Our time in South Africa was great and as we boarded the plane in Cape Town for our first flight in almost five months, we were sad to leave. We took a short flight to Johannesburg and then caught a second flight to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the most populous city in the country. We booked the flights separately since it was about 30% cheaper to do it that way than booking connecting flights on the same route (Google flights can be a great tool!). Flying from Johannesburg to Kilimanjaro airport would have been about twice as expensive, so we chose a tougher, but much cheaper option.
Dar es Salaam
We had visited Dar es Salaam a few months prior, spending a few nights at Makadi Beach on our way to and from Zanzibar and found the city to be a bit overwhelming. Dar es Salaam is home to over four million people, tends to have some of the worst traffic I’ve seen, and isn’t very clean. After landing in the airport we headed outside and I argued with the cab drivers for a bit over the “mzungu price” (mzungu is a Swahili word for white person) for the 10km ride to our hotel, the MIC Hotel. I finally got the ride down from the $40 USD they wanted to charge (and showed me a big painted board with local and mzungu prices on it to show it was fair) to the Tanzanian shilling equivalent of $12 and we took off on our 45 minute cab ride.
When we showed up at the hotel I showed them my booking number and was asked to present my Tanzanian work visa or proof of residence. After informing the employee that I didn’t have either, he said the price was no longer $19, but $40 since the price I had booked at was the locals rate. More arguing ensued and we finally got to our room, with my wallet the appropriate $19 lighter. The room was surprisingly nice by inexpensive African hotel standards and was located just steps from the Ubungo Bus Station, which is the main reason we chose that hotel. Ubungo is one of the main bus stations in Tanzania and at first glance is utter chaos.
We headed to the station around 7am the next morning, big backpacks on, and were the only mzungu to be seen. As usual in our time in Africa, a local spotted us and asked where we needed to go. He led us into the station – which seems to charge 200 TSH or ten cents US to enter – and to a big charter bus with the words “Semi-Luxury” written on the side. I paid the man 90,000 TSH, or $40 US for two tickets to Moshi, the town that most Kilimanjaro hikers use as their home base. We later learned that the tickets should have been closer to 60,000 TSH but mzungu prices crept up again as always.
Being the only non locals on the bus was no problem, 10 hours of listening to Swahili music turned up too loud was a bit grating. Once we made it to Moshi we grabbed a cab for $3 and made it to Rafiki Backpackers, our hostel for the next few days until our ascent of Kili would finally start! The way we got to Moshi was convoluted and a pain, but was about $350 cheaper in total for us, so it was definitely worth it. Rafiki was a nice hostel that offered relatively inexpensive climbs of Kili and a clean place to stay for a cheap price. We had already booked our climb through the slightly more expensive African Scenic Safaris, however booking in advance is virtually never necessary as we learned once we arrived.
We had a few days to kill before our trek started so we spent the next days meeting other people who were climbing or had recently climbed the mountain, took a local bus to Arusha to see the new Star Wars movie, and rented cold weather clothes and sleeping bags for our upcoming climb. For our climb we chose the Machame route, one of six possible paths up Kilimanjaro. The different paths up the mountain are ranked in difficulty with corresponding drink names – with whiskey routes being the hardest, Coca Cola routes being medium, and Fanta routes being easiest. The other explanation of the drink names is that whiskey was commonly drank or needed to be drank after since those are the hardest routes, and Coke and Fanta were available for purchase at stops on the other routes.
The morning we were finally setting off for our trek we were picked up at our hostel at a late for us 9am and drove for an hour to Machame gate. The gate is at 1,800 meters in altitude and in the rain forest, which is one of the five different biomes on Kilimanjaro. We learned that the two of us would be hiking up the mountain without any other trekkers a few days before, but due to an error on our trekking company’s part we were stuck waiting at the gate for almost three hours, which gave us time to meet some other hikers and make some friends we’d see for the next few nights at campsites.
Hiking Day 1
When we finally left the gate a bit before 1pm it had been raining for a half hour so we had our rain gear on over our t-shirts and hiking pants. The first things we noticed during the hike was how easy of a walk it was and that there were bathrooms, or at least wooden outhouses, along the way. The rain unfortunately kept any other monkeys away, and even a half hour later when it subsided they stayed in hiding. An hour or so in I found myself having a hard time following our guide’s earlier instructions of, “Don’t walk in front of the guides, we’ll set a slow pace to help you acclimatize properly.” After three hours of the five it would take to get to camp that day Sissy and I found ourselves sneaking in front of our guides and power walking up the gradual incline until we were yelled at to slow down from behind over and over.
Once we made it to our campsite – elevation 3,030 meters – we found our friends with their tents already set up, along with about 50 other tents with other trekkers inside. Kilimanjaro hosts roughly 35,000 hikers per year, which is evident from the minute you lay eyes on Machame Camp. We wound our way through the mini tent city to our tents which were already set up – something we weren’t used to at all after so much camping in Africa – and ate dinner in the mess tent that was brought up just for the two of us. A big part of the exorbitantly high cost (by Tanzanian standards) for climbing Kili, which was around $1,500 per person for 6 days on Machame before tips, is the huge number of porters and luxuries such as three hot meals per day.
After a good night of sleep we took off the next morning at 8am following a breakfast of porridge, eggs, and packaged sausage. Fearing the second day would be harder than the first we started slowly and stuck behind our guides for the first hour or so until the same urge to hurry up caught us and off we went. Our guides – we had two – sped up a bit this time and we all continued on at a faster pace. Four hours after leaving Machame camp, after a nice hike through another biome – the heather zone – we arrived at our camp for the day, Shira Camp – elevation 3,850 meters. We happened to be the first mzungu in camp and beat our porters to the site, so we hung out and admired the area for a while and began to notice how cold it was due to our lack of movement and the weather changing.
After a few hours a small tent city was erected at Shira and everyone took turns walking a few hundred meters away, up a small hill with a nice view of Mt. Meru. The evening was significantly colder than the night before and we decided to take our guides up on their offer to put boiling water into our Nalgene bottles so we could stick them in our sleeping bags to keep warm.
8am rolled around the next morning and off we went, ready for a tough day ahead since we’d be going to Lava Tower at 4,640 meters in altitude, which is slightly higher than I had hiked before with Salkantay Pass in Peru at 4,600 meters being the highest. We made it to Lava Tower around noon after trekking up a bit steeper trails than the other days up through the Alpine Desert, the new biome we crossed into. Our team made the mistake of keeping us at Lava Tower for over an hour for lunch, which made us a bit tired at the high altitude, but the descent to Barranco Camp was easy and enjoyable. The reason trekkers ascend from 3,850 meters to 4,640 and back down to 3,985 to camp at Barranco is to acclimatize and get ready for the thin air ahead.
Barranco was a nice area to camp with views of the infamous Barranco Wall that we’d have to pass in the morning and the summit of Kili looming above us. The morning of day 4 we headed for the wall at 8am after having heard from multiple people about how tough it is to get over and that there were parts that were sheer drops and cliffs all around. The wall looked a bit intimidating from camp but up we went.
After a half hour on the wall I found myself getting frustrated with the foot traffic. There are porters carrying huge bags full of cooking gear, tents, and whatever else on their heads up a steep rocky ascent, which makes for slow going for everyone else. I found Barranco Wall to be less a climb and more a hike with a few spots to scramble in and not half as daunting as it was made out to be. Our guide took us straight up some rocky spots, skipping the trail since I’m sure he felt my impatience coming through a time or two, which was very much appreciated. The next few hours of hiking before lunch showed off some very nice scenery on the mountain and was easy enough, dipping slightly down before ascending a ways.
As we made it to our lunch stop we found ourselves hiking into a big, cold cloud. After another hour long lunch due to our porters running a bit behind we groggily started hiking upward again on the steep ascent to Barafu Camp at 4,680 meters. I started to feel the altitude slowing me down and making my breathing heavy, even heavier than the day before at the same altitude. When we got into camp I was pretty well spent and the altitude was having it’s way with me. We ate a very early dinner and got into our tent to try to sleep while the sun was still up around 5pm since we’d be getting up at 11:30pm that night to start our push for the summit.
Barafu was extremely cold and windy that evening with the wind whipping against the tent so hard it sounded like a mini avalanche was coming down inside. I came down with a mild fever and noticed all of my veins were protruding and my breathing was very quick and shallow. Every day twice per day our blood oxygen level was measured by our guide and this time I came in at 66%, which is very low. We managed to get about an hour or so of sleep before our 11:30pm wake up call.
After trying to eat a bite or two of some cookies we gave up and headed out into the dark to begin our 1,200 meter final ascent. The temperature was somewhere in the range of -15 celsius and all we could easily see was a couple of headlamps up above us making their way upward. As we trudged upward every ridge above us seemed to be a break, an area where maybe we could walk on a relatively flat area on the trail, but it never was. The air outside got colder the further we pushed on and it became increasingly hard to breathe. Every so often we’d glance down behind us and see a seemingly endless snaking line of lights moving up, trying to catch us – headlamps of other trekkers.
Around hour four of our extremely cold and steep ascent both Sissy and I questioned our ability to make the summit. I began stopping and resting, something I don’t do often while hiking, and from time to time I’d just stop for no reason except being unable to breathe. Our pace was fast compared to everyone around us, but it felt painfully slow, a painful shuffle upward without end. Our guide told us a bit later that we only had an hour left to go before we’d reach Stella Point at 5,752 meters, which is very near the top, however that news only made us question our ability to continue even more since an hour of that sounded absolutely intolerable.
Sissy and I pushed each other hard to continue and we approached Stella Point just as the sun was rising, right around 6am. The hike to that point was as hard as any physical challenge I had participated in, much more than the marathon or 170km bike ride I had dabbled in before, and we finally saw the sign telling us we were at Stella Point! Stella Point was a great accomplishment, however it isn’t the top of the mountain, and we had another half hour to go before we’d reach Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. We trudged through some snow and hung a left past the sign and stumbled along the path to Uhuru when we saw the glaciers on top of Kili up close for the first time.
Even in our diminished mental state, and believe me it was, the scenery on top of the mountain was jaw dropping. The Arctic biome was unlike anywhere else in Africa and out of this world. We finally got to Uhuru Peak around 6:20am completely exhausted and struggling to breathe, but ecstatic to have made it to the roof of Africa!
We started our trek on December 21st so we could summit on Christmas morning. It was my first Christmas away from home and we ended up summiting for our Christmas gift to ourselves.
The temperatures were so cold on top that my camera battery froze after three minutes or so of being out of my bag. Sissy took her iPhone out which was fully charged and it also froze, so we only had the couple of pictures from my camera before it stopped working.
We spent about 20 minutes on top of the mountain before being rushed down since the effects of so little oxygen can be very dangerous. With about half as much oxygen there as at sea level and the effects showing, we took off with our guides to the edge of a very steep, loose dirt path. They told us we could descend in two hours if we did it right, so we watched one guide take off down the path looking like he was skiing on dirt. I attempted my best impression of what he did and jumped into the loose dirt and began sliding on my feet as if skiing. All went well at first with Sissy doing the same behind me until my legs began to disagree with the torture they were being put through and my body protested against the -20 C temperature not counting windchill it was being abused in.
My legs collapsed and I fell. Not being one to give up I got up and tried again… and again. After a half dozen or so falls I gave up my efforts to “ski” down the hill and told our guides I’d be cautiously hiking the rest of the way down. When we finally made it back to Barafu I was completely spent, had a pounding headache, and my eyeballs were burnt from the harsh wind and freezing temperatures I had subjected them to. Looking around everything appeared to be very bright white so Sissy and I hopped into our tent to rest for a few hours.
We had lunch around noon and started our three hour hike down to our final camp via the Mweka Route, which is always taken as the descent from Machame. The descent was much nicer than any other hiking I could have imagined, but I still struggled due to the effects of the cold and altitude. Arriving at Mweka Camp we waited again for our porters to catch up and then we crawled in our tent and asked to be left alone until dinner. That night I began feeling a bit sick but put it out of mind, just happy to have summited and to be descending.
The next day we moved quickly from Mweka Camp to our end point Mweka Gate in about two hours. The previous day’s 12 hours or so of hiking made that day seem very brief and was thankfully an easy stroll downhill.
That day we noticed both Sissy and I had swollen eyes and faces, and my stomach began to bother me more. We had another 10 hour bus ride back to Dar es Salaam ahead of us (this time paying 50,000 TSH, almost half as much as before!) and I would become sicker and sicker with altitude sickness over the next week and a half, a reminder of the trip up Kili! Luckily we headed to Germany after the trek, which allowed us to rest and me to recover.
- Do the hike! If you’re debating whether you should climb Kilimanjaro or not, the answer is probably yes. It’s a once in a lifetime activity, the hiking itself is relatively easy, and it’s gorgeous. Yeah I got sick and felt awful after but that was temporary. It can be dangerous and you may not summit, but definitely try.
- If you stay in a hostel, check out Rafiki Backpackers. It’s clean, inexpensive, and the staff is super friendly.
- Take Diamox on your climb. It’ll help with the effects of altitude sickness, which is the biggest problem people have on the mountain. We wished we would have found a way to get it before our trip up as the people we know that did take it swore by it.
- Bring/rent very warm clothes. I was wearing under armor, two long sleeve shirts, a sweatshirt, and a snow jacket and was a bit cold on the top. I laughed when they suggested I rent a balaclava in the rental shop, they probably laughed after I left without one.