Mt. Kilimanjaro (September 9 – 14, 2017)

Climbing Kilimanjaro has been on our bucket list for a while now. While we have been to some pretty amazing places, I think Africa is the one we’ve been most excited about – starting with Tanzania.

I started writing this post and realized there is a lot I want to say, so below I’ve just summed up our experience and what we did each day. I’ll write a separate post about preparation (spoiler alert: we didn’t do any specific prep work), gear, tours, routes, etc.

After emailing a few tour operators, we decided to go with Mar Tours, for both our Kili hike and also a 6 day safari that would follow. The guides we had were absolutely fantastic, and there is no way we could have made it to the top without their encouragement. The porters also played a massive role in carrying all the gear (including our bags, aside from day packs) and I was in complete awe each day watching these men (or Kili Soldiers, as Peter referred to them) walk, jog or run up to camp carrying 20kgs on their backs/heads. Our guides had our health and safety in mind at all times, and did oxygen and heart rate checks every night and morning. Needless to say, we were in the absolute best hands. Alright, on with our 6 days up and down Kili!

(Oh, and if it’s not obvious from the below, we chose to do the 6-day Machame route).

Day One: Machame Gate (1800M ASL) to Machame Camp (2835M ASL)

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Day one saw us in a bus with 11 Africans (who would become our crew and Kili family) for 45 mins to Machame Gate. It was pretty funny because we arrived there by 9:30 ready to rock and roll but we were mostly standing around and waiting until 10:30 or so while the crew got ready. It was fine – it gave us extra time to drink water and also watch  as the porters packed all the gear for camp.

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A group of porters getting ready for the trek.

We were a bit disappointed because it was raining (this was supposed to be dry season!) but it wasn’t raining hard and it wasn’t cold out. Plus, we had coverage since day one takes you through the rain forest. (I know what you’re thinking – it’s a rain forest, should you really have been surprised it was raining?! But from everything I’d read during September it’s still rare). Laurent, our assistant guide, was with us the whole way constantly reminding us to go ‘pole, pole’ (slowly, slowly) but we were feeling good and to be honest it was so foggy that it didn’t make for the most scenic hike.

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Apparently there are a bunch of monkeys but, alas, we’d have to wait for our safari to see some animals. Peter Jackson (no joke) who was our main guide caught up soon and gave us a play-by-play of how the evening was going to go. We stopped for lunch and continued on our way. I think they say the hike can take 7-8 hours but we reached camp in 4 (much to the dismay of our porters who were just rocking up themselves) and we were feeling great.

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The set up was beyond expectations (not that our expectations were high, since we had no idea what to expect!). We had a large tent which was divided into an area for sleeping and to store our gear, and a dining area where we played cards and ate our meals. And the food was incredible. Honestly, the meals these guys pull out from the tiny cooking tent blew our mind every time! The other essential for our set-up was a toilet tent, which also doubled as an area to wash up after a day of hiking.

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Night one was early – there wasn’t much to see due to all the rain and fog, and we were tired and wanted to make sure we were set for day two!

Day Two: Machame Camp (2835M ASL) to Shira Cave Camp (3750M ASL)

We woke early to the sounds of our crew getting ready for the day and making breakfast and quickly packed up and got into our gear for the day. We stepped outside and were absolutely awestruck. There, in all its glory, was a stunning view of the peak of Kilimanjaro. Quite a difference from our view the day before! After a hearty breakfast of millet porridge, omelettes and toast we were on our way! Again, Laurent began the day with us and Peter caught up about half way. Anton, one of our porters, passed us along the way and reminded us to go ‘pole, pole’. There was a lot of climbing on day two. While we ascended over 1000M on day one, it was a more gradual climb and parts of the trail had makeshift steps, where day two involved quite a bit of scrambling up rocks, going down, and climbing steep up again. As if it were possible, it gave me even more respect for the porters!

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We made good time, arriving in under three hours and before noon which gave us the afternoon to relax. Having the sun shining for our hike, along with the incredible views, gave us the energy we needed! We had some coffee/tea and a hot lunch before a nap (and an episode of Ozark – thank you Netflix downloads!).

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Around 4:30 we did a quick hike with Peter and Laurent to help us acclimatize and when we got back we were rewarded with the most amazing song and dance from our crew as a way to welcome us. (We later learned the song is called Jambo Bwana and it wasn’t the last time we heard this during our time on Kili!) We vowed to make it to the summit if for no one else, for them since they are working so hard to get us there.

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Top: James (obvi), Celvin, Frank, Laurent, Melikori, Frank, Prinsi, Hussen, Peter, Me.  Bottom: Chales, Celvini, Amoni

After a dinner of pumpkin soup, roasted veggies, beef and rice we hopped into bed at 7:20 (!) worn out from an amazing day.

Day Three: Shira Cave Camp (3750 M ASL) to Lava Tower Camp (4600M ASL) to Baranco Camp (3900M ASL)

We both slept like simbas after day two and we were ready for the next part of our journey. We were ending at camp nearly the same elevation, but first had to reach Lava Tower to help us acclimatize. We were on our way shortly after eight and it wasn’t long before we were in the alpine dessert, with little to no wind protection. Luckily the sun was shining again, so for the most part it wasn’t too bad.

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We reached the junction about 2 hours after departing and saw heaps of other porters and climbers coming from a different route. It really made me wonder just how many people are on the mountain at one time! At the junction, most porters head east toward Baranco camp (since they are already used to the high elevation it isn’t necessary for them to climb to Lava Tower). We reached Lava Tower, our highest elevation yet, and found a spot to have some lunch. By this time we’d probably been hiking for close to three hours.

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Then we began our descent, which was my least favourite part of our journey so far! I find climbing down so much worse than up, particularly since we were sliding down the dry sand and rock in some areas. For the first time, I used my hiking poles and I do think they took some of the pressure off my knees (and helped me to balance!). I was thrilled when I saw Baranco Camp in the distance (and already dreading our descent on days five and six!). We were rewarded with some tea/coffee and popcorn which, somehow, instantly improved my grumpy mood!

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Gorgeous view of Uhuru Peak (and our toilet tent)

Day Four: Baranco Camp (3900M ASL) to Karanga Camp (3995M ASL) to Barafu Camp (4673M ASL)

It’s safe to say that this day was the hardest we encountered yet. We started off strong as we climbed ‘The Wall’ which involved some serious rock climbing using your hands interspersed with steep climbs just on your feet. We were feeling energetic and, to be honest, it was kind of fun! But after a good 40 mins of climbing we were looking forward to reaching the top! When we did, there were some high fives and a sense of accomplishment, but Laurent soon said ‘Twende’ (reminding us that we were less than 1/4 of the way to our first stop of the day!). And then we climbed down. That was pretty much the theme of day four: up, down, up, down, up, down (and yes I did have ‘All I do is win’ in my head a few times throughout the journey.

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“W” for top of the wall, but looks like I’m just being a sassy 90’s teen.

As we continued down and through the alpine desert we saw a bunch of porters huddled together. As we made our way by, we saw one of the porters on the ground being supported by a friend who was holding both sides of his head. His legs were shaking and his eyes were rolling back. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. Peter stayed and Laurent urged us on but after 30s of walking we stopped – we wanted to help in any way we could. We didn’t have any food on us, but we did have some electrolyte powder sachets so we gave Laurent a handful and asked him to pass them on. He came back looking hopeful (probably for our benefit) and as Peter approached we continued on.

On day one Peter let us know that porters used to carry much more weight than they do now. Awhile ago, a rule was put into place that porters must only carry 30kg and that has gone down to 20kg. He told us that it wasn’t rare for a porter to die during the journey. That’s all I could think about as we continued on. The mood was somber to say the least.

Before too long, we saw the porter walking with a friend not carrying anything (thank goodness) and the friend was holding his hand helping him along. It gave me some hope that he would be ok.

After walking through the alpine desert for the better part of an hour, we came to a valley and Laurent pointed across the way to let us know that was Karanga Camp – our lunch stop for the day. But then we looked down and realised it was going to be a slow journey down so we didn’t slip and fall, before the steep climb back up. But we made it down unscathed and started the trek up. Laurent told us that at the bottom of the valley was the last place for porters to get water until we reach Camp after the summit. For our group, we needed 40L to get us through the next 24 hours. Again, it made me realise how incredibly hard working these guys are!

When we reached Karanga 3 hours after departing camp we were told to sit back and relax as they prepared lunch. We hung around and tried to stay warm for 40 minutes or so, watching all the other hikers come into camp. For people who choose the 7 day machame option, this was their camp for the night. But we would continue on.

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Before too long, we were given some hot water for tea/coffee and it honestly gave us new life! And then Kelvin (who had been serving our meals) brought us a massive plate of thick cut French fries, cucumber, tomato and avocado salad, and two big chicken legs. Again we were astounded by the meals these guys can create! After, we were given a few pieces of watermelon and James pointed out that one of our porters has been carrying a watermelon for the last 4 days (!!!).

We finished up and were on our way. Laurent told us it would be a 2.5 hour journey and the vast majority was uphill (we were going from 3995 to 4673). It was super foggy so you couldn’t see much around you and this is when we both kind of went into a daze. I just started at James’ feet in front of mine, one moving after the other and moved mine in the same rhythm. 1.5 hours later (no joke) we started to see some different terrain as we made yet another descent. The rocks were really interesting and Laurent told us they were the result of a volcano. At least it was something different to look at!

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Laurent pointed across the way and told us ‘Camp is over there’ but we couldn’t see a thing. It could have been 30m or 3km as far as we were concerned. After another 30 minutes we had arrived. And so had the cold. I’m not sure of the temperature but it was the first time I felt really and truly cold and as soon as our tent was setup I went in and put on every article of clothing I brought! More hot water was served and after a few hot chocolates we were feeling more human again!

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It was only 2pm but we were ready for bed! We had an 11pm wake up call after all. But dinner wasn’t served until 6 so we waited until after that to grab a few precious hours of shut eye 🙂

Day Five: SUMMIT DAY! Barafu Camp (4673M ASL) to Uruhu Peak (5895M ASL) to Mweka Camp (3100M ASL)

We woke up around 11 after a few hours of broken sleep, but we were feeling ready. Or as ready as we were ever going to feel! We woke up, got dressed in literally every piece of clothing we brought and had some tea and coffee before Peter came to tell us it was time to go (just after midnight). It was the coldest it’d been yet, evidenced by the frost on our tent, but once we got moving up the steep hill toward Kosavo Camp we started to warm up. It was mostly just zombie walking and trying to put one foot in front of the other so instead of going into great detail about the hike, I’ll tell you how I felt during different elevations.

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Feeling good! Energised and not a doubt in my mind that we will make it to the top! I haven’t even brought out my big gloves yet but I’m feeling warm.

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Still moving. My calves are feeling a workout like they haven’t felt in months. Still feeling okay temperature wise, though it’s starting to cool (we have moved from the Alpine Dessert to the Arctic Zone according to Peter). We take a quick water break and have a gorgeous view of the moon above the clouds as well as the stars. In the distance we can see long lines of headlamps for other hikers making the journey which provides some inspiration to keep moving.

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Now the cold is starting to sink in. I have my big gloves out, have lost feeling in my feet and am starting to doubt if I’ll ever be warm again. My nose is just running non-stop, falling onto the ground. I have also pulled out my hiking poles and am hoping they will help push my tired ass to altitude. This is the point in the journey where I start singing random songs that pop into my head just to keep my sanity. The list of artists ranges from Saves the Day to The National to Metric to The Shins to Taylor Swift.

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I’m using this number instead of 5400 because I’ve basically become a zombie and am just shining a light on Peter’s shoes, following one after the other. We stop for a small water break where I also have some of my protein bar and overhear another guide telling his group they are at 5500M. WHAT?! THAT MEANS WE ONLY HAVE ANOTHER 395 TO GO! This gives me new life.

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We are in the ‘penalty box’. Also known as the steep bit before reaching Stella’s point. According to Peter after this bit, you’re sure to score a goal as the walk to the summit is basically around the crater. Apparently soccer fans have used this reference for this portion of the hill. It’s fairly meaningless to me. I look over at James and see he is walking like a drunk person which is kind of how I’m feeling at the moment, without any of the positive side effects. I decide we should play some music to get us through and pull out my phone which I brought specifically for this portion of the hike. I turn it on and it immediately dies due to the cold temperature. After living in Melbourne for the last three years, I forgot that was a thing. We stop for a water break and Peter dances with me to keep me warm and also blows warm air into my gloves before sealing them up tight which warms my heart as well as my hands.

5756M ASL: Stella Point

We see the sign to Stella Point and know that our goal is within reach. It’s 5:10am and we are starting to see the red glow of the sun. Another round of electrolyte mix and dancing and we are on our way. TWENDE! (Let’s go!)

5895M ASL: Uhuru Peak

I almost cry as the sign comes into view (part joy, part exhaustion). It’s 5:35am and we are the first to arrive and Peter asks who wants to be first to reach the peak. We grab hands and run over to the sign (in my head we were running, it was probably more zombie-esque). We take a few photos in the dark and more dancing, singing and shouting commences.

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Before too long, the second group arrives and there are some congratulations and high fives thrown around. We’re all excited, but equally exhausted. As the sun starts to rise we take a few more photos (the first we took were in complete darkness) and then begin our descent around 6:20, watching the sunrise and getting some epic views along the way.

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It’s hard to say whether the ascent or descent is harder. Both are fun at first and then you ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ with the answer of course being to get to the top / to camp. The descent from Stella Point was basically skiing down dirt. We barrelled down, with frequent breaks (requested by me, care of my knees) and I was really happy we’d decided to rent hiking poles! Our legs were barely working by that point and I can say with certainty I would have wiped out a few times. Soon, we could see camp in the distance and looked back up at Stella Point, still in disbelief we’d been there less than 2 hours before.

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We make our way back to camp somehow, arriving at 8:40 to our porters waiting to congratulate us (and give us juice!). I have some juice, change and basically fall into my sleeping bag until 11 when Kelvin wakes us up to have lunch and pack. Oh, right, we still have to descend another 3-4 hours today to get to the camp we’re staying in! But after the nap and some food we’re feeling in much better shape and make our way to Mweka, with a few small slips and falls along the way since our legs have forgotten how to work. Either way, we made it to camp before 3 and again changed and fell into our sleeping bags (this time to watch a few episodes of Ozark with popcorn provided by our crew).

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Our Blundstones, the true heros of this story (following the porters and guides!)

After dinner, Peter came to check in on us. He said that our faces looked the same today as on day one – happy, shining and energetic. He told us that he knew from day one that we were strong enough to make it, and that we made his job very easy since we were able to hike without help. And he told us how proud he was that we arrived to the top first. Of course, he and the rest of the crew were the reason we made it at all. Still, we went to bed feeling satisfied and accomplished.

Day Six: Mweka Camp (3100M ASL) to Mweka Gate (1450M ASL)

Well, it was safe to say the hardest part was behind us! After a pretty solid night’s sleep, we woke to pack up and have breakfast around 7am. After, it was time to thank our porters and the rest of the crew. We said a few words, which Peter translated into Swahili, to let them know how much we appreciated all of their hard work. We also thanked Hussen (our chef), Laurent and Peter and handed them each an envelope with tips (the night before Peter encouraged us to give the crew their tips directly, not all tour companies operate this way). The crew gave us one last rendition of Jambo Bwana – the Kilimanjaro Song – and we were on our way.

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The hike was pretty easy, except that there was some really slippery mud as we made our way down to camp. We avoided any wipeouts by using hiking poles and really taking our time. Meanwhile the porters were literally sprinting down! I said to Peter “I’m amazed that they can run down, carrying those bags and not slip!”. He said “They’re just so excited to be going home to see their families, that’s all they’re thinking about. Everyone is happy today”.

We approached Mweka Gate around 10:30am and were shortly on our way back to the Parkview Inn where we said a final farewell to Peter and the crew, and were given our certificates to show that we made it to Uhuru.

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Climbing to the Roof of Africa was an incredible experience, and we count ourselves very lucky for having the opportunity to do it. The scenery, the challenges (both physical and mental) and the people left an impression on us and while I don’t think we’ll climb it again I’d strongly encourage anyone who has the chance to do it!

6 thoughts on “Mt. Kilimanjaro (September 9 – 14, 2017)

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