Kilimanjaro Trekking: Machame Route
From the jungle to the freezing cold of glaciers
Beginning at the Machame Gate (1,800 m) in Kilimanjaro National Park the hikers cross tropical rainforest to Machame Camp at 3,000 m. Through moorland on to Shira Camp at 3,800 m, with a view of the peak of Mt.Meru. Hiking to Lava Tower at 4,600 and then back to Baranco Camp at 3,900 m to acclimatise. Via Breakfast Wall and through a valley with lobelias to Barafu Base Camp at 4,600 m for the climb over glaciers to Uhuru peak at 5,895 m. Descending goes via Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate, where a Kilimanjaro beer is waiting.
Travelogue & photos: Suzan van Beest
We take a taxi from our guesthouse to Arusha to buy some stuff for our climb to the top of Mt.Kilimanjaro. We are accosted by vendors and we can't get rid of them. We already booked our trekking at home, so there's nothing we need from them.
We don't like it at all and after our shopping we quickly return to the hotel. In the evening we pack for our hike, everything we don't need stays in the hotel. I am a little nervous about tomorrow.
The real jungle feeling
At 9 AM we are in a jeep to the foot of Mt.Kilimanjaro. On the way we pick up the guide and his assistant. The porters are already waiting at the entrance of Kilimanjaro National Park.
We register at the foot of the mountain. Because Kilimanjaro is a nature reserve, the entrance fee is steep: $600 each.
There are nine people accompanying just the two of us: the guide, his assistant, a cook and six porters. It sounds like a lot, but it's standard.
Everything goes on a big stack (food for eleven people for six days, tents, sleeping bags, mats, etc.) and is divided into twenty-kilo packs, one for each porter to carry on his head.
Before the porters can leave, they have to pass a police officer with scales at the entrance gate: they have to show that they are not carrying more than 20 kilos plus their own luggage.
During the day we walk alone with our guide. The porters always overtake us and pitch the tents, get water from the river to boil, etc. at our next camp. Today our route leads through rainforest.
We already knew that the walking pace would be low, to make acclimatisation easier. But we didn't expect it to be this slow. On the upside, we have time to look around, take pictures and enjoy the beautiful greenery around us. We have a picnic in a pretty open spot.
At first the path is rather wide, but gradually it gets narrower; now I have the real jungle feeling. It stays dry, luckily, otherwise it would have been slippery. We are lucky, because it rains here quite often.
After six hours we feel our legs: the path goes up steeply. The overgrowth gets less dense until we finally are above the rainforest.
At first the sky is overcast, but after five minutes the peak of Mt.Kilimanjaro becomes visible. We hadn't seen it yet, so it's our first introduction. The peak is still damn far away. Well, we still have four days, so we'll be allright I guess.
Machame Camp has four level sites between bushes. At each site is room for a few tents and there is a wooden shed with toilet, which smells, but we expected that.
Our tent is in the highest spot with the best view; this happens every day, because our porters are very fast and whoever arrives first at a camp, can of course take the best places. So our tent is usually on a level spot, with few rocks underneath.
Today we started at an altitude of 1,800 meters; Machame Camp is at 3,000 meters. It is late and it's quickly getting cold. We have booked a low-budget tour, which means there is no dining tent. While other groups sit at tables on chairs, we eat dinner on a carpet on the ground in the freezing cold. When it gets dark, we get a candle: it's really that basic.
But we enjoy our first dinner: cucumber soup, then fried potatoes, fish with vegetable sauce, and fruit for dessert. We get three courses every day, first soup, then a pasta or rice dish and always fruit for dessert. The food is good, but because of the altitude we aren't very hungry, so it's sometimes hard to eat everything.
We crawl into our sleeping bags immediately after dinner, because it's very cold.
When we wake up at midnight and leave the tent to pee, there is an ice crust on our tent. Flip's mattress is punctured, so we share mine, which is way too narrow. But still we sleep rather well.
Climbing and clambering above the clouds
We get up at 6:30 AM and are handed a bowl of hot water with soap: this wakes us up a little. Breakfast consists of corn porridge, toast with a fried egg and fruit. After six days we can't see any toast (and as far as I am concerned, neither corn porridge)anymore, also because by that time the bread has been with us for a week.
We start walking between 7:30 and 8 AM. At first we wear long trousers and sweaters, but after a hundred meters of climbing we are hot already. I zip the legs off my trousers and put it in my daypack with the sweater. We both have ski poles, which sometimes help us to keep our equilibrium.
On this second day the route is beautiful: we walk in a moorland to Shira Camp at 3,800 meters. All day long we walk above the clouds, but there still are beautiful plants at this altitude. The sky is almost continuously bright blue. Because of this, the visibility is excellent and we can see the peak of Mt.Kilimanjaro all the time. We have to do a lot of climbing and clambering.
About ten groups are currently on their way up, every now and then when we take a break, we are passed by another group, but we pass them later when they take a break.
Yesterday we took bottles of water from the hotel, but from now on river water will be boiled for us; we have to add a few drops of hadex for sanitation. We have brought syrup to add a little taste to the water in our bidons.
After fifteen minutes of walking, I ask Flip if he has already tasted the water. He says "No and how about you?" I take a sip: the water is warm because the sun is shining on the drinking tube and the water tastes like a swimming pool because of the chloride. Fortunately I quickly get used to it and we have a good laugh about it.
Today's camp is the most wonderful of this week. We arrive early, at 2:30 PM and of course we have the best spot again, with a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro on one side, and on the other, rising above a blanket of clouds, Mt. Meru. We see a beautiful sunset.
I hardly sleep, not more than an hour. My nose is running, maybe an allergy. But the nose spray can is empty. I can only breath through my mouth and because the air is so dry here, my throat gets dry after three breaths. This means I have to drink, which means I have to get out of the tent every fifteen minutes or so.
Which isn't so bad, actually, because I have never seen so many stars so clear in the sky: nowhere near us is any light.
At 4,300 meters I get nauseous and have a headache
As soon as it's morning I happily leave the tent and am glad when we start hiking. I am worried though about the rest of the week: if I get this little sleep every night, I certainly won't make it to the top.
Today is our acclimatisation day: we will walk from Shira Camp at 3,800 meters to Lava Tower at 4,600 meters, only to descend on the other side to Baranco Camp at 3,900 meters.
This hike is meant to get used to the altitude and I definitely need that: at 4,300 meters I get nauseous and have a headache. I also have problems with my equilibrium. Flip and the guide walk on, chatting cheerily, but I have a hard time. When Flip asks if I'm okay, I even have trouble saying "yes".
Today, for the first time, it's getting colder: we start out in long trousers and after a while we also don our cardigans and when we eventually arrive at Lava Tower we even put on hats, coats and thin gloves.
We are supposed to eat something here, at 4,600 meters, but neither of us is able to eat anything at all. Meanwhile Flip also got a headache. We have pills for altitude sickness with us, so we take them and also some paracetamol.
When we descend, we feel better very soon. This afternoon it's a little hazy and eventually there are a few drops of rain. The surroundings are incredibly beautiful: the lobelias and senecias look mysterious in the fog.
We have to cross brooks frequently. Once I fall on my back, but I'm not hurt. We descend quickly, which is a good thing, because once we arrive at Baranco Camp it starts to rain.
The rain forces us to stay in our tent all afternoon, but still time flies: we prepare for the night, pack bags for tomorrow, play a game. Even the food is brought to our tent, so we are eating in our sleeping bags. This is supposed to be a very nice camp, but because of the fog we see very little of it.
A cheeky bird steals my chicken leg
The next morning the fog has lifted and it turns out we're damn near the summit. We begin this fourth day's hike with the Breakfast Wall, a sheer wall, 300 meters high, which we have to climb.
It looks harder than it is and Flip and I actually enjoy the climbing and clambering. It also warms us up: soon it turns out I am wearing three or so layers of clothing too many. I put them in my daypack, no problem. It also helps that the sun is shining today.
I have a two-liter camel bag in my daypack and two bidons one liter each. Those four liters of water are drunk in a day and of course that also means that we often have to find a place behind a rock.
Once we have climbed up the wall, we are in a very beautiful valley. We walk more or less around the mountain to the other side, where we will climb to the top tonight.
After two hours of walking, the guide says: see those lights there? Those tents are where we are going to have lunch. It seems close by, but it turns out there is a deep valley between us and the camp. First we have to meander downhill, then walk up a steep path: it takes another hour to arrive at our lunch spot.
Some people stay here for an extra night. We are glad that we aren't going to do that, because this hike can easily be done in six hours instead of two three- hour hikes. There is nothing to do here and there also is a strong wind.
After lunch, during which a cheeky bird (a kind of crow) steals my chicken leg, there still is a steep leg to go. The landscape here is not so pretty: no overgrowth and no water. It actually is a brown desert.
Three hours later we arrive in the next camp. There are people who will hike to the summit tonight, but also people who have been there already and are on their way down.
Because the Machame Route only goes up, we haven't spoken with anyone who was at the top already. Here we speak with a group of Americans, among who a sixty-year-old: they all made it to the top.
Barafu Base Camp is located at an altitude of 4,600 meters, just like the Lava Tower. We benefit from our acclimatisation: the altitude doesn't cause any problems. Today we also arrive early in the camp, around 3:30 PM. We enjoy the usual tea with popcorn and cookies with nuts. And of course the wonderful view.
We prepare for our nocturnal hike: I put on almost all clothes I brought on top of one another and only take water, raisins and grape sugar with me in my bag, to keep it as light as possible.
The guide asks if we really want to be at the summit before sunrise, or if we want a cool hike. We want a cool hike, but we also want to reach the summit.
He has a great idea: most groups leave around midnight so they will be at the top at 6 AM to see the sunrise. But after three hours of hiking they are already tired and at an altitude where there's less oxygen and where it's also very cold, especially just before sunrise, the coldest time of the day.
Our guide proposes to start walking at 3 AM instead, so the sun will have risen already when the going gets tough. We will also see the sunrise while we're hiking. Another advantage is that we will be able to see where we're going and that it's not as cold. In hindsight this was a great idea.
After having downed a plate of pasta with considerable effort and seeing a wonderful sunset (it's getting cold already) we turn in early. I take a sleeping pill, but still don't sleep well. We are woken by team members who ask for painkillers and batteries, but the main problem is the cold.
We are all alone at the top
Despite everything I feel fit at 2:30 AM. After some of cups of tea with extra sugar for energy and about ten cookies, we are on our way.
The cold isn't as bad as I expected and we don't really need our balaclavas. After two hours of trudging in the dark (we only see the rock right in front of us, how for heaven's sake does the guide know which way to go?) the guide tells us we are half way. We are happy for nothing, as it turns out later: we are actually only at a third of the distance.
When we started hiking, we saw lights every now and then, high above us, and knew it still was a great distance. But sometimes it's not clear if a light is a star or a flashlight.
On the way we see a few small groups walking in the wrong direction. By the way their guides are dragging them by their arms, we understand they didn't make it to the top, which is very sad.
After three hours the horizon turns a little red, the red turns pink, then yellow, then purple. And then the sun rises and the view high above the clouds is so incredibly beautiful!
The last two hours are difficult: we wade through lava grit that reaches up to our ankles; after every step up we glide down again, until I finally try my skating technique. It works well, but looks like crap. But that doesn't worry me at the moment.
At some point I get so tired that I have to sit down for a while. I eat a candy bar and some grape sugar and liquorice and then I'm more or less good to go again.
The drinking tube of my camel bag is frozen, even though I took care to blow back remaining water every time I had a drink. So I first have to chew the ice in the tube before I can drink.
Most people who were at the top during sunrise are on their way down. So these are the people who barfed on the way up, there's quite a lot of the stuff...
At Stella Point we get some pineapple juice and can even take off one layer of clothing. We sit for 15 minutes before we begin on the last fifty minutes of the climb to the real summit. This part is the most beautiful: first on a narrow path between glaciers, later on the ice itself.
When we arrive at the summit, it's already nice and warm. We take off our coats, hats and gloves and take pictures and video footage. We are all alone at the top.
We walk down at a fast pace. The distance we covered in six hours going up, we now do in two hours, so we are back at the base camp aroud 11 AM. Finally I can take off the sweaty ski-pants, training pants and thermospants (I prepared for the worst).
After a high five among our team, we are served overly sweet Fanta, but after all this chloride water, it tastes good. There also is a stew for us with lots of potatoes, but despite the fact that we hardly had any breakfast and have been walking for eight hours, neither of us is hungry.
An hour later we have packed our bags and continue on our way down. The pace is fast again and we feel our knees. I am also bothered by a blister, but as long as I keep walking it's more or less ok. Every now and then we turn to look at the summit and are very proud of ourselves.
After three and a half hours we arrive in Mweka Camp, which even has a cabin where we can have a Kilimanjaro beer. But we are too beat to go anywhere. We enjoy a footbath, which I really need after this quick descent. And then we have soup, served with pancakes: yummie!
Now we can drink our Kilimanjaro beers
I sleep well, but am a bit stiff when I get up. I eat the corn porridge with difficulty, happy that I won't have to do that anymore for a while. We leave at seven AM for the last three-hour walk.
We were supposed to walk fast again, but the surroundings are so beautiful that we stop frequently to take pictures. We are back in the rainforest as we can tell by the wet and slippery paths. It's hazy and eventually we get a few drops of rain.
Around 10 AM we leave the forest. Our porters are waiting for us, all washed up. The porters sweat like horses every day, carrying all that stuff. On the first day we already could tell they were passing us by their smell. Apparently they also bring a change of clothes: they even wear neat blouses now.
We drive to a bar and the atmosphere is good: the men are happy to go home (most have children) and we are proud of ourselves but also long to get back to our hotel in Arusha.
We receive our certificates in the bar, with a nice speech from our guide. Then it's my turn to thank everyone with a short speech and distribute the tips.
And then we can have our Kilomanjaro beers. Lastly we sing the Kilimanjaro song, which gives me the goosebumps.
Back in the hotel in Arusha we hand in our dirty clothes and get them back clean. We have a wonderful afternoon by the pool with tasty snacks and drinks. I was an unforgettable experience which I recommend for everyone.