We climbed Mt Kilimanjaro with a commercial tour operator “Into Africa”, who had the reputation for looking after porters and not going too quickly, allowing participants to acclimatize to the altitude. The same company had also looked after us very well on the ascent of Mt Kenya the previous week.
11 Jan Arusha to Machame Hut 3100m.
We emerged from Emmy’s place to find a 30 seat bus waiting with all 20 of our staff jammed in the back to leave enough seats for the 6 of us mzungu (westerners). We are only introduced to Oforo, the chief guide. We arrived at the Machame village starting gate at 10, but it took another hour for all the formalities, unpacking, paying fees and signing out before we were on our way. There are another 100 would be porters waiting outside the park fence, hoping for some work, as well as many other groups getting organised to leave. The loads are distributed amongst the porters, who then head off to the last checkpoint where their loads are weighed and the guides show their licence. Julius, our lead guide, tells us that the guides are strictly monitored, and if they are found to have done the wrong thing, their licence is cancelled and they are no longer permitted to work on the mountain.
The walk is on a broad and well drained footpath, gently climbing initially through forest, and then low scrub to the barren campsite. We set off with Julius leading at a really slow pace, so Alison is not only able to keep up, she is able to talk and breathe at the same time. The numbers of people are just overwhelming. We have to step off the path every time a porter goes past, but they stop for a rest and we overtake them, then we do it all over again. After a couple of hours on a 4wd track, we stop for a meal and the lunch boxes are ready for us; cold chicken, eggs, sandwiches, cake, chocolate, biscuits, bananas. It is only another 4 hours up to the campsite where we were again shocked by the numbers of people, we estimated about 100 mzungu and 250 staff.
The camp is spread over about 1 km of ridge line with a staffed metal hut in the middle and a single deep sinker toilet for everybody. We had to sign in on arrival and then locate the Into Africa segment. Tents are jammed into every nook and the area has been cleared of vegetation to get them all in. Dinner is served in the mess tent where we can sit on table and chairs, spaghetti bolognaise, vege soup and fruit for dessert.
12 Jan to Shiva Camp 3800m.
It’s steep and steady going along the crest of a spur for 6 hours with a break for lunch, climbing about 700 m for the day to reach 3800m. Our group stays together behind Julius, learning to pull over to the left on the call “sogare”, meaning get out of the way, porter coming through. Streams of porters and speedy mzungu overtake us, as none of the other westerners, (mostly French and German) are willing to put up with Julius’ slow pace. From the lunch site we can see the track for the afternoon, with several hundred people winding their way along it.
We arrive at Shiva ridge campsite at around 2 pm and have to wait for Digby’s pack and our tent to catch up to us before we can sleep for the afternoon. There are tents everywhere we can see, arranged in clusters for each trekking company but we discover that Oforo had sent a porter ahead an hour ahead of us to stake claim to the best campsite, so we are quite sheltered.
13 Jan to Barranco Wall 3950m.
It’s 550m climbing and 400m descending today, so little gain in altitude for a hard days work. The landscape is scattered volcanic boulders and we are walking across what was the bed of a glacier only 8 years ago. There are numerous barren rock ridges to scramble over but we finally reach the high point as clouds and mist roll in and lunch is served. A pastry stuffed with veges which we eat huddled into our rain-jackets hoping to stay warm enough for the afternoon as we are still wearing shorts and t shirts. The crowds continue past as we eat, with 221 people going past us at some stage during the morning and still more still visible on the ridge below.
We camp on a hilltop looking across at a very steep wall, which we will climb tomorrow. There has been very little wildlife to see for the walk so far apart from Alpine Choughs and Ravens, but Julius points out to Digby that the porters are excited and pointing across the valley. With binoculars, he is able to make out a snow leopard leaping up the hillside for several hundred meters until it disappears behind some boulders. The almost liquid, seemingly effortless movement is quite distinctive and makes for a very memorable experience. There are also many striped mice running around the camp and hiding in the rockpiles, they are the likely food for the leopard. Oforo jokes that we should take a can to bed to make sure we don’t have go out at night in case the leopard comes back.
We only have a hour or so of clear skies, but there are stunning views of the mountain and its glaciers and cliffs looming above us.
Wed 14th to Karangu Hut 4000m.
The Barranco wall climb had really worried two of our party as it looked far steeper than it really was. Steep enough and some exposed moves to make everyone take care with their footing and having to queue for the hard bits. A French party were particularly slow and refused to allow even the porters to go past, blocking the track.
Once on top of the wall there were several ridges to cross before the Karangu river where we were to have had lunch. We arrive to discover that the lunch is waiting on the ridge-crest 200m above us, so more climbing. The day was just too hard for one member of the party, leaving her with a badly swollen knee and totally unable to walk downhill. There had been talk of us going on to the next nights camp, making for an easier descent to finish, but Bernies knee has stopped that possibility.
We settle in for the afternoon, sleeping while the rain drizzled down outside. We were called out for tea at 6pm, and all the cloud has blown away with the mountain top clear and covered in fresh snow. The ascent ridge is clearly visible on the skyline, so the excitement is building, helping us get ready for a 13 hour day tomorrow.
15th Jan to Barafu Hut 4800m.
We awoke to a crisp and clear morning with good views of the mountain but no people visible on the descent ridge, even through binoculars. We actually had sunshine on the tent by 7:30, so the ridge was a good choice for the camp. The track climbs steadily for the whole morning, with the clouds rolling in by 9:30, but the rain held off until we were embedded in our tent at 12:30.
Barafu camp is set into an enclave of bare rock, sculpted into weird shapes. The toilet is the worst we’ve seen, with a diarrhoea victim missing the hole and spraying the entire seat and supports. Digby set off to do a wash down, but gets intercepted by Julius who calls in a porter to do the job. It’s not Digby’s role.
Cloud is drifting by all the time, sometimes above and sometimes below us, rising and falling like a tide, while another layer way below seems more like slow motion surf, rolling into the mountainside.
We are woken up at 11pm for breakfast before heading up by torchlight with three guides, so that if anyone needs to come down, a guide can accompany them. Bernie stays in the camp to allow her knee to recover.
16th Jan to Mweka Hut via Kibo (Stellar Point) 5695m.
We started hiking with 4 layers on top and 3 below, but are overheating in half an hour, so off comes the polypro jacket. The climb is grindingly steep but zigzagging and kept to a very slow pace, eventually taking 61/2 hours for the 1000m climb to Stellar Point. The track is snow covered and the slow steps make it very hard to balance on the soft surface. Alison is often hauled upright by Oforo who is right behind her.
We arrive at Stellar Point right on sunrise, but the snow is still coming down or being blown around and it is bitterly cold and windy. We have had enough and decline to go on to the real summit, another 2 hours and 200 m above. The crater rim is enough for us in the whiteout.
We descend with Godfrey, running and glissading in the deep snow, taking two hours for the descent to camp to find the porters huddled under a rock overhang and the cook tent collapsed . The cooking gear has all been moved into the mess-tent, but the cook is deeply apologetic for being unable to give us a cup of tea, as it is too cold for the gas stove to light. The porters are underdressed, so we give away a couple of woollen jackets and move into sleeping bags to wait for the return of the summit team. A cup of tea arrives at 9:30 and the others return at 11:30, so we manage a couple of hours catch-up sleep.
It is still snowing at 2pm as we head off down the track to Mweka Hut (3900m), arriving by 6 and served dinner in the dark. It is an uncomfortable camp as it is very muddy and the tents are jammed in wall to wall. Had we been able to do the double day, we would have camped half way down, at Millenium hut which was a much more attractive place.
17th Jan to Arusha
We start off walking with Julius in charge insisting we walk as a single group at Bernie’s speed, ultra slow. The porters and Oforo finally catch up after a couple of hours and we are released to walk at our own pace. It’s only another hour down to the ranger station, where we wait for everybody to arrive. Alison is able to rehearse her thank-you speech, and we pool our money for the tips. $70 for Oforo, $60 for Julius, $35 for Johnny the cook and $30 each for the porters. Digby also secretly handed over a hipflask of whisky to his porter, which disappeared very quickly.
Oforo is told that our bus has arrived in the village below, so we are able to head on down, besieged by hawkers all the way now that we are out of the National Park. The bus is waiting at a hotel where we are handed a boxed lunch containing a hamburger, a samosa and a battered sausage, so something for all cultures. The group then comes together for the tipping and farewell ceremonies. Alison reads her speech in Swahili, impressing the porters no end when she uses the word ”wagoon” for them, meaning big and strong. Kevin hands out the tips and all the staff respond with singing and acting performances. Digby’s porter writhes around on the ground, representing a snake, as the path winds its way up the mountain like a snake. The singing continues for another 20 minutes or so in the bus on the way down back to Emmy’s guesthouse where we can recover for the next leg of the journey.