20. Trekking to the roof of Africa

For the finale of this amazing journey to Africa, I joined a group and hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, and the highest free-standing peak in the world. It’s a 5,895m (19,341ft) high dormant volcano that springs up into three cones – Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on the Kibo crater rim, Uhuru means “freedom” in Swahili.

This summit trek is my first of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each of the continents). I’ve visited Everest and Aconcagua base camps but I’ve not yet summited one of the big seven!

We had decided to take the Machame route, a scenic option which takes you through the five climatic regions of Kilimanjaro with the summit attempt occurring on the fifth day (making it a medium probability of success due to the risk of lack of acclimatisation).

Each day, the aim is to make a reasonable gain in elevation but often involves sleeping at a significantly lower altitude to give the body the right balance of challenge from pushing the altitude but minimising the risk of having a bad reaction to it by ascending too quickly. It’s often simply described as “climb high, sleep low”.

The group all met the GAdventures team at the Stella Maris Hotel just outside the Kilimanjaro National Park and got to know each other over dinner before disappearing off to our rooms for the final bits of packing.

Packing for the Kilimanjaro Trek – in summary it’s all about layers

Day 1:  Machame Gate to Machame Camp

Elevation: 1800m to 3000m (1200m gain)

Time: 4-5 hours

Machame Gate: Entry point for the Machame route up to Uhuru Peak, 40 kilometers away

The first day on the Machame Route of Kilimanjaro was a really pleasant gradual ascent through a rainforest with trees completely covered in moss and lichen. There were also some beautiful wildflowers along the route, with an endemic species called Kilamanjia which look amazingly like an elephant’s head. The whole mountain was obscured from view in the clouds and eventually we got rained on enough for me to throw a poncho over my bag and I. Towards the end of the hike we emerged from the rainforest and out into a new landscape of tall heather. The campsite wasn’t far past that and the only drawback was having to hike uphill to the registration tent and then back down to our tents. But it was a lovely surprise to have really nice sleeping mats covered with shuka material.

Day 2: Machame Camp to Shira Cave Camp

Elevation: 3000m to 3750m (750m elevation gain)

Time 4-5 hours

The day dawned beautifully clear and during breakfast the G Fighters took away the mess tent so we could sit in the sunshine. The pace today was really really slow. Mostly uphill with lots of big steps and rocky sections. The route was nice and every now and again we were treated to a great view. Even Mount Meru peaked it’s head out of the clouds at one point. The weather turned pretty nasty at the halfway point but we didn’t have to stop for lunch so we had a quick break and then carried on uphill. We arrived at camp at about half past one and had lunch then had a two hour nap before going on a really short hike to see a cave. We came back to some amazing singing from the G Fighters and then we had an introduction from all 35 people supporting our trip. There was time for a quick wash and then I stepped out of the tent to see one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. Dinner was a little questionable but we needed to eat something. 

Day 3: Shira Cave Camp to Lava Tower (4600m) then to Barranco Camp

Elevation: 3750m to 3900m (250m elevation gain)

Time: 6-7 hours

The dawn was clear and the views were absolutely phenomenal. We could see Mount Meru in the distance and Kilimanjaro towering above us. The route took us through the alpine desert and the trail was much more gradual than yesterday.

We ended up in the clouds plenty of times before we eventually got properly rained on. And then hailed on. Eventually we were all categorically trudging and couldn’t wait to reach the Lava Tower so we could have lunch.

We reached the snow line and the rain turned so cold. But we finally reached the lunch tent. The porters had even pitched the toilet tents for us and I’ve never been so pleased to have a toilet! I had needed to pee really badly for at least half an hour and a nature wee was fairly well out of the question due to being in the rain and cloud. After lunch we had another 20 minutes to rest and allow some more acclimatisation as we were at 4600m, a huge altitude gain on last night.

The afternoon hike was a few hours of mainly downhill as the Barranco camp is at 3900m. I played music on my portable speaker for the last hour walking down a small stream towards the camp. We passed some really interesting plants on the way.

The mist was really heavy so we couldn’t see any of the scenery but suddenly a crowd of G Fighters emerged singing and they came to take people’s bags and walk with us the rest of the way to Barranco. We had another early night. 

Day 4: Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp

Elevation: 3900m to 4675m (775m elevation gain)

Time: 6-7 hours

This morning I had to unstick my sleeping bag from the tent because it had frozen to it. Then first thing today we tackled the Barranco Wall. It was absolutely great! The wall is really steep so it involves lots of scrambling which really broke up the hiking and took us from 3900m to 4200m. The weather was cloudy but absolutely fine, so much better than the rain we had all come to expect!

View from the Barranco Wall back down to the colourful specks of tents back at Barranco Camp,

At the top of the wall we got a great view of the Kili summit and we realised that we have now walked around to a different side of the mountain and are getting close to the summiting route.

We walked on to a camp called Karanga for lunch and then continued on to Barafu camp. It was a long old day! But we made it to Kilimanjaro Base Camp at 4675m.

We were too tired for it to be a festival atmosphere and we had started early enough to arrive by around 4pm – time for a quick nap before early dinner. Hardly anyone had any appetite as we were all pretty nervous – tonight is summit night! We all went back to our tents to try and work out what on earth we should wear for the all-night hike then tried to sleep from 8pm until 11pm when we received a knock on our tents…

Day 5: Summit Day – the way up from Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak

Elevation: 4675m to 5895m (1220m elevation gain)

Time: 7 hours

We were woken up at 11pm and all silently dressed in as many layers as we could physically combine together and then at 11:30pm we assembled in the mess tent for some popcorn and a hot drink. At midnight we set off in single file and slowly wound our way up through Base Camp towards the start of the trail. We zigzagged up by the light of our head torches and after about an hour (I think, as it was a complete time warp) we reached Crossover Camp, which is a camp that other routes use to begin their summit attempts. Our 6 guides had been supplemented by three summit porters and the whole group of them began singing and making other funny noises to help keep us motivated. It was absolutely amazing seeing our guides effortlessly make their way up beside our single file and stand ready to help people as they slipped or needed anything. It was as if they all knew what we would need before we even knew. We took a few breaks and after three hours hiking, the porters surprised us with hot chocolate and snacks. It got pretty real after this point. 

There was a lot of trudging and far too much waiting around because the queue of hikers on the thin trails made everything very similar to a traffic jam. The wind was fierce and it kept blowing up snow and ice into our faces. My buff kept freezing over my mouth so I had to rotate it. The lack of oxygen at this altitude made everything much more difficult and it felt like a lot of effort to use each muscle.

The dawn started to break and we could see for miles out across Africa and we could begin to appreciate how far we had already climbed… and how close we now were! The sun rose just as we reached Stella Point, at a breath-taking altitude of 5756m.

The Uhuru Peak was an hour further along a very shallow incline but the weather was hugely against us – the mountain repeatedly showered us with icicles while the wind whipped around us, making walking even more difficult. This was it though – Uhuru Peak! The roof of Africa at 5895m above sea level.

It was so cold at the top and we had a very short time at the sign post at Uhuru Peak before heading back to Stella Point to gather our thoughts before the descent. 

Day 5:  Summit Day – the way down from Uhuru Peak to Mweka Camp

Elevation: 5895m to 3800m (2095m descent)

Time: 6 hours

The first stop was breakfast back at Barafu Camp – base camp, down at 4675m. I ran, slid and skidded most of the way down to Barafu Camp, which meant that I got a nice long rest while I waited for the rest of the group. It is such an amazing experience to feel the life rushing back into you as you drop in altitude quickly. It’s not for everyone but I absolutely love taking a fast pace to drop back down.

We thought the hike down to Mweka (High) Camp should only have taken a few hours but it took ages and so we decided not to push to reach Millennium (Low) Camp today. We arrived in the late afternoon and were exhausted. This afternoon is when we have to say goodbye to the incredible G-Fighters as they’ll cut and run first thing in the morning to get everything off the mountain.

It was another really cool experience with dancing, singing and a chance to say goodbye to the team. 

Day 6: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate

Elevation: 3800m to 1650m

We set off pretty early, heading down a mixture of terrains into the rain forest belt around Kilimanjaro and then the path wound down into an incredible area where the moss on the trees and the mist in the air completely deadened any sounds and gave a really eerie atmosphere.

After an epically muddy stretch, the path flattened and widened out then turned into a vehicle track which we followed for the last few kilometres to the Mweka Gate.  

Barranco Camp 3900 Moorland

Lava Tower Camp 4600 Alpine Desert

Barafu 4673m Alpine Desert

Machame Camp Moorland

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