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Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Rooftop of Africa

Written by  David Camp

mt-kilimanjaroPlanetHop! loves all types of travel experiences, from mind-blowing festivals that leave your ears ringing for days, to classic road trips that take you through some of the world's most beautiful scenery. But topping all of these (at least to PlanetHop!) is a good trek. Why so? Because a trek can take you into areas that are isolated and out of reach, where you can imagine yourself in another time when the world was new and excitement and adventure lurked around every corner. The perfect example of this is Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, a place forever immortalized in Hemingway's classic tale The Snows of Kilimanjaro – where anyone hoping to make it to the summit will have to dig deep into their heart and soul to find the courage to push through the pain. And for those that do? You will have the rare opportunity to stare down from the rooftop of Africa, to the savannah far below and revel in the fact that you've conquered one of the world's greatest challenges. If this has set your heart pumping with a lust for adventure, read on...

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To most people, the thought of climbing a continent's highest mountain is unimaginable. This could not be further from the truth. Each year over 20,000 people make the ultimate assault on Africa's highest peak – Mt. Kilimanjaro. At 19,866 ft (5947 m) it is considered a non-technical climb, meaning that you do not need any special gear or equipment to make the grueling trek to the rooftop of Africa. All it takes is guts, stamina and willpower. However, gathering these three essentials in sufficient quantities isn't always easy. This is proven out by the fact that of those who try to scale Kilimanjaro, on average, only about 1 in 3 succeeds.

But those select few who do make it to the summit and gaze down over the fabled "snows" to the savanna far below will know that they have pushed themselves to the very limits of human endurance and prevailed. For me, it has become one of the ultimate travel experiences of my entire life.

Organizing your climb is a fairly straightforward endeavour with literally dozens of tour companies ferrying trekkers up and down the mountain day after day, week after week and month after month of the trekking season. Most are cut from the same mold and are virtually interchangeable. However, there are two essential things that you need to keep in mind when making your selection. The first is finding out if they allow for an extra acclimatization day to be built into the trekking schedule. A single extra day may not seem like much, but can literally double your chances of success. The second thing to consider carefully is finding out as much as possible about what type of food you will be served as part of the climb. There are no restaurants on the trekking route, which means that all of your food will be carried by porters and prepared for you each day by your guide. Determining in advance how they manage this aspect of the climb is critical, as getting served chicken that has been sitting at the bottom of a backpack for four days is a sure recipe for disaster!

Fortunately, my sister agreed to meet me for the climb and made all of the arrangements through a reputable company out of Arusha. Their preferred path to the summit was via the Marango Route, aka "Coca Cola Route". This is one of six primary routes used and is one of the better ones for adding the extra day to acclimatize. It is also considered to be one of the easier routes as it follows a more gradual slope toward the summit. It is also the only route that offers permanent sleeping huts. All of the other routes require the use of tents. The down side of this route is that it is considered to be the least scenic of the established routes and is by far the most crowded, as trekkers ascent and descend from the mountain via the same path. When planning your Kilimanjaro adventure you will need to weigh the pros and cons of each route and pick the one that you feel most comfortable with.

The night before the trek was to begin, we stayed at a small guesthouse called the Sunnylands Hotel that caters almost exclusively to trekkers. It was a very comfortable place, offering clean rooms and filling meals in a central dining facility. Overall, it more than met the prime objective of providing a place to get a good night's sleep in preparation for the long trek ahead. This is another one of those critical things to arrange in advance to increase your chances of success. The last thing you want is to be exhausted before you even set foot on the mountain.

The morning of Day 1 dawned clear and sunny. Our guide, Stephen, picked us up from the hotel at 9am in one of the tour company vans and took us to Kilimanjaro National Park. The Marango Route begins at the correspondingly named Marangu Park Gate. This was where 90% of all trekkers begin their assault on Kilimanjaro. As we completed all of the necessary registration required by the park, Stephen gave us a basic overview of the coming 6 days.


We were happy with the plan and wasted no time wrapping up the registration formalities and hitting the trail - however, not before taking care of one other very important piece of business. We took a moment to agree with Stephen on the bonus we were willing to pay to him and the porters who would be carrying our gear over the next six days. It turned out to be a tough, but good-natured negotiation and in the end, we agreed on US$125 for Stephen and US$20 for each of the four porters.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to come to a satisfactory agreement on the bonus at the very beginning of the trek while everyone is still feeling strong and healthy. It eliminates a lot of potential anguish later on. I have even heard stories, while no doubt uncommon, where guides have tried to increase their bonus on the final push toward the summit when the going gets tough. This is the last thing you need, believe me. The complete support of your guide is absolutely critical if you hope to reach the summit. They are your single best chance of success.

Now that 'all' of the essentials had been addressed, we took our first steps on the path that would hopefully lead us to Uhuru Peak – the Rooftop of Africa. The initial part of the trek is deceiving in that it's not very taxing. It's just a slow steady walk through the rainforest. The trek from Marangu Gate to Mandara Hut takes you to an elevation of just under 8,900 ft (2700 m) and, while it is still below the level where most people start to exhibit the early stages of altitude sickness, each step is still much more taxing than it would be at sea level. The most important thing to remember is to follow your guides advice when they say 'poley, poley' – slowly, slowly. This is the single most important thing to remember as you ascent Kilimanjaro. Give your body the time it needs to acclimatize.

The fact that this initial part of the trek isn't overly difficult gives you more than ample opportunity to enjoy the lush rainforest that blankets the base of the mountain. For a while the trail follows the course of a small stream and you pass several small waterfalls along the way. These provide a good opportunity to stop and catch your breath and imagine what the forest must have been like in days gone by. Once this was the home to forest elephants and black rhino, but today they are rarely seen within the confines of the park. It is even claimed that the elephant with the largest tusks ever recorded was killed on Kili's northern slopes at the end of the 19th century. Each tusk was said to have weighed in excess of 100kg (220 lbs) and, to this day, the elephant is still referred to as the Kilimanjaro Elephant. It was hard to imagine that such a majestic beast might have roamed through this same forest. Sadly, such wonders were now a thing of the past, only to be imagined...

After about three hours you come upon Mandara Hut, which is little more than a clearing in the forest. By this point you are well and truly ready for a break and a hot cup of tea definitely hits the spot. One thing I don't recommend is having a beer. Most of the huts along the route offer bottled water, beers and an assortment of snack foods. Another sure way to reduce your chances of achieving the ultimate goal is to give into the temptation to have a few cold ones at the end of each day's trek. Settle for a cup of tea, but limit it to one as is can act as a diuretic causing you to need the toilet. Your best friend on the trek is water and make sure to drink plenty of it. It will keep you hydrated and help your body to acclimatize. We came equipped with a small, portable carbon filter that allowed us to purify the water that is readily available along the trekking route. Do not drink the water without some type of purification! If you don't have a purifier, use iodine tablets. I repeat - do not drink the water! Remember the four day old chicken at the bottom of the pack? Enough said.

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Most people are pretty tired by the end of Day 1, but if you are feeling good, you can take a 15 minute detour from the campsite to Maundi Crater. It provides good views of Mawenzi Peak, assuming the weather is good. Also keep your eyes peeled for blue monkeys or, if you're really luck, even black and white colobus monkeys. Other than this, there isn't much to do but rest and get ready for Day 2 when the stakes rise dramatically.

horombo_hutShortly after starting Day 2 of the trek you leave the rainforest behind and enter a much more barren landscape that can only be described as an alpine desert. While many people may find it bleak, I quite liked the contrast that it provided to the dense rainforest that we had traversed thus far. It also allows you to get a good view of the snow-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro for the very first time - or whatever is left of the snow. This is why you decided to come, so make sure to take every opportunity to document your journey with pictures. These breaks are also important to give you a chance to rest and catch your breath. The trek to Horombo Hut takes you through an ascent of over 3000 ft (1000 m) over the course of a long 6 hour slog. It's going to wear you out, so take it slow and steady – 'poley, poley' – slowly, slowly.

From the moment you arrive at Horombo Hut, it feels like you've arrived at Grand Central Station. This is the single busiest place on the mountain as climbers stay here on both the way up and way down. It is also where those who have chosen to add an extra acclimatization day into their trek stay for an extra day. If you have the opportunity to add this into your itinerary I highly recommend it. It not only increases your chance of making it to the summit, but also gives your body the time it needs to adjust to the altitude, making the trek more enjoyable. Feeling sick for days isn't exactly the way to spend a vacation, now is it?

On the morning of Day 3, your acclimatization day, the normal itinerary is to have breakfast and then start out on an optional trek to the base of Mawenzi peak. Along the way you pass Zebra Rock, an interesting geographic feature that has literally been colored by time and water into a striped pattern. While you may feel that you're wasting time when you should be continuing on to the summit, don't! The time you spend wandering through the amazing moorland landscape will benefit you enormously in the end. The primary purpose of this day is to prepare the body for entering the higher altitudes required to reach the summit. During the course of the day you will cover nearly 6 miles (10 km) and ascent to a height of nearly 14,000 feet (4,200 meters). The return trip back to Horombo will bring you back down to just over 12,000 ft (3,700 meters) where you will sleep for the night. By the end of the day you will be tired, but probably feeling much better than those who pushed on in the morning for Kibo Hut. It won't be long before you begin to realize the benefits of the extra day on the mountain.

zebra_rockWith the dawn of Day 4 you reach the point where lifelong memories will be formed. The past three days and all of the miles you have travelled have been leading up to this point. In 20 years, when you look back at this adventure, it will be the time from Horombo Hut to Uhuru Peak that you will remember. From the very moment that I climbed out of my sleeping bag and walked outside, I knew that I was entering a very special time in my life – a time that would be burned into my mind for the rest of my life.

The first thing I saw when I walked out into the brilliant sunshine cascading over the moors of Kilimanjaro was the surreal experience of looking down onto the clouds that shrouded the mountain. There aren't many times in your life that you will find yourself firmly on solid ground, yet able to look down onto pure white clouds. It literally took my breath away and struck me with a sense of wonderment. In my heart I knew that I had been looking forward to the coming challenge for my entire life. Ever since my very first dream of traveling to Africa, I had yearned to stand at the summit of mighty Kilimanjaro and stare down onto the world far below and the time to realize this dream had finally come.

The trek from Kibo Hut takes you along a steadily upward trail over a number of ridges that open up a new landscape with each passing step. Over the course of the morning, the landscape becomes more and more barren until barely any vegetation remains. When you reach just over 14,000 ft (4,200 meters), you arrive at a simple sign that reads "Last Water Point". To say that this was a busy place would be an understatement. Every guide and porter took the opportunity to stock up for the push toward the summit. My sister and I did likewise, filling our water bottles to the brim with purified water.

The trail continues from here along a similar upward ascending course that eventually leads you to what I can only describe as a plateau. This is know as "The Saddle" and marks the alpine desert between the two main peaks of Kilimanjaro – Mawenzi and Kibo. It's also where you first step foot onto what seemed more like a wide road than a trail. To me it brought to mind what an ancient caravan route such as The Silk Road may have looked like a thousand years ago. When I first set foot onto this corridor, I felt I could even imagine what those ancient wayfarers must have felt as they made their way toward distant lands and the wonders that awaited them. It was a memory that will have a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.

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The further you travel across The Saddle, the more lunar the landscape becomes. By the time you have eaten lunch and are within striking distance of the Kibo campsite, there is virtually no vegetation except for the occasional flower whose origin remains a mystery. The only reason that I mention this is because it was at this point I felt the first signs of altitude. Just as I was scanning the barren landscape for other flowers, I realized that I had developed a mild headache. It wasn't terribly painful, almost akin to a very mild hangover. I mentioned this to Stephen, our guide, and he advised me to ensure I stayed hydrated by drinking as much water as possible.

Luckily, it was only about another hour until we reached Kibo Hut. This was the final campsite on the Marangu Route and marked the point from which we would set out for the summit. Kibo Hut sits at just under 15,500 ft (4700 meters) and there is little doubt that the air you're breathing is very thin on oxygen. In fact, with each breath you only draw in about half of what you would at sea level. But then perhaps a better way to describe this is with the fact that if you were miraculously transported from sea level to Kibo Hut, you would fall unconscious within 5 minutes from lack of oxygen. Combine this with the fact that Uhuru peak was still another 4,000 feet (2,200 meters) further up brought the reality of my situation home. Tomorrow was going to be a challenge of epic proportions!


The remainder of the day at Kibo Hut was spent relaxing. Dinner was composed of rice and potatoes, and surprisingly I felt much better after eating. The headache persisted, but luckily didn't seem to be getting any worse. At about 7pm we went to bed to try and get what sleep we could in preparation for our start toward the summit at 12 midnight. But before this Stephen gave us a briefing on what to expect. The ascent to the summit was broken into two stages. Stage one was comprised of a 6 hour trek up to Gilmans's Point at 18,652 feet (5,685 meters) in time to watch the sunrise. Stage two was the final 2 hour trek across the Kilimanjaro Glacier to Uhuru Peak – "The Rooftop of Africa" at 19,341 feet (5,895 metres). If all went well, we would begin our descent back to Kibo by about 10am.

The hours til midnight passed in a fitful rush. I don't think I really got any deep sleep, only a few periods of barely restful slumber. Before I knew it, we were dressed and gazing up at the mammoth bulk of Kilimanjaro under the light of a brilliant full moon. It's a somewhat surreal experience standing in the dark with dozens of other climbers preparing to set out for the summit. I must admit that I was a little nervous. While I was preparing to step into the unknown, I was more concerned with how my body would stand up to the challenge ahead. Unfortunately, only time would tell.

The trail to Gillman's Point is up a winding path that literally zig-zags back and forth up the mountain side. This is important for two very important reasons. First, it helps with footing. Almost the entire way to Gillman's is over a treacherous, unstable "scree" slope that reaches nearly 45° in some sections. This "scree" can only be described as coarse sand mixed with rock. It provides virtually no firm footing and, more often than not, for each two steps forward, you're rewarded with a slide of one backward. It is gruelling and frustrating and tests the resilience of every person who strives for the summit.

The Second reason - and equally important - is that it allows you to traverse the 3,500 feet (1000 meters) in a much more gradual fashion. Covering this kind of altitude change too quickly is another sure-fired recipe for disaster. Perhaps the best piece of advice that Stephen gave me over the course of the entire trek was to view this ascent to Gilman's as a 6 hour trek. There is no reason to try and get there any quicker. The sunrise is 6 hours away and getting there any earlier is pointless. I tried to keep this firmly in mind as I fought every step up the mountain.

Time seems to become strangely distorted when you spend hours trudging up a winding hill in the dark. At one point I found myself repeating the same phrase over and over in my head: One-foot-in-front-of-the-other-gets-you-where-you-want-to-be. I must have said it a thousand times over the course of the 6 hour climb. I'm sure you've all heard the old adage, "mind over matter". The climb from Kibo Hut to Gilman's is all about mind over matter. The first hour out of Kibo isn't too bad. Hours 2 to 5 are a nightmare. The combination of pain in your legs and back and the headache that invariably comes to accompany it makes the temptation to turn back enormous. Why do this to yourself? The only answer I could come up with was that I'd come too far to quit.

At one point, I clearly recall looking back at my sister and smiling. Even by the light of the full moon I could see how pale she was. Through the entire trek she had been a rock; but the strain of the past few days was finally showing. I could see a mirror of my own pain etched on her face. But in that one instant, when we locked eyes, I knew that neither of us planned on turning back.

The slow procession continued on and on for what felt like an eternity. Then, almost as if emerging from a dream, I realized that the sky was slowly turning orange and pink with the first light of dawn. It couldn't have been any more than five minutes after this that I saw what looked like a solid rock wall ahead. As we grew closer, these materialized into boulders with gaps large enough for us to climb between. Beyond these, over a small ridge, was a round clearing surrounded by smaller rocks. We arrived just as the first rays of light illuminated Gilman's Point into a hazy glow.

The time you spend at Gilman's Point is like the ultimate rejuvenation treatment. The exhaustion that has been your constant companion throughout the night quickly disappears under the warm rays of the sun. However, as the sky becomes lighter and lighter, you quickly realize that you haven't quite reached the ultimate goal, for extending from Gilman's Point is the path leading on toward the summit.


View from Gilman's Point over the Kilimanjaro Glacier

The final push toward the summit, while not over a path of loose "scree" was nonetheless challenging. The clearly defined trail fades into a wide plateau of razor sharp glacier ice, pitted and scarred from the continual freezing and melting cycle of day and night. It didn't take long for me to realize that things weren't going to get any easier. While I was no longer faced with the frustration of two steps forward, followed by one step back, I now had to contend with the slippery ice that was just starting to melt under the dawn sun. After falling for the dozenth time, I knew that if I was going to reach the summit, I would have to earn it.

The last stretch to Uhuru peak takes about 2 hours to cover. Amazingly, when I reached the summit, I found that it wasn't well marked at all. I was expecting some type of permanent sign or something of the like. It was only when Stephen started digging in the snow and found a 2 meter long plank of wood, did I realize that the sign that should have marked the summit had at some point fallen into disrepair. Nonetheless, I proudly took the sign and posed for a photo to document the fact that I had reached the Rooftop of Africa!

It's hard to describe what it feels like when you finally reach the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro and gaze down at the savanna far, far below. The old clichés are that it is spiritual and humbling. In some ways, I guess this is true. But for me it was much more. It was the realization of a dream. Too often, we have dreams and go through life without realizing them. What greater mistake can you make? For me, reaching this point was the successful culmination of a challenge I had set for myself – one I had allowed nothing to deter me from.

I now knew I was literally capable of achieving anything I set my mind to. The pride that this brings is something that no words can possibly describe!


Uhuru Peak - the Rooftop of Africa


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What an adventure! Africa is one of the world's ultimate travel destinations, but climbing to the continent's absolute pinnacle takes things to a whole new level! One of the greatest things about travel is that it has the capacity to push us to our absolute limits – both physically, as well as mentally - and anyone who takes on a challenge like this will find out exactly what they're made of. We'd like to thank David for sharing his adventure with us, and the only other advice we have is... go for it!

David is President and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! and has spent much of the past 15 years traveling the world for business and pleasure. This article was adapted from a travel journal he kept during a 2-year jaunt around the world.

Who (will enjoy)

The ultimate for physically fit adults looking to push themselves to the limit. This isn't something for children under 18 years of age.

What (to do)

Trek through lush rainforests and barren volcanic plains until you reach one of the last remaining glaciers on the African continent, which marks the ultimate goal – Uhuru Peak – at the Rooftop of Africa.

When (should I visit)

The best trekking seasons are from January - mid-March and June – October, where you have the best weather, visibility and overall conditions.

Where (to stay)

Most of the established trekking routes have set accommodations in well maintained "huts". However, if you decide to use one of the other routes, your accommodation may very well be staying in tents. It's recommended that you confirm all of this before setting out. It's also important to note that all of your food for the trek will be carried by your porters.

How (much will it cost)

Average costs for a 5-day climb range from US$2,500-$3,000 (per person, including tips) which includes all food and accommodation (add US$250 for an extra acclimatization day).

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
David Camp

David Camp

Dave is President and Co-Founder of PlanetHop! and has spent much of the past 15 years traveling the world for business and pleasure. His longest journey was a two year romp around the world!