We got back to the Marangu Hotel on Friday 2nd and eagerly awaited the arrival of Donna (my girlfriend), Ashley (Ria's cousin's husband) and Kenneth (Ashley's friend). With the ascension team finally assembled we spent a day at the hotel resting and getting kitted out. Because we are cycling we were unable to bring any gear from home and all our gear was hired through the hotel. Ria managed to acquire a clown's top which we dubbed the 'happy jacket' as whoever looked at the yellow, red and blue top with pink silk trimmings could not help but smile. Imraan picked out a prospector's outfit and looked like he was ready to pan for gold in the Klondike.

We left on the morning of the 4th upon our 'FINE YOUNG AFRICAN' sponsored ascent of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. The mountain is volcanic in origin and is made of 3 peaks. The oldest, but now almost completely eroded Shira peak, Mawenzi peak and the youngest and tallest peak Uhuru at 5895m, our challenge for the next 7 days.

There are various routes up Kilimanjaro, but the longer routes generally have a higher success rate as it allows more time for acclimatisation. We decided on the Machame 7 day, tented option the more scenic and longer of the various commercial routes. Time plays a crucial role in successfully reaching the peak and to put this into perspective it takes10-14 days of trekking to get to Everest base camp which is lower than Uhuru peak. Apparently this is one of the reasons that Kilimanjaro also experiences one of the highest failure rates for summitting.

It may sound ridiculous but our small party of 6 required 19 porters: 1 lead guide, 3 assistant guides, 1 cook and 14 porters. They carried all our gear, their gear, tents and food (totaling 25kg each) for the whole week. All we had to carry were our clothes for the day, water and snacks (about 6-10kg). That's just over ½ ton of stuff!

The 1st day began with a late start and saw us climbing through the cool forest, led by the jovial and charismatic Reggie with the stoic Steven as our rearguard and reaching the Machame camp (3000m) in the moonlight. Something that is characteristic of the Kilimanjaro hike are the  guides constantly uttering 'pole pole' (Swahili for slowly). We took this to a new level and not once during the entire hike did the guides ever tell us to slow down, in fact they told us to speed up quite a few times. I'm unsure how much this really helped but we were very conscious of the high failure rate of reaching the summit and usually in a group of 6, 2 don't make it. In Zanzibar, I met a German group of 6 people and only 2 made it to the top. Another added bonus of going slowly is your group ends up at the back, you then have the trail all to yourself and can really start appreciating the stunning scenery and solitude of the mountain.

Although the walk though the forest was beautiful the really stunning vistas opened up on the second day as we headed through the heather zone and out of the forest. We also caught the 1st glimpse of Uhuru peak in the distance as we climbed out of the cloud line. To the casual traveller Kilimanjaro is usually hidden in cloud but from our new vantage point it was easy to see why. Below the 3000m line the clouds form a huge ring around the mountain, but once you climb out of the clouds not only is the peak clearly visible but you also see a blanket of clouds extending from the base of the mountain to as far as the eye can see. We spent the night at Shira camp at 3600m and were rewarded with a stunning sunset of Uhuru peak glowing red and the ever present carpet of cloud a subtle pink down below us.

The 3rd day was to be the most challenging and this is when our head guide, Goudance, started leading us. A man of few words, this veteran of the mountain had a quiet strength about him, a mere  look would send the rest of the guides and porters off to do his bidding. How they knew just what to do we have yet to figure out, but things got done. Getting us used to the altitude, we started the day at shira, ascended to 4400m and finally descended to 3850m at Baranco camp. At these altitudes there is little vegetation and the dusty path heads upwards, winding around small boulders. Despite the hiking being relatively easy thus far the altitude finally got to me. Ordinarily I never get headaches  but the higher we ascended the worse the throbbing in my head got. From a dull ache at the back it soon spread, finally reaching the back of my eyes. When we finally stopped for lunch at 4400m I could barely eat our packed lunch (although this could be due to the food, a weird peanut butter/beef sandwich). Even popping a mipradol did not help and as we descended every step and every thud of the walking stick against the ground reverberated in my skull. Descending back to a reasonable altitude finally calmed the pain and I could once again appreciate the luxury that comes with having so many porters.

The next 2 days were ½ day hikes taking us to Karanga (about 3950m) and Barafu (about 4700m) respectively, allowing for rest and acclimatisation prior to the big push to the peak. As with all our days, it started with a washing bowl of hot water outside the tent and a hot cup of tea. Breakfast was served in the mess tent and consisted of a helping of fruit followed by porridge, muesli and cornflakes and topped off with eggs and bread. Maintaining hydration is vital to reducing the effects of altitude sickness and as per the advice given during the pre-hike briefing, we drank 4-6 cups of tea/milo/hot chocolate during all meals. Lunch initially started off as packed lunches but then turned to stews when we reached camp early. The highlight of the day was the supper though. Despite not having much of an appetite some days, we relished the soup and bread for starters, the chicken, various stews and lasagne for main and the bits of fruit to wash it all down (with all the food we ate I was surprised we did not need more porters). With 4 Indians finally in attendance, games of Thunee were held in the mess tent, complete with the obligatory flights and heated arguments going on late into the night while the rest of the camp slept (or tried to).


With only a short hike to Barafu, we arrived early on the 5th day, had a quick lunch and supper and  went to bed to get as much rest as possible before starting the midnight ascent. We were woken up at 11:30 with a cup of tea and biscuits and left at midnight dressed in 3 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of pants, 7 layers on the torso and a balaclava, beanie and buff. A full moon shone above us as we made our way up to the summit, reducing the need of the headlamps we all carried. Although starting with high spirits, this soon dissipated as we headed higher into the mountain and the altitude started taking it's toll. With temperatures well below zero, water bottles had to be kept against the body to prevent them from freezing. Breaks were minimal, lasting 1-2 minutes as anything longer dropped the body temperature. As the moon set, it got darker and the mood deepened. Without being able to see the peak, we just concentrated on the feet of the person in front of us and occasionally glanced up at the lights further up the slope as other climbers struggled up. Goudence led us is his usual silent manner and the higher we climbed the colder and more miserable it got. When our morale faltered Reggie was there with a beautiful song to lift the spirits. Scrambling us scree is a mind numbing and morale breaking exercise as with every step up, you slide back down. After a head-splitting 6 hour trudge, towards 6am a slight glow appeared in the East. The slight alleviation of our depression was negated by the biting wind that picked up as we neared the top, freezing the snot on my nose. We crested the crater rim at Stellar's point as the sun peaked over the horizon. We had finally made it and were rewarded with spectacular views of the early morning sun glistening off the ice fields. Because we were climbing in the dark, only concentrating on the feet in front of us, it came as a surprise to discover Ashley missing from the group. Unsure  how far he was behind and whether he was going to make it or not we carried on, secure in the knowledge that Steven (one of the guides) was with him. We walked along the crater rim to the highest point, Uhuru peak another 120m higher and 45 minutes walk away. With the crater on the right, the ice fields to the left and the sun rising above us the views were spectacular and all the better for the effort it took us to get there.

Up at the peak we were only allowed to stay for a few minutes and after the victory photo at the sign and a quick cup of tea we headed back. The headache re-surfaced after the euphoria ebbed and the long trek to base camp began. With the sub-zero temperatures, taking off our thick thermal gloves, exposing the hands to the biting cold limited our desire to take photos of our stunning surroundings. As we made our way back along the crater rim we bumped into Ashley making is way to the peak. Despite experiencing the worst altitude sickness of all of us, he powered through the pounding headache and bouts of nausea and made it to the very top. 

We regrouped at Stellar point and made our way down the scree to base camp. In contrast to the 7 hour ascent, the descent to Barafu took 3 hours. Everyone says how difficult the ascent is but they fail to mention the 10 hour knee-breaking descent (which I personally found more difficult). After a hour lunch break we continued the descent. The 4700m at Barafu is still a dangerous altitude and the safest thing to do is to go down as much as possible. We continued down via a different, more direct route and arrived at Mweka camp (3000m) 4 hours later, (punctuated only by a 15min break), exhausted. The total ascent and descent took 14 hours, 13 hours of which we hiked, ascending 1200m and descending 2900m. We had another grand supper and quickly hit the sack, but celebrations were limited after the marathon hike.

We awoke the next morning elated that every member of the team had managed to reach the very top, barely able to contain  the smiles. The atmosphere in camp was light yet subdued, while happy about the prospect of a hot shower at the hotel, this part of the adventure was coming to an end. As we walked through the forest towards the exit point, a light rain started to fall. For the whole hike we had perfect weather and the slight drizzle on the final day was a welcome blessing, despite making the path dangerously slippery.

After a hot shower back at the hotel, a little ceremony was held with the guides and porters where we were presented with our certificates. The next day we awoke with stiff quads. Barely able to bend our legs, climbing up and down stairs was a painful and slow experience. Pushing someone down the stairs and watching them trying not to bend their legs on the forced descent was a popular game. The euphoria of the ascent was short lived as the realisation that my girlfriend was leaving suddenly dawned.

This was one of the highlights of the whole trip and marked the ½ way point. The beautiful hike through Kilimanjaro National Park as we hiked through various vegetation and climate zones culminated in the summiting of the highest mountain in Africa. For his a big thank you needs to go to 'FINE YOUNG AFRICANS', a medical supply company based in Gauteng and our sponsors for the Kilimanjaro ascent, without whom this trek would not have been possible.