On the first day of my Kili trek I was wide awake at 5.30am. My stomach was in knots, but whether it was nerves or my malaria medication (that did not seem to agree with me) I couldn’t tell.
The night beforehand we had met our guide Stanley at our pre trek briefing and he had tried to prepare us for the next 5 days. I was nervous but also excited and keen to get started. The breakfast at the hotel was great but my appetite was not. There are several different routes to climb Kilimanjaro and the hotel I was staying in was where many people stayed before departing on one of these treks. I had chosen the Marangu Route, also known as the CocaCola route due to the availability of the sugary drink at each of the overnight stops. On the Marangu Route, unlike the other routes that camp along the trek, we would be staying in basic huts, with a mattress and pillow provided. I had chosen this route for one reason only – it is widely thought of as the easiest paths (I mean that in terms of high altitude trekking and not Sunday afternoon stroll) with a nice steady incline. I really wanted to make it to the top and I figured this was my best chance.
On the Marangu route, like most of the routes, there is the possibility of adding an acclimatisation day, allowing you to complete the trip in 6 days as opposed to 5. Rightly or wrongly I opted not to take the extra day to acclimatise as I had trekked in altitude several times before and hadn’t suffered too badly. Also the acclimatisation day did cost more, which to someone who was hoping to travel in Africa for 5 months without working, had to be a contributing factor. Whether that was a good decision was yet to be seen.
Our group of 8 people, plus guides, porters and cooks left the hotel shortly after 9am. It was a sunny day but as we were approaching Kilimanjaro we couldn’t see the top of the mountain as it was covered with cloud. The paperwork & signing in at Marangu Gate Reception took about 45 mins, thankfully our guide Stanley handled all of it. We started to trek shortly after 11am and it was really very pleasant, the pace was slow, the scenery was very pretty, and we were lucky to spot blue monkeys enroute. We had a lovely long picnic lunch in the sunshine and everyone in the group was in a great mood. We arrived in camp – Mandara Hut – shortly after 3pm and checked out the solar powered huts we would be staying in, they were basic but clean. After a mountain bath (strip down in the wash blocks with a wet face cloth) we went to the largest of the huts, the dining hut, for popcorn and biscuits to fuel us for the optional 1 hour acclimatisation hike that afternoon. It was a lovely walk with nice view over Moshi. Then we headed back to the dining hut for dinner (we are certainly not going to lose weight on this climb) and we all turned in very early.
The next morning we left Mandara hut at 8.30am and it was already quite sunny. Our guide had advised us to wear our gaiters and we quickly found out why. The path looked so different to yesterday, but it wasn’t muddy as I had been anticipating, it was in fact very dusty and the gaiters were there to avoid getting dust in our shoes. The scenery had completely changed, from trees and wildlife the day before to a few shrubs and thick grasses. Apart from a little slump before lunch (almost certainly caused by the fact I was getting hungry) I enjoyed the gradual incline and chatted happily to the others in my group.
We arrived in Horombo Huts about 5pm and I had another mountain bath and tried to beat the dust out of my clothes. I was surprised to see I had phone reception so I was able to send a few texts. It was a cloudless night and a full moon so it was whilst walking to the dining hut that evening that I got my first glimpse of the summit, which almost looked illuminated as it was snow-capped against the dark night sky.
The next morning the summit was still clear and we got some nice photos. It was great to get such a clear view and it meant everyone was in a great mood as we set off. It is definitely getting cooler and as we started to climb, I became more aware of the increase in altitude both because I was more breathless and because now there was even fewer plants.
At 3.30pm we reached Kibo hut where we got our first glimpse of the mammoth task that we would be facing shortly after midnight. As we approached the hut we could see that the incline of the path after the huts increased dramatically. We would rest in Kibo hut, where beds were provided, until midnight when we wuld start our final day of climbing. It seemed like a strange time to start our ascent but our guide explained it was so we could get to the summit at sunrise. Looking back I wondered if it was really to prevent us from seeing what was ahead!
Kibo Hut has larger rooms with about 15 people sleeping in a room, so I tossed and turned but did not sleep much that evening meaning when we were awakened at 11pm I did not feel great. Thankfully breakfast (or was it supper) was hot chocolate, biscuits and more chocolate, which to a chocoholic, was a great start to our summit day.
We started shortly after midnight and it was extremely cold. The incline was so steep that we actually zigzagged up in one long line of bobbing head torches, not just our group of 8 but all the groups who had spent the night at Kibo hut. After about 2 hours the incline and altitude started to take their toll. I was tired but generally feeling ok, one of the girls in my group was not coping well with the altitude and it was decided that she would slow down a little and walk with the assistant guide Nico, as the rest of us went ahead.
After about 4 hours of trekking the terrain became tougher and we had to scramble over a few bigger rocks, you could feel the morale amongst the group was low. I had my iPod on and was pounding out big power ballads and 90’s dance tunes to keep my spirits up. Stanley then informed us that Gilmans point was about 15 mins ahead. The group suddenly became so motivated that the pace almost doubled, we had been informed that after Gilmans Point it was a lot easier and that the incline that lead to the summit, also known as Uhuru Peak, was much more gradual.
At Gilmans Point we rested for a while, had more chocolate, washed down by water from my water bottle which I had kept in my jumper, right next to my skin in order to stop it from freezing, it still contained little bits of ice – a bit like drinking a slushy. As we got chatting the group admitted to feeling very low in the last few hours, and doubting if they’d make it. I had found it tough but not too bad, little did I know that my slump was just ahead.
The rest of the group started off from Gilman’s Point with a few complaints about headaches and altitude related illnesses but everyone’s spirits were visibly increased and as the sun started to rise we could see roughly how far we had left to go. For me, this was when I started to find it tough, my head was pounding and although I knew I was going to push on to the top, I found I was slowing down. The slump lasted about 30 mins until I saw a huge Glacier to my right-hand side and realised how close I was to the top, I found my second wind. The last 15 mins or so of the climb where really the best of all as I realised I was going to conquer Africa’s tallest mountain and that the training and fundraising I had been doing over the last few months would not have been in vain.
My memories of the top are a little foggy, the lack of oxygen almost made it feel like I was drunk but thankfully I have about 150 photos and several videos to jog my memory. I remember crying as the guides clapped my last few steps to the summit, posing with those in my group for the customary photo of the Uhuru Peak sign and then sitting down for a minute to take in the view.
At about 7am, after about 15 minutes at the top, my hands had gone numb from the cold and it was time to get moving again, I wasn’t looking forward to the steep decline that only hours before we had come up but I was very pleased to meet the 8th member of our group who we had split from earlier that morning on the decent, she didn’t look great but I could see the determination in her eyes and I knew she would make it to the top too.
The decline was tough but what spurred me on was the fact I knew that as soon as I made it back to Kibo Hut, I would get to go back to bed for a couple of hours before lunch. My body was very tired at this point and I felt that bed calling. I reached Kibo hut, shortly after 10.30am and was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
When I woke a couple of hours later my first thought was how stiff my legs felt, then something struck me, I had climbed Kilimanjaro, the world highest non-technical climb. As tired, hungry and sore as I was that thought put a huge smile on my face. That afternoon we descended back down to Horombo Hut where we spent the night, I slept soundly for 10 and a half hours!
The last day was a pretty easy day, although the walk was long, it wasn’t tough and on the way down we could really appreciate the scenery without the doubts and concerns that we faced on the way up.
I feel so lucky to have been able to successfully climb Kilimanjaro and I will always look back on this as one of my biggest achievements. In my job in travel people often ask if I would do it again, honest answer – hell no! But I am so glad I did it and if I ever were to do it again I would do some things differently.
1. Remember to stretch before you start trekking each day and when you arrive in camp in the evening – otherwise you will get very stiff legs (take it from someone who had legs like they were made of lead each day)
2. Take your favourite sweets/chocolate & music for when you are going through a tough phase.
3. Put your camera down for 5 mins at the summit, this will likely be the only time you are at Uhuru Peak, don’t just look at it through your camera lens, take a moment to enjoy the wonderful achievement.
Climb Kilimanjaro’s Marangu Route with Tucan Travel’s Tailor-made team. Find out more here.
About the Author: Jac is Sales & Marketing Manager for Tucan Travel. She has travelled extensively on Group Tours and independently to South and Central America, Asia, Australia and Africa. You can find her on Google+ or read her other contributions here.