The first view was from the air, from the window of the aircraft. I could see its snow-clad edges hidden behind a veil of clouds, standing alone and majestic. As the pilot announced that we were looking at the highest freestanding mountain in the world, I found the idea of getting there ever more alluring. But was it possible for me to be standing there, among those clouds touching the snows? Even the thought seemed unreal.
As I landed at Kilimanjaro airport, it was already dusk and the clouds had completely hidden what one had come all the way to see and experience. The airport, a tiny 1970s-era building, where you could just walk down the tarmac and into the terminal, belied its status as an international airport; an entry point for thousands coming to see the famed wildlife of the region at Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro crater, or to take the more challenging option of scaling Kilimanjaro. An hour-and-a-half’s drive in the dark brought me to Moshi—the town which serves as a base for the climb.
Next morning, it could be seen again in all its glory. I thought of it as a good omen and walked to the hotel terrace for a better view. But for an untrained climber, or, rather, not a climber at all, the task seemed daunting.
How did it all start? Climbing Kilimanjaro? The thought first occurred to me when we were moving to Africa. After all, it’s one of the defining features of the continent. But months after I moved to Mozambique, it remained just that—a thought, one which slipped to the back of my mind as routine took over. There was much to learn, see and absorb in and around Maputo where I was now living. And just when I least expected it, at a formal social gathering, I heard the K word, and moved closer to the group where the discussion was underway. “We are going to climb Mt Kilimanjaro,” said a friend as soon as I joined them. I wanted to know everything—when, why, how… With the questions, the desire to visit Kilimanjaro was also kindled. Things fell into place over the next few weeks.
Arriving in Moshi, I met the co-climbers and organisers, and we headed to the travel agency’s camp office for a briefing and to pick up our gear. A trip to Mt Kilimanjaro has to be undertaken through one of the many certified tour operators in the country, and climbers are to be accompanied by a guide at all times. No self-climbing and camping is allowed in the Mt Kilimanjaro National Park—a big draw for the tourists and a great revenue earner for Tanzania. It brings in 45 percent of Tanzania’s tourism revenue, followed by Serengeti.
Its uniqueness and beauty is certainly a draw, but what attracts people in large numbers to Mt Kilimanjaro is also its generosity. Standing tall at a height of 5,895m, it allows for ordinary trekkers to ascend its slopes all the way to the summit and partake of its beauty. You don’t need to be a trained climber. No need for mountaineering gear either—no pick-axes, crampons, ropes or harnesses. This is unlike most other mountains of a similar elevation. Desire, determination and average levels of fitness can get you there.
For anything else you may need, there is the tour operator. Aware that often people plan this trip only after arriving in Tanzania, and that occasional trekkers are unwilling to spend large sums of money on equipment, the travel agents offer it all. You can even rent climbing shoes!
A dormant volcano, Kilimanjaro comprises of three cones —Kibo, Mawenze and Shira. The summit is on Kibo and is called Uhuru. It can be approached by five different routes, and the trek can take anywhere between four and nine days depending on the route and the pace chosen. The fastest recorded climb, however, is 5 hours, 23 minutes and 50 seconds. But that’s an exception.
The route decided for us was Marangu—the most widely used one and the one with many more creature comforts like log huts at camping sites and built-up toilets. Marangu is also referred to as the ‘Coca Cola’ route, and while some say it was labelled thus due to its relatively easy initial approach, others say it has come from packaged drinks sold en route, a practice now discontinued for environmental reasons. Our group, made entirely of amateurs, was not complaining. The dos and don’ts were spelt out over some yummy chamusas and drinks.
Next morning, the bags were numbered and loaded, and all 17 of us headed for the Marangu gate from where the trek was to begin. The 90-minute drive took us from the town to cultivated slopes and coffee plantations before hitting the montane forest. The climb up to Kilimanjaro takes you through a different climatic and vegetation zone each day—some say it’s like walking through four seasons in four days.
Our walk started at a height of around 1,840m and, in four days, if successful, we would reach Uhuru, the highest point on the rim of the crater of Kibo. The walk up would take four days; the descent two. Our group was flagged off with much pomp and fare as it comprised of Tanzanian ambassadors serving in different countries who had come to experience firsthand what they showcased to the world as part of their job. I was an Indian gatecrasher at the party.
Not many Tanzanians attempt the climb. Of the 35,000-odd people who come to scale the mountain each year, more than 90 percent are foreigners. This is because 80 percent of the country’s population relies on agriculture, and the leisure-income curve is still low, explained Charles A Sanga, a former director in the Tourism Department and a member of our group.
Our backpacks loaded with essentials and a small snack, we set off. The heavy lugging of sleeping bags, additional jackets and gear was left to the porters. Within minutes we were inside a dense forest. The path was wide but totally covered with a canopy of trees. Only in some parts would the sunlight stream through and reach the ground.
I saw a bird with beautiful red under-wings fly by. A guide identified it for me as a turaco. While we could hear her noisy calls continuously, I could not spot her again. The walk took us past rivulets and the undergrowth had beautiful flowers popping up every now and then. After six hours, including lunch, we arrived at Mandara Hut (elevation: 2,720m).
The change was sudden. One minute we were in deep forest, the next, in a beautiful grassy meadow dotted with huts. It was dusk and the group was happy to have made it to the first destination. We spotted several blue monkeys running around. But the most rewarding sight was the night sky from Mandara. Nestled in the forest with no city lights visible even far on the horizon, we were treated to a moonless spectacle with millions of stars speckled all over the sky.
Our next stop was to be Horombo Hut, to get to which we needed to walk 12km and gain another 1,000m in altitude. As we set off the next morning, we were warned to carry drinking water in order to avoid altitude sickness. But the cool weather and the need for frequent loo breaks made this a tall order.
The walk on day two took us through heath and moorland. As the hours went by, the strain was visible. Some of us slowed down and others wanted more breaks. But just as spirits were beginning to sag, the strain of Ewo silenang ewo mewoye—a Maasai song lifted our mood.
The journey to Horombo, which should have taken six hours, took almost eight. Two members of our group were already struck by altitude sickness and stopped several times to throw up. Others like me were beginning to discover new muscles.
Reaching Horombo was a relief. It was a much bigger camp with a lot of activity. Hues of red were filling the sky as we marched towards our huts. Warm water brought to us in plastic basins was a welcome luxury. We cleaned up, put on warm clothes and headed towards the dinner huts. Warm cooked meals are the real indulgence on this trek. Along with guides and porters come cooks to prepare a fresh meal each night.
As the group sat down and started to enjoy the hot soup, some disheartening news emerged. Four of our group had decided to abandon their journey. The altitude had got the better of them. The next day was thus reserved for acclimatisation. We were all to do a three-hour climb to the Zebra rocks—a formation resulting from mineral rich rain flowing down the rocks and streaking the almost black lava white in places.
Sore muscles after climbing for two days meant Dr Kimolo was much in demand, especially among the older members of our group (at 42, I was among the youngest). Dr Kimolo was not a medical doctor, just one of our guides who had acquired skills to provide relief to many a traveller.
The next milestone was Kibo Hut, from where our final climb was to start. The distance was another 12km, and we were to ascend 1,000m. As we gained height, the greens started diminishing—we had now entered the alpine desert.
Just as we headed off again after a lunch stop, it started to snow. It was more sleet than snow, melting as soon as it landed. After seven hours of walking amid intermittent snow, we finally reached the third camp—Kibo Hut, 4,703m. It was from here that we were to attempt the final summit climb the same night. A few in the group had arrived exhausted. My friend Shamim, who had invited me on the climb, told me she did not think she’d make the final climb. I told her not to give up at this stage.
We were given tea and a small snack and asked to get some rest for a couple of hours. At 9pm we were woken up, given some porridge and soup and instructed to be ready. Nothing had prepared us for what was to come. Dressed in our warmest, headlamps on our foreheads and mountain climbing sticks in hand, we lined up outside the hut. Chombo, the chief guide, asked us to be calm and slowly make our way. He assured us that we would get to the summit if we adhered to his instructions.
It was pitch dark and as we started the uphill climb. All we could see were the legs of the person ahead of us in the light of the headlamp. The incline was steeper than any we had done previously and beneath the feet was slippery gravel making the ascent even more challenging. We stared with Hooho Hai, another Maasai song praising god. But soon, as the breathing got harder the chants began to fade. We had not even gone a couple of kilometres when differences in people’s fitness levels and approach to the climb led Chombo to divide the group based on our pace. All the men went ahead and five of us women continued our walk behind Chombo.
But it was not long before our group felt the same strain. I felt that stopping too often was disrupting my rhythm. Chombo agreed that I could branch off with my own guide, Attley Benson. What followed was a strenuous and solitary climb. I soon realised I had made a mistake. Being with the others would have been better for my morale. Panic grew inside me and I felt a pain in my chest, running into my arms. Attley tried to calm me down by checking my oxygen levels and blood pressure; the former was fine, but the latter was a bit high. He asked me to slow down.
Slow down, pole pole, words that many had said at the start of the journey came back to me. Pole pole, slowly, slowly, in Swahili and dogom dogo, which roughly translates to ‘one step at a time’, are said to be the success mantras for Kilimanjaro. With a steep, sudden rise in altitude and incremental reduction in oxygen seen as the key challenges, it’s the tortoise-like attitude that pays off for ordinary climbers.
I took a breather, tried to put my fears aside and slowly resumed the climb. Attley kept bribing me with the reward of a cup of tea ‘just ahead’. I had walked through the night and, as dawn was breaking, the terrain became complicated. At many places one had to put aside the walking sticks, manually grip the rocks and lunge ahead. But soon it was over. I was at the rim of the crater, and as I looked up I saw ‘Gilman’s Point, 5,681m’, marked on the signboard. The sun was rising, colouring the eastern sky in shades of orange and grey. On the other side lay the spectacular moonscape-like crater and, in the distance, one could see the snow and the glaciers. The night was behind me and the gruelling climb suddenly seemed worth it. As promised, I was rewarded with honey tea by Attley. I thanked him for not letting me abandon my mission. And in my mental list of what makes a successful climb, I added a good guide as indispensable.
The final destination—Uhuru Peak, 5,895m; the highest point on the rim—was, however, still 2km and a two-hour walk away. But the view, tea and a few biscuits had rekindled my sprit and I was off again. The path was through undulating rocks and snow; lack of oxygen and sleep soon drained the energy-high of reaching Gliman’s Point. There was a feeling of extreme fatigue. All I wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep. The prize was visible but the distance of another kilometre seemed insurmountable. It was Attley to the rescue again. He encouraged me, prodded me, and even tried to pull me by my walking stick! At 8.30am, I finally reached the peak and found some members of my group having their photographs taken with the signboard and the Tanzanian flag as the backdrop. We hugged and celebrated our successful effort. But there wasn’t much time to savour the moment. Our guides were already reminding us of the journey back.
On the way back, I had company. Some of our group members who had reached before me had either slowed down or spent more time at the peak, so we started our descent together. The first crisis came as the need for a loo break. There are no facilities on the last summit climb and the arctic region meant no shrubs to hide behind either. Finally, an alcove in the rocks was found and I came back relieved. All I can say is that it is not a pleasant experience trying to pee wearing four layers of clothing while protecting yourself from the cold and hiding from fellow humans at a height of almost 6,000m!
Back at Gilman’s we took a short break to eat a few biscuits and drink a little water. Most of us would have liked something more substantial. After all, we were only on some porridge and soup since 10pm the night before, and it was now 10am. The steep downward slope on gravel made the walk down from Gilman’s Point to Kibo Hut agonising for the knees and thighs. For Attley, who had been on these slopes several times, the solution was to just “ski down” the gravel. He demonstrated this, but the fear of unknown rocks did not allow me to follow him. At Kibo, where night stay is not allowed, the drill was the same. We rested for a couple of hours, grabbed a quick lunch and got going again to try and get to Horombo before dark, where we would finally get to sleep.
We walked back sharing our experiences, our highs and lows, our fears and joys. We reached Horombo at dusk. A hot water splash on the face had never felt better. At dinner, more stories were exchanged and a proper meal was had after almost 36 hours.
As I left Horombo, tired and exhilarated, I thought about how people say they are going to or have conquered a mountain. I had heard it many times during my climb too. But for me, one climbs a mountain to appreciate its grandeur, enjoy its beauty, experience the joys, accept its challenges and, if lucky, understand its ways.
There are one-stop flights from Mumbai to Kilimanjaro International Airport (about Ã¢?¹45,000 return) on Ethiopian Airlines and Kenyan Airways. Delhi is connected too by Ethiopian Airlines and Qatar Airways, although the latter takes a longer route (about Ã¢?¹65,000).
From the airport, Moshi, the closest town to Kilimanjaro National Park, is 1.5 hours away. Tour operators or hotels arrange transfers.
Indians with a valid passport, confirmed tickets and hotel bookings can get a visa on arrival— single entry Ã¢?¹3,000; multiple entry Ã¢?¹6,000. Best to also get a yellow fever vaccination certificate—one is often asked for it at immigration.
Independent climbing is not allowed on Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895m). You have to go through a tour operator. It can take anywhere between four and nine days, depending upon the route and the pace you choose.
You don’t need to be a trained mountaineer to scale Kilimanjaro, but it is best to train and be physically fit before attempting the climb. High-altitude sickness can get some down, but best practices while climbing can keep it at bay.
Prices vary, depending upon the time of the year, and on whether you choose to go as part of a group on specified dates or plan your own private climb. Expect to pay between $1,500 and 3,000, (normally) inclusive of transfers, stay, meals, park fee and permits.
There are several travel operators that specialise in taking visitors to Mt Kilimanjaro and organise safaris in the neighbouring regions. The author used Zara Tours (zaratours.com), but you can also consider contacting Ultimate Kilimanjaro (ultimatekilimanjaro. com), Pathlighter Adventures (pathlighteradventures.com) and Trekking Hero (trekkinghero.com).
What to see & do
You can combine the trip to Kilimanjaro with a visit to the nearby Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro crater, both of which offer some of the best wildlife viewing in Africa