A year ago, several email and phone calls between Gemini Outdoor and 360 Expeditions resulted in the seeds of an Expediton to walk up Kilimanjaro; something 360 had a proven track record and pedigree for, and an opportunity GO wanted to explore with our clients. Throughout the intervening period we both attracted an excellent group of individuals who also wanted to walk to the “Roof of Africa”. With the fantastic support of 360, our Expediton was up and running – from 1st March 2018, here is what happened next…
Thursday ~ we had been communicating via social media for several weeks by the time we finally met at Heathrow on that cold and snowy lunchtime. For the next 12 hours we would be waiting and chatting, flying to Nairobi, waiting and chatting some more, before our flight into Kilimanjaro International Airport, whereupon we would meet up with the final 2 members of the team – Jim & Ross.
Our team assembled were myself (Steve) as the Team Leader, the Myers Clan of Dave, along with grown-up children Charlotte, Lily and Ben; and Roy all from Gemini Outdoor Nordic Walking in Malmesbury; father and son, Jim and Ross from Copenhagen; newly weds Honor & Ed on their honeymoon; friends and work colleagues Darren and Colin; Mark from London; and finally, Jakub from Bristol.
Friday ~ we arrived at our hotel in Moshi around lunchtime, with time aplenty to catch up on sleep, relax, swim and repack for our trek start the following day. That evening we would meet with Mussa (our Expediton Leader) and his Guides for an alfresco supper.
Saturday ~ Bags dropped, rucksacks packed onto the roof of the bus, we were ready to start our adventure of a lifetime.
Before heading to the National Park, we had one last stop to collect the guides and our first snapshot view of Kilimanjaro.
The drive to the start of the walk presented an ever-changing scenery from urban Moshi to colourful village buildings and villagers going about their business, agricultural ground being worked by hand, and into the rainforest with its black & white colobus monkeys and a troop of baboons…
Arriving at Londorossi Gate, our porters were already in full swing, having their permits checked and loads weighed. Each Porter is only permitted to carry a maximum of 20kg, hence much moving around of stores and waiting in line was had. We just soaked up the atmosphere, ate lunch and hydrated.
Our first walk albeit a relatively short 2km took 90 minutes due to the altitude and the ‘pole pole‘ approach to walking (pronounced poh-lee)! Before departing our team of guides and porters sang a song to welcome us; as well as making you feel as though you’re part of something bigger than just you and the trek; it was also an excuse for ‘dad dancing‘ to the beat!
Not wanting to be out done, on Saturday evening Mother Nature put on a little electric light show of her own, surrounding clouds were lit up for several hours before a deluge lasting all night engulfed our camp at Shira 1 (3460m), and continued well into Sunday.
Our 14 strong team bonded superbly well, helping each other, and equally important enjoying a laugh with each other. Combined with our amazing team of 35 porters, tent crew, cooks etc and 6 guides we were part of an excellent Expedition.
It always amazes me the quality of meals created and cooked on Expeditions; not only high in calorific value but also so tasty and appetising.
Sunday ~ Our 10km route across swollen streams and moon-esqué landscapes helped us get-to-know the guides; and finally took us to our camp at Shira 2 (3840m). The effects of altitude were ever-present with headaches that sometimes leave as quickly as they arrive; but we continued with our mantra of ‘pole pole‘ and constant sipping of water (6 litres yesterday) which has its own natural effects, and is referred to by the guides as “Catch a Monkey 1” when one disappears briefly into the bondu!
Monday ~ we departed Shira 2 camp ground with clearing skies and optimism of a good days walking ahead. Our route would take us up to the Lava Tower (4600m) for lunch, and into the snow some 300m below; before descending to Barranco Camp at 3600m.
The route up was relatively straight forward until the snow line was breached; thereafter, the going was slower than ‘pole pole‘! Unfortunately, a couple from the group fell foul of the dreaded lurgy and spent a good deal of time ‘Catching a Monkey 2’! The hot lunch was well received by those that could face it; for others, the ensuing descent would help them feel better. The going down was tough in the snow, with Porters taking the occasional tumble, thankfully non were hurt. Our route to the bulging Keranga camp site was long and torturous, with boulders strewn everywhere. Arrival in camp was greeted with tea and popcorn. After wash and sleep, we enjoyed another fabulous supper of potato soup, mince and pasta…all you need to refill the Walkers engine!
Tuesday ~ the Barranco Wall was shrouded in mist when we awoke, but soon cleared to reveal its enormity and a zig-zag path we were to take on its face.
Up close and personal this was a challenge to enjoy with poles stashed and at times 3 points of contact needed to approach the easy scramble sections. As if the precipitous drops weren’t enough, constant rain added a further challenge with greasy rock added into the mixer! We took 90 minutes to ascend the wall, then headed across an escarpment for a few hours to Keranga Camp (3900m).
With every day, we saw plants only found in the Kilimanjaro National Park, along with different colours of the same flora. Our guides knowledge was excellent; and together with their delivery in such a relaxed manner made it easy to listen and learn. Equally, their quest to teach us Swahili made for hours of fun and education along the hours of our route each day.
Wednesday ~ our final pre-summit trail took us into the Barafu Camp (4673m); along the way we encountered more interesting plants and yet another rain storm.
Barafu is Base Camp for the Lemosho Trail we were attempting on Uhuru. Upon our arrival and with the rain abated, it was time for lunch. Once in the mess tent we recorded 36 degrees C; however, in true Kili style we were soon donning duvet jackets as temperatures plummeted and another storm hit.
Throughout our trip we were treated to the most amazing cuisine prepared and cooked by our skilled and talented chefs. Banana fritters, chicken stew, fish fingers, omelettes, chips, rices, pastas, beef stew, as well as different daily soups of courgette, cucumber, potato, parsnip… To serve up delicious gastronomy from a tent and a gas ring is testament to their inventive skill.
With our Kilimanjaro summit only hours away we rested in tents, trying to sleep and preserve energy for our midnight start to the summit. When we stepped out into the dark we were treated to another electric storm over the rainforest far below us. At 11pm we assembled in the Mess Tent for tea and biscuits; unusually but not surprising, chatter was restricted!
Thursday ~ It was midnight and minus 5 when we stepped foot out of our Mess Tent at Barafu Camp. Ahead of us and up the hill we could see strings of head torched folk starting their journey. We followed other teams into the night with a common purpose. A short scramble section over a head wall was soon behind us as we faced the enormity of our challenge, whilst you couldn’t see the mountain profile against the inky black sky, you could see up to 10 teams of walkers snaking their way up the slope at various altitudes, some clearly 4 to 5 hours ahead of us….this really was a huge wall to ascend! As the hours slowly ticked away we passed through 5500m as dawn was breaking to our right, the clouds below revealing a slice of golden warmth.
By 6am head torches were off and for the first time we could make out the crater rim of Kibo. In straggled formation we each passed the Stella Point at 5756m, the highest we had all walked previously; however, our ultimate challenge was still a 45 minute walk along the crater rim and cruelly another 3 hills away.
The sky was clear and the sun was beating down yet it was at least -10C. The views across Africa would have been spectacular and possibly reaching 300km if only we could have seen through the cloud shrouding the land at around 3000m above sea level.
Finally, at 8am on 8th March 2018, after months of training and preparation, we along with guides and summit porters stood on the “Worlds Highest Free Standing Mountain”, Uhuru (5895m), the “Roof of Africa” was achieved.
Our challenge to this point had been hugely physical, mental and emotional, yet we were only half way! With memories locked away and photos taken we set off back to Base Camp retracing our ascent route; but not before regathering at Stella Point for revitalising mango juice and chocolate bars, and for some of the Team, 4 minutes of much needed supplemental oxygen.
The snowy slopes made descent a lot easier than our exhausting ascent walk, and it was nice to see all the zigs and zags we had encountered hours previously. At 11.30am we entered the cloud we had looked down upon hours before, to face a hail storm lasting 3 hours. By 12.30pm we were all safely back at Base Camp for much needed sleep, before lunch and time to move on.
At 2.30pm with the storm passed, we were awoken to a call for food and “pack up your bags, we are leaving after lunch“. Much needed energy consumed, we set off down the mountain to our final night of the trek at Millennium Camp (3920m).
One could feel the air becoming thicker, and activities like getting out of your tent and lacing up boots were getting easier. The ambient temperature once the sun had set was still low though and by 8pm everyone was in bed, resting weary bodies that had been pushed to their limits.
The previous week, most of us came together as complete strangers, now we were lifelong friends, and all because of a dream to climb Kilimanjaro. We had bonded tightly as a unit with a common purpose; helped, supported and encouraged each other when we were flagging and had achieved our amazing once in a lifetime goal together.
Friday ~ our final day on the hill began at 5am, and for the final time packing our sleeping bags and mats away, to leave our tents with just a day bag and rucksack inside. Whilst we ate breakfast and chatted about the day before, our tent crew dismantled camp. Prior to us all walking out, we were to enjoy more songs and dancing, and us showing our appreciation to the amazing crew the ‘tipping ceremony’.
Along with us, these amazingly friendly people – guides, porters, cooks, waiters, toilet team, water team, tent crew and summit porters had for the last week become ‘One Team’. They all worked tirelessly in pursuit of our dream. Some, like the guides and waiters we got to know well, others not so; however, without all of their combined efforts and humanity (and excellent singing) we would not even had left the hotel in Moshi. Witnessing the army of porters (34 in total) overtake us each day, often within minutes of our departure, and seemingly without effort carrying up to 20kg of equipment (tents, stoves, our day bags, toilets, food, water etc) on their backs, heads and combinations is a sight to behold. Where we would carefully move along uneven ground they would briskly walk at a hugely faster pace, so that when arrived in camp everything was ready to go once more.
Our final 6 hours of walking to Mweka Gate took us down from the alpine terrain, through Mweka Camp and into the rain forest, whereupon we saw a ‘Bush Back’, various monkeys and huge numbers of flora. With the ever decreasing altitude the air was becoming thicker and breathing much easier; however, the atmosphere was more and more humid; and it was no surprise that another rain storm passed through.
Our trail had been carefully orchestrated to build in critical acclimatisation. To walk from sea level to the summit of Kilimanjaro without appropriate acclimatisation could prove disastrous; hence a progressive profile with gradual increases in height and a mantra of ‘walk high, sleep low‘ was adopted. Our first walk took us the short distance from the drop-off at 3407m (albeit we had spent a few hours resting at Londorossi Gate (2250m)) to sleeping at Shira 1 at 3500m, next was Shira 2 at 3900m; day 3 our walk took us to the Lava Tower (4600m) before descending to Barranco at 3900m; day 4 we slept at Keranga (3940m), whilst on day 5 we arrived at Base Camp at Barafu (4763m) before summiting (5895m) and returning to camp on day 6; finally later that afternoon, to help us sleep we walked to and slept at Millennium Camp at 3920m before descending to Mweka Gate at 1900m on day 7.
At Mweka Gate, we were happily reunited with our friends Jim & Ross (who retired at Keranga due to illness) ; and along with our guides we were whisked off through coffee plantations for a hearty lunch of tandoori chicken and chips, and our first of a few celebratory “Kilimanjaro” beers! Later that evening we all came together one last time for our ‘celebratory supper’.
Saturday ~ with Ed & Honor leaving mid-afternoon to continue their honeymoon, 10 of us joined Mussa on safari at the Arusha National Park. We could have spent the day resting but with an opportunity to see wild animals in their natural habitat, why would you? We were not to be disappointed and witnessed some amazing sightings, as well as enjoying the day relaxing.
Finally, many thanks and much appreciation to all those folk who helped us achieve our ‘adventure of a lifetime‘.