Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

James (@ministryoftourism) and I wrote this post together – hope you like it!

So you’re considering climbing Mount Kilimanjaro – the highest peak in Africa? Well we think that’s just awesome. Reaching Uhuru Peak was one of the most rewarding experiences we’ve had, and the journey to the top was equally as incredible. Here are a few things to consider as you plan your trip.

When to go?

We scheduled our climb during the dry season (specifically we climbed from Sept. 10-16). We were also planning to go on safari, and our tour operator recommended that we complete the climb prior to going on safari (probably so that we could relax and enjoy the second week! ;)). June-October is considered one dry season, and January-March is the other (though it is generally colder). I know people who have climbed in the off season and have been stuck in pretty rainy/muddy conditions. The hike is challenging enough without having to deal with crappy weather! That being said, it also means here are more people climbing during those drier months; according to our guide July & August are the busiest because they coincide with summer holidays for North Americans and Europeans.

When to book?

We booked about 8 weeks in advance (July for a September trek) but suspect we could have booked a week or two in advance and everything would have been fine. There are limits on the number of trekkers on each route but these apparently aren’t enforced. Moshi thrives on tourist dollars, so any additional trekkers are likely always welcome.

We had also heard from our guides that numbers were a bit down this year as the government increased park fees (they added a VAT of 18%).

Which route to choose?

There are several ways to get to Uhuru Peak – the two most popular being the Marangu Route and Machame Route.

After speaking to just a few people and doing minimal research, we decided on the Machame Route (also one of the routes known as the Whiskey Route; it’s more difficult than the Marangu ‘Coca-Cola’ Route). It has a high success rate due to lots of up and down, allowing your body to acclimatise and avoid getting altitude sickness.

Here is a detailed blog post on the differences between the routes: http://www.mountkilimanjaroguide.com/kilimanjaro-climbing-routes.html

How to find a tour operator?

There are heaps of operators to choose from! You could easily find an operator that’s based in your home region (for example, gadventures for North America) or you can look for local operators.

We tried to reach out mainly to local operators – those actually with boots on the ground in Tanzania. For Kilimanjaro Tours, as well as safaris, a lot of tour companies are actually just resellers and you’d end up with a local operator anyway. We wanted to skip the middle man and make sure the money we were spending was actually staying in Tanzania.

If you’re adventurous, you can also wait until you arrive and walk through the streets of Moshi – people will constantly be stopping you to ask if you want to go up the mountain or on safari – but if you want to make sure you’re working with a reputable company I wouldn’t recommend this. Most people selling on the street are likely to set you up with local operators that pay them a small commission – meaning you’re not likely to get a better deal anyway.

We had the name of one tour operator from a friend of ours and just did a web search to find others to reach out to.

Below I’ve put the quotes we received from each of the operators we reached out to, as well as websites.

Note – prices as at July 2017 and all packages are for a private 6 day, 5 night Machame Route option including the following:

  • Airport pickup
  • Transfer to and from the gate (Machame on day 1, Mweka on day 6)
  • 2 nights accommodation at a hotel/lodge prior to beginning the hike and after the hike
  • All meals (3 per day) (while on the mountain, when at the hotel you are responsible for your own lunch and dinner)
  • Drinking water (2-3 litres per person per day)
  • Park entry fees (including camping fees)
  • Service of mountain porters and a cook
  • Service of a professional mountain guide, and assistant guide
  • Camping gear (tent, mattress, chairs and table)

Prices do not include tips – which are actually a fairly significant cost ($800 USD total for us) – see below.

MAR Tours: www.martoursandsafaris.com
$1445 USD per person
$1495 USD per person including private toilet with tent and oxygen tank

ZARA Tours: www.zaratours.com
$1800 USD per person (plus $40 USD per person for airport transfer)

Big Expeditions Tours & Safaris: www.bigexpeditions.net/
$2200 USD per person including private toilet with tent, and oxygen tank

Takims Holidays: https://www.takimsholidays.com/
$2701 USD per person

Our choice: Mar Tours

We decided to go with Mar Tours – they were cheaper than the other operators but still had great reviews so we figured we had nothing to lose. And we were very happy with them! The guides were professional, encouraging and you could tell our health and wellness was a priority for them.

We dealt exclusively with one contact (Job Baraka) at Mar. From what we could glean from the guides, Mar Tours is owned by Job or his family/clan. It seems the company has been doing Kilimanjaro treks for a while now and has since expanded to the safari business in the last few years. [As an aside, we also used Mar Tours for our safari and received a small discount as a result of booking 2 tours with them. Something to consider when you’re sussing out operators].

That said – once you’re on the mountain there’s not a huge difference between tour operators. Everyone has roughly the same tent, eating roughly the same food and camping at exactly the same spots. Our tent was probably the biggest/nicest one we saw for two people and on the one day we ate outside a few passers-by said they had food envy so we were very happy with our choice.

We chose the option that included a toilet with tent, and I would definitely recommend this! It’s a small cost for the price of comfort and hygiene J This option also came with an oxygen tank which we did not need to use, but it certainly doesn’t hurt having the extra assurance. Peter, our guide, took our resting heart rate and oxygen levels every morning and evening, and if we had dipped below a certain level he would have given us oxygen.

Whether you want a private or group option is totally up to you. For us, having the private option was perfect because it allowed us to go at our own pace – if we were part of a group there’s no way we would have been first to reach the top on summit day. There were quite a few people travelling alone who were also doing a private tour – it’s pretty easy to meet people if that’s what you’re after. Also, the cost savings from a group tour might be less than you expect – even in a group there will be a few porters assigned just to carry your gear and most of your fee anyway goes to your park fees.

A note on crew/staff

We were totally shocked when we found out we would be with a staff of 11. It seems like the minimum number for a group of two is usually nine (which itself is seems really high), but can vary based on the weight of your equipment.

DSC06052

Porters are supposed to carry a max of 20kg each (plus their own daypack) and their equipment gets weighed at the gate to verify this. We were told that one company (the largest operator in the region) pays bribes to the gate officials to make their porters carry more.

We only had one pack to give to the porters (which was 15kg), but our head guide (Peter Jackson – highly recommended if you want to ask for him specifically) told us they had to pick up another porter at the gate to get everyone under the limit (there’s a pool of porters waiting at the gate to be added ad hoc to a tour on any given day).

Our guys seemed to always be in really good spirits and everything Peter and Mar did leads us to believe that Mar porters are treated well but this is another factor to consider in your research when choosing an operator.

Breaking down the costs

We’d be a bit hesitant in private tours significantly less than $1,500 USD.

Park fees paid to the government run $828 USD (varies based on how long you’re in the park), which leaves about $700 USD per person for staff wages (again – we had a crew of 11 – for 6 days!), food and equipment.

Minimum wages for porters seems to be around $7 – $10 USD per day. If you assume our crew was on average getting the higher end of that (taking into account the fact that the head guide, assistant guide and chef are likely getting a bit more), this means: 11 crew * $10 USD * 6 days = $660 USD.

To summarise:

  • $2,990 USD – total paid for two trekkers
  • Less: $1,656 USD – park fees paid to government
  • Less: $660 USD – estimated staff costs
  • Less: $160 USD – estimated hotel cost paid for by Mar (rate was $80 per night for extra nights we stayed although the operator definitely gets a better rate)
  • Remaining: $514 USD – left for food (for 13 people for 6 days), equipment, transportation (to/from airport and to/from gate), and tour operator profit

Assuming these numbers are correct, what Mar charged us seems really fair – but I’m not sure it would be possible to get much lower!

Making payment

Mar requested about $200 USD per person as a deposit to be paid via wire transfer. We ended up paying the full amount in advance to reduce the amount of cash we needed to bring with us. Your bank might be hesitant about making a wire transfer to Africa, but if you do your research you shouldn’t be too worried – credit cards simply aren’t widely accepted and if they are there are usually significant fees attached.

Mar also gave us the option of paying the park fees directly once we arrived at Machame Gate (which apparently you could pay via credit card). We didn’t opt for this out of simplicity but appreciated the offer.

Tipping

Not included in your quoted price from any operator will be staff tips. Per above, the salary paid to porters is very minimal considering the physically demanding nature of the job.

We received the following guidelines from our tour operator:

  • Main Guide – $20 per day ($120 for our trip)
  • Assistant Guide – $17 per day ($102 for our trip)
  • Chef – $17 per day ($102 for our trip)
  • Porters – $7 per day per porter ($42 for our trip per porter – we had 8 so $336 in total)
  • Total – $660

Note these are total for our group (not per tourist/trekker).

We ended up giving a bit more than this ($800 in total) as we were really happy with our crew and they worked really hard to make sure we had an amazing experience.

Different companies are likely to give slightly different guidelines but it will be very obvious to you that these guys work incredibly hard spending lots of time away from their families to make your trip a success!

In addition to cash, guides and porters highly appreciate gifts of used outdoor/winter equipment (particularly for men sizes S to L). If you’re coming directly from home to Kili consider throwing in some items that would otherwise go to Goodwill/the Salvation Army to give to your porters, or consider giving your equipment away at the end of your trip. These items seem to be pretty difficult to come by in Africa.

We gave out tips on the morning of the last day as part of a little goodbye ceremony that most groups do. We gave everyone an envelope directly with their name on it and cash inside. We were told by our guide that was the best way to do it as it was the most transparent and direct (apparently some guides request the tip and promise to distribute which may not work out the way you intend…).

Preparation and physical fitness

Prior to leaving for Moshi, we weren’t at all concerned about the fitness aspect of the trek. We are in relatively decent shape and figured we’d be alright. It wasn’t until the night before when we were reading blog posts about the trip up and down, some of which indicated that the hiker thought they were going to die, that we began to worry. People had been asking us in the lead up ‘Are you training for Kili?’ and we just kind of laughed and brushed it off. But now we were starting to worry!

Turns out, it was totally fine. The hike is challenging, there’s no getting around that, both mentally and physically. I think this would be the case for even the most fit person. And if you don’t exercise, I would recommend starting to include some cardio and strength training into your routine. We run 2-3 times a week and also include 2-3 strength training / HIIT workouts a week and this was more than enough. And when I say run, we were averaging 5-7km runs in the month or two leading up – no crazy long distance running here (though we have both run half marathons and a marathon for James in the past, which perhaps helped?).

We saw all shapes and ages going up the mountain – and while some were definitely going more pole pole (slowly slowly) than others – it’s clear that there’s a very wide range of people doing this trek successfully. Most days involve a 10km hike, slightly uphill at a very slow pace. Summit day is a much bigger challenge but you’ve got the incentive of the best sunrise of your life J

Gear

This was another moment of panic the night before our hike – were we going to freeze to death?! Spoiler alert, we didn’t. But it does get really cold in the evenings and sometimes drops below zero even in the high season. Your tour operator will give you a list of things to bring that will look something like this:

  • Sleeping Bag
  • Hiking Boots
  • Walking Poles
  • Head lights (Torch)
  • Sunglasses
  • Rain Pants
  • Rain Jacket
  • Warm Jumper
  • Warm Pants
  • Thermal Top x 2
  • Thermal Pants x 2
  • Hiking Pants
  • Sun Hat
  • Balaclava/Scarf
  • Gloves
  • Glove Liners
  • Gaiters (we didn’t bring these and we saw very few people with these)
  • Warm socks
  • Toilet Paper

Here are the most important things you need to bring, in our opinion (beyond the basics):

  • Sturdy, comfortable and (ideally) waterproof hiking boots
  • Proper hiking socks (we took 4 pairs each but could have done with less if necessary)
  • Multiple layers (of tops and bottoms, don’t get too stressed about x2 tops and x2 pants, you’re better off with one pair of pants and a base layer you could put underneath)
  • A toque (or beanie)
  • A warm sleeping bag (we got a cheap (three season) one from Amazon that was passable but not recommended; look for an all season one – doesn’t need to be extreme as you can layer up)
  • Reusable water bottles – like a Nalgene (note that plastic water bottles are not allowed on the mountain – although we kept a 2L plastic bottle hidden in our daypack in addition to our 1L Nalgenes) (we would also fill up our Nalgenes with hot water left from dinner and take them into our sleeping bags with us – so toasty!)
  • A head torch (a must for summit day)
  • Baby wipes & hand sanitizer (even with the toilet tent, that’s only when you’re actually at camp)
  • Electrolyte powder
  • Additional snacks (though they feed you a so much! We never came close to finishing any of the meals – we only each ate one of the protein bars we brought)
  • Earplugs and eye mask (the camps can get quite busy and the porters seem to go to bed a bit later than the trekkers – although sometimes the Swahili conversation was soothing in a way!)
  • USB power bank (for cameras, phones etc. – there’s actually really good cell phone (voice) service almost everywhere on Kilimanjaro but data is incredibly patchy/slow))

Your tour operator will likely have gear that you can rent if you forget anything (or like us, decide at the last minute you want to bring something else).

When we arrived in Moshi and met with Job he let us know we could rent poles, heavy gloves and rain pants for $20 USD per item. We told him we would get back to him and instead went into Moshi Town and found Gladys Adventure and Safari. From them, we rented two sets of poles, two pairs of heavy gloves and 2 pairs of rain pants for $50 USD total (after a tiny bit of haggling) which worked out to less than $9 USD per item.

To be honest, we only used the poles during the summit and descent, but we think they helped with our knees! Rain pants were also only used summit day to keep the warmth in but its likely money well-spent in case you do get rain. It would be near impossible to dry out your pants. And the heavy gloves were also only used for the summit (we had smaller gloves that we wore on and off, including to bed!).

Hiking Kili is an amazing experience, and after seeing all the people going up we have no doubt that most could make it to the top, with a bit of planning.

For a play-by-play of our hike up and down, check out this blog post.

And to see some video of what it’s really like to climb Kili, check out James’ YouTube page here.

-Catie & James xx

One thought on “Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

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