For an end to the last millennium, three friends and I made a journey to East Africa to hike the highest mountain on the African continent, Mt. Kilimanjaro. The experience was certainly one of a lifetime. In addition to our climb up the mountain, we also did an eight-day wildlife safari including a balloon ride over the Serengeti National Park. Either part of the trip would have been exciting on its own, but combined it was truly an awesome adventure.
We flew out of Boston on December 26th to Nairobi via Brussels on Sabena Air. It was about 18 hours in the air with a 3-hour layover in Belgium. Unfortunately, Sabena lost 3 of our bags. There was not much we could do, except hope that they would be on the next plane in the morning. They were not, and wouldn’t arrive for a few more days, well after we needed to start our climb. We were lucky and lost the right three bags, if there is such a thing as being lucky with lost luggage. We all had our boots, sleeping bags, warm jackets and tents, which would have been hard to replace. We had to improvise, share things, buy or rent some stuff and it worked out fine. We stayed our first night in Nairobi, and the next day took a 5-hour bus ride to Arusha, Tanzania. The ride was kind of rough, but it provided a free massage from the roads. We stayed that night there, then straight to the mountain.
Those who have seen pictures of Kilimanjaro know it is quite impressive, at 19,341 ft above sea level. It is often said that Kilimanjaro is the biggest freestanding mountain in the world. It is not connected to other peaks in a range. Rising dramatically above the East African plain, the massif is over 37 miles long and about 25 miles wide. It lies just 204 miles south of the equator, and has several glaciers on top. Why are we doing this? I was there with 3 friends, all of us Eagle Scouts from Troop 100 in Westborough. The group has a fairly extensive combined set of hiking and camping experiences, yet this was nothing like any of us had ever done. We hiked 89 miles in 7 days, from 7,000ft to the summit and back. It wasn’t a technical climb; we didn’t need ropes or ice axes. It was the altitude that was the hardest part. We had assistance, which is required by Tanzania law to help the economy. It wasn’t just a hike it was an expedition, old English style. We had 2 guides and 14 porters and a lot of stuff that we needed for the week. Our little group of 4 turned into a group of 20 real quick. These porters were incredible, and we couldn’t have done it without them. They would climb the mountain twice as fast as us carrying fifty pounds on their head, and mostly all smoked at 15,000 ft. There is no way we would have made it without them, we barely made it with them. Each of us only had to carry about 15 pounds in our small packs, which was mostly water, rain gear, and camera equipment. We had to drink a lot of water to avoid altitude sickness, somewhere between 5 and 6 liters a day. Altitude sickness is a big deal; it can kill you. Our guide took this very seriously and insisted that we hike very slowly and drink lots of water. Our route allowed us to hike high and sleep low. By that I mean that we would hike to a higher altitude during the day and sleep at a lower altitude at night. This helps a tremendous amount with the acclimatization. The porters never seem fazed by the altitude, but they are up there all the time.
I think it was Hemingway who said, “Hiking Kilimanjaro is like climbing out of Africa”. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. We climbed through 5 different climate zones. From African savanna to alpine desert, including rainforest that exists from the clouds getting stuck around the mountain. Because of its height and proximity to the Indian Ocean, the mountain creates its own climate. A lot of flora is indigenous to this area and not found in most other places in Africa. Most notably Impatiens kilimanjari, which was a small reddish impatient species found, only in this one small rainforest. There are quite a few other unique species because of the climate, including Stoebe kilimandsharica and Senecio kilimanjari. There were a lot of trees in the juniper and sycamore families. The geology was quite interesting. The formation of the rift valley dates back a half million years to early Pleistocene. Volcanic activity was concentrated on a few areas. Most of which went extinct a few hundreds of thousands of years ago. Kibo stayed active the longest and became the highest. Its last eruption was 100,000 years ago when it reached the height of over 5,900 meters. It has been dormant ever since except for a strong sulfur smell that can be detected inside the crater. The rocks are obviously all Igneous extrusive. Nine different lava groups have been identified. I don’t want people to get the impression that I am a botanist or geologist. That last bit of information was provided courtesy of my friend Tony Nappa who was on the trip.
We came from the west side on the “Shira-Lemosho Route”, which is hardly used. It was not even in any of the guidebooks. Ninety percent of the people who do Kili do it from the East on the “Marangu Route” that is also known as the Coca-Cola route, probably because it is so commercialized. Only forty percent of the people who climb that route will make it to the top, most don’t make it due to altitude sickness and heart attacks. That route is shorter, which attracts people, but it allows less time to acclimatize. Also that side of the mountain is extremely polluted with human waste in one form or another. Combined with people getting sick and overuse it gets pretty bad. We didn’t see much of that until we got close to the top. We started hiking at 7,000 ft in the rainforest. Spent the first night at 9,100 ft. The next day was long and hard; we made it to our second camp at about 12,800 ft. It rained every day, which was more difficult because we were short on equipment. This day it rained the whole time; we were also getting up pretty high, so it also started to get cold. Everything was very wet. Several of the group were sick from the altitude and the 9 hours of walking that day. We also lost two porters to malaria at this camp. They had to go back because it was basically the last chance to be anywhere close to what could be called a road. The next day (New Years Eve) we hiked up to about 14,500ft and camped that night at 13,100ft, this was only a four hour day, and seemed much easier that the previous one. Everyone was feeling mostly ok at this time, the night of rest and food brought everyone around. We went to bed early and got up early on New Years day, no big New Years party for sure. We started hiking at about 8 AM, which would have been midnight, New Years Eve in Massachusetts. On this day, we hiked up and down to the next camp and spent the 4th night at about 13,300ft. The next day (Jan 2nd) we hiked to Barafu camp at 15,300ft, we would do the summit from here on the third of January. We had an early dinner and tried to sleep, both of which are not easy at 15,000ft at 4:30 in the afternoon.
Then finally came the summit day. Sometimes you need to do things to remind yourself you’re not young anymore, but still stupid. This was one of those days. We got up at 11pm and started hiking around midnight. The air was so thin we couldn’t breath. We were moving at a snails pace. It is a very strange feeling, to be at that altitude and feel that you can go faster, but simply being physically unable to do it. But perseverance prevailed and we made it. We arrived at the summit at about six, just in time for the sunrise. One of our guides had hiked up a thermos of tea, which was very welcome. It was well below zero, but the wind wasn’t too bad. Only three of us made it. One of our group had to turn around somewhere between 16,500 – 17,000 ft. Altitude sickness just hit him hard. It is ironic because he was the youngest, most in shape, you just never know with altitude sickness and it’s to dangerous to mess with. We spent about 15 – 20 minutes at the top where we all took a bunch of pictures. There was snow on the top, and of course, the huge glaciers. The lack of oxygen was starting to have its effect on all of us. We were filled with excitement and adrenaline, but we had a long way to go. We started to descend fast. There’s nothing else you can do to help altitude sickness. The climb that took us 7 hours to reach the top, took just under 3 hours on the way down. We hiked back to the camp we started, slept for 30 minutes and had a quick lunch. We then kept going all the way down to 10,000 ft for the night. Arriving at about 4pm, which meant we basically hiked for 16 hours straight. I don’t know how many miles, but we hiked from 15,300ft to the summit at 19,340ft and back all the way down to 10,000ft making it a total of about 15,000 vertical feet in one day. Needless to say, we had no problems eating or sleeping that night. Our last morning, we hiked out through the rainforest to the gate. Due to all the rain, the trail was very muddy, and the going was pretty slow, but we were on the way out, so it really didn’t matter. We were also back in Africa, having climbed out of it on the mountain.
It was a great experience, and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. I can’t wait to go back.
After the hike was Safari, now we were on vacation. This consisted of being driven around in a land Rover looking for game. We didn’t worry about rain anymore, and we slept in beds. It was nice and relaxing. We basically saw everything except a Leopard. We spent 8 days on Safari in Tanzania. We started our Safari in Tarangire National Park, from there to Lake Manyara National Park. Through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area stopping at Olduvai Gorge, which is the place were the oldest human remains were found. We spent some time in The Serengeti National Park, and finished in Ngorongoro Crater, which is a Caldera or a collapsed volcano. Much like Crater Lake in the US, except this crater was huge and filled with all kinds of animals. It was like a natural zoo. We took lots of pictures and had a wonderful time on the safari. The real goal was Kilimanjaro, but the safari had a nice way of relaxing us after such a difficult experience. It was also time to return to the real world, which will never quite be the same.