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Review: Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Specialist Holiday - Walking

Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, United Republic of

Kilimanjaro - with or without oxygen tanks

  • By SilverTraveller amelroy

    23 reviews


  • September 2012
  • Solo
  • Walking

24 people found this review helpful

First off, the trivia. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa and the highest free standing mountain in the world. I don’t know about you, but I always find that latter statement when we’re talking about the Goliaths of nature to be quite funny. It sounds as if most of the other comparable mountains have cables attached to keep them upright. What it means of course is that Kilimanjaro rises almost ‘Ayers Rock’ like, it isn’t surrounded by other, smaller mountains. It’s actually 4,877 metres (16,001 feet) from tip to toe and it stands 5,895 metres (19,341 feet) above sea level. Yet despite its impressive stature, it’s walkable. And 25,000 people do so each and every year.

It’s a dormant volcano, thankfully, made up of three craters Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. I must point out, should any of you decide to sue me at a later date, that ‘dormant’ isn’t quite the same as ‘extinct’. So perchance the sleeping Kibo, which happens to be the highest and largest crater, reawakens at some point, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Right, that’s the statistics and disclaimer done with, now to the experience.

I didn’t intend to walk to the summit of this monumental peak. It takes months to get fit enough if you’ve allowed yourself to upsize in midlife and besides, my idea of altitude acclimatisation was to visit my brother-in-law who lives on the 17th floor of a council tower block. Even then I got a nose bleed in the lift. No, my plan was to simply trek until things got uncomfortable, stop, enjoy the vista, meditate on life a little and head back down. My goal was humble but realistic, to maybe go twice the height of Ben Nevis. I’ve heard enough horror stories about experienced climbers having blinding headaches, nausea, even breaking bones when falling on steep slopes. It can happen in the Lakes District, the slip sliding that is, it can certainly happen on glaciers at 5,000 metres.

It always surprises me that people are stunned when I tell them I flew in to Kilimanjaro International Airport. The region is prosperous by African standards but nevertheless tourists are a valuable and most welcome commodity. The runway at KIA is over two miles long and can accommodate Boeing 747s. A dirt strip it certainly is not. Likewise the main local town, Moshi, has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa and while I know very few people back home who speak ANY foreign language fluently, I met plenty Moshites who could converse easily in English.

The town has an expanding population which is swiftly approaching 200,000. And as the perceived rich Westerners are so sought after there is no shortage of hotels to suit most budgets. I say ‘perceived’ because the foreigners wishing to trek Kilimanjaro are certainly a diverse mix. I talked to retired businessmen, millionaire dentists, a few Australians who seemed to have financed their trip by extremely dubious means and some almost penniless backpackers. I think a local hotelier had an equal chance of making some good money and being given some sound investment and oral advice or losing a few towels and maybe the contents of his safe!

All in all I have to say most people I met seemed personable, full of zest and had a story to tell. The Tanzanians themselves are remarkable, they must have the biggest smiles in the world. Maybe they do host more dentists than iffy twenty somethings after all.

We stayed in the Livingstone Hotel or the Moshi Hotel. It couldn’t seem to make up its mind what it was called. Even the staff greeted us on different days with “welcome to the Moshi” or “Good Morning Sir, welcome back to the Livingstone”. I presume you had to make your own mind up. And yes, that was a joke. But only just. Like most establishments round and abouts it wasn’t five star plus, but the staff were eager to please and a delight to deal with.

For the climb itself I booked with a company aptly called Adventures Within Reach. They were absolutely brilliant and you tend to find you’re in the company of very like-minded people. AWR have some excellent hikes up to 9,000 to 12,000 feet. Because you spend one night in a hut before you’re worn out or hurting, most people, myself included, are pleasantly surprised to find they can match or even exceed their earlier expectations. I don’t want to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. This isn’t an SAS training camp and you wont be asked to Rio 2016 because you accomplished more than you expected. Porters will help carry your kit if you flag, there are dedicated toilet huts, no having to go behind a tree, and at the end of the day you bath in warm water. It’s meant to be an enjoyable experience, not one that breaks you. Oh, and did I mention the delicious hot meals?

I have to admit I was right at my limits by the end of the slog but I had the experience of a lifetime. Of course that’s an overused expression but in my case I know I’ll never get to that altitude again under my own steam. I’m so grateful to have trekked through the rainforest and marvelled at the towering Eucalyptus Trees, laughed at the antics of the Colobus monkeys and gazed upon some beautiful birdlife. It took one hour to drive back to Moshi and the excited chatter never stopped. We’d glimpsed neighbouring Kenya, been enthralled by craters that last erupted 100,000 years ago and looked up to the majesty of the highest peak on a vast continent.

You’ll see diverse eco systems, banana and coffee plantations, ice near the equator and spectacular sunsets. Vast scrubland and then later Lobelia, on a mountain! It’s a cactus like specimen and a rare Alpine species. You even have trees dotted here and there at 12,000 feet, surely some of the highest growing specimens on the planet.

Is there anything among that lot to underwhelm you!

Those who went on the summit had bigger and better stories to tell. But you know what if you’ve been to Tenerife then I’ve been to Elevenerife, there’s always something grander out there to experience. You just have to be content to stretch yourself a little and know you give it your best shot. One day the stairs to the bathroom might be too much for me. Then I’ll look back, and maybe console myself with the fact that when I was newly bald and had the onset of arthritis, I got halfway up the biggest lump in Africa. Then I’ll retreat down those stairs in, an albeit partial, victory. Can’t grumble really.

One final observation I’d like to leave you with is timing, in other words, when to go. Obviously the most important aspect that impacts on temperature is the height you go to. Being near the equator limits fluctuations all other things being equal. As far as Moshi, the base town goes, the following can be taken as a reasonably accurate indicator:

January and February are the warmest months, April and May are the wettest months, June and July are the coolest months, and August and September are the driest months. These generalities about the weather in Moshi hold true for Mount Kilimanjaro as well. If I had the luxury of being able to pick and choose my arrival time I’d plump for September. Dry was a very important consideration for me, I’ve waded through too much mud in my time not to appreciate the exhausting and demoralising effect it can have. Others may like it cooler, the crazy few may opt for the hotter months. But as I say, nobody in these parts has yet nicknamed me Sid the Sherpa, I need all the advantages I can get when I’m going uphill with weight on my back.

Good luck if you decide to try it. Just cut out the fish and chips, hamburgers, desserts and beer, starting from NOW.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 1 Comment(s)

  • JustRetiring
    almost 5 years ago
    I've just stumbled across this entertaining review of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and the memories have come flooding back...
    I climbed "Kili" in 2007, to mark the occasion of my impending 50th birthday. What an experience....although at various stages I wasn't 100% sure I'd see the BIG 5-0.
    I don't think amelroy's review doesn't mention routes....we did the Machame route as I didn't want the namby-pamby "Coca Cola" route (staying in huts, rather than under canvas). And other routes have varying attractions and degrees of difficulty.
    I did reach the summit, but only thanks to a serious and prolonged fitness effort back in Blighty before the climb, and it remains one of the most satisfying (scary, exhausting and amazing) things I've done in my long'ish life. And only after suffering a fairly serious bit of altitude sickness early on in the trek.
    I hope this doesn't contravene any STA rules but the blog I did ahead of the climb has some useful information on Kili, if you're thinking of attempting yourself:
    I managed to raise over £12k for World Vision too, so very memorable on many fronts.