Our flights were in and out of Nairobi, so we took the Davanu Shuttle down to Moshi, Tanzania. The shuttle leaves early in the morning from the Norfolk Hotel. It will also pick you up at your hotel, but the Norfolk has email access, so we took a taxi over there early in the morning to check in with folks back home.
The bus was decent enough, but the "highway" still leaves something to be desired. We would be driving along at 60 mph and then suddenly come to a near standstill to drive around monster potholes. Fifteen minutes later, we would be back up to speed.
The shuttle stopped about 5 hours into the trip, just 20 minutes from the border. The stop had bathrooms, snacks, and tourist goods. We were glad that we had brought food and drink along on the drive.
The next stop was the border to Tanzania. We all got off the bus, and they pulled all the luggage off the bus. There was very little organization to the process, and I got the feeling that the process was different for every group. We went inside to show our passports and visas. Then we identified our luggage, which was then reloaded onto the bus. It was time-consuming and, to the outsider, useless effort.
Then we were back on our way. The first destination is Arusha, about 6-7 hours in travel time. Many people got off here. We were transferred to a smaller bus and continued on to Moshi, which is another hour away.
Although the bus ride was long, hot, and bumpy, it was exciting to catch glimpses of the wildlife and the Masaai out the window. At one point, we saw a mountain out the window and were discussing whether it was Kilimanjaro or not. I was thinking that it didn't seem to bad really. Then someone pointed up above the clouds, and there was the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro, which dwarfs Mt. Meru, our mistaken identity. Gulp!
Arusha is closer to the national parks, but Moshi is further east and closer to Kilimanjaro. There are also some outfitters in Marangu (even further east), which is very convenient if you are doing the Marangu Route, but it is farther away from everything else. The airport is about halfway between Arusha and Moshi.
Our Kilimanjaro outfitter was Adventures Within Reach, and they met us at the shuttle to take us to the hotel. We stayed at the Springlands Hotel about 3 km outside of town. The nice thing about this hotel versus staying at one in town is that it has a bit of property with nice tropical gardens and spacious outside dining. There is also a swimming pool, which feels nice in the hot African sun.
The rooms were clean and decent, but not glamorous. Two nights B&B were included in the trek. After spending $75 for a night in a rather unpleasant hotel in Nairobi, we thought this was a great deal.
The most popular route on the mountain is the Marangu route, also called the "Coca Cola" route. It is a five-day trek, and you stay in huts. Adding an extra acclimatization day to this route increases your chances of reaching the summit. After reaching the summit, you go back down the same route.
The second most popular route is the Machame route, also called the "Whiskey" route. This is a six-day trek, and you sleep in tents. The Machame route is more scenic than the Marangu route, but it is a much longer hike. Because of the extra day on the mountain (and in my opinion, because of the physical condition of the people who attempt it), the summit success rate is higher for the Machame route. After summitting, you descend down the Mweka route, which is more direct.
The Umbwe route is a distant third in popularity. It is said to be even more beautiful than the Machame route but also more difficult. This is also a six-day trek, and you sleep in tents. On the third day, this route either joins up with the Machame route, or you can go up the Western Breach, which is scrambling up rocks to the summit.
We had planned on doing the Machame Route, but we met another couple on the Davanu Shuttle, and the four of us decided to do the Umbwe Route. This route requires a special permit (bribe to the Umbwe village), so we had to wait an extra day before starting the trek.
On our free day, we took a jungle hike right from the hotel, guided by two gentlemen who work there. The tour was free with a tip. The hike took us through rice fields lined with papaya and mango trees. Then we went into the jungle where we saw various monkeys and other wildlife. It was a nice hiking preparation.
We also headed into the town of Moshi for a little shopping. There are not many tourists here, so the tourist knickknacks are minimal, but it is rich in local culture. We found one tourist shop that seemed to have nice products at a reasonable price, and they even took credit cards. We bought oranges from a woman in the street market. The oranges were $.50, but the picture of her cost $1. I thought it was so cool the way they stack the oranges up one on top of another. I bought some fabric and had a street-side seamstress make a custom-fitted skirt for a few dollars. A Land Rover drove by with a "Kilimanjaro Driving School" sign on the back. Women were doing laundry in the street gutters.
Dinner at the hotel was energized. People are either excited about going up or eager to tell the story of their completed trek. The Springlands offers a nice buffet of local foods as well as a cozy, full-service bar. Lunches and dinners are not included, but very reasonable: lunch around $5 and dinner around $7.
The remainder of the evening was spent packing and preparing for the trek. We purchased very large plastic bags from the hotel for $2 to put items that were going to stay behind. Most people already had two bags for this purpose. The hotel has a locked storage room to store everyone's extra bag.
The next morning, we enjoyed a plentiful breakfast of eggs, meat, toast, and fresh fruit, and then headed to the office around 9am. We were a bundle of nerves and excitement.
At AWR's office, we were able to rent any additional equipment, make payments, and meet our guide. We had paid for the trek using their Web site, which was very useful, because in Africa, all payments are in cash and travelers checks only. We ended up renting hiking poles and gaiters, which were very useful on the trek.
We loaded into a van with our guide and gear and headed to the trailhead. It was almost an hour to get there, and the last few miles on rugged dirt roads. At the trailhead, the porters were already there getting equipment loaded up.
We carried daypacks with water, the lunch that AWR provided, cameras, and extra clothes. The porters carry everything else. Backpacks go on their back and duffle bags balance on their heads. Not only do they have our gear, but they have food for the week for all of us, cooking equipment, water, firewood, and gear for themselves. They are truly amazing.
"Poly poly" is the Kilimanjaro motto. This means "slowly, slowly," and it is how they get their clients up the mountain and to the summit while minimizing altitude sickness. The porters jump ahead of us, but we follow our guide's pace, which is very slow and consistent.
They say that you go through several biomes on the trek. Not being much of a naturalist, I didn't think that I would be aware of the changes. I was pleasantly surprised. At the very beginning, we were walking through rainforest with very tall trees and thick canopy cover. Eventually, the trees get shorter and thinner. New trees that had not been seen before suddenly appear all at once.
During or after the rainy season, I can believe that these trails are pretty slick with mud. We have our gaiters on, but they are not particularly necessary on this day. Village women are also on this trail, loaded with palms on their heads.
The first camp is at a cave, which is not much of a cave. The guides have the tents set up and "tea" is ready. This mid-afternoon snack varies with peanuts, popcorn, fried bread, fruit, and, oh yes, tea.
There is no toilet here, which brings me to one of the major problems on Kilimanjaro: waste removal (or lack of). People are not very good about personal waste, which has created a number of very unpleasant bathroom areas. The guides do not always take out or even burn their garbage, producing some waste piles. I know this is a problem they are addressing, and I hope things get better in the future.
We had been in shorts and t-shirts during the day, but when the sun goes down, it gets cold. We are already wearing jackets and huddling around the fire in the evening.
The porters cook up dinner for us and serve it in a "dining tent." Dinners start with soup, followed by chicken or beef, vegetables, and rice or noodles. Biscuits, fruit, tea, and coffee accompany the meal. It amazed me that they would bring up fresh fruit, bread, and eggs on this trek when I am used to dehydrated backpacking food.
At the equator, the sun comes up at 6am and the sun goes down at 6pm year round. We had headlamps, so were able to read and play cards pretty easily.
The porters come by and wake us up in the morning. We pack up and go into the dining tent for breakfast. Breakfasts had eggs, toast, fresh fruit, tea, and coffee. We pack up our bags and head out.
Today we go through biomes of heavy moss, both wet moss on the ground and trees and Spanish moss hanging down from the limbs. Next we hike through heather much taller than us. Now the foliage is thinning, so every now and then we get views down from where we came and up to the peak of Kilimanjaro. As we reach our camp, moonscape has taken over with lots of sentient trees and a few flowers and bushes.
This is the Barranco Camp, and we have met up with the folks from the Machame trail that started the day before us. Although it was nice having last night's camp to ourselves, it is also nice to connect with other hikers from around the world.
We had stopped for lunch along the way, sitting outside in the sun overlooking the marvelous vista towards Moshi. They make tea for us again at camp and also heat up water for bathing. We are able to wash our hair in the afternoon warmth, which is very refreshing.
We spend the late afternoon hiking around the area and trying to fly a kite. Porters from all groups are sent down almost back to our previous camp to get firewood. This is another issue on the Kilimanjaro - the overuse and scarcity of firewood.
This camp has great views down and up, but by early afternoon, you can see the clouds forming below you and slowly moving up. At some point, they reach us, and we are in a fog, but then it continues up so that we can no longer see the summit. At night, you can see the lights of Moshi, but at this elevation, it is rare to see it during the day. We learn to take pictures when they present themselves instead of waiting for a better moment.
The next morning, the Machame groups head out on the South Circuit trail, which goes east. We head the other direction basically straight up. Our next camp will be at Lava Tower. We have two light hiking days ahead of us, but we gain valuable altitude.
We only hike about 3 hours today, but we are happy to reach camp because we are being pelted by grauple (snow pellets). On previous days, I had only carried a raincoat in my daypack. I was very happy that today I had brought my raincoat, rainpants, and a warm layer. I definitely used them.
Many Machame groups detour to Lava Tower for lunch, but very few people camp here, and we have the place to ourselves.
We made camp and spent the afternoon inside keeping warm and dry. By mid-afternoon, the ground was completely covered in snow. We felt a little guilty as the porters spent the afternoon around the campfire cooking food for us. They also boil water to replenish our water supply. We had brought a water pump and used it on the boiled water anyway to remove particulates and improve the taste.
To make up for yesterday, we have been given a gorgeous day today. First order of business is to climb up the Lava Tower. It is an easy scramble up, and the vistas are incredible.
We only have a couple of hours hike up to our last camp, Arrow Glacier. When we get there, we are very dismayed at the garbage situation there. We spend a good hour collecting garbage from around the camp and trying to burn it. Unfortunately, the trash is a little damp, and it is impossible to get it on fire at that altitude.
By the end of the afternoon, two more groups join us at camp. Ironically, one is from the same town we are from, and the other is from England.
We have a high carbohydrate dinner and try to go to sleep at 8pm. One group is heading to the summit at 11pm, the other at midnight, and ours is scheduled for 1am.
One in the morning is mighty early and dark, but I am energized!
We have a light breakfast of bisquits, tea, and coffee before packing up. The porters will take the gear around the mountain instead of up over the top.
We have three guides taking the four of us to the summit. The Western Breach is very steep, so if someone needs to come down, it will take one-on-one guidance to get them back down.
We are wearing pretty much every piece of clothing we brought with us as it is very cold. Headlamps illuminate the trail, and we have very light daypacks on our backs (water and camera only).
The night is incredible! We were so close to the stars, we were sure they were going to hit us on the head. A shooting star was an absolutely awesome sight. The moon came up after a few hours, which was absolutely gorgeous.
The altitude was affecting everyone at this point with headaches and nausea. A couple of people had taken some decongestant the night before to help them sleep, and they were feeling pretty bad as a result. We kept on drinking water and resting whenever someone got dizzy.
After about 5 hours of scrambling up the Western Breach, we were overjoyed to reach the edge of the crater. However, we still had some distance to go before reaching the actual summit. For another hour, we walked around the edge of the crater, up another smaller hill, and across the top to reach the official summit.
The goal is to reach the summit in time to see the sun rise. We are a couple minutes late, but it is an awesome sight! The combination of accomplishing such a taunting task and the sunrise from 19,300 feet is a very spiritual experience.
We took pictures and congratulated each other and the others on the summit, but then it is time to lose the altitude before it affects us too much. Although it takes 4 ½ days to reach the top, the descent only takes 1 ½ days, and it is a long way down.
We follow the trail that the folks from the Marangu and Machame routes took on the way up. The trail is pretty casual and offers incredible views of the enormous glaciers. We eventually pass Stella Point, which is on the edge of the crater and is where many people complete their trek.
From here, the trail goes straight down a rather unpleasant scree trail. We were not wearing our gaiters, but wished we were because so many rocks got in our hiking boots. Our next stop is the Barafu Camp, where we stop for lunch and a well-deserved break.
We continued on down the Mweka Trail, and slowly the vegetation comes back. By the time we reached the Mweka Camp, we are back in the jungle and feeling very, very tired. Porters from many, many groups are already making camp and getting fires started. The Mweka Camp was not particularly to our liking, and when our guide said that it was only 4 more hours to the Mweka village and a nice bed, hot shower, and cold beer, we chose to continue out instead of staying overnight.
The rest of the Mweka trail was quite muddy and rutted. This trail is now closed for repairs and everyone descends a parallel trail.
We finally got down to the Mweka village around 3pm. That's a long day! At the Mweka trailhead, we sign the log book and get our certificates saying we summitted.
A porter had been sent ahead to get transportation for us, but we still had time to wait. Along the road into the village, children are constantly looking for hand-outs, mostly chocolate. There is a loudspeaker in town playing music. Our guide gets a banana beer from the local bar, which we decide to try also. It is served out of a barrel and is chewy. Young men approach us trying to sell us whatever they have that looks African.
Our ride finally arrives. We get final pictures with our guides and porters, then we head back to the hotel for a hot shower, fresh food, and cold beer. We are now the "experienced" hikers sharing our stories with others starting out in the morning.