Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa)


By: Dave Hammond

Kilimanjaro is probably the best known mountain in the world excepting perhaps Everest. Many people who never go near mountains seem to have heard the name, and know it is in Africa somewhere. It must be the setting, a huge volcanic mountain mass towering above the high grass plains of East Africa. For me it was a good reason to visit a new continent, and make a serious attempt at the Summit of 19,340ft.

For my climbing friends anxious to know without rushing on through... I did make it to the very top.

As the Boeing 747 jumbo jet approached Nairobi at around 10 am, I heard the weather for the arrival, and the temperature was only 68F. This was an unexpected surprise. Nairobi is just south of the equator, and as it was September the sun was right overhead, so I was expecting it to be very hot. This I would get used to quickly as the summer temperatures in Tucson had been well over 100F most days.

However, Nairobi is at 5,300ft hence the reasonable temperatures, which don't get higher than the mid 80's. The climbs of Kilimanjaro are during the dry seasons from June to October and December to February.

My trip was booked with Mountain Travel and had only four participants including the leader and me!

Usually there are at least six to eight so I was rather wondering about the other two, a couple from Georgia a state not renown for its mountains. After going through customs I was met by the leader and the couple. The leader seemed to be a patient type and the couple, in their early fifties, were very friendly and outgoing. This first impression was reinforced as the two weeks went by. We were driven to the Norfolk Hotel which was the first to be built in Nairobi in 1904. Then the town consisted of a dirt road from the station to the hotel with only a few shops and businesses. In those days the only way to get to Nairobi was by ship to Mombassa on the coast of Kenya, then by train to Nairobi, which only ran twice a week. In spite of the remoteness many early visitors were aristocracy from England, and later authors including Ernest Hemingway. Most of this information was on my placemat for my snack by the pool after my arrival at the hotel!

I had read about the Railway Museum in Nairobi and mentioned this to my two fellow travelers, and they decided to join me on a visit. We took a taxi to the museum, which was near the station, and the driver said he would be back in an hour or so. The museum outlined the construction of the railway in the 1890's from Mombassa on the coast to Nairobi, and eventually into Uganda round the north side of Lake Victoria by 1930. nicknamed 'the lunatic line,' it played a large part in the development of Kenya and its neighbors, Uganda and the northern part of Tanzania. The railway had some steep grades hence the large steam locomotives on display in the yard outside. These were in use up to the end of the 1970's and two used for Safari trains in the late 1980's. What I saw of Nairobi on the way back to the hotel reminded me a bit of some South American cities I had visited. After dinner that evening our leader briefed us on what lay ahead.

We were off next morning in a mini van heading south to Tanzania, changing vehicles at the border, as going on in a vehicle from Kenya would require high fees. We stopped at our leader's company office in Arusha before proceeding to our first game viewing safari in Tarangire National Park. Late that afternoon we had a drive in the park and had our first sight of zebras, elephants, buffalo and various types of antelopes, all occupying the same general area. We stopped to watch some baboons, and two males were noisily chasing each other around. Back at the lodge we stayed in permanent tents, each with wash room facilities at the back.

Off again next morning for a more extensive drive around the park. We soon saw some hyenas eating the remains of a zebra. These animals hunt mostly at night so are not seen that often. Later we observed wildebeast, warthogs (ugly pigs) and that large non-flying bird the ostrich. At one stop our jeep failed to start so we all got out to push to get it going. Fortunately, there was no dangerous wildlife around! Once back at the Park headquarters our leader used the radio to arrange for another jeep, which met us at our lunch stop in the Rift Valley. Proceeding in the replacement jeep we drove up to the entrance of Ngorongoro Crater Game Reserve to spend a couple of nights camped at the crater rim. Here I became aware there was no fence around the campsite, and I did not recall one at the lodge either. One night I did hear something moving around outside.

We spent the next day down in the crater, which is 20 miles across and about 1500ft deep. The vegetation varies from woodland and swamps to soda lakes and drifting dunes, though it is mostly open grassland. What is amazing is the amount of wildlife, herds of buffalo, zebras, wildebeest in this rather dry environment. In the distance we did see elephants and a couple of lionesses. Soon we came across other jeeps which had stopped watching lionesses and cubs close to the road. Then to my surprise some of them sauntered close by, in spite of the smell of exhausts from the parked vehicles. Later we came across a lion on top of a mound, posing like the M.G.M. trademark!

By now I was wondering about lunch, and we drove to a site for this purpose where we could all get out. it was not fenced so I suppose the first vehicles drive around to see if there are any unwelcome residents. It was here I met my fellow safari travelers, nearly half seeming from Britain and quite a few Japanese. Later in the afternoon we did see a rhinoceros in the distance and stopped to watch a cheetah stalking some antelope, which was not a common sight.

Our driver was a member of the local people, the Maasi, and arranged for us to visit a nearby village. He got dressed up in the traditional costume, a sort of wrap around colorful cloth. At the village we negotiated with the elders over the visitors fee, then were entertained by the women with a couple of songs. Most interesting was our visit inside a hut, a dark gloomy residence. After stooping through the crooked entrance we came into the central living area with a smoldering fire, the smoke leaving by three portholes as there was no chimney. Radiating off the living area were three sleeping quarters lit by the solitary portholes. In the gloom we chatted with the residents about their traditions and lifestyle, our driver acting as translator. By now it was sunset so it was time to return to camp.

The next day was one of the easiest, driving back to Arusha, stopping on the way at a snake zoo. There the boas looked big, the vipers looked vicious, but the cobras looked too small. We then went up into Arusha National Park to stay two nights at a very nice lodge, where I got my first hazy view of Kilimanjaro. We were there to hike for a day, but tummy troubles took their toll. The husband stayed back at the lodge and I was not feeling that great. So our small band of only three set out led by a ranger with a rifle in case we came across something that desired us. We hiked up to some huts for lunch and continued on to the open side of a large crater. Here we joined a jeep road coming up from the other side and walked down to meet our jeep which had driven part the way up.

Next morning we were off to Kilimanjaro National Park arriving at the Park Entrance, and were met by our guide, cook and porters. We got going before midday, hiking up 3,000' through the forest to our first camp at 9,000'. The way up this main East Side approach is quite civilized with huts all the way. Each site has a large hut or room for eating, the food being cooked in small huts over wood fires, and brought to the eating place.

Onward next morning we finally left the forest and got a great view of Kilimanjaro and nearby Mawenzi Peak. Both mountains are volcanic in origin, older Mawenzi having been eroded into rugged peaks. Continuing across moorland we arrived at the next hut 12,300', where we were to spend two nights. This was for acclimatization and we spent the day hiking up to the saddle between Mawenzi and Kilimanjaro to see what lay ahead. On again the next day over open country with sparse vegetation to the last hut below the summit. By the time I reached the lunch place it had started to rain and I was handed sandwiches by our ever patient leader. It was one of the few times I can recall eating on the move. At the hut at 15,400' that evening the rain turned to snow not surprisingly. We all went to bed early for an 1 am rise. We had brought headlamps, but the night was clear and with the full moon they were switched off soon after starting. The group of fifty or so climbers made their way up, the trail zigzagging seemingly endlessly up a long steep scree slope. The reason for leaving so early was that the scree would remain frozen during our climb. It seemed ages before light finally came up the rocks below the rim of the crater. On the rim is Gillman Point (18,700'), a turn around point for some. However I felt fine, though lacking energy, and plodded on with our leader. Later we met the other two in our little group on their way down from the summit. I was glad they made it, as the highest they had been before was in the Rockies, and wondered where they got energy to get so far ahead! By now there was a cold wind so we sheltered for a quick snack before going on to the exposed summit. At the very top of the African continent (19,340') distant views were obscured by the clouds below. However I could look down into the enormous ice filled crater which was about 2 to 3 miles across, and in the center was an icy dome looking nearly as high as the summit.

About ten climbers were there and photos were happily taken, fresh snow hiding the bleak volcanic rock. It was then back round the rim to Gillman Point, and down the scree to the hut for lunch. By that time other climbers were coming in, including quite a few from Britain. So myself and our slightly tired leader had to be on our way to the next hut where we had rest day on the way up.

After spending our last night on the mountain it was the hike out to the park entrance, where we had a late lunch and bade farewell to our guide and hard working cook and porters. Our minivan took us to a most pleasant lodge near Arusha. On the last day of the trip we drove to Arusha for some shopping, and then to the Kenya border, where we changed vehicles and drivers again for the drive to Nairobi. At the Norfolk Hotel I enjoyed the pool while the other two got ready for departure that evening after the farewell dinner.

SPS Trip Report Index | Sierra Peaks Section