To celebrate a major birthday milestone in 2013, I was looking to do something a little different, perhaps a physical or mental challenge, preferably in another country, and soon enough Kilimanjaro came onto my radar after watching a documentary on British television. The documentary followed a group of UK celebrities flying to Tanzania to trek the mountain for a charity known as Comic Relief, which runs two separate fundraiser events, Red Nose Day and Sport Relief that alternate each year.
After a little research, I found the organisation they had used to arrange the trek was Action Challenge. They’re a UK outfit which offer all sorts of expeditions, treks and challenges around the world. I expected the cost of the trips (and the one to Tanzania in particular) to be prohibitive but thankfully, with fundraising options available to help with the cost if needed, there was a budget option to suit most people including myself. I chose eventually to self-fund the trip as I’m not particularly keen on pressuring other people into sponsoring me. Everyone has their own personal views on what charities they support and believe in and I wasn’t about to tell people I was trekking Kilimanjaro for charity ‘X’ when in reality I was really only doing it for myself!
I quickly signed up for one of their trip dates planned for June that year and and paid my deposit online. A day or two later a welcome pack arrived in the post with more detail on what kit was required, what flights we’d be taking, the medical forms that needed completing and a detailed itinerary of the trek itself. The kit list was quite comprehensive but there was an option to hire some of the more expensive items if you thought you might never use them again once the trek was over. As I prefer owning my own kit, I bought what was needed with a promise to myself that I’d sign up and do other events after this one!
Meet & Greet
I met my fellow trekkers at London Heathrow airport (LHR) where we were all warmly welcomed by our trek leader and medic from Action Challenge, Suzi and Laura. They would be travelling with us to Tanzania and be with us all the way up the mountain as well as acting acting as the link between Action Challenge in the UK and the local operator in Tanzania, Big Expeditions.
We flew to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania via Nairobi, Kenya with Kenya Airways and thankfully there were no delays with our flights and no lost baggage issues! They advise travelling in your trekking boots and to keep essential items in your hand luggage just in case your main duffel bag goes missing. This way you can at least continue the trek, borrowing some additional items until you were re-united with your bag (hopefully) a day or two later.
We spent much of the time on the journey getting to know each other, discovering what led each of us to sign up to the challenge and what training had been done to prepare for it. Some of the stories and reasons were going were truly humbling to listen to. What concerned me most however was the amount training people had done to prepare for it all! Three-peak challenge, Coast-to-Coast walks, weekly 20 mile treks…. not to mention the usual fitness efforts in the gym, be it running, swimming, cycling etc. I’d done almost none of this, save for a few weekend walks and a modest weekly running routine. Alarm bells ringing, I was wondering how i was going to manage each day to come!
On arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport we were welcomed by the local team BIG Expeditions who helped load our bags onto their jeeps and then drove us a short distance to a local place called Moshi, a municipality in the Kilimanjaro region where our hotel was located. We would only be using the hotel for two nights – the night before our trek started and the night before we headed back home to the UK after the trek was over.
After unloading our bags and checking in to the hotel, Suzi, our UK trek leader gathered us together in the hotel garden gave us a breakdown of what was in store for the next 8 days. We’d be taking the Lemosho route up to the summit, one of seven routes up the mountain, selected by each of use at the time of booking. Eventually the routes merge as the summit nears but the Lemosho route would see us take take six days to reach the summit, allowing extra days for acclimatisation as the altitude increased.
I chose this route as I’d never done any high altitude trekking before and had no idea how well my body would cope so taking the longest route felt like a wise decision. As it turned out, my body handled the altitude very well but I was grateful for not having taken any chances with a shorter, more direct route.
Route to the Summit
Kilimanjaro is very much a trek, not a climb or expedition in the mountaineering sense, so no crampons, ropes or ice axes needed here, not on our route anyway! Nonetheless, a reasonable degree of fitness and determination is required to trek the 7-8 hours (more on the final summit night) day after day. Generally, the fitter you are, the more likely you will cope and the more you would enjoy the experience.
Day 1 : Mkubwa / 2780m / 6 hrs trekking
On the morning of our first day trekking we were transferred to our start point just beyond the Lemosho Gate . On arrival we where we were registered and signed in with the Kilimanjaro National Park officials so they knew exactly who was going into and out of the park at all times. Admin completed, we were driven further into the park to a spot which would mark the start of our whole trek. We unloaded from the jeeps and were introduced by our local operator team, BIG Adventures, to the army of porters who would be the backbone of our trek up the mountain. All of them were local people who queue each day at the park gates looking for work with the trek companies in order to earn a living.
Introductions over, we were soon taking our first steps through the forest to the Lemosho glades, led by BIG Adventure’s team leader Julius. We arrived at our first camp early evening having trekked just under six hours. It was a welcome introduction compared to the longer days ahead and we were all happy to be underway and have a few hours behind us already.
The tents were already up, erected by the army of porters who carried everything between each camp – the tents, the food, duffel bags, portable toilets, the lot! We carried only a day pack for the walks each day, the porters carried between them our bigger duffel bags which were placed in our tents prior to our arrival, five star hotel service on the side of a mountain – unbelievable!
We had our evening meal waiting for us – a full three course dinner affair with as many drinks to go with each course as we asked for, all table served in a marquee-style dining tent. No hot stoves and boil-in-the-bag food here, we were all being truly spoiled. As the days progressed we learned that when it came to dining, there was nothing the porters couldn’t do – a birthday cake, chicken nuggets and chips to name three three things I never expected to see served up a mountain!
Their main focus of course was to ensure we were eating nutritious food to give us the energy needed each day for trekking. Appetite loss was an issue for some as the altitude of the days ahead increased, leading to reduced energy when trekking. Thankfully for me, aside from one day where my appetite wasn’t very good, I managed to devour just about everything that was put in front of me and topped up with snacks I had brought with me, kept my energy levels high.
Temperatures also became a factor for some – it dropped the higher we trekked as you would expect and while that suited me fine as I cope better with cooler temperatures than hot, others found it too cold snd were using every layer of clothing to try an keep warm but energy levels were affected once again. Lack of sleep, appetite and warmth were three things I didn’t want spoiling my time on the mountain!
We were welcomed at the camp each night by the army of porters in full song! It was quite a wonderful sight at the end of a days trekking. No-one knew the songs being sung of course but after a day or two, we all learned the chorus for one song in particular – Jambo Bwana – and joined in where we could! One of the porters in particular, Cedric, was quite the choir master. Notably taller and bigger than the other porters, some of whom were relatively young, he was a towering presence and with a loud booming bass voice, commanded his “choir” with energy and vigour. You could hear him singing from a mile away I’m sure!
Day 2 : Shira Camp / 3505m / 10 hrs trekking
We started early next morning at a slow and steady pace, “Pole Pole” meaning slowly in Swahili was repeated to us often. Eventually we made it up to the Shira Plateau gaining 700m in altitude along the way and camped there for the evening. The scenery this day had been truly stunning and easily distracted us from the time we’d been on our feet. On arrival into camp, we were met once again by the porters in full voice, this time with a new set of songs for us to hear but with ‘Jambo Bwana’ saved for the finale! We enjoyed the sunset from our amazing viewpoint, watching the clouds now move below us and Mt Meru in the distance, before washing and joining everyone for dinner. We were making progress!
Day 3 : Barranco Camp / 3972m / 7 hrs trekking
The trek continued east across what honestly looked like the surface of the moon and then headed up to a place called Lava Tower where we stopped for lunch. After lunch we headed down to Barranco Camp for the night ready for a scramble up the wall the next morning. The sheer height of the Barranco Wall at over 250m (840ft) made it look quite imposing but were reassured that no technical skills were necessary, just a steady footing, lots of concentration and a head for heights… I was somewhat apprehensive about the last requirement but managed a good night sleep regardless. I’ve found over the years I can just about sleep anywhere, at anytime under any conditions, a useful trait at times like this when quality sleep is important.
Day 4 : Karanga Valley / 4002m / 5 hrs trekking
Getting to the top of Barranco Wall took some time but we took it slow and steady, helping each other along the way. It was quite the team effort, the porters and guides always present with advice, a helpful hand and words of encouragement. Once at the top, we enjoyed the views and captured the moment with a team photo, walking sticks aloft!
A short rest break followed and off we were again, this time headed for our camp in the Karanga valley. Arriving a little earlier to camp than the long day before, we took advantage of a an optional acclimatisation walk offered by Julius before dinner.
Day 5 : Barafu Camp / 4600m / 6 hrs trekking
A much shorter day today, planned deliberately so by the guides so that we arrived early at Barfu Camp mid-afternoon leaving us plenty time to rest and recuperate before the overnight final trek up that evening to the summit! Some people chose to sleep a little, others chose to relax and read to take their mind of the task ahead, many chatted quietly about the experience and how the trek had been so far. I chose to get 2 hours sleep, relax with some music, then washed before joining everyone for what would be our final dinner on the mountain!
DAY 5 : Summit night / 5895m / 12 hrs trekking
At around 10pm we began to check our gear ready for the final summit trek: day pack, head torches, spare batteries, water storage, gloves, hat, layers etc. The porters stayed behind this time as there was no camp ahead to prepare for, while the the guides led us the way up to the summit, encouraging where needed as we zigzagged up the path, head-torches on, more or less only seeing the feet walking in front of us for hour after hour!
A few rest stops later, a snack here and there, we made our way up steadily until finally, just as the sky was beginning to lighten before sunrise, we made it to Stella Point! We were now only 100m from the summit! Reaching Stella Point was a wonderful moment for everyone knowing we only had 100m further to go to reach Uhuru Peak, the actual summit of Kilimanjaro!
After a short break at Stella Point to get some photographs we started to walk the final 100m to Uhuru Peak, taking in the magnificent views all around us. The much thinner air at this altitude was slowing people down, one or two needing some extra support to make the final few steps. However, no-one gave up, no-one complained and everyone helped each other so we all made it to the top. Reaching the sign marking Uhuru Peak was quite a special moment, standing 5895m above sea level on the top of Africa, I’ll never ever forget it.
We all felt very alive, very humbled but thrilled to have made it all the way to the summit. The summit photograph came soon after, capturing the moment forever for each of us.
It took a full day to get back down the mountain but it was five times quicker then getting up there and this time, our energy levels increased dramatically as we started breathing in thicker air at the lower altitudes!
We were welcomed by all the porters in song once again at our pick-up point before we started our trip back to the hotel and possibly the best hot shower I’d ever had before or since! A few cool refreshing bottles of Kilimanjaro beer at the hotel bar and a chance to reflect with my fellow trekkers on our achievement, the beers were flowing well, right through our final dinner and beyond with people sharing many wonderful stories of our time on the mountain
The following morning, after a fantastic nights sleep in an actual bed, we were packed and ready for the journey home back to the UK where everyone wished each other well and headed home.
A special mention must go to the local guides on our trek led by Julius Minja from BIG Expeditions – Julius has been to the summit of Kilimanjaro over 250 times and everyone on the mountain knew him personally or had heard of him. This was a man who needed no lessons or help reaching the summit! A true gentleman and leader of people, it was a pleasure to have met him and enjoy his company for the time we were there.
I honestly don’t think i could have chosen a better challenge as my first one and to share it with like-minded people wanting to do the same was amazing. I would recommend it to anyone who likes to challenge themselves, wants to do something a little different, see the world, meet different people from different cultures, this trip had it all. And it’s also a bonus knowing you’ve stood on one of the seven highest places in the world, one of the Seven Summits no less!