Mount Kilimanjaro – Machame Route
17 June – 24 June, 2019
A climb of Kilimanjaro should not be underestimated
“Where’s the airport?” asked my 15-year-old son Will as the plane touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport.
Looking out our small windows at the verdant surrounds, we debate for a moment if the mountain range we see on descent is the one we’ve come to climb – Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro, with a summit 5,895 metres above sea level, lies in the north-eastern tip of Tanzania, near the border of Kenya, and is just 330kms from the equator.
We’ve had just over 30-hours of airports and flying since we left cold, wintery Melbourne, before landing to a steamy, humid, 21-degree day.
As far as international airports go, Kilimanjaro is not big and shiny, but does have a welcome feeling. I brace myself for a lengthy arrival process, not to mention getting a Visa, but this is unfounded – it appears we’re the only plane arriving, and we’re out the front door, bags in hand, in no time.
It’s easy to find Ally, our driver, and a few minutes later we’re outside having a look at this new country, and scanning the distant peaks thinking of the challenge that lays ahead.
Driving from the airport, which serves the nearby cities of Arusha and Moshi, Ally pulls over to collect Emmannuel, who has arranged everything for our journey. Instantly friendly, Emmannuel chats about our upcoming climb as we bump along the 41km drive to Moshi.
A city with a population of around 200,000, Moshi is a place of bustling marketplaces, bumpy dirt roads and friendly locals.
Our hotel in downtown Moshi, while basic, has an outdoor area ideal for meeting our guides, Vale and Joseph, who will lead us tomorrow morning on our journey for the next seven days.
I’m surprised that Will and I are the only trekkers on our trip. Yet Vale and Joseph still insist on two guides, two porters and a cook – just for the two of us – which appears to be the minimum. And that soon increases to 10 with the addition of tent carriers and dishwashers.
It’s enough to have me tossing and turning beneath my mozzie net throughout a humid night before our climb begins.
After a breakfast of beans and unfamiliar vegetables, the team arrive to collect us in their mini-van, toss our packs on the roof, and we’re off – all 14 of us.
Taking it slowly up a mountainous drive, it’s 30kms to Kilimanjaro National Park, which covers an area of some 75,575 hectares and protects the largest free-standing volcanic mass in the world – Mount Kilimanjaro, which stands in spectacular isolation above the surrounding plains.
I’m excited. Will is more apprehensive. The climbing permit process is long, though we remain bystanders for the most part.
Mount Kilimanjaro moves from gentle slopes to alpine desert with 30-degree inclines. At the summit there is permanent ice and temperatures are below freezing, we’re told.
Time to saddle up and take our first steps towards a final checkpoint, which literally guards the iron gates we have to pass through to reach the mountain.
After a lot of flying and transit, it’s finally time to stretch the legs and tackle this mountain.
We’re the last group to exit the gates. Up, up, up we go. “Pole, pole” is Swahili for “slowly, slowly,” and Vale’s mantra, though for today we’re invited to hold our own pace.
Hiking a well-framed path that is sturdy underfoot, with little mud and wide blue skies, has us gradually increasing our pace on the mostly gradual ascent. Enough to build up a sweat, but not so strenuous to raise the heartbeat significantly- or so my Garmin (heartrate monitor) tells me.
We begin to pass some other groups of climbers and porters. Our pace is consistent, and aside from a 10-minute break we arrive at the first camp after three-hours of trekking to meet the ranger, enjoy some afternoon sun, and then wait.
Dense cloud clears momentarily to reveal snow-capped peaks, before gradually settling upon us, accompanied by a chilly blast of wind.
With an idea of which ridge was tomorrow’s task, and with an easy day’s hike behind us, we turn to our generous-sized tent, already set up by the team. They’ve also set up a mess tent, which is candlelit, just for two, where we’re served soup, spaghetti and chunky meat sauce. I’ll be taking some of their coffee home too.
“Wear your headlight if you leave the tent during the night, as the ranger has a pistol and might mistake you for a wild animal,” runs through my 4am thoughts as I contemplate rising through the otherwise silent camp. I decide to wait until morning.
After a hearty breakfast and some ceremonial singing and dancing we exit camp and head for the Machame trail, one of seven main routes to climb Kilimanjaro.
“Pole, pole,” says as Joseph as he sets the pace, and we dutifully fall in behind him. It’s all uphill now – with a mixture of track and rock scramble.
Along the way, we’re encouraged rest and take in the stunning scenery. Joseph provides a running commentary on the region’s botanical flowers, and insists on photographing each one.
One rock pass has us clinging to the rock face, choosing our footing with just a little extra care. Otherwise the well-worn trail is easy to negotiate.
After about four-and-a-half hours of moderate climbing, continuously upward, we arrive at Shira Cave Campsite, at 3,750m metres. Will says he is getting a headache, but we have the entire afternoon to rest and acclimatise to the increasing altitude.
The sun breaks though intermittently as I relax and partake in some reading. More trekkers arrive, which brings periodic bursts of singing and dancing among the larger parties.
We head off for an acclimatisation walk. It’s not far, but it does occur at the same time the clouds break and for only a few moments we’re treated to a sneak peak of the summit – then it’s gone. “She [Mount Kilimanjaro] is very shy,” says Vale.
He also tells us about the receding glaziers at the top of the mountain, “due to climate change,” he says.
Back at camp, hot soup and a rice dish are quickly demolished. Wind whips across the camp as the sunset paints the sky a breathtaking array of colours. The skies are soon filled with a breathtaking display of stars. We turn in early, to regain some warmth and rest ahead of tomorrow’s important acclimatisation day.
Will wakes early, not because of ample rest but because he’s freezing cold. By 5.30am we’re packing and searching for the thermals.
With our breakfast routine behind us, we soon make tracks. Within an hour the sun is visible, the skies have cleared, and for the next three-hours we have incredible views of the mountain – while we set out with coats at hand, expecting rain and winds, instead we’re drenched in sunlight.
Arriving at Lava Tower Camp, at 4,642 metres, after a five-hour hike, Will says he still has a headache. We’re told it’s generally at around this point that some climbers start experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness – breathlessness, irritability, headaches. The team serve lunch, which is an ideal circuit breaker.
Positioned in the alpine zone, Lava Camp is rocky and barren. Apparently, the porters aren’t expecting any mountain rescues, as a cluster of tents spring up on the helipad – flat ground is prized real estate around here. There are traces of ice on the ground, and small springs gurgle with sweet drinking water.
Lava Camp is our luncheon goal before a final leg downhill to arrive at Barranco Camp, at 3,984 metres. But the swifter downhill pace, descending almost 658 metres over about two-hours, intensifies Wills headache.
We finally reach Barranco Camp, some rest and, for Will, some Panadol. Aside from the mess tent nearly blowing away mid-dinner in wild gales, I feel relaxed after the incredible scenery and general slow pace of the day’s trek.
It’s 1.30am and a fierce gale is howling through the camp. I’m sure some of the clatter of tent poles I hear is the mess tent blowing over and heading directly for our sleeping tent, which is shaking violently.
It’s dawn, the wind has retreated, and we’re met with a cool, calm morning.
The Barranco Camp is without doubt the most spectacular campsite thus far, with amazing views of Kibo, the Western Breach and the first of the southern glaciers.
Preparing to leave, more and more antlike figures zigzag the rockface adjacent to camp in the incessant pursuit of the summit. Mounting my pack, we head down a gorge, cross a stream, and became one of the ants.
Up and down we climb on the 3.5km trek to Karanga Camp, gaining 55 metres along the way on the five-hour climb. We have a perfect photo opportunity in front of the clear mountain behind us, and the rolling clouds beneath. But within 10-minutes the clouds roll in and everything is white. So, we press on.
Coming into Karanga camp we’ve reached 3995 metres and a cooked lunch of hand-cut chips, vegetables and banana fritters. An afternoon siesta follows in the warmth of afternoon sunshine. Will’s head continues to throb, so I make a call – Diamox (used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness) it has to be.
With a lazy afternoon behind us it’s time for another acclimatisation walk, much to Will’s disgust. Different contingencies are discussed because of Will’s headaches and lack of appetite, but he’s having none of it – the thought of missing his photo at the summit drives him on.
Being above the clouds, and with the afternoon sun shining as we depart Karanga, I’m in awe of the sunset. Photography struggles to capture the silk clouds and radiant colours stretched across the sky.
The moment the sun disappears, the temperature plummets. Thermals, beanies – all layers are required until we can seek the sanctuary of our sleeping bags.
2.00am – wake with a bloody nose, which has lasted 20-minutes. Scratching around the tent for something to wipe the blood, and I’m worried the bleed may be altitude related. Whether to advise the guides or not? Am I overacting? I decide to see what the morning brings …
6.15am – it’s a sleep in! Will has slept all night and, while not exactly bouncing out of the tent, he’s not suffering too much. After reading through the altitude sickness brochure, Will says “I’ve got something in every category.”
My blood nose has returned as I venture to the (very basic) amenities. I’m not exactly bouncing out of the tent myself, but I contain any personal discomfort for the positivity I hope will get Will through the day.
No appetite at breakfast, but we eat. Low enthusiasm, but soon enough we’re off on foot once more. Gone are the views, the amazing scenery, replaced by a dense fog that blankets us in all directions. This is good, our guides tell us – “no rain, no hot sun!”
There’s no plant life as we climb, the landscape consists of rock and slate. It’s like a moonscape. As we climb higher, the wind speed increases. A couple of hours later we can see another wall, a final ascent to the ridgeline that takes us to base camp.
Will’s headache has gone, replaced with slight chest pain and shortness of breath. I too focus on breathing at various points. “Pole, Pole” has become our mantra. I’ve got the walking sticks out for the first time, to conserve whatever energy I can while still sporting my backpack.
“After an hour walking in the cold and wind from Karanga, I honestly thought I wasn’t going to make it to the summit,” says Will. “The climb feels like forever.”
We set out on the final climb amid increasing wind gusts. Cloud around the mountain has cleared, and we soon see shining white glaciers. The summit feels within reach.
The wind really howls, and porters who are descending the mountain tell our guides that some people couldn’t summit yesterday because it was too windy
As we make our way to the registration office, the gusts get stronger: there are collapsed tents all over the place. Ours, although held down by rocks, shakes violently.
Then the mess tent comes down, hitting the side of our tent with a scary thud. I don’t know how our guides get it back up, but when they do it’s mostly held by boulders. We have an early dinner, the idea being to get some sleep before getting up at 11pm.
With such violent winds flogging the tent this doesn’t happen, and after only a brief rest we’re layered-up in our summit gear.
12.10am –we leave camp under the flickering light of headlamps. In the distance are small dots of light from climbers who left before us, and within no time there are rows behind us. This is a popular mountain.
It’s an anticipated six-hour trek to the summit. Four people are already on their way down, which is a worry.
Rightly or wrongly I’ve decided not to take altitude sickness medication, although I’ve experienced some symptoms. I’ve decided that, with all the climbs I intend to do over the next couple of years, I’ll see how my body adjusts.
But, two-hours in, and I’m really struggling with nausea. Will is feeling the same. Our guides insist on taking my pack, as we have a long way to go. It’s a fatiguing slog. I think about a friend who completed the climb, and who told me: “Forget that you are strong or young while climbing, because that doesn’t matter … what matters is staying positive.”
Stella Point, at 5,739 metres, is located on the southern crater rim of Kibo, the tallest of Kilimanjaro’s three peaks. This is the arctic zone of the mountain, a region with no rainfall, high winds and sub-zero temperatures – the roof of Africa. From here it’s about an hour to the summit.
Before I have the summit in sight, I’ve hit another problem – strained breathing has given me a chest pain I can only liken to severe heartburn. I slow, breaking from the others. Will presses on, and I’m humbled by his perseverance.
Joseph waits for me. “Copy me,” he says. One foot after the other, I focus on the rhythm of his steps. It’s feels like a dance, and my breathing steadies with his pace.
We press on through howling wind and falling snow. The pain in my chest eases, and I know we’re going to make it. The sky is clear at times as the sun rises, revealing sparkling glaziers.
While we continue to climb, guides assist their altitude-affected clients as they descend.
“Just a little further” and “good luck,” call the descending climbers.
We’ve arrived! Overjoyed and overwhelmed at the same time, we stand at the summit, revelling in the simply spectacular panoramas around us.
Flying the Diabetes Australia flag becomes a high point as we snap pictures and our guides sign the flag. I share some chocolate, and we all share the moment. I’m so proud of Will. I can’t believe we are here.
“Today was probably the most physically and mentally challenging thing I’ve ever done,” says Will.
Our celebrations are short-lived; the weather is closing in, and we must descend.
We slog down the mountain to Barafu Camp, which is at 4,681 metres, rest for about an hour-and-a-half, and don our packs again for the trek to Mweka Camp (3,090 metres) – four long hours away.
We’re exhausted, and I at times I wonder how we’re going to make it as we plod along.
The reality of the dangers of climbing this mountain seem to be around every corner. An Indian lady with pulmonary problems is being taken down on a stretcher. We enquire why the helicopter hasn’t been called. “No insurance, no money,” we’re told.
We finally reach base camp, where it’s time for some reflection, dinner, and the conclusion of our huge summit effort.
“I think the walk back down to camp was harder and longer than the hike up to the summit, purely because of how sore and tired we are after only three-hours sleep the night before; because of the wind, the massive climb, and now the last walk back – which took what felt like ages,” says Will.
I’m looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed tonight.
It’s a quick pace off the mountain, the final trek. Not because there’s any sense of urgency, rather the legs feel great, the air is easy to breathe, and the track relatively flat by comparison to the rocky landscapes of the last week. The strides even turn into a run for a short leg.
We say goodbye to our amazing guides, who have made our climb possible. For Will and me, our next adventure is a safari. For Vale, Joseph and his team, they’ll be back on the trek to Mount Kilimanjaro again with new guests in a few days’ time.
“Back in the hotel room in Moshi, where we started exactly a week ago, it’s good to have some WiFi, catch up with the world, and sleep in a real bed,” says Will.
“All up we did 14 hours walking, 36,000 steps, 25.5 kilometres. And Africa’s highest mountain.”