Jake McCrary

Journey to the top of Africa

Below is a summary of a trip six adventurers took to Tanzania, Africa. The goal of the trip was to stand atop Mount Kilimanjaro. Mount Kilimanjaro is the fourth tallest mountain in the world and the tallest free standing mountain. The peak is 5,895 meters (19341 feet) above sea level. For more information check out the Wikipedia page.

I’ve collected some of the pictures fellow travelers took and have posted them here. They are roughly in chronological order.

Gear

Here is a picture along with a list of what gear I brought to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and here it is all packed. I don’t think I over or under-packed for this trip. If I were to do it again I would swap out the gloves I had for some nice mittens. They would have been much more useful for the summit.

Traveling to Tanzania

The trip started on September 21st, 2010. Most of us started the trip from Chicago. From there we flew to Detroit to pick up the two Michigan residing travelers before starting the international legs of the trip. From Detroit we flew to Amsterdam, switched planes, and continued on to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO). The flights in Chicago started around 1:30 PM on the 21st and we arrived in Africa on Sept 22nd at about 8:30 PM (all times local to region bodies were located in).

We landed at JRO and deplaned onto the tarmac. The difference in size between our plane and the small customs building was memorable. Inside it we bought our travel visas (100 USD), grabbed our luggage, and walked through customs. David, a representative from Good Earth (our tour company), greeted us and lead us to his vehicle. We then started our bus ride to our home away from home, the hotel Le Jacaranda. After about an hour we stepped out of the vehicle and walked into our hotel.

Driving

Traveling by car in Tanzania was quite the experience. I only recall seeing a single stop light the entire trip. I don’t remember seeing any other traffic flow control signs. Flow of traffic was controlled by speed bumps. No matter where you were driving there was a near constant passing of other vehicles (or being passed). There seemed to be a usage of blinkers and lights to help signal to other cars when it was safe to pass. I wasn’t able to completely figure it out but I was impressed with the controlled chaos of driving.

La Jacaranda

Our hotel was nice. We had three rooms between the six of us and split the rooms so Jon and I had a room with three beds, Mark and Jessi had some sort of suite with a single bed, and Brett and Alex had a room (I never saw it and cannot comment on what it was like).

Each bed had mosquito netting to keep out mosquitoes while sleeping. The beds seemed to be made out of a memory foam type material and they were comfortable.

Day 0 (Safari day before climb)

We took a driving safari in Arusha National Park. It was awesome. Animals were abundant. It is best described by looking at pictures.

Day 1 (Machame Gate, 1800 m -> Machame Camp, 3000 m)

After breakfast our head guide Godlisten came to pick us up from the hotel. We were loaded into the vehicle and started our ride to Machame Gate. This ride took about 50 minutes.

Once at Machame gate we still had to wait while park fee were paid and gear was split between the porters. Once the paper work was done we started our trek.

The first day was spent traveling through the rain forest zone. This path was wide and well covered so sun wasn’t a huge deal. The weather was nice and not too cold or hot. After the rain forest we entered what the guide called the heather region. It was in this region that we slept the first night.

It was during this day that Godlisten gave us the advice which we heard many times throughout the trip. That advice was to go ‘pole, pole’ which means ‘slowly, slowly.’ The other advice was to drink tons of water. Both of these tips were supposed to help with your body adjusting to the increasing altitude. If another group passed us Godlisten would claim they were going too fast.

When we arrived at Machame Camp we were brought to the rangers hut where we signed in to the log book. This was a common task done at every campsite. Among other things the book had entries for your name, occupation, age, and home country. At one of the camps we saw a group where the average age was in the upper 50s. They were planning on taking nine days for the climb.

After signing in we were brought to our camp. Our campsite consisted of four two people tents, two larger tents, and one tall skinny tent. Three of the two people tents were for us. One of them was for the guides. The tall skinny tent was our bathroom tent. The green larger tent was our dining tent and the red large tent was for cooking. Both of the two larger tents housed porters overnight.

It was at this first campsite that we met all of our crew. We had 21 people in our crew. Of the 21 people we had 2 guides, 2 assistant guides, and 16 porters. Some of the porters had special roles. Two of them acted as waiters and us every meal. The waiters were also in charge of our tents and one of them also provided us with hot water and soap for cleaning our hands. Another porter was in charge of our bathroom. Two more were the camps cooks. Another porter was designated the head porter. As stated earlier the head guide was named Godlisten. The other guide was named Joseph. The two assistant guides were Marame and Winston.

This day also marked the first day of our daily post hike schedule. Every day after arriving in the camp we had a snack served in the dining tent. This snack usually (maybe all the time, memory is fuzzy) was popcorn and some cookies. For drinking we had various things which would mix with hot water. Instant coffee (not recommended for drinking at night because of the potential affects on sleeping), hot chocolate, and tea were available. I almost exclusively drank the tea and only substituted in hot chocolate a couple times. The cookies were very tasty dipped into the tea.

After snack time we either went directly to dinner or had some time to nap and relax. On the first day we went directly to dinner.

Dinners always started with a soup course which was followed by a main meal. The soup on the first day was zucchini soup. The main meal was fried tilapia with rice and a sauce that had some vegetables in it. The meal closed with some sort of fruit. Fruit was a common dessert served near the end of our meals. The fruit was either orange slices, pineapple, or mango.

After dinner we went straight to bed. Jon and myself were in one tent, Alex and Brett in another, and Jessi and Mark in the third. We probably slept between 8 and 12 hours a night. The sleep wasn’t the best though with most of us getting up about 2 times during the night to go to the bathroom. Between all of the water and Diamox it was almost inevitable that you went to the bathroom many times.

Day 2 (Machame Camp, 3000 m -> Shira Camp, 3840 m)

We woke up at about 7 am and handed a porter our water containers. I had containers that could hold a combined four liters of water. Three liters in a water bladder in my backpack and 1 liter in separate water bottle. The would fill them up while we were eating breakfast. This happened every day.

Breakfast consisted of a porridge (kind of a soupier oatmeal) to which most of us would add something additional. This may be honey, peanut butter, or this fruit jam. Personally I think the jam made the best addition and is what I put in all but one of the days. We were also served eggs made in an omelet style along with some slices of tomato and cucumber. Toast was normally available so I usually made a sandwich with the egg and vegetables.

For the second day we once again hiked for about five to six hours. I don’t remember anything too significant about this day. We hiked through more of the heather region and as we got close to the Shira Plateau it became rockier.

I think it was on this day that Mark started to have stomach issues. At lunch he was feeling nauseous and threw up. He was the first person to throw up but he wasn’t the last. Overall Mark, Jessi, and Brett all left a part of them on the mountain.

We had a similar snack and meal as day one. We did not have tilapia but instead had another meat.

Day 3 (Shira Camp, 3840m -> Baranco Camp, 4000m)

After waking up at the usual time (about 7 am) and eating our normal breakfast we started the hike to the Lava Tower. The Lava Tower area has an altitude of 4600m. To those paying careful attention you will have noticed this means we went from 3840m to 4600m and eventually end up at 4000m for our camp today. This type of hiking helps you adjust to the altitude. Climbing high and sleeping low is one way to cause your body adjust to altitude changes quicker. My understanding of it is that by exposing yourself to the higher altitude and then going lower your body is somewhat tricked into preparing for the higher altitude but while you are at a lower altitude.

This day was full of rocky travels. Both Jessi and Brett had issues with getting to the Lava Tower with both of them ending up throwing up.

Day 4 (Baranco Camp, 4000m -> Karanga Valley, 4200m)

This day we waited till the sun had been up a bit before getting up so it would be warmer out and to give other hikers a chance to get ahead of us if they were doing the usual Baranco Camp -> Barafu Camp hike. We opted to take an extra day on the mountain in order to give us more time to adjust to the altitude. As a result this day was only supposed to be about three hours of hiking. It probably was more like four hours.

As I said we woke up later (maybe 7:30 or 8) so that it would be warmer when we left the tents. This little time difference makes a massive change in temperature. When the sun is down it becomes pretty cold on the mountain. We ate our breakfast and started the hike for the day.

This was my favorite hiking day because we had to hike up Baranco Wall. Baranco Wall was the closest we came to actually climbing. Godlisten advised us not to use our trekking poles today and that was good advice. Having your hands free to grab onto rocks to balance yourself and help yourself up the steep rocks was key. There are some pictures of this which give a slight idea of how it was. I cannot imagine being a porter and having to climb Baranco Wall. Watching them carry all of the gear up this wall was extremely impressive. They have an extremely hard job.

After finishing Baranco Wall we still had a lot of hiking left before we made it to our next camp in Karanga Valley.

Day 5 (Karanga Valley, 4200m -> Barafu Camp, 4600m)

This day was also supposed to be about three hours. I’m not sure how long it actually took. Because of the idea that it would be a short hike we once again slept until the sun was already out and the air was a bit warmer. We ate our usual breakfast and started the hike.

This was the first day were our group split into two groups. Jessi and Mark along with the guides Marame and Winston formed one group while the rest of us (Alex, Brett, Jon, myself and the guides Joseph and Godlisten) formed another. This allowed my group to move at a quicker pace. It also allowed us to take a steeper shortcut to Barafu camp. Godlisten said the steeper shortcut simulated what the hike to the summit would be like. The pace we took was also closer to what pace Godlisten wanted to take while summiting.

Barafu camp was the highest we would camp. The terrain was entirely rocks. You needed to pay attention to where you stepped as the rocks you were stepping on could slide. We were told that barafu in Swahili means ice. This was the coldest camp so the name was fitting. There was still a ranger camping out here with a book for us to sign. He also sold candy bars, coke, and t-shirts though none of us bought any. Godlisten said the rangers spend a week at each camp before going to the next one. Spending a week at Barafu camp would not be a great time.

We tried to sleep as much as possible after arriving in camp because our next hike would start at midnight.

Day 6 (Barafu Camp, 4600m -> Uhuru Peak, 5895m -> Mweka Camp, 3100m)

The final hike started at 11 pm. We were woken up and served a snack of cookies and tea to get some food in us before starting the final summit at midnight. When midnight came around we started final leg to the top of Africa.

For this climb our group added an additional guide (the head porter acted as the guide) to the party. This was because we anticipated breaking into two groups. By having the extra guide if someone in the larger of the two groups needed to go back down the mountain there would be an guide available to help him down while allowing the remaining hikers to keep on trekking.

Shortly after starting the climb we did split into two groups. The fast group contained Alex, Brett, Jon, myself and the guides Winston, Godlisten, and the head porter. The other group had Jess and Mark guided by Joseph and Marame.

The pace we took getting up the mountain could be called break-neck when compared to the pace of the other hiking days. Any group we met on the trail we passed. This was at times difficult as there wasn’t much room. This was the first of the earlier rules Godlisten had (walk slowly and drink lots of water) that was broken on summit day.

The second rule, drink lots of water, was also broken though not on purpose. Because you are hiking at night the sun is not out. That combined with the high elevation caused it to be very cold. Godlisten was guessed it was about -15 C. Most of us also had water bladder containers that we were carrying our water in. The unfortunate thing about them is that the hose carrying the water often freezes in cold temperature. Needless to say most of ours did. This was despite blowing any water in the hose back into the bladder after every sip. I actually think I may have been blowing to hard, causing air pressure to build up in my bladder and squirt the water back into the tube. Our frozen tubes caused us to drink significantly less water than previous days since to drink you would need to get your other water bottle out.

The frozen tube is what allowed me to ask one of the guides to carry my pack. They had offered earlier but since that was originally my water source I had refused. After I asked for a guide to carry my pack everyone else except for Alex also had their pack carried. This made a pretty big difference in difficulty going up the mountain.

There was a lack of water drinking as well because there was a lack of breaks. Without breaks it was too difficult to get our a water bottle. We took a total of three breaks on the six hour hike up the mountain. Each was for probably less than two minutes. Godlisten wanted to keep moving to keep body temperatures up.

The hike itself was brutal. Despite a fairly full moon it was very dark and we had to wear head lanterns in order to see. The terrain itself was basically gravel. This meant that every step you took you slid back half the distance. Combine that with a steep ascent and you have a difficult hike. The guide book Alex had read prior to the had hand-drawn maps of different trails. On this trail it drew a zig-zagging line and labeled it ‘an endless series of zig-zags.’ This description is completely accurate. It was mentally difficult. You could only think of the next step in front of you. When not thinking about the next step in front of me the thought of “I might as well keep going since going down in the dark would be just as hard” was often floating around my head.

The cold was also brutal. It was cold enough where I found it painful. My gloves were not good enough for doing this trek and the thought crossed my mind that I might lose a finger.

As the sun was rising we hit the top of the mountain. It was a gorgeous sight. Beautiful colors over an endless sea of clouds. Not only was the sight off the mountain gorgeous but the glaciers atop the mountain were also gorgeous. Our group took our pictures with the sign marking the peak behind us and then we started our hike back down. We probably spent a total of 10 to 15 minutes at the peak.

The trip down took about 2 hours with Godlisten and Jon leading the way at a very quick pace. Once you got the hang of it you could slide down the scree. Every step you took carried you significantly further than a single step should. You had to pay careful attention to upcoming rocks which looked like they wouldn’t move out of the way to stop from tripping. Dust was everywhere. I found myself using my bandanna as a mouth and nose guard in attempt to limit the amount of dust I was breathing.

You would pass groups that were still coming up the mountain and they looked miserable. Coming down was really the first time we had the opportunity to look at the terrain we covered going up the mountain. It was then that I think many of us realized one of the benefits of going up in the dark; you don’t have the opportunity to really see what you are traveling over. That sight would have been disheartening.

Once we got back to Barafu camp we had time for a 30 minute rest. We took a nap and after a short while were woken up to pack our gear to start the six hour hike to the final camp site.

The walk down to Mweka camp was uneventful. I found it pretty painful. After a while every step I took started to hurt my knees. Walking on a downward slope for so long is terrible.

Mweka Camp was back in the heather region. We were back to camping surrounded by trees. We ate our final dinner and slept. You could tell that everyone was excited to be off the mountain. While this was a vacation for the six of us it was a job for the 21 people who made the climb possible. A job that took them away from their families for seven days. It was easy to tell that people were ready to make it to the bottom.

It was at Mweka Camp that we tipped our crew. I don’t remember specifics so the following are mostly guesses. I think they are approximately correct. Porters received 50 USD each from the group. I think we gave the cooks $77. Head porter received around $100. Assistant guides about $120. Godlisten received about $155 and Joseph about $135. If you were a porter who had a special job we gave you an additional $10.

Day 7 (Mweka Camp, 3100m -> Mweka Gate, 1800m -> La Jacaranda)

The final hike was back down from the heather through the rain forest to Mweka Gate. We were basically going down a path that was wide enough for some vehicles to go up. It was muddy and in parts where it was wet pretty slippery.

Ernest, the porter who had been carrying my gear, decided to walk with us down instead of rushing down the last bit. He walked with Brett and myself for the entire trip talking to us. He was curious about our lives and our education background. He was probably one of the more educated porters in our trip and was interested in studying more. He wanted to know what he should study so he could work with computers like Brett and myself. We also exchanged contact information so communication could continue to happen after we left Tanzania. I’ve sent him the pictures we took with him on the last day along with some pictures of Chicago. Ernest also taught us some common Swahili phrases though have a hard time remembering them now. Through the power of Facebook we have actually been able to stay in contact.

While walking the final hike we were able to see one way they get injured hikers down the mountain. At one point a group of porters walked quickly by with a girl on a stretcher between them. The stretcher was resting atop what is probably best described as a unicycle. With this contraption they were quickly able to get the injured girl down the path until they met up with an ambulance. Our guides were able to piece together that the girl had hurt her leg and was unable to walk.

Eventually we made it to Mweka Gate. Here we were swarmed by people trying to sell us trinkets. We also were able to get our certificates which officially say that we’ve stood at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.

We then settled in to a Good Earth bus and traveled back to our hotel. Along the way we stopped and picked up a lunch which matched what we ate for lunches on the way up the mountain.

We made it back in time to play some card games prior to eating dinner and meeting with our Good Earth contact. We bought him a beer and he asked for our feedback.

After dinner we were pretty tired. Mark and Jess stayed in their room while the rest of us played cribbage. Across the street there was quite a party going on with live music. It was tempting to go explore but we ended up taking it easy.

Day after the hike (La Jacaranda -> Arusha -> Kilimanjaro International Airport)

We were picked up by a driver at La Jacaranda and given a driving tour of Arusha. He also brought us to a few stores where we could buy souvenirs. I didn’t buy anything but probably the best souvenir that someone purchased was some Kilimanjaro beer from a grocery store. The highlight of driving around Arusha was seeing the football (soccer) stadium. As we drove around the outside Jon jokingly said we were going to drive into the stadium. Shortly after saying that we were turning into an alley which went into the stadium. We took a lap around the field stopping along the way to enjoy the stadium. While we were doing this there was also a birthday celebration for the oldest lady in the world (according to our driver) which seemed to be doubling as a political rally for the current president (Tanzania was holding elections a the end of October). So not only did we get to drive around the football field but a marching band of children was playing while a crowded cheered as we circled the field.

We eventually ran out of places to drive around in Arusha and headed a bit early to the airport. There we played cards, ate, and drank some beer while waiting for our plane.

Plane ride back (Kilimanjaro International -> Dar Es Salaam -> Amsterdam -> Chicago)

The plane ride back took about the same amount of time as getting to Tanzania. The airport in Dar Es Salaam is a terribly managed place. We actually had some time to kill in the Amsterdam airport and as far as airports go it was a pretty nice place. It even contained a casino.

Things not entirely related to the hike

One interesting thing about being in Tanzania was the type of questions that were asked about where we were from. A common question was asking how many cows there were in Chicago. It was easy to see why this was asked as in Arusha you would occasionally see cows and other animals in the main city. You would see them in what I would consider the non-urban area of Arusha quite frequently.

Advice for future travelers

In terms of gear I would have brought a nice pair of mittens instead of gloves for the final hike. Being able to keep my fingers next to each other would have been great for keeping them warm. Alex had brought some hand warmers (the type you would ski with) but I found them ineffective. I’m not sure if it was the high altitude or what but my set never really pumped out any warmth.

While in Tanzania I would recommend doing a safari or some non-hiking related activity.

Spend money on nice gear. Except for my hands and toes I was not really cold going up the mountain. I attribute this to buying high quality warm gear.

Get to know your guides and porters. It is nice talking to someone who comes from a much different area of the world and has a much different job.

Listen to your guides. Drinking water and going slowly is important. Having water bladder greatly increases the amount of water you drink. I was routinely drinking almost 5L of water a day. If you have a water bladder you might want to think about getting a insulated hose for the final climb. I’m not sure how effective they are but if it works I could see it being useful.

I could see taking a relaxing vacation after the trip be nice. I know some people go to the coast and relax on a beach for a day or two. That would have been great to go and relax on a beach after such a strenuous seven days.

Links

Pictures from trip
Nice description of route
The tour company we used: Good Earth Tours
Good resource for information and planning trip: Ultimate Kilimanjaro