Pole Pole to 5895m!
The gallery with all pictures of the trip can be found here.
One of the first things you learn when starting the approach to Mt. Kilimanjaro is the concept of “pole pole”. It means “slow slow” and accurately describes the pace at which any climber will spend hours and hours each day slowing getting closer to the top. Imagine taking one step, taking a breath, taking the next step, breathe, and so on. That gives you a good idea of the pace! However, the guides know what they are doing and the slow pace is necessary to ensure acclimatization to the altitude and ultimately a successful climb! Of course the porters race up and down the mountain, being used to the trails and altitude.
Upon arriving in Tanzania, we (Graham, myself and our friend Mike) first spent two nights at the Altezza Lodge in Moshi, working on the jet lag and exploring some of the local sights on foot. Moshi has a large market with lots of interesting spices and bean varieties as well as fruits and vegetables. Then the adventure started!
We were picked up by our guides Andrew and Rutta, both experienced mountaineers with many summit completions on Kilimanjaro. On the edge of town we stopped to convene with some of our porters who were also getting ready to drive to the starting point. After picking up our permits at Machame Gate, we headed over to the starting point of the route we had chosen: Umbwe Route – considered the most difficult approach.
However, since the rainy season had officially finished but decided to linger a bit longer, we had an unplanned delay of close to 2 hours during which the van got stuck in the mud in a mountain village about 3-4 km from the gate. It took many porters and local help to move rocks and mud to get us out of this mess!
Other roads in the area were also impassable so we eventually got dropped in a village about 3km from the gate, fed a nice lunch and started our walk from there (Umbwe Gate is at 1800m).
It rained when we started and continued most of the first day. Due to the delay, we ended up hiking into the night and only got to Umbwe Cave (camp 1 – 2850m) after dark.
I can’t say it was my favourite … mud, loose rocks, very uneven surfaces so that even our “luxury” bathroom had a hard time staying upright (portable toilet with small tent around it – just for us three!).
The trail always goes up. Nothing on Kilimanjaro is really flat, only less steep in places! The trails on the first and second days were somewhat rough and wet but as soon as we got close to our second camp (Baranco Camp at 3900m), the weather cleared and we had lovely sunshine and clear skies for the rest of the trip except the last day.
Sitting outside the tent in the sun with amazing views of the summit made up for all the rain, and we quickly forgot the mud bath we had endured.
On day 3, we hiked from Baranco to the Lava Tower at 4600m to acclimatize, returning to Baranco for a second night. On day 4, the trek continued to Karanga Camp at 3960m (starting out of Baranco Camp with the very steep Baranco Wall which almost felt like the Hillary Step on Everest, with traffic backed up by slower hikers when the trail turned into steep boulders that were scaled on all fours), being an undulating trail around the side of the mountain.
Day 5 continued the hike from Karanga Camp past the large Barafu Camp (4675m) to Kosovo Camp (4900m). This particular camp sits about an hour above Barafu and has the advantage that on summit day an hour is shaved off the approach time, while most other hikers have to start from Barafu with a steep climb to Kosovo at midnight.
Then came summit day! We got up at midnight, started hiking at 1am after some coffee and biscuits, and followed the trail of headlamps up the steep trail. We were among the first, and below us a large chain of lights could be seen. Starting the climb on June 9 is considered early season, and the mountain wasn’t as crowded as it gets during the peak season.
The first 2 hours of the summit approach did not feel great to me due to some stomach issues but slowly (and with lots of tea!) the issues disappeared and by the time we got to the summit at 5895m at 6:15am on June 14, we all felt great and accomplished! The sun was rising over Africa on a clear day with no wind. My estimate for the temperature was maybe -5C which felt mild due to the absence of wind. What a great feeling to stand on top and consider how far we had come – Our guides and porters did a great job getting us to the summit!
After half an hour on top, we started the descent, first back to Kosovo Camp for breakfast, then steadily downhill to Mweka Camp at 3100m. A huge downhill for the knees, and a huge day of climbing and descending for all of us. We slept early, and finished the climb on day 7 with the descent to Mweka Gate at 1640m. That part of the trail looks more like a rock cliff than a trail at times!
While we took our time on the trails, it is amazing how the porters manage to carry huge loads up these steep trails at lightning fast paces! Our group had 2 guides, a cook and 15 porters for the 3 of us. Each day the porters went ahead and had the sleeping tents, mess tent and bathroom set up by the time we arrived at the next camp. We were fed 3 delicious meals a day, and usually had warm water available for some washing (face, hands).
The temperature was always warm when the sun was out but nights and mornings required the warmer jackets. On summit day, the guides recommended 3-4 layers for the legs and 5 layers for the torso, plus hats and gloves. Lots of layers were shed on the uphill hike but kept us warm once we got to 5895m!
Overall, an amazing experience that is achievable for most hikers … just go slow 🙂 We were lucky with the weather and really enjoyed our guides and porters. During our celebration dinner with our guides, we each received the Certificate that we had made it to the top!
After a night back in Moshi, we were picked up by Isaac, our safari guide. His friend Ali accompanied us as a second guide. We spent 2 nights in Arusha and explored Arusha National Park, which was green and lush, with elephants, zebra, giraffes and more.
Watch this video to see what an unhappy elephant looks like …
Then we moved on towards Tarangire National Park, staying at Sangaiwe Tented Lodge just outside the park (our favourite lodge). The park gave us the opportunity to see many elephants, giraffe, a leopard and a lion – rare! Most of the day was spent driving in the jeep and stops are not allowed outside of a few picnic areas since wild animals can hide anywhere, especially when longer grass is around. The guides are very strict on that!
Watch this elephant getting his greens in ….
At Sangaiwe Lodge, security guards escort you back to your cabin after dinner since the lodge is adjacent to the park and wild animals can wander through the lodge grounds at night – not safe!
Finally, we spent two nights in Mta Wa Mbo near Lake Manyara Park, where we also got to see the Tree-Climbing Lion. We were so lucky to find this lady in a tree and watched her from about 5-6m away for quite some time!
In this video she is trying to get comfy …
The hours spent driving in the parks were often bumpy (called the “Tanzania Massage”) but full of animal sightings. On the highways in Tanzania, the speed limits are low, 50km/h in town and 80km/h on the open road, with lots of people walking on the side of the road. We lovingly called our times with Isaac on the highway “Driving Miss Daisy” since he was very careful to keep his speed low (25/30 in 50 zones, 50/60 in 80 zones!). Police stops are everywhere.
We were dropped off in Arusha where we spent a day mostly relaxing before our flight home (20 days in all). The animals in the parks were gorgeous and Isaac did a great job explaining and spotting wildlife. Giraffe mostly just stare, elephants get aggressive quickly if they don’t like your jeep, and the lions can’t be bothered at all – they just lie there and sleep – the king of the jungle! I loved how close we could get and just watch them.
The gallery with all pictures of the trip can be found here.