At 5895m, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain on the continent of Africa. Kilimanjaro is a massive volcano which has three distinct peaks, Shira (3962m), Mawenzi (5149m), and Kibo (5895m). Uhuru Peak (“Freedom Peak” in Swahili) is the highest point on the mountain.
For some time I had been keen on broadening my hiking experience at higher altitudes, and Kilimanjaro seemed like the perfect extension of the hiking and climbing I had been doing in Taiwan. I planned a 7-day schedule, but ended up finishing in 6.
I chose the Rongai route pictured above due to its abundance of acclimatization opportunities, great views and interesting geology. My route passed below Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s second highest volcanic peak.
Prior to beginning Kilimanjaro I spent three days hiking 4566m Mount Meru, Tanzania’s second highest mountain, for additional acclimatization.
Most who approach Kilimanjaro do so with full logistical support – with porters and cooks – but this is not strictly required to access the mountain, as the law only requires the use of a licensed guide. I decided that I wanted to hike unsupported, and manage my own gear, schedule, food, and water. I would carry everything that I used, and I would provide everything for myself. This also made my hike much less expensive, since I didn’t hire porters or cooks.
To obtain my permit, I did have to use a guide. My guide Jackson was not only great company, but also possessed in-depth knowledge regarding the mountain’s endemic species, and the mountain’s history.
Day 1: Met my guide and our driver in Arusha, and drove ~5 hours north to the Rongai gate. Started hiking from the Rongai gate, 2000m, with my pack weighing in at 21.5kg without water.
Near the first campsite I took a short detour to a nearby stream for cooking water. I collected water at camp each evening, and restricted myself to carrying just ~2.5L for use during the day. For effective acclimatization, it is imperative that one stay well hydrated – in addition to my day-supply of drinking water, I consumed an additional ~4L per day.
After covering roughly 6.5km, I reached the first campsite at 2600m. The campsite was large, but surprisingly crowded.
To make the weight manageable, my meal planning involved using a lot of freeze-dried food, mixing pre-made meal packs with freeze dried vegetables and rice.
Day 2: In the morning the sky was clear and bright, and I enjoyed some excellent views of Kibo in the distance. The day started slowly, due to problems with my stove.
After 5.8km of hiking, I reached the day’s lunch stop, a volcanic cave named “Second Cave” at 3450m which provided great shelter for cooking.
While cooking lunch, my stove continued to cause issues. The thing was temperamental throughout the hike; sometimes it worked fine, but far too often it leaked gas at the joints, flared up suddenly, or stuttered the gas flow. Fuel cells cannot be transported by air, and I was unable to transport a liquid fuel stove/bottles, so I needed to buy both a stove and cooking fuel in Tanzania.
Because most hikers use porters, who haul enormous and heavy Kerosine cooking rigs up the mountain, sourcing appropriate fuel and a stove in town was remarkably difficult. Most stores only sold pierce-able gas canisters, which incorporated no valve and could not be resealed once opened. I finally ended up with a good Propane/Butane fuel mix, but could only find a really dodgy stove which required an adapter to fit the non-standard threaded gas cartridges.
After lunch, continuing onwards the terrain remained gently sloped and easy to navigate.
Halfway to the second day’s campsite, Jackson suggested we stop to explore another cave nearby. He told me that this one had only been discovered some years ago, and wasn’t too well known yet.
6km beyond the lunch stop at Second Cave I reached my second day’s campsite, Kikelewa Cave at 3600m. The sky was overcast, and a thin fog covered the mountain, preventing any views.
As the sun set, the fog cleared, and Mawenzi appeared in the distance. At night the temperature plummeted, and unnecessary forays outside the tent became unpleasant, so I enjoyed the view from the warmth of my sleeping bag.
Day 3: The morning air was clear and fresh. This day’s destination would be the Mawenzi tarn, a small mountain lake at the base of Kilimanjaro’s Mawenzi peak. In clear air, Kibo and Mawenzi were visible on the horizon.
After a short ~2 hours of hiking, covering 3.7km, I arrived at the Mawenzi Tarn campsite at 4330m. The porters of several large groups had arrived before me, and so when I came into the campground it was fairly crowded with tents. Thick fog hung over camp, for the most part socking everything in and obscuring views.
The Mawenzi tarn, a mountain lake at the base of the Mawenzi volcano, served as a very convenient water source. Overnight, it froze over completely.
After pitching camp and preparing drinking water, I went for an acclimatization hike towards Mawenzi. I climbed roughly ~400m above my campsite, and rested for half an hour before descending to cook dinner and sleep.
Day 4: The morning came with a bright sunrise, unveiling a clear blue sky. Mawenzi was stunning in the morning light. The ground here was very dry, and gritty dirt began to cover my gear. From here on, everything remained very grimy.
I decided to head towards my high camp today, and so set off towards Kibo Hut, located across the Mawenzi saddle. Kibo Hut is located in dry alpine desert and has no stable water source, so I had to carry the next day’s water supply up with me. Hauling the extra 7.5L of water made this a slow and difficult morning for me. Despite this, I enjoyed perfect weather and amazing views of Kibo and Mawenzi as I crossed the saddle.
I was feeling strong, and so decided to head up to the summit the next morning. After pitching my camp and unloading gear, I began my final acclimatization hike. I followed the summit-trail up to Hans Meyer Cave at 5243m, where I rested for an hour before heading down to my campsite to cook an extra-large dinner, hydrate, and sleep. The summit trail followed a face of somewhat steep loose scree.
As I prepared to go to bed, the sunset created a beautiful glow behind Mawenzi, highlighting a nearly full moon.
Day 5: Summit day. Most who climb Kilimanjaro opt to begin hiking to the summit around midnight, climbing overnight and reaching the top in the morning. I didn’t fancy the idea of sharing the scree-covered trail with a large crowd, and was also keen to avoid the darkness and cold of nighttime. Pace hadn’t been a problem to this point, so time wasn’t a big concern. With all of this in mind, I made it my plan to climb to the top during the day. This turned out to be an excellent decision.
I woke up at 6 a.m., spent an hour boiling a liter of water (more problems with the stove), ate a fast breakfast, and started up the summit trail at 7:20 a.m. On the way up, I encountered large groups of other hikers coming down. Quite a few were in poor condition, suffering from severe altitude sickness, and several were unable to walk unassisted.
I reached 5243m Hans Meyer cave at 9:00 a.m., about 30 minutes faster than I had managed during the prior day’s acclimatization push. Mawenzi loomed on the horizon, a brilliant and seemingly endless cloud ocean behind it. Up the scree slope, I could see the rocky outcrop which marks Gilman’s point, the end of the scree and the beginning of Kibo’s crater ridge.
I reached 5681m Gilman’s Point at 10:45 a.m. Here, I had my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro’s famous glaciers.
Further along, Uhuru Peak was visible in the distance. At 11:20 a.m. I reached 5739m Stella Point, roughly one hour away from the summit.
The landscape inside Kibo’s crater rim was barren and devoid of life. The path followed the rocky crater ridge, covered in volcanic scree and snow.
As clouds billowed past, the famous sign which marks the true summit of Kibo, Uhuru Peak, became visible.
The glaciers on Kibo were impressive, but it was clear from their appearance that they had been receding.
Stopping often to absorb the scenery and take lots of photographs, I arrived at 5895m Uhuru peak, the highest point in Africa, at 12:25 p.m. I spent around 25 minutes on the summit before heading back down.
I arrived back at my campsite at 2:40 p.m., a 10.8km round trip. After cooking a quick meal, I packed up all of my gear, and began descending another 9.6km to the Horombo campsite.
Horombo, my sixth campsite at 3720m, was more like a small village than a campground. Numerous huts housed hikers and their support staff, and there was even running tap water!
Day 6: I slept in until 7 a.m., cooked a big breakfast, and prepared to leave the mountain. My final day, I descended from 3720m Horombo down to the Marangu Gate trailhead at 1800m. The trail down from Horombo was wide, and very gently sloped, so despite the substantial elevation loss the descent wasn’t too strenuous.
At the Marangu Gate I checked out with the park rangers, weighed my pack at 17.5kg, and took a bit of time to look at some interesting commemorative plaques, maps, and signs near the gate. After six days on the mountain, it was a little bit peculiar how quickly I found myself back in civilization after reaching the trailhead. Jackson and I met our driver, had a huge lunch of cheeseburgers, salad, and cold beer, and drove back to Arusha.
In all, the climb went almost perfectly as planned. Aside from persistent – but manageable – issues with my stove, everything went smoothly and was enjoyable. I was lucky with weather, and mostly had clear days. Climbing to the summit during the day was excellent; it afforded great views and allowed me to avoid the crowds and cold.
Above ~5000m the altitude made physical output more challenging, but I didn’t have any issues with altitude sickness or related discomfort. My acclimatization definitely benefited from spending three days hiking Mount Meru before beginning Kilimanjaro, and I feel that the geography of my route also helped a great deal. I was surprised at the crowds on the mountain, and a little bit disappointed by the amount of garbage I saw, especially near the top, left behind by other hikers. Doing the climb unsupported kept my days busy setting up camp, cooking, obtaining water, and managing gear, which made for a rewarding hike!
Kilimanjaro is highly accessible. Numerous guide and tour companies exist, and offer a wide variety of support options for hikers. Price varies dramatically, and largely depends on the level and quality of support provided. Most companies incorporate transportation, accommodation, and related logistics into their trip pricing. The Kilimanjaro Airport offers easy access into Arusha and Moshi.
At minimum, a guide is required for climbing permits, and I hired mine through a no-frills outfitter called Kilimanjaro Alpine Service, who offer unsupported ‘superlight’ services (no porters, cooks, gear or food). I stayed at the Outpost Lodge in Arusha, which I found to be very comfortable and reasonably priced. A wealth of information exists on hiking Kilimanjaro, and some outfitter websites also serve as quite detailed resources.