At 5895m (19,340'), Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent, and is said to be the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. For our 10th wedding anniversary we decided to make an attempt at the summit of Kili and to explore some other areas of Tanzania. This trip report details our 7-day ascent to Uhuru peak via the Machame Route. While other excellent trip reports are present on this site, I am attempting to include details that other travellers might find useful in planning a future trip to Kili.
Getting to Tanzania
As anyone travelling to Africa from the USA will attest, plane tickets are very expensive. Indeed, your plane ticket might cost more than half of our entire trip, depending on the time of year you are flying. We left during the height of peak season, during the middle of July, and had to pay roughly $2000 each for tickets on Northwest/KLM (Detroit to Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro). I have heard of others paying as little as $1500 during low season, but I wouldn't expect to get tickets any cheaper from the USA, especially if flying directly to the Kilimanjaro airport. One option to save cost is to fly to Nairobi and take a bus to Arusha or Moshi, but the overall savings might not justify the 8 hour bus ride. The only advice I can give here is to book as few connecting flights as possible. We talked to SEVERAL groups that had lost their luggage; most seemed to have flown in on British Airways and/or through Nairobi. Losing your luggage can ruin your trip fast, since there aren't any stores to buy equipment. Most companies will rent you used equipment, but items such as warm gloves and jackets, long underwear, etc. aren't available. You might want to pack these items in your carry-on bag, along with your hiking boots, since they would be almost impossible to replace if lost by the airline.
The next step in planning your trip to Kili is to decide on a route. There is a lot of information on this site and others regarding routes, and the three most popular routes (Machame, Marangu, Rongai) are those most often used by guide companies. While many guide books will say the Marangu is the most popular route, I think it is safe to say that there were more people on the Machame than any other route on the mountain. The majority of people that we talked to before and after the climb had done the Machame, and there isn't enough room in the Marangu huts for all of the people we saw during our climb. The Machame route itself is very nice, and allows you to acclimate for 2-3 days above 12,000', but the number of people was unbelievable. At each camp I counted no less than 100 tents, and there was a line of people to follow on every section of the trail. Our guide said there were probably 200 people (tourists, porters, etc.) at the first camp, and it gets more crowded the higher you go from other routes (Umbwe, Lemosho) joining the trail. With the closure of Arrow Glacier camp, almost everyone coming from western or southern routes eventually ends up at Barranco or Barafu camps. The sheer number of people on the mountain really took me by surprise, and I would certainly recommend looking into a less popular route or climbing during low season.
Of course, after you have decided on a route, there are a zillion companies to choose from that guide on Kili. There has been extensive discussion on this site about going "unguided" and this is certainly possible despite what you may read. However, if you figure the overall cost of the trip, the additional cost of a guide and team of porters isn't as substantial as you might expect and it will make the trip much more enjoyable for the majority of people.
We chose to book our trip in advance through Zara based on recommendations of this site, and would certainly recommend them to others. Zara is one of the largest companies, and offers excellent guides as well as a modern, clean hotel, the Springlands, for you to stay before and after your trip. There are several websites for Zara, in the USA, UK, and Tanzania, although they should all have similar prices (see the list of websites below). The website in the USA is maintained by a Colorado-based company, Adventures Within Reach, and this is where we booked our trip. Many other companies use Zara for their Kili expeditions, and some may charge outrageous mark-ups for the same services you would get booking directly with Zara. For instance, we saw a group from Alaska Mountain Guides, which, according to their website, paid at least $3150 each for the same Machame route, $1750 per person more than we paid. Their only additional "benefit" seemed to be a 20-some year old American "guide" that showed them slide shows at the Springlands and accompanied them on the climb, and who had probably never been on the mountain before. On the other hand, the company 7Summits uses Zara with no additional markup, and they may actually be cheaper in some cases because of volume discounts. So it pays to research which company you are going to use, and keep in mind that everyone using Zara receives the same service, hotel, food, etc. regardless of the price paid.
Unless your only goal is to stand on the top of Africa, scheduling other activites certainly makes sense given the cost to get to Tanzania. We climbed Mt. Meru before Kili (HIGHLY recommended - see details below) and went on the standard 5-day safari after the climb. The main benefit to Meru was meeting our guide and his team and getting to know them before the week on Kili.
Day 1 - 24 Jul (Tues)
I will recount our trip up Kili here starting with Day 1 on the mountain. Keep in mind we had been in Tanzania for a week already and we had climbed Mt. Meru with our guide and his team.
We loaded up on a large bus at the Springlands hotel along with about 20 other people starting the Machame Route that day. The bus left at 9 AM and we took about an hour to get to the gate. Registration took another hour due to the number of people waiting in line, and we almost witnessed a fight between two groups of Europeans since the one was trying to cut in line. We waiting another hour for our guide (Emmanuel) to get the porters organized and for them to register; there were a couple hundred waiting in line. We left the trailhead (1800m) around noon with a little light rain and lots of clouds. The hike to Machame Huts was approximately 13km and took us up to 3100m. The trail was muddy although the rain stopped right after we started hiking. Porters were passing us constantly the entire way. We stopped for lunch at the official lunch stop, and got a taste of what the toilets would be like for the rest of the trip, although the toilets in the woods seemed much worse than those higher up. We arrived at camp around 5:00 PM. Most of the tents were set up among trees, so it was impossible to tell how many people were actually there. We hiked up above camp with our assistant guide (Daniel) and then came down to eat a typical Zara dinner of cucumber soup, potatoes, meat, and some fruit. Sunset was around 7:00 PM and we went to bed shortly afterwards. The moon kept camp illuminated most of the night as it was almost full.
Day 2 - 25 Jul (Wed)
Woke up at 6:30 AM with good views of the mountain and of the Shira Plateau, which was our destination today. Had a breakfast of porridge (which Ella likes but I can't stand), eggs, sausage, bread, and fruit. Left camp around 8:30 AM and followed the long line of porters and tourists as we climbed up towards the plateau. The trail was dry and rocky in some spots, but generally very good. Stopped at 11:45 at the designated lunch spot, and the porters had set up the Zara eating table complete with the blue table cloth; I was happy that this was the only lunch stop where they went through this trouble. It was very cloudy, and it was getting cold sitting there instead of hiking. We resumed hiking again at 12:30 PM on the final stretch up to the plateau. The trail was steep and rocky in a few sections before reaching the top of the plateau where it flattened out. Camp was only a few more minutes at approximately 3700m. The campsite was actually Shira #2, which is close to the Shira Caves. We hiked over to the caves and then to Shira Hut (Shira #1), where the ranger station is located. This is last location where vehicles can make it up in case of serious altitude sickness. Not many people were staying at Shira #1, as the camp is only used for the Lemosho Route. The clouds had started to clear at this point, and we had some good views of Shira Needle to the west and of the mountain. Hiked back to camp, ate dinner, and went to sleep around 8:00 PM. The temperature was much colder than the previous day, especially when the sun went down.
Day 3 - 26 Jul (Thurs)
Woke up at 6:00 AM to clear skies and great views of the mountain. Had breakfast and didn't leave camp until 9:00 AM. It was cold enough at night to have ice/frost form on the ground. Hiked up the Shira Plateau on a good but continuously upward trail. The ground is quite barren in this section with nothing but a few little flowers in the volcanic rocks. We reached the junction with the Lava Tower trail at 12:30 PM. The porters continued straight while we veered left towards Lava Tower. Reached the Lava Tower (4600m) in under 1/2 hour and stopped for lunch. Lava Tower might be renamed "Toilet Tower" since that seemed to be the main activity around it based on the smell. There were a couple people that had climbed to the top, but we decided to skip the climb. The trail continued down behind the tower towards the Barranco Valley. We climbed up and down a couple ridges and then finally into the valley. At this point there were plants again with many Lobelias and Senecias, some quite large. Several streams flow down into the valley, presumably from the glaciers high above on the left. We met up with the bypass trail and on to camp at the end of the valley on a flat spot below the Barranco wall. We arrived at camp (3950m) at 3:00 PM. The Barranco wall looks very steep and is almost 1000' straight up closer to the mountain. The trail switchbacks up a section closer to camp and isn't nearly as steep. We walked down to the main river/stream running below the wall and then ate dinner. It was very cold when the wind was blowing, which was most of the time. There were some great views of the mountain when the clouds cleared in the evening. We went to sleep around 8:00 PM.
Day 4 - 27 Jul (Fri)
Woke up at 7:30 AM, but due to the number of people attempting to climb the Barranco wall all at once, we decided to stay in camp until 9:45 AM. We were one of the last groups to head up the wall, but there were still traffic jams of tourists and porters ahead of us. The wall is approximately 300m (1000') high, and the trail requires a little scrambing in a few sections that caused the traffic jams. It took us approximately an hour to get to the top, mainly because we had to stop and wait in several sections. The trail flattens out near the top with several false "summits" before you are at the very top. We stopped to rest for 5 minutes at the top then continued down and easy trail into the valley. The trail crosses one valley with a shortcut to Barafu Camp that is now closed. The next valley is Karanga Valley, where the last water on the route is available. The trail down into Karanga Valley was steep, which two trails going up the other side to camp. We hiked up to the head of the valley which ended in a small "slot canyon" similar to those in Utah. We hiked up the bottom of the canyon and up a couple drops to a nice waterfall. The exit involved climbing out the top and stemming over a couple drops, which Ella didn't like very much. We then climbed up the easy trail to the top of the valley and to camp (4000m). We arrived in camp around 1:30 PM and decided to nap until 5:00 PM. As the clouds cleared in the evening there were some great views of Mt. Meru to the west. We went to bed at 8:00 PM after a great sunset.
People who had signed up for a 6 day climb didn't stop to camp at Karanga, but continued on to Barafu to sleep for a few hours and summit that night. We were very glad we decided to spend the extra day, as the hike from Barranco to Barafu would be quite long (6+hrs) and tiring. We were also glad for the extra night acclimating at above 13,000'.
Day 5 - 28 Jul (Sat)
Woke up at 7:00 AM, packed, ate breakfast, and left camp around 9:00 AM. Hiked up the hill behind camp for approximately 300m (1000') before the trail leveled out and then descended into a valley for a short while. The trail then climbs another 250m to the ridge below camp and then another 50m up to Barafu Camp (4600m). The camp is spread out over the rocks on the ridge for a long way; if you are camped at the bottom you will have to climb for another 50m to get to the top of camp. When we arrived at 12:30 PM it started to sleet/snow. The snow continued for about an hour and was enough to stick to our tent for a while. The sun then came out and made sleeping difficult as the tent would get quite hot. We rested until 5:00 PM and then ate a small dinner. Went back to the tent as it was becoming very cold and windy, especially as the sun went down. Went to "sleep" around 7:00 PM, but I didn't actually sleep until about 1/2 hour before we were to wake up. The alarm went off at 11:30 PM and we got ready to start climbing. It is worth noting that the bathrooms at Barafu Camp were the nicest along the entire route. Not sure why although I did see them getting cleaned a couple times.
Day 6 - SUMMIT - 29 Jul (Sun)
When we woke up at 11:30 AM the wind was blowing and it was very cold out. I was slightly worried that we didn't have enough clothing and decided to bring a down jacket in my pack (which I never used). We started walking about midnight. The moon was full and I only used my headlamp for about 1/2 hour; most guides and assistants didn't use headlamps at all. After we climbed the hill above camp the wind died down and it seemed to be slightly warmer. The switchbacks were rocky and steep in some areas but the trail was generally good. Eventually we crested the ridge to the left and more switchbacks followed. After we passed a junction with the descending trail the switchbacks got steeper with some loose rocks. It was approximately 4:30 AM at this point. Below Stella Point we had to get the headlamps back out because the moon had moved behind the mountain. The section of trail below Stella wasn't any harder than the rest of the trail (as told by guide books), but the elevation was starting to make us tired at this point. Ella was feeling sick but she kept going and we made it up to Stella Point at 5:45 AM just as the sun was lighting the horizon. We took a short break and continued up to Uhuru, first on easy trail and then on snow the rest of the way. I hurried ahead in order to see the sun rise at the summit, and arrived at Uhuru Peak at 6:20 AM just as the sun came up. I was feeling great at this point with no elevation effects. The famous summit sign was on the farthest point clock-wise from Stella Point. Emmanuel reached the summit 5 minutes after me and Ella and Daniel reached the highest point in Africa at 6:30 AM. We stayed there for approximately 10 minutes waiting to take photos, took some quick photos, and started to head down since Ella was feeling very sick. The glaciers were impressive but we didn't have time to hike down to them; I would recommend this if you have the time (and don't feel sick!). The crater itself wasn't very visible and seemed much smaller than we had imagined. Mawenzi was visible and seemed like a completely different mountain. The skies were clear but some clouds and wind picked up after we got above Stella Point and it was very cold before the sun came up. The water in our Camelbacks and Nalgenes started to freeze and my fingers were VERY cold at the summit. Once the sun came up it warmed up quickly and the clouds dissappeared.
We passed many people on the way down to Stella Point that were heading up. We avoided many of the switchbacks by heading down the trails to the left in the scree. Emmanuel helped Ella down most of the way since she was still feeling bad. We hiked about 1/2 of the switchbacks on the way down which took a long time. The weather was good until we reached Barafu Camp again, when we were covered in clouds and the wind picked up making it very cold. We reached out tent at 10:30 AM and decided we would rest for an hour before continuing down to Maweka Camp for the night. Ella fell asleep for a little while and we didn't end up leaving camp until 1:30. The trail to Maweka was nice and flat after the initial descent from Barafu. We quickly reached the junction of the old trail to Karanga; make sure your guide takes you on the "shortcut" or new trail to Barafu (as we did). Following the trail from Karanga to the Maweka juction as shown on most maps would make for a miserable ascent to Barafu! The next section of trail was very rocky and slow going as we passed Millenium Camp (3800m) and then finally reached Maweka Hut at 3100m. We arrived in camp around 5:00 PM and had to wait about 1/2 hour to sign in at the ranger hut. Ate a quick dinner despite our just wanting to sleep and finally went to bed at 8:00 PM.
Day 7 - 30 Jul (Mon)
Our last day on the mountain which was also the shortest. We woke up early at 6:30 AM and quickly packed and had left camp by 7:30 AM. Everyone was happy and excited to be going home, especially the porters who mostly ran down the trail. The trail was muddy and very slippery in some sections, but this didn't stop the porters from flying by us with their bags. At around 9:15 AM we reached the top of the 4x4 road, and we were at the station by 10:00 AM. We had to wait to sign in again behind a guide who had a party of 19, so after waiting about 1/2 hour we signed in and received the much coveted golden certificates. We loaded up into a bus, stopped quickly at the actual gate to get our bags, and headed back to Moshi. We arrived at the Springlands hotel at 11:40 AM. Our guide and assistant guide accompanied us, and after buying them a drink we handed out tips and some of our gear and thanked them for a great trip!
Kilimanjaro is simply gigantic. The mountain is so big that it is hard to appreciate its size since it is difficult to see all at once. This was especially true on the mountain, since the various cloud layers masked your previous progress, and, even on a clear morning, you could only see down as far as the next cloud layer. Taking several days to acclimate also made the climb seem much shorter than it actually was. On summit day the climb up to the crater rim seemed like a trail up a Colorado 14er, and not like climbing to the top of Africa's highest peak. The crater also seemed much smaller that I expected, although it is almost 1.5 miles wide. Overall the summit of Meru is more impressive, but the sheer size of Kilimanjaro is hard to believe.
Although this might only apply to the time we were on the mountain, the weather was constantly changing the majority of the trip. Clouds would move in with some wind and the skies would clear in a matter of minutes, only to repeat the process. It only rained once, for approximately an hour at Machame gate, and it snowed for about an hour at Barafu Camp. For the most part, the temperatures above Machame Camp were cold when the sun wasn't out, and a jacket was needed when not hiking or when it was windy. I brought a 15 degree MHW bag, which seemed almost perfect for this time of year. Ella brought a 0 degree down bag, and was too hot at the lower camps. Barafu Camp had the worst weather of the entire trip; it was always cold and windy, even more so than on the summit. On summit day I wore long underwear, a MHW softshell, and a light Arcteryx goretex shell. I was plenty warm except for my hands, with just liners and BD goretex gloves; I would recommend some mittens if you have cold hands. We brought down jackets but never needed them.
Lots of them, including us of course. As I said previously, the number of people on the mountain was completely unexpected, despite warnings from people on this site not to go during peak season. What was probably more amazing was the amount of people who seemed to have absolutely no idea what they were doing! We saw people that obviously weren't dressed for climbing any mountain, let alone one close to 6000m tall. We also talked to people that didn't know how far we were going, where we were camping, what the trail was like, etc. I'm not sure how you would decide on a trip like this with absolutely no knowledge of what you were doing, especially given the cost!
The porters were amazing, carrying at least twice as much as any of the tourists and travelling at least twice as fast both down and up the mountain. Besides carrying all of your gear, they also set up camp, help with cooking, fetch water, clean dishes, carry trash, take down camp, and pretty much anything else that is needed. The majority (all?) of the porters are there simply because there are no other jobs to be found and they need to support themselves and their families. They are paid the equivalent of $5.00-6.00 USD per day by whichever company you are using, and nobody in their right mind would work so hard for so little unless it was absolutely necessary. Of course both they and the companies expect you to supplement their pay in the form of tips, and you should figure this into the overall cost of your trip. In general, on 6-day routes such as the Machame, you will have 2-3 porters per tourist, and at least $7.00-8.00 per day is recommended by guidebooks; I would say $10/day is minimum. Overall the porters' tips will be a very small percentage of the cost of your trip, and you spend more on a good dinner than they make in a week. Keep that in mind as they are hauling water for 4 hours roundtrip to Barafu camp so you can wash your hands in the evening!
Guides are at the top of the heirarchy on Kili, and rightfully so for many of them. All start out as porters, and work their way up to cook, assistant guide, etc. before becoming a certified guide. Guide certification also costs quite a bit of money, although I'm not certain how much, just that it was deemed "a lot" by our guide and assistant guide. If you get a good guide, he will know the route, the flora and fauna, all sorts of facts about the mountain, and how to get you up and down the mountain safetly. Our guide was excellent, and I can't imagine there being anyone much better. He had worked on the mountain for over 10 years, starting as a porter, and had made over 100 ascents to the summit as a guide. He knew every step of the trail, and could tell us what flower/tree was found around the next bend or what elevation we were at on any point of the trail (and he was always right according to my Suunto watch!), or any other information we wanted to know. He had also worked with the same group of people for a long time; the assistant guide was his brother, the cook was his good friend, and the porters were all friends also. This made the trip much more enjoyable, as we were climbing the mountain with a team of people that functioned well together and that had lots of experience.
While many of the guides are excellent climbers that have been up Kili hundreds of times, you must keep in mind that they are there simply because it is a job, and not by choice. The guide is at the top of the Kili pay scale at approximately $10 USD per day, which is still less than you would earn for two hours at a McDonald's drive through. For this reason most guides have a "real" job to supplement their income. Our guide was an electrician when he could find work. There are also many more guides than needed, especially during low season, so another job is necessary during those months. Of course you are expected to tip your guide, and depending on how well he does $15-20 USD a day is probably reasonable.
One of the problems on Kilimanjaro seems to be that the guides are taught that everyone has some form of altitude sickness all the time. It also seems that they are taught that to relieve these altitude effects you must constantly eat, a lot, until you can't eat any more. We were brought more food at EVERY meal than we could possibly eat if we were at home doing nothing more than watching TV all day, let alone carrying a pack walking uphill for several hours. If I eat a big lunch and immediately go run around the block I'm not going to feel very good, and the same applies here. Of course any attempts to say we weren't hungry at the time were the sure signs of "appetite loss" brought on by altitude sickness, and the remedy is to EAT MORE! Eventually they gave up trying to feed us more and started making food that they wanted, which was just fine with us!
Diamox was taken by the handful by some people, even at lower camps. We heard people talking about how many to take, and if they get a headache they take another, and better take some more before going to sleep just in case! I felt sort of like summitting Everest without oxygen since we didn't have any Diamox with us! Most everyone we talked to were taking it, and I think most had no idea if it did any good or not. We had more than enough time to acclimate on a 7-day trip, and I felt great the entire time without any Diamox. Who knows if Ella wouldn't have gotten sick on summit night if she would have taken some, but then again I'm sure the majority of people that didn't make it to the top were taking it like everyone else.
The standard Tanzanian toilet consists of a rectangular hole either cut into a board or formed with concrete over which you squat. Fancy ones have board or blocks on the sides of the hole on which you can stand. This applies to toilets on the mountain and pretty much everywhere else except in fancy tourist areas or hotels. Toilets on the mountain have an open side entrance or doors that don't latch, either way don't expect much privacy. Most of them are cleaned once a day, or so it seems, since they were mostly clean when were arrived at camp, and disgusting enough to not want to enter them the next morning. The problem seems to be with people missing the hole, and you can imagine what happens when you combine this with someone who is sick. Some camps have "tourist" and "porter" toilets, although there doesn't seem to be a big difference. For an extra $30 Zara would assign another porter to carry a portable toilet like they use in motor homes and give you a little tent to sit in. Most bigger groups had something like this, and it is probably a good idea if you have stomach problems up high or if you have bad knees. My right knee was somewhat swollen after day 3, and let me just say that squatting was not something I was prepared to do for very long. Luckily it was fine the next day. I was also thinking that I should have brought along my little REI toilet seat on a stand that we use for camping sometimes. I could have just put this in my standard bag and not needed an extra porter. Anyway there are always toilet rocks if you can't use the ones in camp. Just be warned that a girl in the tent next to us did her business behind the tent one night and the next morning we woke to an angry ranger with an AK47 yelling at the guide. The rangers take keeping the mountain clean very seriously, and I don't blame them as many of the rest stops smell like "droppings" as our guide put it.
As I mentioned before we climbed Mt. Meru a few days before Kili. This not only gave us an opportunity to see an amazing mountain complete with lots of wildlife and a great summit, but it gave us a chance to work with our guide and get used to the whole atmosphere. Meru has far fewer people than Kili, and on the first day we were able to see giraffes and buffalo up close thanks to our ranger. The flora also seemed a lot richer and more diverse than on the standard Kili routes. The huts were nice and clean, and the toilets were even first class as we would later find out! Ella and I both agreed that we enjoyed Meru more than Kili.
Immediately after Kili we did the standard 5-day safari to Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Tarangire. While it was fun to see all of the wildlife, we were sort of tired by the last day, especially after the two climbs. If I were to do it again I would have a 3 or 4 day safari with Ngorongoro and the Serengeti as the main focus.
1. Don't go during peak season! If you do go during peak season don't choose the Machame Route. There are just too many people.
2. Climb Mt. Meru while you are there. You will regret it if you don't.
3. Listen to your guide! He has probably been on the mountain hundreds of times and you haven't. It is in his best interest to get you to the summit and back down safetly.
4. Rent a toilet.
5. If going on the Machame Route, take the 7-day option and camp at Karanga. This will give you a much easier summit day.
6. Don't get eaten by a lion on safari!
Thats all. Feel free to contact me for more info about the guide we used or the company or anything else.