Kilimanjaro or the White Mountain, is the tallest free standing mountain in entire Africa at 5895 metres and is a veritable lone beauty. When you begin to climb, you don’t quite realize that the mountain actually begins to climb on you! Devoid of newspapers, emails, electricity and ‘flushed away’ toilets you are one with nature.
Great people, an amazing landscape, plethora of fauna, rugged terrain, ever-changing weather, great night sky and 7 days of awe-inspiring climb makes this one of the most exciting climbing expeditions.
The amazing journey to Uhuru peak started even before we landed in Africa, right at the Biayun International Airport in Guangzhou which happens to be the most important sourcing center in China for Africa.
Our co-passengers were small time traders from Africa. Being enterprising by nature, they were all adorned with 15 Kgs of accessories! The idea was to wear most of their merchandise in person to maximize their baggage allowance. They resembled “One Dollar Shops” resplendent in multi-colour garments, 5 layers of them in hot Guangzhou Summer, string metal trinkets, metal belts, over-sized watches, musical pendants, multiple MP3 Players, boots around the neck et al. The check-in, immigration and security were quite an experience. So was the experience once on board, it was an undressing frenzy of all the wares and scramble for locker space. After all the intense noise, clamour and chaos, everyone settled down to allow the flight to take off.
We landed in Kilimanjaro airport after 20 hours via Addis Ababa Pole Airport in Ethiopia.
There are many routes to trek up to Uhuru Peak. The one we chose was Machame route which takes about 5 days to ascend the summit. The climb starts at the Machame gate and proceeds via Machame camp, Shira Camp, Barranco Camp, Karanga Valley, Barafu Camp, Summit Night, Mweka Camp and exit via Mweka Gate. The route virtually circumnavigates Kilimanjaro giving a splendid new face of the Kili with each passing day. The route is also well suited for high altitude acclimatization i.e. to climb high and sleep low.
Our guide customized the route a little bit to facilitate the acclimatization process. We were told to note that with ascent, air density drops with the consequence that less oxygen is available per breadth. Acclimatizing the body to this drop was the key to make it to the top.
A key highlight of the Kilimanjaro trek via Machame is the abundant flora and fauna all around. The route traverses through distinct ecosystems – Tropical Rain Forests, Sub-tropical Heather Zone, High Altitude Desert and Ice Parks and Glaciers on top. The trail starts through the rain dense and lush rain forest with long moss hanging from the branches of giant African Yellow Wood trees and many other species. A memorable sighting here was that of the beautiful yellowish red Impatiens kilimanjari with an inch long tube which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. We saw an amazing array of ferns and flowers all the way up to the next zone.
At 3000m the route meets the heather zone covered with profuse daisy bushes and long stretches of grass land. One notices that tree cover starts dwindling to near zero and the few that remain are like an overgrown plant. All the way from here to Karanga Valley the vegetation is sparse and discontinuous. The lovely exception is however at the shadowed slope of Barranco where you come across a beautiful garden of giant lobelias and lichens growing on rocks.
Once we breach the Barranco wall we are welcomed by the volcanic rocky ground of the alpine desert covering the landscape with scattered vegetation. The dry alpine volcanic rocks and solidified ash is all we see all the way to Uhuru peak where we encounter vast ice fields and spectacular glaciers surrounding the crater.
Our ascent through the Mweka route on a rocky steep trail that slowly lead us through one of the most spectacular greener valleys that reminded me so much of the computer generated distant land ‘Pandora’ of Avatar.While Kili is supposed to have few dozen species of birds we noticed about half a dozen. The most common was the ubiquitous White Naped Raven a larger version of Indian crow with a strong beak reflective of the vulture family it comes from. We had them for company from 2500 meters all the way till the base camp. The other constant companion was the four-striped grass mouse , which clearly doesn’t find it a problem working out an existence at high altitudes. At Barranco we also spotted a spectacular lone scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird.
In all we realized that this trek would be a delight not only for mountaineers but also for botanists, nature enthusiasts, geologists alike. Our conclusion wasn’t entirely wrong when we casually browsed through park entry register to look at the kind of people who have been trekking!
The abundance of material on the internet does little justice to help prepare city slickers for the successful ascent to the summit. Successful ascent in our case was 10% perspiration and 90% determination. Thankfully 3 months prior to the trek we started preparing by spending close to 10 hours a week jogging/walking/climbing, eating and living healthy. This made our first 3 days trek a thoroughly enjoyable. We acclimatized well, and didn’t need any medicine. However what would seem like a cool thing wasn’t that cool – camping in sub zero, sleeping on frozen ground, Sleeping bags, 6X5 tent etc. What made it worse was progressively diminishing appetite, loss of sleep, and need for fluid intakes. At the end of the day your biggest enemy is the feeling of your body giving up! We had this distinct feeling three times during our ascent, before ascending Lava Tower(4600 Mtrs) on Day3, the last 50 mtrs of Barafu Climb on Day 4 and of course on the final ascent.
The whole trip is aimed to prepare us for the Summit night. Everything we did or didn’t do was to make sure we were in shape for the Summit night. We finally set out on Day 5 at 11 pm for grueling 13 hour monotony on a full moon night. We were wearing 5 layers of clothing including a heavy summit jacket, balaclava, woolen head cover and a sun cap on top, pair of hiking poles, two layers of socks etc. All we remember of our ascent is the first few hours and then blindly following our guide step by step – “pole-pole” as they call it Swahili. At every turn we were hoping that our guide would say here is Stella Point from where we enter the peak crater. But dozens of steep ascent passed by, still Stella Point was not in sight. Finally when we indeed reached Stella Point we were dazed. That to us was already a big accomplishment.
We came across atleast dozen other climbers in various states of physical and mental despair. We were adequately warned by our guide stay cool and enjoy our moments on top as people are known to loose it on top. Thankfully we were still intact. After pictures in all direction we were brought down to base camp in an express descent. It was virtually skiing on a volcanic ash for 2 hours to reach the base camp. It was so fast that we threw-up once we reached the bottom! We reached out to Panadol and just crashed.
When we woke up the relief was immense, as we did not have prepare for the summit night anymore!
Boundaries of human endurance: After having done this I am not sure if I will ever have the courage to do similar thing again. But the realization is even more humbling, when we think of our men in uniform who are enduring this in our borders in the face of even graver threats.
Blissful ignorance: There are times when not knowing enough is blessing. All that we read didn’t fully prepare us for what we experienced. We knew the Summit night was going to be very difficult. Even that knowledge was a gross underestimate.
We stumbled upon this crew few days before departing for Kili. Though they were a bit beyond our budget, we took a call not to cut corners. We are happy we did so. We went with Team Kilimanjaro(David: +44 7771235895) a UK based company.We had a crew of 10 members – Chief Guide, Asst Guide, Cook, 7 Camping Crew just for 2 of us.
We originally insisted on group tour(8-10 people) and sacked our original tour company because they could not get us Group on time. Finally when ended up going as Private tour. I think looking back this was blessing in disguise. We were always first to leave the camp and among the last to arrive. We had full attention from our Guides. As vegetarians our crew made sure that our diet was completely taken care.
Three months before climb is a very crucial period and all the preparation we do will make a big difference. The difference is not about success or not, it is more about enjoying the hike, particularly the first four days and the descent. Our physical and mental objective is to remain intact and be able to finish the trip in full shape. One of the key thing I learnt in this trip when you are operating at the fringes of physical endurance, you should develop a keen sense to listen to your body. The summit night I told myself that I would pace myself in accordance with body’s abilities. We successfully scaled without panting even once.
Tanzania reminded us so much about small town South India. People were wonderful by nature and were content and happy with life. Our reading of Tanzanians is a reflection of virtually living with the crew for 10 days.Our guide Harrold is a veteran with 11 years of experience as Chief Guide. Man of few words, devout Christian and wonderful family man. Asst Guide, Frederick was equally wonderful. The entire crew didn’t smoke or drink.I could sense innocence and a naivety in Tanzania that I have not come across any of my travel in recent times.The phonetics of the Swahili is very close to Hind/Tamil. In its muffled form it sounds so much our own language. Some words are indeed very close to ours.
Finally, Scaling the summit itself is an achievement, not so much in conquering the mountain but more in the victory of yourself surpassing your notion of endurance of mind and body.
Asante!!(Thank you) Naru & Kumar
For a travelogue on my Kenyan Safari visit Masai Mara & Lake Nakuru.