Beautiful Mt Kilimanjaro
I was at Zumba recently in Brisbane. As I was dancing to the music, I had an urge to write about a trip I did to Mt Kilimanjaro 37 years ago. It was one of the best things I ever did and I am so glad I did it then, before a child, study, work and life caused me to get super busy and very poor.
At that time, my husband and I were fairly young with a small mortgage of only $100 per month for our lovely little beach bungalow, which only cost $14,000. We bought it after cyclone Althea battered Townsville in 1971 and no one wanted to live on the beach anymore. The house withstood the cyclone.
Setting out through the forest
We decided to take three months off work to go travelling. We chose to spend six weeks in Africa and six weeks in Nepal. We were fairly poor as my husband was between university grants and I had only been working three days a week so we did it on the cheap staying in youth hostels and/or camping.
Bearded Trees on Mt Kilimanjaro
We hired a four-wheel drive in Nairobi and travelled around the game parks camping in our tent. It was pretty terrifying having lions growling outside the tent. The highlight of the African trip for me, apart from all the fantastic wildlife, was spending time on Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro. I wrote about the Mt Kenya walk
I remember being nervous about the impending walk to climb Mt Kilimanjaro on the bus from Nairobi to Arusha. I had a sore throat, but think it was mainly caused by stress. We spent the night in a hotel in Marangu and visited the local markets there to stock up on food for our walk.
Crater near Mandara huts
Mt Kilimanjaro is 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) high and is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. It is one of two snow-capped mountains on the equator. Mt Kenya is the other one.
Forest on Mt Kilimanjaro
We planned to climb the mountain on the Marangu Route which back then was the most popular, fastest and cheapest route up the mountain. These days they call it the Coca Cola route. It is the only route with huts to stay in and the walk on this route only takes five days, although these days you can take an extra day to get used to the altitude.
Some of the other routes take much longer, but they are also better because they give people a long time to acclimatise which helps them get to the top of the mountain. Many on the Marangu Route, including me, don't make it. Even though I didn't get to the top of the mountain I loved every minute of my 5 days there and it has been a highlight of my life.
We were also lucky to experience it back then because a lot of ice and snow has melted since then, probably because of climate change. It is also much more expensive to travel to Africa and climb the mountain now.
John with porters
Africa's highest mountain Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is a challenge to most adventure travellers. The Tanzanian Government increased the fees for all National Parks a lot just before we went there in 1985. This has stopped a lot of student travellers and backpackers who are on a tight budget from climbing it.
We were very lucky and picked up a guide and porters at the Marangu Gate. These days there are a wide range of prices charged for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro by different companies, ranging from $2,000 to $7,000 per person. There are six or seven routes up the mountain.
Roz on Mt Kilimanjaro
I asked a Brisbane friend of mine who climbed it a few years ago which route she went on and how much she paid. She did get right to the top. She told me she climbed up the Machame route which took 7 days. She thinks it cost her about $4000 for the climb.
Kibo and Mawenzi on Mt Kilimanjaro
The Marangu route is 72 kilometres and approaches the mountain from the South East. The walk starts at the Marangu Gate at 1860 m/6100 ft. I can't remember how much we paid to hire a guide and porters and pay the park fees at the gate, but it was probably only a few hundred US dollars, as we didn't have a lot of money.
When we were there we met several men who attempted to sneak up without paying the fees. One American student we met on the bus from Nairobi to Moshi across the border at Namanga told us of his plans. He had a map with several unpatrolled (he thought) routes and he was going to use one of these. We went into the Park legally and didn't see him again until a week later in Nairobi, where he told us what happened.
Bearded Trees on Mt Kilimanjaro
He only got as far as the foothills of the mountain when a Tanzanian guard with a loaded rifle and handcuffs caught him. Steve said it was like real American Wild West action. The guard took his passport and refused to return it unless he paid US $350. Steve offered him US $10 but the guard just laughed and said, "You're mine". They bargained for about an hour and finally, Steve got him down to $50 US, got his passport back and left without even getting a glimpse of the mountain.
John and Guide at Gillman's Point
A German we met at the park gates looked exhausted and very frightened. He had sneaked in without paying, had got right to the top of the mountain, but was caught on the way down. They took his passport and he was anxiously awaiting his fate. We saw him again the next day before we started our climb. He had been bargaining furiously with the ranger and had to pay US $100 and then justify why they shouldn't take him to the police. He managed to talk his way out of that and we last saw him walking very fast with his full pack on his back down the hill to the village of Marangu.
I expect a lot more adventurers will attempt to climb Kilimanjaro illegally. The snow-capped mountain, rising from the flat, dry, animal covered plains has a tremendous magic about it. Many legends and myths have surrounded the volcanic crater.
The beauty of Kilimanjaro lies in its diverse habitats which goes through distinct changes from fertile rainforests, to heathland, moorland, alpine desert zones and finally ice and snow on Uhuru Peak. The mountain was incredibly beautiful with magnificent scenery and colourful alpine flowers and unusual giant groundsels and lobelias, which have specially adapted to the freezing conditions.
The groundsels store reserves of water inside themselves and can feed from this supply when the ground is frozen. The lobelias have a rosette of leaves that close tightly at night to protect the growing buds from the bitter cold. These plants extend up to above 4270m.
You do need to take it very slowly "pole, pole
" to avoid getting altitude sickness. Most companies today take extra days to complete the climb.
John on Mt Kilimanjaro
After a night sleeping in accommodation at the Marangu Gate, we finally set off with our own personal guide and porters. They looked very young, but very experienced and super friendly. We hiked through forest for 8 kilometres for about 3 – 4 hours up to Mandara Huts at an altitude of 840m/2780 feet on our first day. The vegetation was changing and we started to see the "Bearded forest" with lichen dangling from the trees.
The Mandara huts were in a group in a forest clearing. We met up with other walkers and I remember having a nice communal dinner in one of the wooden huts that night. We also walked to the Maundi Crater, where we had great views. We didn't see any of the white colobus monkeys, which live around that area though. We had seen Sykes monkeys on Mt Kenya. It started to get cold here and I needed my wool shirt, beanie and gloves.
On day 2, we walked from Mandara huts to Horombo huts, which were about 12 kilometres away at an altitude of 3700m/12140 ft. The walk was very interesting with different vegetation as we progressed from forest through to heathland. We walked slowly and I don't think I even carried a daypack when looking back at my photos. This was in the days before walking poles. I was wearing my old trusty walking boots and thick wooly socks. I had ruined my favourite walking trousers on Mt Kenya when I was sliding down the famous vertical bog. It tore the backside out of the pants. I bought a new pair of cotton ones in Nairobi. My husband was wearing jeans.
As we climbed higher we got incredible views of Mt Kilimanjaro and the peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo. We had fantastic weather and it was quite warm walking during the day, but got very cold at night.
The third day we walked to Kibo hut, a distance of 9.7 kilometres at 4700m/15420ft altitude. This was getting into the moorland and alpine desert zones. I was going alright at the point, even though it was getting really cold and had to force myself to eat. We went to bed early because we had to get up and start climbing at midnight to get to the top by sunrise. It was pretty bleak around Kibo huts, which are located at the eastern base of Kibo peak, on the saddle connecting it with Mawenzi.
We set off with our head torches and lots of warm clothing, which we had hired from the hotel. It was a hard slog up the scree-covered zig zag slopes. By about 2am, I was starting to really feel the effects of the altitude, but I kept going until we reached a cave. By then it was about 3am. I had been vomiting and feeling very dizzy and weak with a bad headache. I was very breathless and decided I'd had enough. I was suffering from altitude sickness and being a nurse knew it could kill me. I don't remember having access back then to some of the drugs people take now such as diamox.
I sat down for a rest in the cave, which I think was the Hans Meyer cave at 5150 metres/16896.33ft named after German geographer Hans Meyer who with Austrian mountaineer Ludwig Purtscheller became the first people on record to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro in 1889.
Frozen glacier Mt Kilimanjaro
A few other walkers arrived. Some of them were suffering too. I remember one man was complaining that he couldn't feel his toes and they were frozen. About four of us decided to head down. One of the guides went with us back to Kibo hut, where we slept until daylight.
I remember being very cold, even in a down sleeping bag. As soon as it was light we headed down to Horombo Huts where we spent our last night. I started to feel much better the lower I got. I remember having a relaxing afternoon at the huts before our final day walking back to the Marangu Gate. I did keep a diary, but haven't been able to find it. I know it is in the house somewhere so I will keep searching for it.
My husband was feeling okay, so he went on with our guide. He got some beautiful photos from Gillman's Point at 5700 m/18700ft on the edge of the crater, which had snow at the bottom. He could see Uhuru to his left about another 100 metres higher, but didn't go further as he was feeling the affects of the altitude too.
Crater from Gillman's Point
On the way down, I remember seeing a stretcher on wheels, which one of the porters told me was used to bring down people who were critically ill from the altitude. I read about 10 people die from altitude sickness every year on Kilimanjaro, so you do need to take it seriously and ascend slowly. We should have taken more days to acclimatise.
A few weeks later we went to Nepal and did the Annapurna Circuit. During that three-week walk, I climbed to 5416m/17,769 ft. over the Thorong La Pass, which was higher than I got on Mt Kilimanjaro. I coped with the altitude much better because we had slowly acclimatized to that height so I didn't have a problem.
Our guide and porters were wonderful and carried all our gear and prepared our food. They sang their African songs and we joined in. It was a wonderful adventure.
Roz and a porter on Mt Kilimanjaro
I'm so glad I had the opportunity to climb the mountain when I did, because I would never have been able to later on. Life gets busy with children, bills, study and full time work. Back in 1985, it was uncrowded with lots of snow and ice. These days up to 50,000 people climb the mountain each year, and a lot of the snow and ice has gone.
Flowers on Mt Kilimanjaro