At 5895 metres, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. It stands in splendid isolation, not as part of a chain of mountains, and dominates the surrounding countryside in dramatic style.
There is no climbing difficulty. The ascent is essentially a long walk, demanding no more than an adequate degree of fitness and - crucially- successful acclimatisation. As a result, it has become very popular, with the annual number of attempted ascents currently around 20,000. For Tanzania, it has become a currency earner on the same scale as the game parks.
Those used to independent hiking have to learn the rules of the game. The Tanzanian authorities are doing an excellent job in protecting the national park in which the mountain stands. Access is only allowed at a limited number of gates. There is an entry fee of around 30 US dollars per day, and you are required to book through a recognised agency. This can be any of the usual companies that run trekking holidays, or a Tanzanian one. Useful information on this, and many other practical details, is given in the Trailblazers guidebook "Kilimanjaro" by Henry Stedman (www.trailblazer-guides.com), published 2003. Our group had nothing but praise for our local agency, Tanzanian Rift Valley Tours.
The agency employs accredited guides, who, in turn, engage a team of porters. All this means that Kilimanjaro will not be your cheapest mountain climb. However, Tanzania is a very poor country, and this system ensures that the visitor is making some contribution to the local economy. Needless to say, the rate of pay seems derisory when expressed in European currency, but it is quite enough to generate strong competition to be hired.
The next thing is to choose your route. There are several routes, each defined in some detail, including (subject to minor variation) where each night is spent and the subsequent route for descent. The three most popular are: (1) The Marangu (alias "tourist" or "Coca-cola") route, from the south-east. Accommodation is in huts, and descent is by the same way. (2) The Loitokitok route, from the north-east, crossing the border from Kenya. (3) The Machame route, starting from the south-west. I hesitate to repeat this here, because I would hate it to become overcrowded, but there is a strong school of thought that this is the most beautiful route. This is the route I was lucky enough to follow in July 2003; it is the route described below.
As mentioned, acclimatisation is the absolute key to success. Individuals certainly vary in their capacity to acclimatise, but the essential strategy is to allow enough time for it. The Machame route builds this in by taking a less direct line than the other two routes. Indeed, it can be described as a walking tour part way round the mountain, followed by the summit assault. As the narrative will tell, it was effective in our case. All but one of our group took Diamox, which is generally thought to aid acclimatisation (though there are different views about the right amount to take).
I was one of a group of nine wonderful friends, all sponsored to climb Kili for Christian causes (including relief in Iraq and HIV projects in South Africa). Some of the group had quite limited experience of mountain walking, but all were very determined to do their best to reach the top, and there was an excellent atmosphere of mutual support within the team. For all of us, it was easily the highest mountain we had ever attempted.
We had five guides, one chief and four assistants . This might seem a lot for nine of us, but it should be remembered that any trekker giving up would have to be taken back by a guide. Also, the guides had the responsibility of overseeing the porters. Guides are only accredited after a stiff training course, and ours were all supremely competent. Their English ranged from reasonable to excellent, and the head guide could tell us the Latin names of the plants we were seeing.
The five guides were all from different tribes, but like everyone in Tanzania used Swahili as a common language. It is taught in every school, and is clearly an important unifying force for the country. This is the abiding legacy of Julius Nyerere, Tanzania's founding president. The universal greeting "Jambo" soon became ingrained in all our minds.
No fewer than 39 porters were recruited. A cheaper operator might economise on this front, but if you skimp on porters, they are more likely to be overloaded, and you may well be skimping on matters like hygiene in cooking. The porters carried our overnight gear, packed in large holdalls provided for the purpose. They also carried the food and tents for all of us, including a very spacious dining tent. The food was good! The trekkers just carried what they needed for the day's walk; this included two or more litres of water, because a total daily intake of four litres was recommended. Apart from our holdalls, the porters' loads largely took the form of shapeless bundles or large baskets. One, entrusted with a rucksack, chose to carry it in a basket balanced on his head! Whatever their method, they conveyed their bulky loads at a much faster speed than the trekkers. Each day, they set off after us, having had to pack everything, and soon overtook us - the cry of "porters" was a signal to step off the path to let them pass. At the end of the day's walk, we would find the tents already set up, waiting for us.
Now for the actual story, day by day.
Day 1. Our minibus took us to the Machame Gate, south-west of the mountain at a height of 1800m. Settled countryside gives way here to thick forest: tecnically, it's cloud forest. This is where our guides hire the porters. At 10.48, the long-awaited trek begins. Goal for the day is Machame Camp at 3000m, at the point where the forest ends abruptly. The distance is 10km. For me, this was the least interesting day, because the forest was somewhat monotonous; perhaps someone with a better knowledge of the trees and plants would think otherwise. But the dominant impression of the day was mud. Lots and lots of really squishy mud, making progress rather slow! We reached the camp, which was still quite muddy, after 7 hours, with limited daylight left to sort out our things.
Day 2. Just 6km, climbing to Shira Camp at 3840m. Completely different from yesterday! The ground is now bone dry, and will be until the final day. We are among man-high bushes; particularly common is the heather plant erica arborea. A large area was burned in a fire a few years ago, leaving the skeletons of bushes, but new growth is on its way. We see the first of Kilimanjaro's characteristic "everlasting" helichrysum flowers. Our lunch stop is attended by ravens. It's sunny, and I'm comfortable in shorts.
We are now on the Shira Plateau, due west of the mountain, and we get a partial view of Kibo, the main peak, when some of the clouds disperse. We arrive at camp at 3 p.m., and two of us go to look at the Shira "Cathedral", an abrupt hill rising out of the plateau.
The ground up here is covered by coarse, dry dust, and it's a challenge to prevent the stuff getting into all our things (the same is true of all subsequent camps until the last one). It's warm until shortly before sunset, but then gets cold very rapidly. The night sky is a wonderful sight, with the Milky Way showing clearly. Some of us try to identify unfamiliar stars, using star charts brought for the purpose. The temperature drops well below freezing, and most of us wriggle into our sleeping bags wearing fleeces, jackets and (in at least one case) hat and gloves.
Day 3. We turn east, then south-east, traversing round the south-west side of the mountain. We start with a long, gradual climb up to 4600m, all in the cause of acclimatisation. We move uphill very slowly, but nobody is having real trouble with the altitude, which is encouraging. As we go higher, the helichrysums become more and more dominant, but eventually give way to a stony wilderness. It's sunny again, but with quite a cool breeze higher up. From now on, we see Kibo in brilliant clarity, a magnificent view which evolves as we progress.
Our high point is next to a very abrupt rocky prominence called the Lava Tower. From here we go down to the Barranco Camp, in a dry valley at 3950m. We see two of Kili's specialities. Senecio kilimanjari, sometimes known as giant groundsel, is a squat palm-like stump four or five metres high, with a crown of green leaves on top. Lobelia deckenii is quite unlike any lobelias in British gardens! With leaves on, it looks a bit like a giant pineapple, one or two metres high; after shedding the leaves, it becomes a bare grey stump.
Today's distance 10 km. We arrive at 4.48 p.m. As well as the view of Kibo, there is a fine view of its neighbour Mount Meru (4565m), 60km south-west, and a vast panorama of low cloud covering the plains, just like the view from an aeroplane. Dust, stars and a cold night, as before.
Day 4. We now have two short days, which could be combined into one long day. However, that would give less time for acclimatisation, and would mean a long day prior to the nocturnal summit push, which wouldn't improve our chances of success.
I note that it's still freezing at 7.30. The sun appears over the ridge at 7.37, and by 8.30 I'm in shirt sleeves.
Today's walk starts with the Barranco Wall, the ridge flanking the valley. It's probably the steepest ascent all week. One or two points involve a very mild clamber on rocks. After that, we go down to the next dry valley, the Karanga, and climb up the other side to today's camp site. Probably about 4050m (no figure given on the map), and perhaps 5 km today. Sunny again, fine for shorts. I have a nose-bleed, but no other dire effects of altitude. We arrive around 2 p.m., with a whole afternoon to do what we like.
Day 5. A steady climb to Barafu Camp, exposed on a ridge at 4600m. Only about 4km. We arrive by 12.30. We are now south-east of Kibo. To the east, we now have a spectacular view of the companion peak of Mawenzi (5149m). We are lucky to see a lammergeier.
But it's time to get serious! We have our final briefing about the summit push. We get all our things ready. After a 6 p.m. meal, we lie down until 11 p.m. Some people sleep a bit; I'm not one of them. However, we now all seem reasonably comfortable at this altitude. Has the acclimatisation programme been sufficient?
Day 6. This is it, the summit attempt! We get up again at 11 p.m. and try to eat some porridge. We set off at 0.33, wearing head torches and the warmest gear we possess. We plod along slowly, in tight formation. Stopping is discouraged because of the cold. At about 3 a.m., one of our members feels bad. Up on this freezing mountainside, one cannot afford to spend a long time debating what to do. Our doctor brings off a superb quick decision: Michelle is cold and tired, but fit to continue. Our head guide, and other team members, provide motive power to help her the rest of the way up. It's a long plod up a stony slope, and we all now find the going noticeably harder than at 4600m. I have another nose-bleed, glad that nobody notices in the dark. Howard, who has done without Diamox, feels dizzy, but soon recovers. Hands get cold.
However, we all keep going, and at 6.18, we reach Stella Point (5795m), on the rim of the crater. We have taken 5 hours 45 minutes to climb 1200m, which is par for the course at this altitude. Victory is now almost assured! It's beginning to get light. Our guides provide flasks of hot tea. At 6.30, the sun appears. None of us will ever forget the sight, enhanced by the wonderful promise of warmth after the freezing night.
Uhuru Peak, the highest point, is in full view about 1 km away around the crater rim and 100m higher up. We get there at 7.30. Now that we're not climbing, I really feel quite good at 5895m. There are lots of other groups there, and of course every group has to have a photo in front of the sign. This takes quite a while.
Now, down again. Back to Stella Point, and then speedily down a dusty scree beside the path we came up. Perhaps one shouldn't do this because of erosion, but the guides do, and so everybody does. At this point, our tight group formation was completely abandoned, and everyone went down at their own pace. Because of the dust raised, it was actually good to have gaps between people. The route that took 5 hours 45 in ascent now takes me 1 hour 38 minutes in descent. This illustrates the enormous difference between uphill and downhill at high altitude, further accentuated by the scree.
A well-earned rest at Barafu, before going on down to Mweka Camp. This is the designated descent route after doing the Machame Route in ascent. It's about 8km, gently downhill all the way, back through the zones of vegetation that we have got to know so well. I get there in 2 hours 45 minutes, arriving at 4 p.m. We're now back at 3100m, at the edge of the forest. It's been a long day!
Day 7. All that's left to do is walk down through the forest to the Mweka Gate, about 10km. We were braced for another mud bath as on day one, but were pleasantly surprised. It was clear that a new path had been constructed, and it was in excellent condition. One wonders how long it will stand up to the tramping of many feet. It takes me two and a half hours.
At the gate we each get a handsome certificate, signed by the head guide. The porters are paid off, and will soon be jostling for their next engagement. We walk a little further down the track to our familiar minibus, because the top section is barely motorable. Immediately, we have it brought home to us that we really are in Africa! We are surrounded by a small army of people trying to sell us T-shirts, wooden giraffes, Kilimanjaro hats and other souvenirs. It seems that they are not allowed to do this within the park gate. Most of us want something, and a lively trade is conducted as we march down the road. The end of a memorable trek.