I was fortunate to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in 1994 as part of my O.E and it remains one of the most memorable experiences of my travels!
At the time there was really only 1 option – the very well trodden Marangu Route over 5 days (3+1/2 days up and 1+1/2 days down) staying in quite crowded and poorly maintained tramping huts. This is now often disparagingly referred to as the ‘coca cola’ route due the large numbers of trampers using it.
Starting from the town of Moshi, at the foothills of Kili, It’s a wonderful experience, as you ascend through many different climatic and vegetation zones, at times walking across what appears to be a moonscape. The last push to the summit is pretty tough – with a midnight start and walking up steep scree slopes in very cold conditions, firstly at night to the ‘false summit’ of Gillman’s Point (5685m). It was so cold that the water in my bottle froze, even inside my down jacket! Fortunately, we watched the sun rise here, which was incredible, overlooking the vast savannah plains below. With spirits enhanced and water thawed were able to make it the final few hundred meters to the summit for the obligatory summit photos.
While I was fortunately successful in making the summit at Uhuru Peak (5895m) – the highest point in Africa – it was certainly a challenging trek given the relatively rapid altitude gain, and one I feel that too many ‘casual’ trampers underestimate in their haste to ‘tick off’ another landmark. Only 40% of trekkers make it to Uhuru Peak, with many turning back at Gillman’s Point. Despite being in decent physical shape, I suffered ‘migraine’ type headaches near the summit, and needed a rest for nearly 1/2 hour before I could continue.
Aside from drinking LOTS of water, the best tip I was given by my guide was to only breathe through my nose rather than my mouth, it sounds daft, but you are forced to walk slowly – slowly put one foot in front the other rather than walk at normal tramping pace, and you’ll acclimatise better. The group I was with all made the summit, but many didn’t, including a group of fit looking soldiers from Italy, who were (ill advisedly) trying to climb it in 3 days and were looking rather worse for wear!
Today, there are better options including several camping routes up Kili – Machame, Rongai & Lemosho.
Here’s some things to consider:
- Cheapest usually isn’t best. We’d recommend paying a bit more to get an operator who employs the best guides and best cooks. The worth of both will become very apparent during the climb when you are cold, tired or hungry!
- What’s the ratio of guide/clients? We’d recommend tramping with a tour operator that uses 1 guide for every 2 clients – which is the national park guideline.
- Consider taking an extra day. There are now numerous routes ranging from 6- 8 days on the mountain, all with an extra day to the standard trek to aid acclimatisation. This will increase the trip cost, as it’s another day of Park fees, but well worth it to improve your chances of summiting.
- Consider climbing nearby Mt Meru (4565m) first – a 3 night / 4 day trek, as previous acclimatisation helps tremendously.
- Trek with a tour operator whose guides have first aid training, and who carry portable oxygen or hyperbaric chambers to treat altitude sickness.
The Machame route is very scenic and has great views of Mt Meru and other parts of Kili like Shira Peak. It’s tougher than the Rongai, but can be crowded. The Rongai is easier and has a higher success rate; this route approaches from the North and has great views of Mt Mawenzi.
If you like to avoid crowds, we’d recommend tramping the Rongai or the Lemosho route instead because both are quiet, wilderness routes, well away from the crowded climbs. Only 10% of Kilimanjaro climbers ascend by these two routes. Both traverse the mountain using different ascent and descent routes, so no back tracking, giving time to explore the different climatic zones, wildlife and scenery.