Moshi - Keys Hotel

Renee asked me on the flight over how I was feeling? "Fine" I replied. Renee gave the same response. I suppose fine is the only answer you can give before the six day trek up Africa's greatest mountain. To answer truthfully would take some time, not to mention raising a few eyebrows in the process.

Fine is OK then. In reality I am nervous as hell, have a headache already and find myself saying again and again "What the hell am I doing here?"

The drive from Kilimanjaro airport brought back great memories of our Africa crossing last year. It felt as if I was still on it which made me feel really at ease. I sat and watched the world go by. It's great to be on the road again.

Keys Hotel is one of the standard starting points for the Kili Trek and most tour from here are operated by Wild Frontiers. We had a small but  neat Rondawel behind the main building that had its own bathroom and shower. Mosquito nets were provided which is good because this a Malaria area. When climbing Kili you have to overcome one or two days in the Malaria zone and the option of taking prophylactics for two days is just not on. So bring along some repellent and sleep under the nets. 

We had a briefing from one of the organizers, which was in short - listen to your guide, a route description, what to take (a bit late now if you haven't got it I thought, but not true - you can rent what you don't have), what not to take, and what time to be ready in the morning. Also some instructions for the morning which were - leave all your money in the hotel safe (take a few dollars to buy souvenirs when you arrive at Mweka gate if you like and of course a few beers at Mweka camp after you summit), leave all your excess belongings in the foyer, and finally be up and ready at 7am. Sounded easy.

Renee and I repacked the bags into two huge cavernous sacks provided by Andrew and Sally Anderson (Good friends of ours who had been up a few months before). To tell the truth I don't like the bags that much, they are huge with no way to arrange them. The proof of their usefulness will be in how well they are carried (not by me of course) so I will comment on them at the end. Right now I see our powdered drinks mixing with our underwear.

So we are packed and ready to go. Supper is at 7:30pm and to tell the truth I am starving and could eat the South end of a Northward bound skunk. Actually Renee and I are vegetarian but I can't think of anything equally horrible in vegeterianese, but the picture is painted - I'm hungry.

Day 1 - Moshi to Machame

A good days walk up to 3040m. I am feeling great now that we have begun - none of the psuedo symptoms of yesterday.

We left Keys Hotel at around 9:15. Yes later than expected, we had a bunch of Scouts on a three peaks tour which included Kili who just did not seem to be able to get organized, but we finally did get going. I was really surprised at the number of people at the staging area at Machame gate, it was swarming with porters and walkers. To take a rough estimate of how many people were leaving that day Renee and I had seven porters including guide, apparently this is the usual amount of support two people require. If we take the sixty walkers (we were told there were sixty tourists starting that day) each with the same support then there are about 400 people starting out. Makes it seem fairly crowded at the start but once you  get going the groups thin out at their own pace and Renee and I did not feel that the numbers made the walk unpleasant.

At the staging area the porters and guides weigh all the kit. I am not sure what the "official" carrying weight of the  porters is but some of the bags they were weighing were 30kg each. The bags are carefully checked before any porters are allowed to head out. The porters however end up carrying far more than this - I saw one poor guy, who was carrying for a big group - with three, yes three, steel, yes steel, trestle tables, on his head. These had a mattress wrapped around them for some protection. As he went past I heard him muttering "I am not a £$%$ Landrover". I don't blame him, I couldn't even pick up three trestle tables let alone carrying the bloody things on my head.

Our guide is Francis (or Frankie as he was called by his friends - I think he was trying to add some mystique by calling himself Francis) who spent most of the day behind us reading a book while walking. He does this trip every three weeks out of four so I suppose he knows each stone on the route. 

We left the gate by 11:30 which is not exactly the early start you expect when heading out on such a big expedition, but we did arrive safe and sound at camp by 4:30. The walk through the rain forest is great. It was cloudy so not too hot and it had not rained for a few days so not too muddy either. If it's raining I can see this trail becoming a quagmire and taking much longer. We walked in light cotton long pants, T-Shirt and boots. We did wear gaiters but these were not 100% necessary due to the lack of mud but did offer some protection from scuffing. The roots criss-cross the path all the time and you have to watch your footing as they are very slippery. 

When we arrived at camp our tent was set up with the table set up outside, complete with table cloth, and we were served popcorn, biscuits, Milo and tea. What a great welcome we got. Our tent was ceremoniously opened up and we were bid "Welcome" by Francis. This is a fun way to trek I must say.

I feel that I must report that I have had five good pisses today. I drank huge quantities of water in order to ensure I was fully hydrated for the altitudes we were going to reach. Both Renee and I have Camel Packs which are a good idea. Many people have reported that they freeze when you reach the summit but we did not have that problem. On summit day Renee wore hers under her outer layers and had the drinking tube come up through the collars of the jackets. This worked fine. Mine, I sadly report, broke after day two. I bought one from Sportsman's Warehouse which I do not recommend. Spend a few bucks more to get a good one.

Anyway back to the present. Dinner of soup, bread, pasta, vegies and tomatoes  is being cooked and the clouds are settling on us for the night. Time to eat and get snug inside the tent. Tomorrow we head up to Shira Plateau.

Day 2 - Machame to Shira

The plateau we are heading for today was actually a peak many centuries ago that stood higher than Kibo but blew itself apart in a violent eruption. There were three peaks on Kili at the time, Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira which was the highest of them. Today of course it's Kibo which stands nearly 6000m above sea level which is our final goal. Mawenzi is still there and stands at a very respectable 5000m.

I woke up a few times during the night. The mattresses supplied are excellent insulators but not very good in the comfort stakes. They are about one inch of very, very dense foam which gave my poor hips a hard time. Anyone heavier than me (74kg) would suffer badly and I suggest one of these small self inflating hiking mattresses that are so popular now to supplement it. I eventually wedged my fleece under me which improved things tremendously.

Breakfast was awesome with porridge, toast, fried eggs, tomatoes and tea or Milo. More than enough to fill an intrepid explorer like myself, and to ready me for a hard days work - just kidding on that one. We left camp at around 8:30 and headed up once again. You are always going up, which is, I suppose, the point, but today we noticed it. We finally moved above the clouds and had some great views of Mt Meru 100km to the West.

Today's walk is only half the distance of yesterdays but is much tougher. It is very very important to be as fit as you can be for this trek. If you don't follow the fitness guide from the operator make sure you have a good one of your own. It makes the walk so much better. Renee and I were having a great time while some people had already bailed out.

It started to get cold today and we needed to wear our jackets after lunch. We are still drinking lots of water but I am sharing Renee's Camel pack because mine suffered an unfortunate accident last night while refilling - the damn seal broke.

We walked through some great rocky scenery today. We are out of the trees and into some sort of scrub so when the clouds clear we can see the peaks of the mountain ahead of us. We had a great lunch en-route which was well presented with our table set and ready for us when we arrived, it looked like a large outdoor restaurant with all the groups together.  We had fresh fruit, sandwiches and the ever present tea. It was more than enough to sustain us for the final climb up to Shira Camp.

We arrived at Shira very early in the afternoon - around 1:30 pm, which gave us some time to explore. The plateau is covered in a very shiny black rock which is the remnants of some lava flow. The peaks around here are very dramatic and pointy. Looks like you need some serious climbing gear to get up some of them - the Shira needle for example. At last you get a feeling of being on a mountain, big jagged rocks, great views, and the weather is getting a little cool, in fact I have been told by the knowledgeable Francis that it will drop below zero tonight. 

We had supper of fried chicken (poor Francis was worried that our vegetarian diet would not do us any good at altitude so we agreed that a chicken would be OK - The last chicken we ate in Africa was in Ethiopia as a celebration for being allowed free to travel after five days of "house arrest" when we crossed the Sudanese border. That chicken was so wild and tough that it was like eating boot soles. Immediately after that I was laid flat by such a serious bout of dysentery that I lost six kilograms in as many days. We did not attribute that to the chicken though so we gamely try again). The chicken was served with rice and beans and actually was not too bad.

Had a chat with some other trekkers after supper. It appears that the boy scouts have finally caught us up after some huge delays at Machame gate due to discounted fees. It also appears that four people have started on their way down due to various ailments. Still we are feeling very strong and keen for what tomorrow may bring

Day 3 - Shira to Barranco

Today we passed our highest altitude yet. We went up to the Lava Tower which is at about 4600 meters. The walk was amongst very rocky terrain up to the tower. It started sleeting today so it was full waterproof kit. Francis walked along with a colourful umbrella which seems like a good idea because you don't have to worry about the rain on glasses etc. 

The route splits at about 3 hours from Shira to allow the porters to continue around Lava Tower onto the next camp without climbing too high. We found that most trekkers actually went that way too. Missing Lava Tower is a mistake in my opinion because you go up to 4600 meters and then back down to 4000 meters to sleep. This is perfect acclimatisation and should not be missed. I must admit to a slight headache and a little shortness of breath but did not know whether it was the altitude or just one of those things. Anyway I recovered quickly from both ailments.

Lava Tower is a tall free standing rock which apparently is the remnants of a volcanic eruption. It is I suppose a plug, but could not verify it. Nevertheless it is quite dramatic. Three of the trekkers were going to camp here because they were aiming to go to the summit up the Arrow Glacier route. This is a very very steep climb and takes two days of scrambling over the shale. The reports from the three afterwards was that it was really great. You climb up next to a glacier, which makes it freezing cold, but are not with all the other trekkers. When we met them at the summit they certainly did appear very knackered - as we all did I suppose.

From Lava Tower you go down a long valley at breakneck  speed. You just let gravity take over and off you go. It is quite bad for the knees though so if you suffer from knee problems don't let the guide push you along. You have plenty of time to get down to Barranco so take it easy. No use getting damaged now, you still have along way to go. Luckily neither Renee nor I had any problems, though I did recall a very serious climb in the Swiss Alps a few years back when I suffered from such agonising knee problems I did not enjoy it at all - so I took it easy.

When you enter the valley you enter the plant zone and walk among huge Lobelias and Senecios Kilimanjari. Both an aloe looking plant which grow over 5m tall. They really are quite magnificent especially with the cloud swirling around them, they looked like ghosts come to taunt us in our efforts to get to the top. The worrying thing on this walk is that you are going down for a long time and the mountain just towers all around you. You know that at some point you have to go up again and the further down you go the steeper the up looks. This continues for a few hours until your worst fears are realised - The Barranco wall.

Barranco camp is nestled serenely below a huge granite cliff called, quite aptly, the Barranco Wall. It is quite literally a wall blocking one end of the valley you have just peacefully followed from Lava Tower. The really startling thing is the discovery that tomorrow's route takes you directly up this wall. Wow - but more about that when we do it.

The views of the surrounding mountains (or should I say mountain) from the camp are great and the sunset lit up the valley in an orange glow that made it look like a magical land from one of Tolkien's Hobbit stories.

Supper was, thankfully, back to the vegetarian options. We ate in the tent tonight for the first time. It is getting very cold. Renee did not eat too much tonight, she has some cold like symptoms and we went to bed early. Not much else to do.

Day 4 - Barranco to Barafu

The Wall really was no problem. The route winds up the face and while it is steep in parts and requires using hand holds, the pace you go is slow enough to make it fun. The views become more and more spectacular the higher you go.

We set off early after waking up at about 6:00 am to a great breakfast of porridge and toast. We told Francis to hold the eggs since the first day. It was just too much to eat and I think we would be the only climbers of Kili who actually gained weight rather than lost it. We set off up the wall at 8:20 and soon got caught up in the traffic. Renee and I appear to be very strong still and have no difficulty catching early starters. Though this is not our intention, and we are certainly not walking as fast as we have in other mountains treks, we always seem to cruise past other groups. Our fitness regime became apparent on our summit night when we started about one hour and a half after some groups and still made the summit first. We were just having fun and not pushing to the limit like we sometimes do. Once again I say - be as fit as you can be!

A few surprises await trekkers on this day. The view of the mountain from the top of the wall is stunning. Suddenly it's right up close, the air was clear, I felt like I could reach over and touch it. The long valley between the lookout point and the mountain was a rock strewn desert with no growth at all. In fact the mountain is still quite a long way away and of course still over 2000 meters above you.

A few hours after climbing to the top of Barranco wall you get another surprise. This time not as pleasant as the view described earlier - the Karanga valley. A steep ravine which you have to climb down and then up. This is the last watering point on the way up so it is a popular lunch spot. Francis however had other ideas. We would walk up the other side first because he did not want the effort of the climb up to make us regurgitate our lunch. Sound thinking. 

The walk up, while very tough, was soon over and we were greeted by the best lunch ever at the top. Francis had outdone himself. We had French toast, banana fritters, French fries, Carrot chips, fresh tomato, cucumber and green pepper, followed by tea and Milo. Boy was I stuffed after that. A siesta would not have gone badly. Francis appeared to be fattening us up for the kill. I think this strategy was a good one because tonight we sleep at 4600m and will not feel like eating too heavy a meal.

We got to Barafu at around 4pm. It is a rocky camp with no flat ground anywhere. The mountain now just looms over us and we both feel very nervous. The path to the summit is clearly visible and it looks vertical. 

We had a long chat with Francis who assured us we were strong and would make it. The plan was to have a light supper and to go to bed early. We would be up at 11:30pm tonight with the aim of starting out at around midnight. He had a quick look at our kit to make sure we would be warm enough and sent us off to bed.

Summit Day - Barafu to Mweka

Oh boy. It's 11:30 and up we get. Not too much sleep because the excitement was really high. We set out behind a few other groups and you could see their lights as little specks on the side of the mountain.

The first part of the walk is up really large rocks and you have to watch your step. A bit hard to do in the dark. I eventually turned off my headlight and walked in the light of the moon which was about half full. There was plenty of light. The route just gets steeper and you just get colder. I kept thinking about putting one foot in front of another. Sally and Andrew, friends of ours, had done this before us and had made it. We have been trekking with Andrew and Sally scores of times so I know how strong they are. I kept drawing strength from Sally saying "If Sally can do it so can I". Thanks Sally you were an inspiration.

The route steepens as you get near Stella point and the rocks give way to gravel. Luckily we were not walking in snow. This is fairly difficult but not too long, about 1 hour. Before we knew it we were at Stella Point. Renee, who was going like a train, had dragged me past all the other groups and seemed quite disappointed that the top had been reached so soon. She said, when I finally arrived, that she was sure she could see another, much higher point and was just heading for it. Still first up and still strong is not bad.

I was suffering from a stomach ache. I made a serious mistake in my preparations last night. When making drinks (I used Game an isotonic powdered drink) I mixed it  too strong. This is OK if you are on your bicycle or just hanging around home but when going hard up a steep hill at over 5000m meters it just was not drinkable. I had not drank anything since the first sip. Bad error. I eventually had a drink from Renee, but this mistake made me feel rather ill for the rest of the day.

We arrived at Stella point in the pitch black of night. Dawn was slowly approaching but we got there too early. We sat huddled under some rocks trying to keep warm. Eventually we set out along the crater rim towards Kibo.

It was, I freely admit, an emotional walk along the rim. The sky was a deep purple as the sun crept over the far distant edge of the planet and as we walked the glaciers took on a glow as if they had their own light source. We made it to Kibo at sunrise after a slow walk from Stella Point.

I had been told that arriving here is quite emotional. I certainly was inappropriately pleased (was that a tear that escaped or were my eyes merely watering) that I had made it to the top and can say that the views were extremely beautiful. I set up my tripod and, without thinking too much, took loads of photos. The sun rose and the glaciers went from deep blue through orange to startling white. Mawenzi, the far peak, turned from a dark silhouette to a mountain in it's own right. More people arrived and there were hugs and shouts of joy. It was really fantastic to stand on the top of Africa and look down on the world.

Thinking back I would like to spend more time on the top. There is so much to explore, the crater to see (you can't see in it from Kibo) and the glaciers to investigate. I would like to spend the night on the top. This is possible and is allowed too so my next trip (oh yes, if I have time and not somewhere more exciting to go, I will do it again) will include one night up there.

Unfortunately the time came to go. I was now feeling fairly rotten, had not drank enough, and after a few hours needed to move on.

Down is another experience all together. The first part is like skiing. You just jump off the edge, keep your balance, and in a slow run like motion, go! I am sure many accidents happen like this, but you really don't have much choice. We passed many climbers still on their way up, all looking so totally wrecked that I was glad it was not me. Some still had hours to go to the top. 

After the scree you carry on over the rocks and back to Barafu. At Barafu we fell directly into our tent and slept for two hours. Francis wanted us to leave after one but I vetoed that idea.

We awoke to breakfast and started the walk down to Mweka camp at about 11:00. The route takes you down rather more quickly than we went up. In fact we reached the edge of the rain forest and continued down for about one hour to camp. The walk was quite difficult, essentially because you had been walking since midnight so it's a long time on your feet, though it's not technically very difficult. We had removed all our thermal gear at Barafu too so were not suffering from overheating. 

Once again the porters had arrived in camp before us and had set it all up. How do they do that? We left them a fully set up camp, with all our kit, and they secretly passed us each day so that when we arrived at the next camp they were lounging around telling jokes with it all set up again and our kit neatly stowed inside the tent. Bloody amazing.

Renee went for her siesta and I went off and bought some beers (this is where the money comes in handy) for our porters and sat around with some other trekkers chatting about the day drinking cokes and beers. The general feeling was that it was great though we differed whether we would do it again or not.

Some trekkers only arrived back at this camp at 8pm at night! I think they really suffered and had a very hard time. Once again I think being fit helped a lot. Francis too, was very encouraging all the time, fed us great food, and made the whole experience more pleasurable. Of course the porters are a blessing, I could not imagine doing this carrying all my own kit. I certainly would not have been so lavish on the food.

Tomorrow we head down and back to Keys Hotel.

Day 6 - Mweka to Keys Hotel

Mweka camp is deep in the forest once again. From the clearing outside the rangers hut you get a great view of the mountain, which now looks rather more tame than it does close up. Memories of any pain are now long gone and you look back at the snow capped peak with a sense of pride. Bugger it, I did it. 

Breakfast was a leisurely affair from all points of view, the chefs included, and we had a late start to the day. The trek down to the gate is through the forest which takes some very steep paths. Once again I am glad it was not raining. Francis informed us that this three hour trek can take six or even eight when the goings muddy. It had not rained for some days, even so the path was still a little treacherous and you had to watch your footing.

We caught a sneak view of a Colobus Monkey as it disappeared into the thick forest. I am assured that there are many animals in the forest, including some fairly big antelope, but these are rarely seen. 

We arrived at Mweka gate fairly jubilant I must say. We had arrived in a small group with our trekking buddies but were soon separated again by our guides to go and sign the official register saying that we had made it to the top. There are various things on sale at this point and the T-Shirts are rather good. We bought two for $10 each which reminds me of a funny story.

One of our buddies, names and places withheld, was so eager when he got to Mweka gate that he rushed on through and did not buy the T-Shirt. When he saw us back at the hotel showing them off in the bar he was really aggrieved. In fact he got downright pissed (OK possibly in celebration of his success but it adds more to the story if his drinking revolves around the T-Shirt). Late that night he spotted a boy scout who had one of these precious T-Shirts and he duly went about bargaining for it. The scout, who was way more sober, and so he naturally, as scouts are likely to do, took advantage of our poor pissed buddy. The eventual selling price? $100. Which  was paid! Moral of the story - hang around a bit, even if you feel you need to move on, you never know what you are going to miss.

Back to the day in hand.

We did all the things at the gate that are required of us and walked a few kilometers to the waiting vehicle to take us "home". Mweka gate is NOT the end of the walk. You have to continue through the banana plantations to Mweka village. This is a pleasant walk which has the added pleasure of seeing locals selling Tanzanian souvenirs. I mean this wholeheartedly, I enjoy seeing what the local people get up to to make a buck or two. Our Land Cruiser was waiting for us and with a few sandwiches in hand we set of to Keys to a hot shower, a few drinks and a song from the porters.

At Keys each group sits with the guide and porters and has a few beers while the guide tells you how well you did. They sing you a song and hand out your certificates. It is also customary to tip the team . This tip is set at at least $70 per person in the group. We were slightly more generous as we felt like we were treated like Kings and had a stupendous time, we also gave away all our remaining food such as chocolates and drinks, and the T Shirts we no longer required. 

Renee and I went for a stroll around Moshi and were instantly transported back in time to our previous visit here. We walked around in a peaceful stupor knowing that we had all the time in the world with no responsibilities, no worries just Akhuna Matata.

The bumpy flight home the next day sorted all that out.

© Copyright Scott Smith and Renée Pattle

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