Opening my eyes to the bright glow of the early morning outside the tent, I excitedly jump out of my sleeping bag and get dressed without noticing that it has only just gone 5am. I am almost an hour early for breakfast and I’ve spent the night nervously waking up every hour or so with thoughts of what awaits us on our climb but now the morning is here I don’t care. I stand outside my tent for a couple of minutes taking in the crisp morning air and the reality that I am indeed doing this for real.
The cloud from the night before has evaporated leaving a breath taking morning vista of bright blue sky as a backdrop to the lush green forest that completely surrounds us. Turning north I stop momentarily. What I think is our ultimate goal, Kibo Peak is finally visible for the first time. Way off in the distance, glaciers clinging to its side, it looks so damn far away and oh my god so high. How on earth are we going to get up there over the next 4 days?
On paper, today looked like a breeze. 5 kilometers. I can walk that in under an hour at home. Today would push me far more than I expected. Heading out of camp shortly after breakfast taking a path past the river that was the source of our drinking water for the day (don’t worry, it gets boiled before it gets to us. Take purification tablets if you like but its really not necessary), spirits were high.
Two minutes later my day went downhill by turning right and heading uphill towards one of the biggest ridges I’ve ever seen. I asked our guide if we were heading to the top. He said that was only the first half of the day. My heart sank a little and I resigned myself to what would probably be the hardest 5km of my life.
20 minutes in and we were largely clear of the tree line which had opened up a little to the giant heather that adorns this low alpine zone. Turning back we could make out the camp clearing we had just left along with a view of the mountain spreading out below us. I was impressed at how high up we were after just one day. Turning back to face the mountain every step took us closer to the barren landscapes that we would be getting used to from here on in.
The next hour passed by in a flash of stunning views and increasingly rugged terrain. I couldn’t believe that I was actually enjoying this as much as I was at this moment.
I found myself stopping to admire the out of this world scenery rather than stopping because my body was telling me to. Just as we reached the peak of another minor hill thinking we were finally at the top, the trail would spread out before us yet again. It was better hidden than a queue line at Disneyworld!
Eventually, just before midday and 3 1/2 hours after we had set out, the peak finally appeared before us. Elated but exhausted by our first real test on the mountain we were glad to have a mid morning break on the small plateau that was to be our lunch stop. It is also home to what could be regarded as the toilet with one of the best views in the world which is fortunate because there is no lock on the precariously fixed door to shield any occupants from the wind that had been rising steadily all morning as our elevation increased. Even calling it a toilet would be a stretch as its nothing more than a very deep, very smelly hole with three timber clad sides and a tin roof.
The trail from Machame Camp was snaking its way down the ridge far into the distance.
Ahead of us we realised today was far from over as the mountain towered above us through the thick cloud layer that is almost permanently around at this height. Precipitation here is around 1300mm per year and almost all of it is because of the thick mist that shrouds the higher slopes of the mountain from the towns that are dotted around the low lying areas.
Our 20 minute lunch stop was over too soon. Leaving the opportunistic crows behind with the last of our biscuits we started the afternoon push to Shira 2 Camp. The landscape getting steeper with every step.
The flora around us now made up of giant lobelias in the heathland and hiking through the boundry that marks the moorland zone we come across one of the most well recognised, and abundant, plants on the mountain, the senecio. Along with the change in the flora you will now notice a definite drop in temperature and increase in the winds especially nearing the Shira Plateau. Packing a thin fleece along with zip off hiking trousers and the obligatory waterproof layer is a must for today. We may only be covering 5km in length but by the end of the day we will have gained just over 1km in height.
Concentrating more on the increasingly steep pathway I look up momentarily to be greeted with moss covered trees clingingly perilously to cliff edges as the wind blows the cloud strikingly fast past us. The day has been long as I begin to wonder if we will ever reach Shira Plateau. This has been the longest 5km of my life. Some like to play music as we hike but I prefer to experience all the senses around me, the smell of the dampness in the air, the sound of the wind blowing, the breath taking sight of the mountain landscapes all around us but as the camp finally came into view through the billowing cloud the had enveloped us for the better past of the last hour, my body was telling me enough was enough for the day.
Suddenly the climbing stopped and the vast Shira Plateau spread out before us. The plateau is all that remains of Kilimanjaro’s third peak, the others being Mawenzi to the east and the peak of Kibo. Collectively they are also the largest volcano outside of South America because, while both Shira and Mawenzi are extinct, Kibo is still classed as dormant and it is possible it could erupt again in the future but don’t let that put you off!
The wind was blowing a thick layer of cloud disguising what was in the distance. The ground had changed to loose, mist dampened rocks making walking quite perilous even with the hiking specific footwear most of us were sporting. Machame Camp was big but this was on another scale. It was early afternoon and the cloud was billowing up from the lower slopes creating swirling mists a hundred or so feet above us. The sight was mesmerising.
Arriving in camp an hour earlier than I had expected left time for a mid afternoon siesta. The morning had been much harder than I had expected. I would say that after summit night this is probably the next most physical day. Partly because we had only been on the mountain a day and were pushing our bodies further than they had ever been pushed while we gained a kilometer in altitude in just under 8 hours and partly because of the unforgiving gradient of the first half of the day. Today was the polar opposite of the first days more flat terrain.
Waking up fresh after an hour, the wind was still a permanent presence outside the tent so it was time to add on some layers because it was afternoon tea in the mess tent, the point in the day when we could all get together a talk about how we felt we did. The mood from all of us was even more jolly that the previous day. We may have only been on the mountain for 36 hours but we had overcome our toughest day. We had been warned about the incline yesterday evening at dinner while our blood oxygen level was being taken (something everyone on the mountain must go through as part of the strict safety guidelines because of the extreme altitude).
Stepping outside the mess tent just before dinner the sun cut through the now bright blue sky. The swirling cloud had disappeared, instead replaced by a delicate blanket covering everything below us. The only thing peaking up through it, like an island in the distance, is the peak of Mount Meru, Tanzania’s second highest mountain.
The setting sun turned the sky the deepest shade of red reflected off the blanket of cloud to create one of the most magical sunsets I have ever had the privilege to witness. It was dinner time but I didn’t care. I couldn’t sit inside a tent while this view was out here to be admired, a view shared by many on the plateau with me that day. 25 minutes later the sun had disappeared behind the mountain leaving only the brightest thin band of red in its wake. It was dinner time at last.
The evening brought with it one of the darkest nights skies I had seen since I had walked the Inca Trail in Peru 4 years previously. We were camping above the cloud layer for the first time. Aside from the early morning and late afternoon mists covering Kibo peak we would be very lucky with the skies for the rest of our time on the mountain. After dinner I felt compelled to try and record life on the mountain resulting in my only night time image with the lights inside everyone’s tents lighting up like beacons against the clear star studded night sky. To this day it is one of my favourite memories of my time in Tanzania.
Happy with my effort I retired to bed unaware that I was about to suffer through the most uncomfortable 24 hours of my life. My faith in myself was about to be tested to the extreme and only the thought of the people that had generously sponsored me for charity and the friendship of others on the mountain would get me through the next day.