Kilimanjaro – the truth behind the climb!
Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895m) is Africa’s highest peak and the worlds tallest freestanding mountain. Known for an aggressive trek in some of the harshest conditions – find out the truth behind the lesser known Rongai route.
Warning: this is a long read of a day-by-day journal of Kilimanjaro Rongai route.
Kilimanjaro Trekker Tales with Rob
Kokoda – PNG – tick Mont Blanc – Europe – tick Mt Kilimanjaro – Africa…
Yes, I’ve trekked but nothing had prepared me for the adventure ahead. Nearly 6000 metres was something different, something you could train for but not really comprehend. For me a new country, a new challenge, and what lay ahead was breathtaking (literally!).
The expected temperature range was +30 to -20 degrees so not your normal trip and after much deliberation about what to pack to be frugal but comprehensive we boarded the flight and were excited to be on our way. Africa – Tanzania – Mt Kilimanjaro was about to become a reality! We finally landed at the Kilimanjaro airport located in Northern Tanzania. For an international airport it’s quite small – we completed our visa – paid the US$50, packed our luggage into the van and we were off.
As soon as we were on the road we were immediately fixated on Mt Kilimanjaro as it has a powerful presence. Nothing is low key about this dormant volcano – it rises above and dominates the landscape. The surrounding landscape is parched – and gazing down in stark contrast against the bluest of skies is this most magical snowcapped volcanic dome, perfectly sculptured.
We traveled about 40 minutes to our hotel for our first night in Moshi before we commenced our adventure. One straight road that was as colorful as possible – dwellings, shacks, some abandoned, some new and old, all dotted along the road. Along the way livestock were herded or tethered for a more relaxed feed (mainly goats) to feed along the road where runoff from infrequent rain had allowed some vegetation to grow. Then the school children appeared – beaming smiles and eyes greeted us everywhere on their way home, in their uniforms that were perfectly presented – no child was without a smile which was contagious.
That road trip was a highlight reel I keep replaying – it was spectacular!!
We check-in and meet our fellow trekkers – 11 all up. We learn we will be supported by a local team 39 porters and guides – it’s becoming very real now. There are a number of routes to the summit and we were tackling the lesser known Rongai Route which is generally available to smaller private groups. Most routes start on the southern site but this route approaches the summit from the North.
Up early for our first day! After a quick stop at Marangu Gate to organise the trek passes/registration we arrive at Nalemoru Gate (1,990m) after a 3 hour drive. We are introduced to our key guides and the various protocols of trekking in this region – drink frequently, walk slowly (Pole-pole in Swahili!), respect the countryside and have fun.
We have lunch and start our 4 hour trek to Simba Camp (2,625m). The vegetation starts with a stretch of pine forest, then lush rainforest, with many small plots of farmland dotted along the way. We stop frequently, sometimes at designated rest spots, sometimes just anywhere. I think the guides were preparing us for the journey ahead to ensure we were accustomed to the routine.
The porters were way ahead carrying all our supplies in cargo bags on their heads. We weren’t quite sure what to expect but as we approached Simba Camp we were greeted by our smiling porters who had set up camp. Our tents were scattered around the campsite including a large “mess” tent which was large enough to fit all 11 trekkers for all meals.
We settle in to our first night and after a delicious meal we are pleasantly surprised to have our oxygen saturation and resting heart rate measured using a pulse oximeter which is a small device that is placed on your finger. It becomes a highlight of each night as we eagerly await the guides entering the mess tent to test us! It’s also a signal to return to our tents and sleep as it’s the last thing we do before we retire. The statistics are written down to monitor our progress and ability to adapt to the higher altitude.
We awake to amazing views as the sun penetrates through the clouds – we have our first camp breakfast and head off to Kikelewa Camp (3,630m). Along the way we stop for lunch at Second Cave Camo (3,450m) which is a welcome rest after a long 5 hour trek.
Today we trek to Mawenzi Tarn Camp (4,310m) a relatively shorter trek of about 4 hours. We camp alongside the only mountain lake in the area, a very shallow but spectacular body of water which perfectly reflected the Mawenzi Peak which towers above us.
Now it’s getting serious – our next camp is Kibo Hut (4,700m). This is our “base camp” as we will summit from this site. The landscape changed dramatically – there was absolutely no vegetation in this alpine desert – a stark contrast to the rainforest on day 1. Kibo Hut was visible in the distance very early in the day but due to the slow pace and higher altitude we eventually made it. We had lunch – a small rest then an early dinner at 5pm as we had to try and sleep as we were up later that night to tackle the summit.
Day 5! Summit Day!
Well here we are – up at 10pm (on day 4) to begin our final ascent to Uhuru. Months of planning, researching, second guessing what/how/why is finally here.
Already exhausted from the ascent to 4700m and little sleep we prepare for the journey ahead.
After a few final checks of our gear we head off – at a snail’s pace in single file behind Joshua our lead guide. The instructions are simple:
#1 Walk slowly (Pole-pole!)
#2 Drink plenty of water
Instruction #1 was easily achieved as it was impossible to walk at that altitude any quicker than a slow shuffle – it was almost slow motion.
As we started we adjusted our headtorches for the journey ahead – then decided to turn them off as there was ample moonlight and the headtorches seemed to detract from the ambience of what seemed like another world – eerie, exciting, all in one.
We weren’t alone as we commenced – other groups were ahead of us and their head torches appeared as fireflies as they meandered ahead of us. It made me reflect that we weren’t alone in our quest – others from all parts of the world had also been planning for this final night.
Instruction #2 wasn’t as easily achieved. What’s lacking at high altitude? Oxygen! And what does water have in abundance? Oxygen! Sounds easy but we had to constantly remind ourselves to drink up.
With an 8 hour/1300m ascent from Kibo to Uluru it seemed it would never end. We had frequent stops to rest and refuel although no one really had an appetite. And it was cold – our water bladder hoses froze as expected so we then switched to our water bottles which were held upside down to avoid the water freezing and blocking the opening. Many kept their water bottles against their body inside the many layers of clothing to prevent the water freezing.
We zigzagged our way up and it often felt as though we weren’t ascending at all but rather walking on the spot/in circles – the reality was that zig zagging was necessary to combat the steep ascent. At various stages we did pass other groups as each group had stopped to rest at different times – I lost count of the foreign languages we encountered – this place has some universal attraction.
Our rests were a most welcome reprieve from the relentless ascent and we all looked forward to them -except once we stopped moving we realised that it was seriously cold and our feet and hands began to freeze – so our stops were relatively short. The further we ascended the more we wanted a break, the colder it was and there were fewer suitable resting spots as the terrain was barren.
We are now above the cloud line – guided my moonlight (and Joshua!) – then almost without notice sunrise occurs literally behind our backs. We turn around and see the sun rise, above the clouds – the silhouette of the Mawenzi volcanic cone coming to life as the sun rose behind her. We were all in awe – this is the benefit of starting the trek the night before – to capture the handover from moon to the sun. Whilst we all had cameras available no-one captured the moment. Perhaps it was due to exhaustion, disbelief, and living in the moment but it’s an image we will all carry with us as it’s etched into our memories. Then almost waiting for sunrise to illuminate we see our first milestone ahead as other trekkers were congregating around Gillman’s Point – 5681m – it seemed so close but took another 40 minutes from the moment we first spotted it. We finally arrive and rest. Then we were immediately handed a warm cup of herbal tea from one of our guides – it was an unexpected but most welcome surprise – how did this survive the ascent? Some kind soul had carried it in a thermos the whole way up !
The good? – We were resting with a warm cuppa.
The bad? – We had to start moving again as it was brutally cold and oxygen deprived.
Next target – Stella Point 5765m – so we head off – the rough terrain is now snow/ice covered as we are on the rim of the volcanic cone. The pace is even slower as it’s slippery and some start using their trekking poles. The distance between each milestone reduces as does the available oxygen and our breathing is shallow and labored. We have a very quick photo stop at Stella Point – as we are all fixated on reaching our goal – Uhuru.
We depart Stella Point and are on the final stage of our ascent. Everyone is walking slowly – some almost disorientated as they shuffle along. We are getting closer as the amount of trekkers descending increases. As they descend they offer encouragement to keep going – “you’re not far, keep going”. And those ascending all ask “are we close?” It’s a camaraderie borne from a common goal. High altitude impacts people differently. Some trekkers were being carried by others – some were doubled over due to the nausea – some were stumbling – but we pressed ahead. Then almost out of nowhere there it was – Uhuru – 5895m – it seemed so surreal – we were actually on the Roof of Africa? So now what?
Back down that’s what! The focus had been the ascent – we hadn’t really given the descent too much thought but it was relentless albeit quicker – through snow, rain and sleet we made it back in about 4 hours – totally exhausted but quietly ecstatic.