The story on how to climb the highest mountain in Africa and not die along the way. Jungle, lava, glaciers, colonial discomfort, and city walks with locals. Ready?
Welcome to Africa. 🙂
Large hotel in Machame village at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s always summer here, although calendar says it’s January 2 now. The flow of time can only be seen by the change of seasons from relatively dry (winter, summer) to rainy (spring, autumn). Nothing else changes, the temperature is always around +25 ℃.
Bananas grow in the hotel’s garden and also coffee grows across the street. There is not much work besides tourism here, no normal medicine and education either, but the locals say it’s fine.
Within two days, our group finally gathered at this hotel. The ascent was organized by the Russian alpinist club “7 Summits”, I was impressed by their work during climbing Mt Elbrus, and since then I wanted to try to go somewhere with them. Getting to know each other, collecting our stuff and heading to the gate of the national park.
Machame Gate. The group must register with the rangers here to get the permit to climb. Only Tanzanians can be guides, and they don’t allow to enter without a guide. In case of a large group, there should be several guides. The cost of the permit depends on the size of the group, the route and the planned duration. Our one was around 200 USD per group.
You’re also not allowed to carry your own equipment. By law, every tourist must hire at least one local porter. Thus the government makes sure that local residents have jobs. I felt very strange hiring a black guy for little money to carry all my stuff on his head for two weeks. Moreover, the locals play along with this slave-owning atmosphere in the hope of getting more tips.
Hiking light with small backpacks. Guides are allowed to carry their own stuff though.
The route starts through the real jungle, where humidity is always around 100%. The height of the mountain is almost 6 km, and with each kilometer the surrounding nature will change to a more northern one, passing all biomes from the tropical jungle at the beginning of the route to the arctic desert closer to the top.
The climb is very steep, on the first day you need to gain about 1300 m of altitude.
Guides speak excellent English, so I learned a lot of interesting things from them along the way. For example, there is a practice in Tanzania to show each other a medical certificate stating that you don’t have HIV before the first sex with a new partner (they don’t have enough money to buy condoms). Also most Tanzanians are clearly divided into different tribes, and don’t associate themselves much with such colonial entities as countries (this stage of the society development is called tribalism, the next one is called nationalism, and the highest one is cosmopolitanism).
From time to time, it starts to rain of low intensity. The trail becomes muddy, but it’s still possible to walk.
Machame Camp, 3026 m above sea level. Many begin to catch the first symptoms of altitude sickness.
The tents are set up by the same porters, meanwhile we go to the ranger’s hut for registration. The process is well established, you can then use the records to determine on what day someone was lost.
Besides our stuff, additional porters carry such infrastructure elements as a kitchen, a toilet and communal tents, one of which is used by the group for briefing, eating and gatherings while camping, and the rest are for this crowd of porters. I decided to count them, and it turns out that in each group there are about 3 locals for each tourist. Why not build permanent structures here and charge a fee for using them? Good question.
The sky is covered with clouds, so at night it’s completely dark.
In the morning, we put all things together, so the porters can take them to carry to the next camp.
Starting from this altitude, the amount of oxygen in the air becomes insufficient for the normal functioning of the body, so we walk at a much less vigorous pace. The planned climb per day is 800 meters, the current biome is savannah.
Open areas are often made of pure lava, which has evolved over the years into smooth stone surfaces.
With the rise in height, the savanna smoothly turns into the steppe: there are no more trees, but there are still many different bushes around.
Camp “Shira 2”, 3847 m above sea level. We arrived early enough, so decided not to miss the opportunity to walk light higher for better acclimatization.
At this height, the last transition to the next climatic zone – tundra takes place. Further there are almost no large plants, only stones around.
Gusty wind alternates with cold fine rain. Hypoxia at this altitude is already strong enough, it gives me just a headache, but many feel dizzy, some feel really sick.
It rained all night and did not end even by the morning of the next day, so everyone came out in raincoats. The next two days the climb is planned to be minimal, but with large ascents and descents along the way, which is very useful for acclimatization.
Climbing to the highest point for today.
Control point – Lava Tower, 4629 meters above sea level. This is a huge tower of solidified lava with a height of almost 100 meters, it really cannot be confused with anything, even despite the very thick fog.
In the distance, the first tents of the next camp are already visible, but it’s still at least 2 hours of hiking left to it.
Trees are like from “The Lion King” movie. Actually, the whole story of Simba develops in the setting of Tanzania.
There are a lot of such trees here, and small rain streams flow between them. It’s very unusual to walk in such an exotic mountain forest.
Baranco Camp, 3981 m above sea level. High in the clouds is the top of the mountain, which we have to climb – Uhuru Peak.
Night in the African tundra.
The guide says that our morning will begin with climbing to the top of this rock. This place is known as Baranco wall, and it’s 400 meters of very sharp, almost vertical climb.
While we are having breakfast and getting ready, the first group is already on the route.
Crossing the mountain river and getting ready for a couple of hours of climbing.
Now straight up.
Nobody uses safety equipment, although it’s a several hundred meters high cliff. Porters with huge bags on their heads pass by, sometimes staggering over the abyss, but still maintaining the balance. But they are not always so lucky, a lot of people died on this wall.
There is a small valley behind the wall, which is not so blown by the wind, so that even trees grow in it. There are a lot of ups and downs here, sometimes you have to wade through the bushes, from time to time it starts to rain, all this is very exhausting. Cherry on the cake – the exit from this valley is hard up again.
Karanga Camp, 4000 m above sea level. After a hard exit from the valley, the whole group is exhausted, but dinner over the clouds at sunset is very inspiring. A couple of people said they felt bad and were not sure if they could complete the climb. Day X is ahead: the next camp is at the intersection of two routes, one of which leads down, and the other – to the top of the mountain.
Snow in the middle of tropical Africa.
Uhuru Peak, our destination for tomorrow.
Barafu Camp, 4673 meters above sea level. This is the last stop before the summit. The climb takes about 16-17 hours, so the start on the route is planned for 1 AM, the idea is to have enough time to return before sunset of the next day.
After dinner, the guide checks the health of all participants and diagnoses the onset of cerebral edema in a member of our group. This is one of the worst options for the development of hypoxia, if he goes upstairs with us, then at best he will need to be lowered back on a stretcher (at worst, his body will have to be lowered), so for him the ascent at this moment is over, one of the guides immediately leaves down with him. And we go to rest and prepare for the start at midnight.
All night long we walked up the trail of snow, ice and solidified lava with flashlights. Sometimes I had to climb up the black stones, but still without ice axes and other more serious equipment. Visibility is zero, you can only guess where you are, somewhere from above, flashlights of members of other groups that came out even earlier flicker. I was listening to electronic music all night with one earphone, so I just walked up like a robot, but the other members of our group were extremely exhausted, for them it was clearly a very difficult night. At dawn it becomes clear that it takes about an hour to go. The current biome is Arctic, with real glaciers added to the snow. I never thought that I would see something like this in Africa.
Summit of Kilimanjaro, 5895 meters above sea level. The peak is a huge volcano crater, which you can not only go around the perimeter, but also go down inside.
The highest point in Africa.
In the center of the crater there is another large glacier, to which you can descend. Obsidian is also found here – small stones made of volcanic glass, resulting from the rapid cooling of liquid lava. You can take it as a souvenir, it will be a very unusual souvenir.
Then we had a long descent back down to the Barafu camp, but then I noticed two porters who were going to go down a completely different, short path, and they invited me to join. It must be said that it was a really unique way down, because their method of movement consisted of quick jumps from one leg to the other on a loose of fine gravel. During the landing, the boot sinks a little into a layer of small stones, and quickly glides along the slope, which allows you to make bunny jumps with a slip of 2 meters long. The usual way down is considered extremely traumatic for the knees, and takes at least 2-3 hours, but the descent by this method took us only 30 minutes, a lot of fun, and the load was quite low. By the time the guys returned from the group, I had already managed to sleep, and have breakfast, and drink fresh coffee, which greatly surprised my exhausted colleagues, who all this time were moving with their last strength.
After a hearty lunch and a short rest, we went down a very short path. Due to the colossal difference in altitude during the descent (almost 3 km from the summit to the place of the night), the amount of oxygen in the air seems prohibitively high, such an overdose instantly leads to a strong feeling of euphoria, a surge of strength, the body begins to restore energy reserves at a very fast pace.
Along the way, there are some carts, with the help of which porters deliver resources to the camps in a short way. In case of injury / death, the injured climbers are lowered on the same carts.
Mweka Camp, 3060 meters above sea level. Our porters and guides come together to perform a ritual dance for the conquerors of Africa’s highest mountain. Very tourist entertainment, I don’t like that, instead of understanding another culture, you get some kind of stupid show. But thanks to this, it turned out to take a representative picture of how many dark-skinned personnel are needed for a relatively simple ascent of several white tourists.
The last day on the route, descending back into the jungle.
Everything is so well maintained, as if not in Tanzania.
Exit to Mweka Gate. Registering the completion of the route with the rangers, and going to rest at our hotel in Machame village.
A guy with cerebral edema has already come to his senses, shared his impressions of a visit to a local hospital: he went inside, saw a line of locals with open fractures and rotting limbs, and realized that against the background of these guys, everything is fine with his health. In fact, it was enough just to stop acute hypoxia by descending to a safe height, and everything quickly passed.
After resting, all the guys from our group went for other tourist attractions in Tanzania: some for safari, some to see the Maasai tribes, some to relax on Zanzibar island. But I decided that I had enough of all this tourist circus with porters, personal chiefs and ritual dances, and decided to see how people actually live in the small town near the mountain instead.
Unexpectedly stylish municipal architecture.
Tanzania was a British colony, so everyone here speaks English, and they never miss an opportunity to chat with a foreigner, even just for fun. I immediately warned them that I’m not interested in souvenirs, not going to buy anything and that I just want to walk around and have a coffee. One guy offered to be my city guide for a kilo of potatoes. I asked the price, calculated it in dollars, it cost something like $0.2/kg, agreed for the sake of experiment, and didn’t regret it.
In addition to nature, the Masai theme is actively exploited everywhere. Many different tribes live around, but apparently they are the most promoted ones.
Spontaneous trade is everywhere. My potato guide said that the average salary in the city is about $30, there is almost no work other than tourism, so people do their best.
We went into a typical coffee shop for a banana coffee and it’s a delight. If you like the soft taste of such drinks as cappuccino and latte, I highly recommend trying it on occasion. They add real banana puree to coffee (I think it’s even cheaper than chemical substitutes here), so it’s just delicious.
I got hungry and decided to go to a street restaurant for lunch. Their prices will blow your mind, fish and meat dishes cost $1-2. It’s striking that even here they sell souvenirs, although tourists obviously avoid such “restaurants”.
Finally we reached the center of life of any African city – a big market.
Fresh vegetables and fruits at unrealistically low prices. Some sellers increased the price, but my black friend immediately said that it was too expensive for Moshi, and after comparing prices with other sellers in the same market, I realized that he was right.
The guy saw that I was taking a shot and changed his walking style to Africa Fashion Week. 😀
Meat is not in popular here: first of all, it’s too expensive for locals, and secondly, it quickly goes bad in the heat. But for vegans, this is paradise.
Less civilized part of the market. Not everyone can afford to rent a tent at the main one. I bought a couple of kilograms of potatoes, my friend was just happy: now he will have something to eat for a whole week.
Finally I went to the only third wave coffee shop in the city. Wi-Fi is paid, coffee is okay, but costs crazy $2 per cup. Most of the visitors are white tourists, guards walk around the perimeter with guns ready to shoot, and I’m sure it’s not just a show. The owner is Chinese. In general, the atmosphere is so-so.
I waited for my transfer to the airport for about 40 minutes, although I clearly informed the driver that I will be waiting for him near the exit from this coffee shop at 16:00. It’s good that I was warned about such a thing as “African time”, which means that punctuality is not their strong point, and actually the departure was two hours later than I announced. After calling his boss, who promised to fire the driver if he didn’t arrive within 15 minutes, he appeared out of thin air almost instantly. It’s good to know these things in advance, my next trip to Tanzania will probably be less problematic.