I have always loved the mountains, and have climbed and walked up and over the hills for most of my life, but nothing on the scale of Kilimanjaro. I retired two years ago, and suddenly had time to fulfil an ambition. My wife and I had already experienced a wonderful safari in Botswana with Africa Exclusive, and found that they also offered Kilimanjaro climbs. I signed up for a 7 day trek to climb the mountain by the Machame route, reputedly the most attractive route up the mountain.
Night flight to Nairobi, and a short hop to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania, with a sight of the mountain wreathed in cloud as we descended. With a night in a comfortable hotel in Arusha and 30 degree heat on the plains, it was difficult to believe that we would start our summit climb at night and it might be well below freezing on the summit.
A final briefing was followed by a two-hour drive to the start of the climb where the cultivated land gave way to the rain forest. The forest lived up to its name. It rained that afternoon but not enough to dampen our spirits as we climbed steadily for six hours on the first day.
After bright sunny starts on each of the first three days the cloud gathered about midday. But this added to the overall experience as the mountain revealed herself by stages through the mist as we climbed higher. Machame camp. Shira camp. The Lava Tower. Barranco Camp. Up, down, up, down, up. Drink plenty. Drink some more. Acclimatisation was key. On a couple of days we camped not much higher than the previous night. The scenery made you forget the effort you were putting in.
Porters packed up camp after we had left early in the mornings. They then overtook us going uphill, their awkward shaped loads balanced on their heads or slung across their shoulders. The next camp was always set up for us before we arrived. An amazing bunch of guys, cheerful, friendly, and superbly fit.
On a freezing morning we scrambled steeply up the frost-encrusted rocks of the 200m Barranco Wall. Exhilarating! After the wall we were above the cloud all the time with the mountain looming above us, the sun sparkling on the upper snows as plunging glaciers hung precariously from the rocky flanks of the mountain.
A steep haul up to the penultimate camp – Karanga. Then the following day a dusty trek across the alpine desert – dry, barren, other-worldly, with our sights set on the ridge ahead. A rare Lammergeyer vulture soared and circled overhead as we arrived at Barafu, base camp for the summit attempt.
We started climbing at 11:30pm that night. Yes it was demanding. Yes it was exhausting. But mostly it was a mental challenge. Our acclimatisation was good so although we were breathless and tired, as soon as we stopped for a short rest our recovery time was rapid and we were soon on our way again. Zig-zag, zig-zag, up steep scree and shale until at last we stood on the crater rim at Stella Point. It was just light enough to enable us to make out the snow filled crater in front of us and the summit tantalisingly close. The final walk rose steadily for another 150m around the rim over a distance of about a mile, but at 6am we were there. It was -13 degrees C.
A brand new green sign greeted us – even our guide had not seen it before. “Congratulations. You are now at Uhuru Peak. 5895m”. We were first on top that day and could see the torches of other parties following us up. There were hugs and tears and photographs, but the cold ate at our bodies and we headed down after less than 20 minutes on the top.
But not before we watched the sunrise across the crater. A full spectrum of colours framing towering cumulus clouds on the horizon. A magical moment.
We plunged down dusty screes from Stella Point, passing other parties still climbing. “Not far now!” we encouraged them. “It’s worth it!”
Down, down, slipping, sliding, but all the time breathing easier. We marvelled at the ease at which we descended the slopes we had struggled to ascend. We were back at camp in two and a half hours. A short rest and a hot breakfast, then down, down again to Millennium Camp where the porters awaited, tents erected, and we subsided gratefully into our sleeping bags in the middle of the afternoon.
The evening meal was euphoric. Anecdotes and analysis of our performance and our emotions.
We awoke to a flaming sunrise, and the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro shining with a dusting of new snow. A prelude to our final day of descent through the rain forest. Did we envy those who were on the summit today? Yes and no. We had been there ourselves 24 hours before, but would always wish we could experience the same feelings every day.
· The first sight and realisation of the scale of Kilimanjaro as we approached across the Tanzanian plains.
· The flowers of the rain-forest indigenous to the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
· The different views of the summit as we trekked through varying climatic zones, from forest and moorland, to alpine desert and glacial summits.
· Smiling porters welcoming us at each camp with a song.
· The super-warm sleeping bags.
· The variety and quality of the food served by the cooks at every camp. Chicken and chips at over 4000 metres! A different flavour soup every day!
· Reaching the summit in time to witness the sunrise.
· The camaraderie of the trekking group.
· The friendliness, knowledge and professionalism of the guide.
Thank you Africa Exclusive for the experience of a lifetime.
Africa Exclusive can arrange a variety of Kilimanjaro Climbs. Please contact us for further information.
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