The sultry breezes, the Southern Cross, the smell of Tanzanian coffee beans wafting down from the slopes of Kilimanjaro greeted us warmly on our arrival in the early evening hours at Kilimanjaro International Airport. An hour later we were at the Keys Hotel for dinner, a chilled beverage and a quick review of our plans for Mt Meru and our ascent of the Western Breach.
With our training, our scrambling, our packing, our malaria pill prescriptions and our international flights all behind us, we were all set for our big adventure. With three family groups, the now famous climbing Dentists and two rough and tuff individuals, our training would soon prove to have prepared us mentally and physically to not only climb Kilimanjaro, but also to enjoy this adventure on our ascent to the summit of and then across the top of Africa and down the other side.
Early the next morning our 12-member group set off and shortly after lunch were already walking through the tall grass; with zebra, water buffalo, giraffes and wart hogs as our neighbors.
A relaxed four hour walk led up through the thickening rain forest, with trees overlaid with moss, ferns growing from their sides, in a profusion of deep green. We reached the Miri Kamba hut where we bunked four to a room, dining in a common hall with several other groups, and a balcony set out over the edge to watch the sun set behind the slopes of Mt Meru.
Dinner was our introduction to camp food – a fresh cucumber soup, generous platters of pasta with vegetable and meat sauces. This was all just the beginning of an ongoing repertoire of fresh foods that would be carried to the heights to tempt our palettes.
Next morning we moved rapidly up through the forest, passing through moss covered trees that thinned as we moved higher, before bumping into a troop of Black and White Calobas monkeys swinging through the trees above us. By mid afternoon we were settled into the Saddle Hut, with 4 enthusiastic members heading up another 300 meters to the summit of Little Meru for some added acclimatization.
Everyone was feeling great, barring Margo and Myles whose stomachs hadn’t taken kindly to a 9 hour time change and African diet as quickly as the rest of us. With a midnight wake-up call for Meru, we were all in bed shortly after dark.
Morning, if you can call the middle of the night that, started with a quick bowl of porridge and we all set off up the trail. We wound through volcanic boulders and low brush, angling around and up onto the base of the crater. Climbing under the Southern Cross and a profusion of stars practically bright enough to light our way, we soon reached Rhino Point, complete with bleached Rhino bones glowing in our headlamp beams. A thin rocky ridge with long drops into the darkness on both sides and a rough scaly texture underfoot led to some sideways scrambling to keep us on our toes and wide awake, before we started the long upwards traverse around the back of the crater and onto the summit.
With dawn breaking, my son Myles and I reached 4,200 meters and headed back down, while everyone else kept moving confidently up for the now revealed summit. But like many peaks, ‘around the next corner and over the next hill,’ happened more than once as the crater rim curved around and finally up a final steep scramble to the top. Aided by encouragement from our local guides Cha Cha, Moses and Rayson, the entire team reached the top, attaining 4,556 meters just 4 days after departing the UK. We were obviously off to a good start, with a number of us reaching new heights on the planet, in some cases doubling or tripling the altitudes we had previously attained.
The following day we descended back down the trail, crossing a set of leopard tracks along the way just to remind us that climbing in Africa holds a surprise around every corner. In the final fields leading back to the bus, we paused to let a troop of 50 or more baboons pass by on the trail directly in front of us, the baby’s cavorting through the grass in the sunshine.
After a refreshing night back under our mosquito nets at the Keys Hotel, we made the 1 1/2 hour drive up the slopes of Kilimanjaro, passing through lush banana and coffee plantations to reach the Umbwe trail.
With our lead local guide Moses assembling our staff of 50 (to carry the essential tables, chairs and dining tents, not to mention the bushel baskets of fresh potatoes, bananas, mangos and cucumbers) we set off up through the tunneled track into the rain forest.
The gentle sloping trail was a welcome introduction to Kili, following a shallow road, that soon led to a steeper track leading up wooden stairs set into the hard packed soil, to the Rain Forest Camp. It was an idyllic spot canopied by towering, intensely green trees, with just enough space cut into the rolls of the volcanic earth to set our seven camping tents.
The intensity of the darkness, with imagined leopards prowling about, had us settled into our tents early and up shortly after dawn the next day to continue our walk.
An excellent path wound up through the deep forest, turning and twisting, the rain forest soon feeding into towering palm like fronds sprouting 5 meters high around us as we broke out into a prominent volcanic ridge. Ascending into the bright equatorial sunshine, the precipitous heights of Kili’s magnificent Breach Wall reared directly in front of us. We walked along the razors back of the ridge, each side dropping away steeply into the dark rain forest valleys on each side of us. It was a day that released us from the dark forests below and now set us free to climb into the heights of the worlds’ tallest free-standing mountain.
At the crest of the ridge we moved out into a basin below the glaciers and towering walls of Kili to the Baranco Camp at 3,900 meters.
The next day we had a quick hike 300 meters up the Baranco Wall, acclimatizing and taking in a new perspective on the sweeping ice glaciers extending down from the top of Africa nearly 2,000 meters above us. With luck, we’d be rolling over the top in less than 2 days time.
To move into position for our final ascent, we moved up from the Baranco to Arrow Glacier camp at 4,800 meters, quickly leaving all signs of vegetation behind and climbing up and over a series of ridges to land in a high alpine alcove, the Western Breach wall rising dramatically directly in front of us.
Having started the day in pure sunshine, we’d climbed up into thick mist, which now cleared just as the sun rolled off the world in a final blazing orange orb on the equators horizon.
We were up at 2 a.m. for our summit assault, frost coating the tents, dining on porridge or fresh potato soup, a special request for the kitchen that they served up in an oversize steaming pot – servings dependent on whether we were feeling more like a very early breakfast or a post midnight snack to start out climb. By 3:30 a.m. we were following our headlamps up the scree, soon moving onto the steeper but solid volcanic rock ribs running down from the crater rim.
Stepping off the top of Kilimanjaro, the rapidly receeding glacier melted quickly away in the background.
We transitioned back to steep scree with a wandering trail leading us up to the final cliffs. From below the cliffs had looked dark, vertical and virtually impenetrable, but as we drew closer, the way traversed and shot up steep gully’s, along exposed ridges and through delicate traverses that were far more spectacular than difficult. And as we climbed through the cliffs, the sun rose behind us, illuminating Mt Meru, then the shadow of Kilimanjaro set in the horizon, before Kili’s shadow settled into the plains of Africa and slowly shrunk from orange to pink to the brown of the plains.
Shortly after 8 a.m. we pulled over the rim and into the immense crater of Kilimanjaro, ice cliffs rising on the left and a quick but final ascent up to the summit. With the day resplendent in sunshine, the first of us were on top before 10 a.m., in virtual shirtsleeve weather with only a light breeze and a 360 degree panorama across Africa.
With plenty of time for photos, and an early lunch behind us, we started the quick descent, traversing over the summit and down the top of the normal route, before curving off into a rapid descent down the loose scree of Mweka route. By late afternoon we were all in Millenium Camp, with fresh vegetable soup, popcorn and endless cups of tea at hand.
A final days walking led us down into the forest again, descending rapidly through Mweka Camp, then into the cooling rain forest and along a well packed trail to the park entrance. We fare-welled our porters and a quick half hour later were back to the hot showers and cold beverages at the Keys Hotel.
With ten solid days of walking and climbing behind us, from the plains filled with wild animals, to the depths of the dark forests at 1,600 meters, up to the Alpine heights at the summit of Mt Meru and across the top of Kilimanjaro, we’d had a rare opportunity to fill each day with a host of new experiences that will be with us all for a lifetime.