the UK now setting up home in anticipation of warmer climes. The white necked raven began its watch on us and hill chat boldly enquired as we continued past on our ascent into the alpine desert. At last our camp for the night emerged and we had reached 3810m.
Our campsite was much colder and temperatures dropped below zero as light faded at around 6.45pm. Later a cosy mess tent meal and my briefing for the next day settled us for an 8.30pm bedtime, ready for a 5.30am wake-up. Again the rains continued and sleeping bags were dried over gas stoves. To abate complaints I opted for the wettest of the group bags and clung tightly through the night to my drinking bottle filled from the kettle dregs for some warmth.
The next morning a stiff climb towards the Shira Caldera rim offered an exhilarating view of the magnificent basin below us and up towards Mawenzi and Kibo, the other 2 peaks of Kilimanjaro. The lowest of Kilimanjaro’s 3 volcanic peaks, Shira collapsed after her last eruption 500,000 years ago. As we travelled East away from her barren basin, the wreckage of boulders and black sand reminded us further that we were climbing through a volcanic landscape.
The next three days took us through a high altitude volcanic desert landscape of violently scattered boulders as we pushed as much as our laboured breath and heavy heads allowed us to still higher up the mountain. Passing inauspiciously named landmarks such as Lava Tower and the Barranco Wall, the summit was becoming an unavoidable encounter. Temperatures were plummeting at night and the daytime swung from exposing us to a harsh burning sun and, when the clouds rolled in, bone chilling cold. My briefings were taking place earlier each evening to allow for as much restorative sleep as possible. The group were acclimatising well though and I was quietly confident that most would reach the top.
The summit push started with a long lie until 6am when we left from Karanga Camp for our base camp at Barafu Hut. After a relentless uphill to 4600 we reached our mess tent for a late lunch and a practical briefing about the night ahead. I would talk about mental resilience later. An afternoon snooze before wake up at 10pm for dinner and departure at 11pm was the schedule for the rest of the day. And the nervous energy was tangible.
It started in the dark with a close line of head torches. The path to the summit was rigorous but our pace was slow as to be almost relaxing. The first few hours passed in a haze, for my part of constantly watching form the back of the group for any falter, and assisting in the descent of 3 of our number who found the limits of their endurance that night. For the group’s part of settling into daydreams and rhythms. Then as the air became thinner and our bodies’ craved sleep and oxygen it was time to apply the mind to overrule the instinct to stop. And so we all continued beneath the stars and then further as the sky lightened with the nearing of sun rise. Spirits lifted when the sun shot like a bolt across the sky and ahead, but still high above, we could see the crater rim.
The final 500m to Stella Point on the rim is possibly the hardest of all. But by this point you are committed and too weary to consider any other course. The views from Stella were astounding and many settle here.
Most of my group were determined though and most reached Uhuru that morning and were rewarded exquisitely with glorious views across to Mawenzi, into the ash pit of Kibo and down across the plains of Africa far below as a new day begun.
Our appetite for more of this country finally satisfied we started on the tough downwards journey to Millennium Camp which we reached at 5.30pm that day. A long shift indeed. I know an exhilarating short cut which floats me down on the gravel speedily and discreetly from the back to the front of my groups, checking the pace and steadiness of each member on the way. The group had spread out and I found most with their thoughts reflecting on a magical achievement.
On our final morning on Kilmanjaro, our local crew sprung into song and dance and soon we were all singing Jambo Bwana together, dancing the cold from our tired legs before the lovely walk, albeit hard on the toes, from alpine desert back into the lush forests and to the bottom of Kilimanjaro.