As I stand on the ledge looking down at the clouds spreading out beneath me under the setting sun I am in awe of this place, and completely unaware of what an uncomfortable night I am about to be in for. It’s my second of six days on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and deep down I can’t shake off the same thought, “I can’t believe I am actually doing this?”
My reason, initially at least, was entirely selfish. I wanted to prove to myself that I still had the drive and energy I had in my twenties as I neared my 4th decade on this big blue ball we call home. I had heard the horror stories of ‘summit night’ and the much feared Barranco Wall, tales of altitude related illnesses, endearing friendships, the almost superhuman abilities of the mountain porters and then there were the views. As my birthday neared I decided that I needed just such a challenge.
After friends and family had recovered from the initial shock of the thought of me actually climbing a bona fide mountain the questions inevitably turned to how I was going to prepare. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – Machame Gate
Standing at Machame Gate after our 90 minute drive from the hotel in Moshi, I was sure I should have done more training than I had managed to squeeze in but now it was too late to go back. None of us waiting at the Machame Gate Kilimanjaro National Park border control could see the challenges of what laid ahead behind the thick curtain of trees that lay around us, of what exactly we had let ourselves in for over the next 6 days. All we were concerned with at this moment was getting our paperwork sorted and our backpacks weighed while making sure none of the monkeys nicked our lunch!
Formalities sorted, we were finally given the go ahead to start after almost 2 hours of sitting around which felt more like a week. Walking past the scores of other tour groups still awaiting their paperwork to be cleared we turned right, up an unassuming gravel road and stared up into the jungle that lay between us and our first goal; Machame Camp. Surely we couldn’t be about to undertake the tallest free standing mountain on Earth? I wasn’t really sure what to expect but I certainly wasn’t expecting anything as civilised as roads.
This mountain lets you in mercifully gently on the first day with the gravel road giving way after a few hundred meters to a very well trodden dirt track that snakes its way up through the rainforest.
11 kilometres may not seem a lot but when almost every step adds altitude, the slow line of people steadily snaking their way up the trail soon thins out as everyone pauses to catch their breath and take a minute or two to acclimatize.
The first day is short at around 5-7 hours depending on your pace to cover the entire 11 kilometres including a 20 minute sit down for lunch but that doesn’t mean that it is going to be like a stroll in your local park. Don’t be surprised if you are walking most of the 11 kilometres under the shade of not only the trees but the cloud as well, this is the small band of rainforest that clings to the lower slopes of the mountain after all. Along with the trees comes the humidity as well. 96% of all the rain that falls on the mountain falls in this zone so make sure you pack layers in your day pack today with at least one waterproof layer.
Before we set off our water bottles were filled by the porters and you will constantly find that you are being told to drink. The minimum recommended daily intake of water is 3 litres which I had real problems with seeing as I barely drink a litre in any given day in my normal routine. Today however, with the added humidity you probably won’t have a problem getting through most of what you are carrying.
I was settling in to a nice pace admiring the suns ray intermittently breaking though the cloud layer and shining through the tree canopy to create some interesting shadows with the vines that hang from many of the branches overhead when the enormous clearing of Machame Camp finally came into view. I was a little taken aback at the size of the place; easily able to accommodate 500 tents or more the clearing looked like it could rival a logging operation in the Amazon.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – Machame Camp
The first port of call in any camp is the registration hut where everybody has to sign in. There are no limits on the amount of people allowed to climb the mountain like there is for the Inca Trail in Peru but there is a very tight control of who and what is on the mountain even down to the rubbish. What gets taken on the mountain has to get carried off as well. It’s good that the authorities are taking care of the place finally after so many years of neglect.
Signed in we were let loose to find our camp which, thankfully, was not all that far from the registration hut so finding my tent was not all that difficult meaning I could collapse onto… the solid floor. I knew I should have splashed out on the air mattress!
My well earned shut eye was cut short for some afternoon tea. How very British; I could get used to this but it does serve a purpose. The mess tent is the only place big enough for the entire group to get together and get to know each other. You’re going to be spending the next 6 days together and at some point in the next four you will be relying on each other to get you through some of the tougher sections; sections where you think the walking will never end, sections where you can’t see that you have made any ground from the day before, sections where you may feel like you want to give up, but it is the comradery of the group that is one of the strongest motivators for the times when you feel down. Climbing Kilimanjaro is as much, if not more, to do with your state of mind as it is about the physical aspect.
We were all in good spirits through dinner, even the sun was starting to show its face through the cloud layer that still hid Kibo peak from us, and then came the “surprise”. A tradition of the tour group I had chosen was a bit of a sing song and a dance off with the whole group in a circle. My initial horror turned into joy and laughter as we all took our turn in the centre to show off some moves. Even people from other tour groups came over to see what all the commotion was about.
It was a fantastic way of bonding the group together and we retired to our tents for the night with an air of confidence about day 2.
Little did we know that the second day was to be a different beast entirely.