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The Travelettes Guide to Mt. Kilimanjaro
Obviously a #hike up #MountKilimanjaro is only for the #active traveler, but I want to fully prepare you for what awaits. I've listed out my own suggestions on how to choose a route, what to pack, how to train beforehand, and what the actual climb will require, both physically and mentally. The trek was certainly a challenge, but also very rewarding.
Standing on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, that you will never forget: the glistening white of the remaining glaciers, the thick carpet of clouds hiding everything below you out of sight, the sun tickling your nose after a long night’s trek up the rocky slopes – just magical! Not that I know much about it… soon I’ll tell you all about my attempt and subsequent failure to climb all of Kili’s 5,895 metres…
Still, I was in the mountain for six days and have learnt the ins and outs, the rules of Africa’s tallest mountain – and there is a lot to know, beginning from which route to choose, what gear to bring, how the thing with the porters works, and of course a few traveletty secrets I’ve learnt from my own experience. In case you plan to climb the roof of Africa yourself, our Travelettes Guide to Mt. Kilimanjaro should be helping you to prepare properly.
Way to go: the Routes
There are several routes up to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which vary in length and vegetation mainly, but also in difficulty to a certain extent. They all last between 5 and 9 days, but I would not recommend to go the fastest way. The most popular routes are Marangu and Machame, and in high season both can get quite crowded. Marangu is the only route where you can sleep in huts, all other routes rely on tent camps. The only route attacking Kili from the northern side is Rongai-Route, which takes 8 to 9 days.
I would not recommend to go the fastest way
For our recent attempt we chose Marangu, because my dad wanted to sleep in huts rather than tents. Seeing that I didn’t make it this time, I have already decided which one to try next: Lemosho. You start in the West and hike up Shira Plateau (Shira, which is now collapsed, used to be the first peak of Kili); on day three you join Machame to climb to the top via the Southern Circuit and Barafu Camp.
This route takes its time (6-8 days), and ascends very slowly, with a lot of up and down for acclimatisation. It has plenty of beautiful views, goes through different zones of vegetation and even offers opportunities for wildlife viewing!
What to Pack: the kit
When we booked our trip with Zara Tours, we received a full list of recommended equipment and a list of gear available for rent in Moshi. Of course I also researched online (there are billions of expert websites for Kili out there, but I really liked this one), and because I do quite a bit of mountaineering at home in Scotland as well, I decided to acquire some of the key items rather than renting them. Here’s what you need to bring (or rent):
– One duffle bag for your stuff: a porter will carry this bag on his head or shoulders. I went for the Mountain Equipment Wet & Dry Kit Bag, because it is waterproof and 70L was big enough to hold my massive sleeping bag and enough clothes to not freeze or feel like a dirty bum. Having traveled through Tanzania and Zambia with it for three weeks I can only recommend it, especially if you don’t intend to walk far distances carrying it! If need be, you could also carry it like a backpack to make things easier. Inside it has a pocket on each side (perfect for small items you still need handy-ish), a large, additional waterproof zipbag, which I used to hold my underwear, and two zip pockets on top.
– One daypack for things you need during the day’s hike: waterproofs, a raincoat, water, sun protection and your lunchbox. I can highly recommend the Tempest 30L which is part of Osprey’s women’s line. It has plenty of straps and loops to hook things on to, three exterior compartments for water bottles, sun lotion, hat or sunglasses, and a large compartment on the back to fit a water bladder (I used the Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir 3L) – NO PLASTIC BOTTLES are allowed in Mt Kilimanjaro National Park!
– A very warm sleeping bag, as nights even in the huts can be freezing cold. We rented our -30°C sleeping bags from Zara Tours, but brought our own sleeping bag liners.
– Good hiking boots which go over your ankles for stability and are well broken-in, so you don’t get blisters. For the camp you can also bring light trainers, to give your feet a welcome rest after a long day in the boots.
– Hiking clothes for warm and cold weather – the key is layering (and as you can see: colour coding). Until you reach Horombo Hut (or a camp at a similar altitude) you won’t need to put on too many layers, but once you reach the Alpine Desert above 4,000m, the wind will pick up and chill the air considerably. For the summit day (or night, rather) in particular, you will need warm clothes and many layers. Here is what I packed: 1 tank top (which doubled up as base layer higher up); 2 short sleeve t-shirts (sweat-absorbing and quick-dry; one I kept entirely for the final day to feel fresh); 1 long sleeve t-shirt (same material); 1 long sleeve base layer (made from wool) and matching base layer trousers; 1 light hiking trousers (with zip-off legs); 1 winter hiking trousers (I love these lined ones by Jack Wolfskin which came with internal gaiters and are super warm); 1 fleece jumper; 1 merino wool Buff (to keep your neck and head warm, and protect your face from the wind); 1 wool hat; hiking socks; quick-dry underwear (I brought random non-cotton panties from H&M); 1 windproof triclimate jacket; fleece gloves and waterproof mittens to wear on top (rented from Zara Tours).
– Mountain weather is often unpredictable and to be in the safe side, you need good rain gear. I brought a pair of waterproof trousers (which I rented from Zara Tours), gaiters (which I didn’t use, but recommend anyways, because you never know); and a triclimate jacket with an outer waterproof shell and an inner insulated jacket (not fleece, but more like a belay jacket) – I had been ogling the North Face Loreto jacket for a year, and Kili was the best excuse to finally get it! It’s super warm, the insulated layer folds down into a tiny ball, there are plenty of pockets and even without the outer shell, it keeps you dry in a short thunderstorm (as test-driven in Newcastle).
– A headlamp, which I held back for the summit hike, and a little torch for the rest of the days; plus spare batteries for both.
– Walking poles – also rented from Zara Tours.
– A few other items: a journal and pen; a book to read; baby wipes and tissues (for a catlick, but also used as toilet paper); energy snacks like, dextrose candies, nuts and chocolate bars; a travel towel & microfiber wash cloth; a first aid kit (needed to attend to my dad’s scraped fingers after scrambling down the summit); blister plasters (which I didn’t need because my boots love my feet); a medical kit with Ibuprofen/Paracetamol, laxatives and Imodium; sun protection: lotion, glasses and a hat; a dry bag for my valuables; a small lock to lock my duffle bag during the day.
– Things I wish I had packed as well: playing cards (especially for the acclimatisation day, but also for the evenings); a sports gel to cool/warm sore muscles and joints; meds for nausea and vomiting.
A big thank you goes out to Cotswold Outdoor, who supported me with some of the essential items mentioned here. I usually shop locally at their Glasgow branch, but they also have a great online shop with the option to get things delivered to the local branch or home!
Ready to Roll: the Fitness
When my dad first told me about his hiking training plan, I didn’t think much of it – I cycle every day, I do yoga for core, leg and shoulder strength, I climb and hike regularly. I’d be fine. I also didn’t have the time to go out into the hills twice a week, like me retired dad. I’d be fine.
Kilimanjaro Trekking and Climbling
Bike Tour in Pangani
Nomads of the North
Fact is, I wasn’t. Now I know that the stronger your legs are, the more they can achieve on autopilot. If you start having headaches and feeling nausea, the last thing you want to think of is your tired legs. You don’t need to be an athlete to climb Kilimanjaro, neither an experienced mountaineer – technically this was one of the easiest hikes I’ve ever done (no climbing, only walking) – but don’t underestimate how strenuous it is to hike in high altitude for a couple of days in a row.
Train by taking long walks and day hikes, ideally carrying a backpack packed like your day pack and incorporating steady uphill walking. Take the stairs instead of the elevator and go for runs and bicycle rides. Yoga and meditation will prepare you mentally, but also teach you breathing techniques for when you are short of breath or can’t sleep. Most importantly, keep to your guide’s pace – ‘pole, pole’!
A day on Kilimanjaro
My experience is based on walking Marangu route – I’m not sure how a day on another route differs, but it must be pretty similar.
Your waiter wakes you up at 7am and brings a bowl of hot water and a bar of soap to your hut. After a refreshing wash, you get dressed and head to one of the big dining huts for breakfast (around 7.30), which consists of thin, but sweet porridge, toast, eggs, (sausage,) fresh fruit and hot drinks. The waiter will bring your lunchbox and collect your empty water bottles to fill them with cold water, which your cook boiled the night before (or fresh warm water – as you wish).
At some point your guide will swing by to see how you are feeling and answer any question you might have. After breakfast you pack all your stuff into your duffle bag, and prepare your daypack (rain gear, water, lunchbox).
Around 8.30am you and your guide set out to climb to the next hut, while the porters collect your duffle bag and make their way up much quicker than you. They carry their own load plus your bag plus food supplies and cooking equipment – it is impressive to see them balance everything on their backs, shoulders and heads (and also a little saddening).
Depending on the day, you will walk between 3 and 6 hours, with a lunch break around noon. While the toilets at Mandara and Horombo have a flush, the toilets at the lunch stations and at Kibo are nothing more than holes in the ground covered by a shed – they don’t smell of roses and violets (especially terrible when you already feel sick from the altitude). My advice: pee in the bush or behind rocks.
You will reach the hut between 2 and 3pm. After some photos at the huts’ sign, your waiter will again bring water for wash and serve hot drinks and a snack (cookies and popcorn). You then have time to settle into your hut, relax a little, write your journal or chat with your guide. The small huts at Mandara and Horombo sleep 4 or more hikers, the dinner huts (Mandara, Horombo) and the rooms at Kibo Hut around 12 – in low season your guide will try to get a private one for your party, but there is no guarantee.
Dinner is served around 6pm – first vegetable soup, then a main course which in our case contained mainly of chicken, beef stew or pasta, and fruit for dessert. After dinner your guide will come by your table and discuss the following day – what to wear, what to bring, what to expect. By 8pm you will be in your hut, trying to read with your torch, but not able to stay awake. Good night!
Swahili for Beginners
Your mountain guide will definitely speak English, but your waiter and the porters might not, so it’s only good practice to learn a few basic words in Swahili. Here are some of the most useful words for hikers:
Pole, pole! – Slow, slow!
Jambo. – Hello.
Mambo? – How are you?
Poa. – Fine.
Asante (sana). – Thank you (very much).
Karibu (sana). – You are (very) welcome. / Welcome!
Dada. – Sister.
Kileleni. – To the top.
Hakuna matata. – No problem.
As a client whose health (and life) depends on the knowledge and experience of your mountain guides, and whose things are being carried 4,000m of altitude up, and 4,000m down a mountain by porters, you are expected to give tips to your crew. They risk their own life and health for your personal success. Without them your trip up to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro would not be possible.
They risk their own life and health for your personal success
Porters, guides and cooks don’t earn huge salaries, but are highly dependent on the gratitude of the climbers. Zara Tours provided us with a cheat sheet of appropriate tipping rules; plan to give roughly 200-300USD for the entire crew. Tipping is not done on the mountain (in fact you should leave all your money and valuables behind in a safety box – we used the ones in our hotel), but afterwards, with help of an official tipping form. Your guide will assist you and also distribute the money among the crew.
Now it’s up to you – if you decide to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro always remember: ‘you can do it’. And if you can’t, it is absolutely no shame, and even less a waste of time or money! Any day on Kili is an amazing day – I’d love to hear your stories! Maybe you even want to join me in my next attempt?