The Kilimanjaro diaries

Kilimanjaro Tanzania climbing Africa Moshi travel tourism

Steve performs his unplanned and uncoordinated Kilimanjaro summit celebration dance

The Day Before: the flirting mountain

Yesterday morning, sitting in my Moshi hotel room, counting on my fingers and toes, I was positive I couldn’t afford to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Last night, a pile of bottles of local brew (coincidentally named after Africa’s tallest mountain) and a giant of an English guy, Terry from Liverpool, persuaded me that mountains are indeed there to be climbed and budgets indeed exist to be bludgeoned.  

Most local climbing companies demand at least eleven-hundred US bucks for the six-day quest, a shed-load more if you book from your home country.

But luckily one of them, housed in a particularly scruffy-looking whitewashed building with signs promising that some of its proceeds go to orphans, agrees to about 15 per cent less tariff than the others. The catch is I have to be ready to leave at 9am tomorrow.

‘Kili’ has been flirting with me since I arrived in densely touristed Moshi, the town that sits at her base on the Tanzanian side, also centre for many a Serengeti safarier. Like the dance of a thousand veils, she has been exposing herself from behind a cloud bikini, smidgeon by smidgeon, a little more each day.

“Want to see more, Stevie?” she beckons. Well, yes, you coquettish tramp of a mountain, I certainly do.

It’s six days up and back from Moshi to the peak via the Machame Route, “for the adventurous hike”. Apparently the Marangu Route is “easier” but the decision has been made for me by my cut-price choice of operator.

No beers tonight, Terry. Lots to organise – and a hangover to sleep off. Thanks mate!

There is a nest of mountain butterflies flapping around my innards already. Terry and Tanzanian beer may have a lot to answer for yet.


Day One: Moshi (910m) to Machame Camp (2980m)

Spent the morning trying to decide whether or not take Diamox to help with acclimatisation. Although the pharmacist can’t describe exactly how the pills work, and refuses to actually outright recommend them, she is more than happy to sell them to me.

Apparently the vertical ascent over the next few days is more than a human is supposed to endure so I gladly hand over my 10,000 shillings (US$6); anything that may stop me being paralysed by altitude sickness can’t be a bad thing.  

The company’s office is utter anarchy as we try to stuff five climbers, 20 support staff (guides, porters and a cook), several sheds worth of tents, sleeping bags et al, and 6 days’ of food into one 15-seater Toyota Hiace.

My four climbing buddies, Alex and Maggie, from Nice, France, and Asi and Noi, barista brothers from Tel Aviv, Israel, are all portraits of ‘outdoorsy’ types.

Alex is a professional cyclist looking to establish himself on the European tour, the Tour de France in his sites; his girlfriend Maggie, is a sports teacher and triathlete. I’m nine years older and nine light years less fit than any of them. Maybe they can take turns carrying me?

We drive out of Moshi to the Machame park gate where the Tanzanian government smugly debits the national park fees of US$634 (including US$20 mandatory rescue fee) from my already brow-beaten visa card.

I hear the porters on these trips barely get paid anything for their life-shortening duties (less than US$10 per day plus tips) and that the campsites are ‘basic’ to say the least, so I wonder what the greedy authorities do with their lion’s share of my Kili-fund. Die, you corrupt bastards!

We walk through semi rain forest with a dense canopy from the gate, dodging muddy puddles from yesterday’s downpour, for a little more than six hours.

The gradual gradient is noticeably steeper for the final hour as we approach Machame camp, where the forest recedes.  

Tent’s up already – feeling grand so far.


Day Two: Machame Camp (2980m) to Shira Camp (3840m)

Slept well in the tent all by myself until about 3am when I woke up to put another layer on.

We set off early after a carb-olicous warm breakfast including some killer porridge. Against advice, I decide to wear my boardshorts again today because I was sweating like a warthog in yesterday’s forest walk.

The pine forest subsides to stony sub-alpine tundra after a few hours on the trail.

There’s some use-the-hands rock scrambling as the trail snakes it way up through cliffs and boulders. No problems, despite a couple of drop-to-all-fours moments.

I ponder the limits of my bargain-basement travel insurance; forgot to check if it has a “climbing world’s highest free-standing mountain utterly unprepared” clause. Whoops!

My stomach rebels against the advancing altitude today: I simply cannot stop farting. If I try to suppress them, my bloated stomach throbs painfully.

The fresh mountain zephyrs blow my ill wind into the noses of my fellow climbers. At least the Israeli lads also seem to be prolific bottom burpers at altitude – although I am heading the ‘scoreboard’, as they point out sporadically. Maggie and Alex, who power up the mountain naturally aspirated, seem less impressed.

We reach the rocky camp in the early afternoon and decide to go for an hour’s acclimatisation stroll. On the return trip I am a little short of breath, my head a touch cloudy. I think our assistant guide pushed us too fast, but there’s time to recover.  

A brief ice/hail storm accompanies our afternoon carb and tea break, followed by a sunset to reconstruct even the most shattered soul, Mt Meru in view towards the sun; enticing, immovable Kili directly above us.  


Day Three: Shira Camp (3840m) to Lava Tower (4630m) to Barranco Camp (3950m)

Woke up really, really, really cold, shivering like I was the co-star in a C-grade disaster film, despite wearing two thermal layers last night. The sleeping bag around my mouth had a layer of frost on it.

I am fast discovering the limits of the shoddy rental equipment and I vow to wear absolutely everything I and the porters are carrying tomorrow night.

Kilimanjaro porter does the hard yardsSpeaking of the porters: they are undeniably legends. David (porter, cook’s assistant and all-round comedian) is up before us, ensuring there’s enough boiled water for the day, and usually in bed well after.

Despite all these tasks, (and carrying 20kg on his head for the better part of some days) he overflows with enough morale for all of us. I’m not sure of the aptitude of our guides so far (maybe that will reveal itself when we get to the serious altitude) but make no mistake, if I summit Kili, it will be primarily because of what people like David do.

Today we gingerly climb up to a dramatic lava tower below the summit (4630m) and then descend around 700m to camp (the short ascent helps our bodies become familiar with the thinner air and having less oxygen to call upon – a vital part of the acclimatisation procedure for summiting mountains).

A blizzard hits at the lava tower as we tuck into a packed lunch. Mindlessly, complacently, I have left my warmest jacket back at camp, so I am woefully underdressed. Think I can feel a cold starting to settle into my sinuses. Idiot!

Alex also has a cold; his nose is blocked and he has a migraine which simply won’t shift. Maggie struggles a bit with the altitude today, dropping off the group pace a little. She decides to start a little earlier than the rest tomorrow.

Asi and Noi are in high spirits, nonchalantly and happily tackling the steep terrain; I guess this could be just a walk in a very steep park compared with their compulsory three-year stint in the Israeli armed forces.  

My fingers tingle all day, pins and needles style. I thought it was effects of altitude, but our lead guide, Ben, says it’s probably from the Diamox – hmmm. Any other side-effects? Internal hemorrhaging, liquefied organs, perhaps.   

In other, better news, I finally manage to evacuate my bowel after three and a half days. I was wondering where all that bread, chocolate, nuts and pasta was hiding. The Israeli boys are very happy to hear about my evacuation too – are we a close-knit team, or what?

Luckily at this campsite, which is more protected from the elements than last night’s thanks to its position in a valley below a glacier, there is a recently built covered pit toilet. Ben says the humble two-cubicle wood and concrete convenience cost taxpayers 80 million shillings to build (almost US$50,000, a fortune in Tanzania) – corruption reaching new depths and heights.

It’s serene at camp with birds the only sign of wildlife that I see besides some kind of Usain Bolt-fast rodent. Solid white-necked ravens follow the climbers for their food scraps.

On the first day, the Israeli boys thought them noble and majestic creatures, by now they think they’re just damn pests and quite possibly manifestations of mountain evil. 


Day Four:  Barranco Camp (3950m) to Barafu Camp (4550m)

Wake up at first peek of the sun today, crawl out of my tent and just stare at Kili and the burnt orange reflection of the sunrise on one of the glaciers. Anyone watching me must think I’ve truly cracked it, just swaying in the breeze – I am probably even mumbling to myself. Next I stare at ‘Barranco Wall’, an imposing rock face that we will trek up for a few hours towards base camp.

The wall is not as challenging as it looks, thank Christ, particularly as we tackle it at about a quarter normal walking pace.

My hands and face are both tingling now – more evident than yesterday, it feels like someone has slapped me across the face. But if this is the worst of it then I will survive.

A group of three young Australians pass us quite quickly on the way up – they seem to be ascending very quickly, says Ben, who incidentally teaches me the worst swear word that exists in Swahili. It’s very specific, very descriptive and very disgusting – I file it away for later.

Unfortunately the guides aren’t in great form today. First we overstay our lunch stop, which means we arrive at base camp a few hours late.

We were aiming to be here and asleep by about 7pm, but it’s after 9pm before we settle into our tents. The ascent to the summit is supposed to begin at midnight and we have to get up around 11pm, leaving us only a couple of hours to attempt to rest.  

Base camp is hard to describe because I can’t really see it: the snow and mist limit the view to a few metres. It feels very exposed, the wind buffets against the flimsy tents; threatening to turn them into expensive kites.

Over dinner and as we try to settle into out tents for some coveted rest the signs of altitude shows on all five of our faces.

At dinner, we force down some more carbs, although no one is hungry. Alex grazes on four plates of pasta: he is used to fuelling his body.

Noi, who also has a migraine, heads to his tent without eating much. I hope he’s feeling better by ‘morning’ – in two hours.  

I’m more irritable than usual and not thinking clearly, clumsy in all my movements. As I try to enter my tent, the zipper breaks, then the main zipper on my jacket as well. Next my water bottle (Camelbak) leaks all over my tent and my warm clothes. This chain reaction of reasonably minor events sparks a 15-minute Tourette’s style rant; I swear creatively into the snowy darkness, using my new Swahili word liberally, and waste any real chance to settle down and sleep.



Day Five, the summit attempt: Barafu Camp (4550m) to Uhuru Peak (5895m)

I wake up, after about 20 minutes’ sleep, at about 11.15pm, thunder, lightning surround me, and snow peppers the tent.

I thought the first thunderclap was an avalanche. Was about to get up and run, but realised how pointless that would be in the dark, with sheer drops a few metres in every direction.

Fighting fatigue and nerves now, unsure if I want to do this…  

Seems no one else managed any sleep at all – I guess I should feel fresh in comparison.

Collectively we are still fuming over arriving late into camp, but time to get over that now – a bigger mountain to climb.

Ben pulls out of the summit attempt because of an upset stomach, leaving us with only one English-speaking guide.

Asi says we look like Zombies with head torches as we begin to trudge up the steep track, leaving the porters behind. We shuffle half footsteps, with very little idea of what lies outside the torch’s arch.

My calves tell me the track is steep and steepening. Several times I have to grasp onto boulders with my gloves to steady myself. Concentrate!  

Some climbers who began well before midnight have left an obvious track in the few inches of fresh snow. We can see their head torches above us, like celestial fire flies.

As the night goes on, every now and then, a head torch light comes towards us down the mountain: the altitude, the cold or exertion too much for some. Faces full of exhaustion and regret.

The snow abates three hours into the climb. It’s crisp and even a few stars poke out now.

Our group breaks into two: Alex and Maggie a little behind with two guides while Asi, Noi and I move up with Said, who speaks basically no English but loves to repeat cool-sounding Swahili words such as ‘pole, pole’ and ‘akunamatata’ (slowly, slowly, no worries). His repetition grates on me as the night progresses.  

The six-and-a-half hour climb seems like a blur of dark, cold and fatigue, but I focus on small steps, breathing, pigging out on cashew nuts and fruit and nut chocolate, and sipping water from my Camelbak – its mouth piece frozen by the time we summit.

As the sun begins to peek out, we are near the first plateau. Initially I think it’s the top, but a small signs tells me it’s just Stella Point; still a couple of hundred vertical metres to go.

At Stella Point Noi leans on Asi. Above this, Said and Asi basically carry Noi to the summit.

The final hundred vertical metres looks like a stroll, but every 20 metres I stop, pant like a donkey, and recover for about two minutes. Shallow breaths are easier but aren’t helping me at all.  

The view from the summit is white cartoon craziness. We’re a kilometre at least above the cloud line, and I can see virtually none of Tanzania below that, but the rarified view of this alpine kingdom makes me want to invent some kind of un-coordinated summit salsa.

Intense silver clouds billow forever, incongruously blue ice castles illuminated by a trillion candle-power sun stun me.

I stand at the obligatory wooden sign that is draped in a Buddhist prayer flags, looking at the “5895m” and trying to gauge some deeper meaning from it.

I stay up on the summit probably a little too long, surveying, trying to prolong the experience.

Then I feel an eerie popping sensation spreading out in my right eye for a few seconds. Where are the guides?

Time to get down.


Afterwards: Elation, vomiting and a proposal

Despite the exhaustion, it takes only about an hour and three quarters to return to base camp. The baking sun transforms last night’s fluffy snow into argumentative ice cream.

We use the scree-skiing technique (running into the mush and digging in our heels) which generates speed and adrenaline to combat exhaustion. We take turns at falling over, clumsy from over exertion, me more than most.

I saw the three young Aussies on the peak; they all looked like mountain sickness had them by their throats: in varying shades of grey, barely able to string a sentence together. The fittest among them had to be ‘run down’ by a guide after he fell over on the summit one too many times.  

My eye (blood red and likely to stay that way for about a week, the vessels unused to the near 6000-metre height) throbs intensely until we descend to below about 2000m the next day.

I’m relieved that Noi recovers quickly and I think the memory of the two brothers hugging on the summit will stay with me for a long time.

Noi strains his knee during the scree ski and Asi is sick on the descent, but both are in fine form back in Moshi the following evening.

Alex also vomits on the way down, but only after he proposes marriage to Maggie, on the summit. She said yes (or oui) and then almost sprinted back down to base camp, faster than any of us, Alex a long way behind.

On the way down, on the last day, I saw a porter run past me, a large load on head, one of his eyes dangling a couple of centimetres out of its socket. Yeah I’m proud of myself for tackling the mountain, but climbing Kilimanjaro puts life very much into perspective.

 Steve Madgwick