Joining a Kilimanjaro Expedition to the highest mountain in Africa has long been on my personal bucket list. It is time to put the big plan into action. How does the hike proceed on the individual stages? How does it feel? What is there to consider? You will read all this in the following article, have fun!
What do you learn in this article?
“It’s not the mountain we conquer – but ourselves!” – Edmund Hillary
The quote from Mount Everest – first climber Hillary sums it up: “The journey to the summit of Kilimanjaro is a good place for reflection and self-reflection. The time without distraction by technique and alternative activities is long, you are early in your sleeping bag, hiking has a meditative character.
Everything you need to prepare for the trip you can read in my article “Climbing Kilimanjaro: Your optimal preparation“.
Let’s start into a great adventure, the Kilimanjaro expedtion!
Kilimanjaro Expedition: The arrival & meeting of the tour group
After weeks of extensive preparation and big shopping tours, things are getting serious:
After an adventurous instead of relaxing journey via Ethiopia and Nairobi the fully loaded minibus rumbles towards Namanga, the border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania…
My luggage is on the roof like all the passengers. And I am basically happy about that, because that also means: It is basically still there! One of my horror scenarios during the last weeks was that something goes wrong with the luggage on the journey and my treasure of equipment, which I had collected with great effort and expense, is not available at the start of the tour.
After changing trains in Arusha and a total of about 7 hours of driving, the contours of the mountain on the horizon, the first glimpses of Kilimanjaro, can already be seen on the last kilometres near Moshi.
The arrival at the “Stella Maris Lodge” brings a lot of excitement: Who are the others in the travel group? Nice? All extreme sportsmen and women bursting with condition? After all we will spend 7 days together on the mountain and the composition of the group will be a big part of the experience.
The first meeting with the group in the early evening brings certainty – and relief:
During the introduction round it quickly becomes clear that there are no extreme mountaineers and top athletes, even some of them are present who come out with “little to no (mountain) hiking experience”.
We get to know our CEO – Chief Experience Officer – Gibson and discuss in detail the route and how the following days will be. We will take the Machame route to the summit. A good overview of all the different routes can be found on ultimatekilimanjaro.com.
It remains to be clarified: Who has to rent which equipment? And – the first important decision is made: Despite a considerable surcharge the group decides to take two camping toilets with them! One thing in advance: extremely well invested money!
The evening before the big Kilimanjaro expedition proceeds in excited anticipation. There is dinner, then it is time to sort things out, pack only the most important things.
But it also means: the last time a warm shower – or the last time a shower at all. And the last time a comfortable bed… Good night!
Knowledge of the day
I am extremely happy and thankful that I made it here healthy and with a full baggage and that it really starts tomorrow. From the moment I booked my trip until this moment soooo much could have gone wrong…
Kilimanjaro Expedition Day 1: Moshi – Machame Gate – Machame Camp
Start: 800 meters; finish: Machame Camp at 2,835 meters
Into the National Park – into the adventure
I wonder what it feels like not to wake up in such a soft bed for the next few days. I’ll find out soon enough.
Before we start, there is an important “ritual” on the programme: weighing the luggage! New regulations protect the carriers from overloading. Therefore only 15kg of luggage per hiker are allowed in the big backpack. Mine is a bit overweight and I still have to leave some things behind…
Before we leave for Machame Gate, we go on a big shopping tour to Moshi to refill our cash reserves at the ATM (-> especially for the tip to the team, ATMs are not available on the mountain) and to buy the last missing equipment in the supermarket. Especially popular are sturdy garbage bags (to protect the big backpack from rain, which the porters take over during the day) and thermos bottles (if you don’t have any, plastic bottles are forbidden in the national park). I also treat myself to a cheap local brandy, which I fill into my flask as “summit brandy“.
Otherwise we get to see very little of Moshi. At the roadside there are great lilac trees, which do not quite fit into my picture of dry Africa. Another striking colour is the Tanzanian policemen in their flowery white uniforms. The minibus takes us further and further up the mountain towards the national park, passing small villages, palm plantations, rich vegetation – and the weather is just wonderful. Cross your fingers that it stays that way.
At Machame Gate we go through the check-in routine, register with the official authorities of the National Park. For lunch we all have a good portion of pasta with bolognese, just like in the old days before important soccer games, so that the boy has a lot of strength. Everyone poses at Machame Gate and the sign of the Kilimanjaro National Park, which lists the distances to the various destinations on the route. The big destination, Uhuru Peak, is listed here at 40 kilometres. During a mountain tour I always thought of steep ascents of a few hours, hardly to believe that we need 5 days and 40 kilometres for the route here.
And then it really starts, through the gate and past the “Wishing you a nice climb” sign, off into the rainforest on the slopes of Kilimanjaro – expedition has started! On the march through the rainforest the first talks with the group take place, you get to know each other.what do you do? Where do you come from? One feels one’s way slowly.
The hike leads us 11 kilometres through dense forest, the path is wide at the beginning and gets narrower the higher we climb. If you are lucky you can watch birds and monkeys. It is usually quite warm, so don’t wear too thick clothes for the first stage, or stay flexible. Since we are walking up a ridge, the last kilometers left and right through the trees offer great views of the surrounding landscape.
Kilimanjaro Expedition: arrival at Machame Camp
After an exciting ascent we reach Machame Camp at 2,835 meters.
Of course there is some time for a first proud group photo at the sign.
The Shira Camp, destination for tomorrow’s day, is indicated with 5 kilometers distance and 6 hours hiking. That sounds feasible. To Uhuru Peak it is now 30km or 27 hours.
At Machame Camp we also do the first registration. In the National Park we are concerned about safety, everyone has to register after each stage and thus confirm their arrival.
We go to the tent area of our tour and are quite astonished: The porters in front have already set up all tents and prepared the camp. There are small two-man tents for the hikers, a big tent with tables and camping chairs for the meals, a kitchen tent and more tents for the porters. Really impressive.
It quickly becomes clear that I have chosen the right tour provider: Our group of G-Adventures gives us a festive reception: The porters dance, sing songs – This is Africa!
We will hear the well-known song “Kilimanjaro – Hakuna Matata” even more often.
Even popcorn is served before dinner. A little “luxury” is a must. The food is of course quite simple, but good: fried fish, potatoes and vegetables. The first dinner in the tent is very exciting, illuminated with candles, the guides handle head lamps.
Our Chief-Guide Gibson gives a speech at the start. “Tomorrow will come!” Think not of tomorrow or today, but of a beautiful day in your life! So you can sleep well. The importance of sleep and good rest for the body during ascension is clear.
Afterwards we play the game “Smalltalk“, an ingenious icebreaker with a group of people who do not know each other well.
You learn interesting background stories about the others – and about yourself.
I am surprised how well everything works without alcohol and how open everybody is, even though only tea is served. Due to the fitness and acclimatization no alcohol is drunk on the whole tour.
Although it is still quite early we go to sleep tired. Into the two-man tent, where my big backpack is already ready.
We are not sooo high yet, but it gets very cold in the first night. And Jackpott: My borrowed sleeping bag is not thick enough, I am cold and so it is impossible to fall asleep. So I put on more layers of clothes the first night… Good night – at 2,835 meters already.
Knowledge of the day
The group and the guides are great, it will be a great experience!
Pack enough layers of clothing to protect you from the cold – especially for sleeping! Or of course your own thick sleeping bag!
Kilimanjaro Expedition Day 2: Machame Camp – Shira Cave Camp
Start: 2,835 meters; finish: Shira Camp at 3,750 meters
The day begins with the “wake-up call” of the guides, a not exactly gentle pot hitting. My night was not very long because of the cold, but it still fits. One look out of the tent and I am thrilled: Bright blue sky, directly in front of me the snow-covered peak of Kili – a dream!
Two porters are responsible for the water treatment and supply. They walk around the tents in the morning and collect drinking bottles and bags, which you get back later filled with filtered water.
For breakfast there is porridge, coffee and tea, plus some toast. It is still very fresh and many are already wearing jackets and caps.
Afterwards I treat myself to another cup of coffee, in the bright sunshine with a view to the summit.
Since the erection and dismantling of the tents is completely done by the porters, we only pack the two backpacks – a small one for the day and the big one with the rest – and leave the tent behind.
The goal of the second stage is Shira Camp at 3,750 meters, the hike is scheduled to take about 5 hours.
The ascent is relatively steep, the surroundings change completely. Yesterday still dense rain forest, today only small trees and bushes. The clear weather in the morning allows magnificent views of Mount Meru and the whole surrounding area. And the sun makes it really warm. The sleeves are rolled up, some are on the way with shorts and t-shirt. Here it is important not to forget to put some cream on! At this altitude the radiation of the sun is very aggressive.
Regular drinking breaks are also mandatory!
We also learn essential vocabulary in the language of the team. “Poa” means “good” in case you are asked about your condition.
“Mambo” is often heard, it means “how’s it going?”
The sun offers a wonderful opportunity to hang my solar power bank on the backpack and let it charge all day long. Of course, there is no electricity in the camps and if you depend on mobile phones or other electronic devices as alarm clock, music source or camera, you should be prepared!
Around noon clouds will quickly gather, it will be noticeably colder and light drizzle will set in. But everyone is prepared with the appropriate clothing.
We reach the Shira Cave Camp at 3.750 meters. Still a long way to the summit, but many of the group have never been so high in the mountains before. Like the day before, our camp is already completely set up and lunch is served. Soup as starter, simple food as main course. You just have to keep in mind what the team is carrying up the mountain to give us this little comfort: Tents, chairs, tables, cooking utensils, the ingredients, … Hats off!
The relatively short hiking day will be used to introduce the team, the tour organizer is very keen on a good relationship between the participants and the porters. Every single one introduces himself. In the team of porters – the “G-Fighters” – everyone has his specific task, whether cook, porters, responsible for water, night watch etc. They are sooo important for us to handle the big adventure of the Kilimanjaro expedition! There is a lot of singing and dancing again.
On the plateau, which is only sparsely overgrown, it is very windy and without sun it is also quite cool.
In the afternoon we do a short hike to the cave that gives the Shira Cave Camp its name: The cave was important in a time when not yet modern, light tents and equipment offered a certain sleeping comfort and protection against wind and weather. Sleeping in such a cave is unthinkable today because of rock falls and weather conditions, but was common practice in the past.
Before going to bed I enjoy the extensive warm shower – a little joke. The “shower” is a small bowl with (after all) warm water with which you can wash yourself off a little.
After another “Candle Light Dinner” – there is no more lighting in the food tent – I go into the tents, another cold night is coming.
Knowledge of the day
The weather can change quickly from sunny and warm to gloomy and cold. The day’s luggage should be equipped with the right clothing!
Kilimanjaro Expedtion Day 3: Shira cave camp – Lava tower – Barranco camp
Start: 3,750 meters; intermediate goal: Lava Tower 4,600 meters; finish: Barranco Camp at 3,900 meters
Departure to the Lava Tower – Acclimatization ahoy
There it is, the big acclimatization day! Climbing up to the top of the Lava Tower, then down again and spending the night only a little higher than in today’s Shira Camp.
Again a surprise when opening the tent: Fat ground frost despite sunshine. Also today we have “Coffee with a view” after breakfast, from Mount Meru as it rises from the clouds you can hardly avert your eyes. The views are my personal highlight during the Kilimanjaro expedition.
Same procedure as everyday: Pack your things, receive water supplies and set off. The higher growing plants slowly disappear completely, it goes more and more into a scree desert.
But the weather plays along, in the morning the sky is bright blue, with the steady uphill you always have the snow-covered peak of the mountain – THE big destination – in front of you. Hard to imagine how this tour would be with constant rain.
Again and again porters overtake us with fast steps – again and again we are fascinated by the strength, speed and endurance. Running up the mountain like this, even with the heavy luggage that is partly balanced on our heads – just the thought of it makes our legs bend slightly.
As the altitude rises, more and more fog rises around noon, clouds come in, we must have been over 4,000 metres high by now. Even those from the group who have already been on the Inca Trail in the Peruvian Andes move now in a height in which they have never been before (highest point Inca Trail: Dead Woman’s Pass at 4,215 meters).
It gets wetter and much cooler, jackets and caps are unpacked – hands and backpacks are packed. With the rain jackets the group is suddenly extremely colourful – squeaky yellow, royal blue, pink, red…
The goal of the lunch break is coming closer and closer into sight, the Lava Tower at 4,600 meters. If one can even speak of “in sight” in this weather.
Kilimanjaro Expedition: Lunch break at 4,600 metres
The hard-working G-Fighters have already set up the exhibition tent and the kitchen and shortly after arrival the warm lunch is served. The ascent was exhausting and everybody is exhausted. But apart from the effort, there is something else you can feel quite clearly today: the altitude!
For the first time, some of us feel that our appetite is limited and the altitude takes its toll. Because at this point at the latest, everyone in the group is sure: I have never been so high in my life. We get time to rest. Some even try to sleep, that’s how tired they are.
After the extended break, which is mainly for further acclimatization, we start the descent to the night camp – Barranco. It is very cloudy and starts to rain. For the first time thickly wrapped in the complete rain gear is an unusual feeling. When leaving the Lava Tower it even starts to hail (at 4.600 meters the rain is simply frozen).
Over slippery stones it goes down. The hail bounces off the rain gear, but the short shower gives you an idea of how dull and demanding a hike in bad weather is. “Fingers crossed” that it won’t stay like this for the next few days.
The guides do not let the atmosphere be spoiled, “Jambo Jambo“. I’m sure they’ve seen far worse.
The descent takes about 2.5 hours and leads through a wide valley with steep slopes. Towards the end even the sun can be seen again.
Kilimanjaro Expedition: arrival at the picturesque Barranco Camp
The camp for the night is the Barranco Camp at 3,900 meters. It lies picturesquely on a rocky outcrop next to long gorges into the valley. Even from here the Uhuru Peak is still 15 kilometers away.
In front of us the Barranco Wall piles up. An impressive 300 meter high, steep rock face, which lies as the first stage in front of us the next morning. Instead of the rather easy hiking it will be a climbing passage.
We will have a short break for recreation, everyone will be provided with a bowl of lukewarm water for “Wash Wash” (as the kind porters call it). I would call it “cat wash”. With almost 0 degrees I absolutely forgot to moisten the “1-2-3 – upper body free” with water. Moist cloths or similar are a welcome alternative.
The Kilimanjaro expedition takes its toll and dinner is a real tragedy today, the height makes most of the group visibly uneasy. You can slowly walk through the row: The first one has no appetite and doesn’t eat dinner at all, the second one has a nosebleed, the third one suddenly pukes in the corner of the tent, the fourth one is not hungry again…
All are tired and exhausted. The soup bowls are held in the hand because they provide additional warmth.
I am torn in the evening: Actually you want to drink lots of warm tea for warmth and against altitude sickness – and the great feeling of having warm fingers. But drinking lots of fluids also increases the risk of waking up at night and having to go to the toilet. Having to go out at night and the associated peeling out of the warm sleeping bag is really bitter.
Everyone has a lot of respect for the next two days… getting up early, very long days with strenuous hiking, high altitude. Nobody knows what happens to the body. Everything is cold, foggy. And the next day we get out of bed at 6 a.m…
Time for a motivational speech from Gibson, who manages to rebuild and encourage everyone. The evening is short, given the circumstances, and everyone is quickly in their tents.
I am cold every evening, by now I wear all the warm clothes I have with me at night, including my down jacket, which I actually wear on the way to work. On top of that there is the pressure of having to sleep in order to give my body a proper rest. A vicious circle.
And of course: I also wake up at night and have to go to the toilet… …damn it. But today it is worth it: The white snow-covered peak of Kilimanjaro – the ultmate goal of the big expedition – stands out above the Barranco Wall from the dark night sky. Awe-inspiringly I go back into my warm sleeping bag.
Knowledge of the day
- Have respect for the height and take it slow!
- A hot water bottle on the feet would be just the thing right now!
Want some more? How do we go on to the summit? Will everyone in the group make it?
Read on in part 2 of my experience report on the ascent of Kilimanjaro.