About two months ago (oops – sorry!) I returned from Tanzania. While there, I attended Stacy’s wedding, went on a safari very similar to Carrie’s, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. My safari pictures are not as good as Carrie’s, so I won’t bore you with those. If you’d like, you can overdose on Africa pictures at the group site.
The Kilimanjaro climb was fantastic. We took the Machame route, also known as the “whiskey route,” in contrast with the shorter, easier, and more popular Marangu (“Coca Cola”) route. The Machame route takes 5 days to climb from Machame gate (6,000 feet) to Barafu camp (15,100 feet). These were great hiking days. The mountain is gorgeous, and the elevation change means that the scenery and mix of vegetation changes every few miles. Because we had a team of porters carrying all the heavy stuff, we just had day packs and the hikes were pretty easy. Usually three to five hours was enough to finish the day’s hike, leaving plenty of time for sitting around in camp drinking tea, playing cards, and enjoying the view.
At Barafu camp you sleep only from dinner time till about 11:30 PM, when you prepare for the trek to the summit. You want to reach the summit around sunrise for two reasons. First, the sunrise is incredible from the Roof of Africa. Second, the wind and sun at the summit become very unpleasant by midday.
In contrast to the previous five days, the hike to the summit is not especially pleasant. Barafu camp is above the vegetation line, so there is nothing but rocks to look at. Of course, it’s dark, so you wouldn’t be able to see past the range of your headlamp anyway. The temperatures are well below freezing. I had enough gear on that I wasn’t unpleasantly cold, but still – it’s not warm. Because of the cold, you can’t safely stop for more than a minute or two.
Like most standalone mountains, Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano. After six solid hours of climbing in the dark, we reached the crater rim: about 18,600 feet. We had a brief stop there to enjoy the sunrise, then we continued along the crater rim to its highest point. Uhuru Peak is at 19,340 feet. It is the highest point on the continent. There’s a wooden sign with a bunch of stickers on it. At this point it was fully morning, so instead of worrying about the cold, we had to worry about the altitude and the sun. We took some pictures and started down.
I don’t know why the route back down to Barafu camp is different from the route up. I would much rather have returned by the original, switchback-based, route. Instead, we got mile after mile of steep scree field. Very tedious. We all fell many, many times. During this part of the day, I was seriously doubting whether the summit was worth it. Why not just enjoy the five-day trek to Barafu and then head down?
From a comfortable seat back home, that’s just sounds silly. Of course you want to go all the way to the top!
We made it back to Barafu camp around 11 AM. We ate some lunch and took a brief nap before continuing down the mountain. Here we had a choice: you can do the Machame route in 6 days or 7. If doing it in 7, you spend a night at Mweka camp, halfway down. If doing it in 6, you skip Mweka camp and leave the mountain on the same day you summit. We were on the fence about which option to take, so we decided to hike to Mweka, see what time it was and how we felt, then figure out whether to camp or finish the descent.
The crew left Barafu about 2 and reached Mweka at about 5, feeling tired but good. Our guide estimated that we could make it to Mweka gate in two hours, so we ate a quick snack and hit the trail. Around 7 it was getting dark and we still had a ways to go. It was too late and too far to go back to Mweka camp, so we put on our headlamps and soldiered on. The gate finally appeared about an hour later. Total hiking time for the day was close to 18 hours. It felt really good to sit on a bench while the guide dealt with the usual African bureaucratic crap to check us out of the park.
If you have a chance to go, I highly recommend it.