Standing on top of Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding moments of my life. The hours before that were some of the weirdest.
“Summit day” actually starts about 11pm the night before. That’s when you wake up, put on up to six layers of clothing (I had on two thermal tops, two jumpers, a down jacket and a hiking jacket over the top of that) and try to eat a meal that can only loosely be termed breakfast before embarking on the last section of the climb with the aim of making it to the top for sunrise.
I switched on my head lamp and stepped out of the tent just after midnight, following my guide Respick, as I had the past five days, and we joined the end of what looked like a line of fireflies disappearing up into the blackness.
As a two-man group we found ourselves at the front of the line before long. Then for the next six hours or so I walked in pitch darkness in below-zero temperatures on a never-ending uphill slope, seeing nothing but the small patch of ground directly in front of me illuminated by my torchlight and hearing little but regular calls of “pole, pole” (pronounced po-lay and meaning literally “slowly, slowly” in Swahili), the mantra of the mountain guides.
Climbing too fast can bring on altitude sickness, and climbing slowly doesn’t always prevent it, especially at this stage of the climb when you are above 4000m. Fatigue is another serious risk — the summit is more than 1.5km higher than the final campsite and you are operating on a couple of hours sleep; some hikers actually fall asleep as they are walking.
But the biggest challenge — for me, at least — was psychological. With no reference point it feels like you are walking in circles. Over six hours the only mental stimulation came from watching a lightning storm over the tiny lights of the town of Moshi — itself a surreal experience when the vantage point is a few kilometres above the clouds.
Arriving at Stella Point just as the pre-dawn sky started to illuminate the surrounding landscape is breathtaking (literally, since everyone is short of breath at this altitude; the point is 5756m above sea level). Above all, it’s a massive relief — and something of a surprise — to see exactly where you are: on a narrow ridge that rings a giant snow-covered crater at the top of an ancient volcano enveloped in cloud.
The final section of the walk from here to the summit at Uruhu Peak (5895m) is a (relatively) gentle stroll around the crater rim, passing spectacular, if shrinking, glaciers en route to one of the world’s most photographed wooden signs marking the highest point on the continent.
Then you have to get back down.
If you’ve ever wanted to tick off one of the fabled Seven Summits but don’t have the time, fitness or courage to invest in becoming an expert ice-climber, Mt Kilimanjaro is for you. You can, quite literally, walk all the way to the top (although there are some tricky bits). The biggest challenge is the altitude and fitness required to walk uphill for up to a week. Here’s what you need to know to get up, and down, successfully.
GET A GUIDE
Mt Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania, East Africa. You can’t climb it without a guide and most visitors join a party supported by a team that includes cooks and porters. When you arrive at camp each day, your tent is set up waiting for you along with a hot cup of tea and a bowl of popcorn. This level of service can take some getting used to, as can stepping aside on the trail to allow a caravan of porters carting assorted items of heavy camping equipment on their head to pass.
These are the real heroes of the mountain. Most don’t speak much English so it pays to know some basic Swahili like jambo (hello), habare (how are you), ah santé (thank you), karibu (you’re welcome) and hakuna matata (no worries — you may have heard of that one). Each member of your party will expect a tip and a strong piece of advice is to figure out how much you’re going to pay before you start and carry the correct denominations of US dollars. This will avoid a lot of hassle at the end of the trip.
There are seven main routes up the mountain and the one you pick will depend on how much time you have, how much you want to see and how much you want to spend. Different guiding companies offer different routes ranging from the five-day Marangu route to the Lemosho route, which takes eight days to complete (six days of climbing and two to descend).
There are pros and cons of every route but the longer you spend on the mountain the better your body will adjust to the effects of altitude. And you see more of the incredible, and surprisingly varied, landscape. Kilimanjaroroutes.com is a good place to start.
All climbers, regardless of age, fitness and experience, can fall victim to altitude sickness if their body does not adjust to thinner air which results in less oxygen reaching tissues of the body. Most climbers on Kilimanjaro experience some minor symptoms like headaches and vomiting. In severe cases fluid can build up in the lungs, brain or both, causing severe illness and even death.
The only way to avoid altitude sickness is to give your body time to acclimatise. Spend a few days in Tanzania before starting the climb, take a longer route and take your time — pole, pole! And listen to your guide. They are trained to spot the first signs of altitude sickness and respond — the only cure is to descend.
CHOOSING A GUIDING COMPANY
Do your research: speak to expert travel agents (like Outdoor Travel in Melbourne’s Little Bourke St), seek out experienced climbers and read reviews. I climbed with Ah Sante Tours and highly recommend them.
The tour company will let you know what clothing and equipment you need to bring and what is provided.
MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR TRIP
If you’re flying all the way to Africa, why not spend a bit of extra time exploring one of the most amazing natural areas on earth. Arusha and Tarangire National Parks and the mighty Serengeti are all within a day’s drive — sign up for a short (or long) safari to wind down after the climb. Kilimanjaro tour companies often run safaris as well or can refer you to someone who does.
Fly from Melbourne or Sydney to Dubai, then straight to Kilimanjaro International Airport. From here it’s a short drive to the towns of Arusha and Moshi, which serve as the base for Kili trips. Or you can get a bus there from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
This article was first published in the Herald Sun Escape section