In September 2022, GrassTrack Safaris hosted a group of intrepid hikers to explore one of the world's iconic mountains and witness the best game parks in Africa. Kilimanjaro's snow-capped peak is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in Africa, rising to an impressive 19,340 feet above sea level. It is one of the world's highest volcanoes, the highest mountain on the African continent, and the highest free-standing mountain on earth, making it one of the seven summits (the seven most sought-after peaks on each continent on the planet). Kilimanjaro is one of the most beautiful and varied peaks on Earth. It is also as high as you can climb without requiring oxygen or specialist mountaineering skills, making it one of the most accessible, most exotic and most do-able climbs on earth.
It’s impossible to describe this amazing adventure in one post, so I’ll be writing three posts describing our trek up Kilimanjaro and our safari following the climb. Here is part one, where we explore Arusha and hike to the base of the infamous Barranco Wall.
Read on to learn more about our Kilimanjaro trek!
About Mount Kilimanjaro & The Lemosho Route
Kilimanjaro sits on the border of Kenya and Tanzania, towering over 19,000 feet above the east African plains. Kilimanjaro is a massive mountain and is composed of three volcanoes: Shira, Kibo (Uhuru Peak, the summit, is on Kibo), and Mawenzi. Kilimanjaro is a relatively young volcano and is currently dormant, however the crater on Kibo still emits steam and gasses. The last eruption some 200,000 years ago is thought to have created the Kibo crater. Unfortunately, the famous “snows of Kilimanjaro” are rapidly disappearing. Nearly 85% of Kilimanjaro’s ice cap has melted in the past hundred years, perhaps due to less precipitation, melting, and sublimation. By 2060 the all the glaciers may disappear.
The origin of Kilimanjaro’s name is unknown. Many ideas exist and a common theory suggests it may be a mix of KiSwahili (kilima means hill, but not mountain) and Chagga (njaro means white or caravan). Kilimanjaro could mean “mountain of white” or “mountain of carvans” (maybe the mountain served as a landmark for early trading and slave caravans?).
During our trek to the summit, we experienced equatorial heat to the biting, artic cold. Beginning in the warm, dry plains (with an average temperature of 85 F), we would ascend through a wide belt of wet tropical forest, through zones with generally decreasing temperature and rainfall, and finally to the summit where there is permanent ice and below freezing conditions.
There are several routes on Kilimanjaro, but we choose the Lemosho Route, one of the longer trails. There are variations of this route, but our route started on the far western edge of the mountain, traversed the Shira Plateau, then circled part of the summit to Barranco, Karanga, and Barafu Base Camp. We hiked up the summit from Barafu then continued down the mountain to Millennium Camp and ended our trek at Mweka Gate. The total length was about 42 miles with an elevation gain of about 12,000 feet. The Lemosho Route is considered the most scenically beautiful trail on Kilimanjaro.
Our group’s main concern was adjusting to the high altitude as we had never hiked this high and were not sure how we would react. The slower the ascent and the more time spent at altitude will greatly improve your chances of reaching the summit. These longer routes are more expensive and obviously take more time, but we wanted to maximize our chances of success as this was the trip of a lifetime. There are shorter routes to the summit, but we felt they wouldn’t allow sufficient time to acclimate. Besides, Kilimanjaro is a beautiful mountain and the more time spent on the slopes the better!
The altitude and seasons determined the weather conditions we experienced during our trek. Rain is likely from December to June and the dry season lasts from July-September with shorter rains in October and November. We climbed Kilimanjaro in early September and the weather was perfect with no significant precipitation during our 7 days on the mountain. The lower slopes were sunny and warm but as we gained altitude the temperature dropped, and we encountered mostly cloudy days. Fortunately, on summit night the weather was ideal: no wind, clear skies, with a moon and stars, and a brilliant sunny day to reach the roof of Africa!
Despite its location in northern Tanzania and only 200 miles south of the equator, its size, height, and location on a flat open plain close to the Indian Ocean, strongly influences the climate. All these factors also influence its vegetation, and five distinct ecological zones can be found on the mountain: the lower slopes, the rain forest, heather and moorland, highland desert, and the summit. Within each zone there is an association between altitude, rainfall, temperature, plants, and animals. Each zone occupies belts of approximately 3,200 ft of altitude. In general, the temperature falls about 1C with every 650 ft increase in altitude, rainfall also decreases steadily with altitude from the forest upward. Plant life is abundant in areas of high temperature and high rainfall. As you climb you will see that plant life decreases, not because of the height, but because conditions are colder and drier. As animal life is dependent on plants, fewer animals live at high altitude.
Kilimanjaro is a beautiful mountain and we were looking forward to not only the challenge of reaching the summit but experiencing all the diverse habitats and scenery along the way.
Arusha - Gateway to northern Tanzania
Our safari started in the bustling city of Arusha in northern Tanzania. Arusha is located on the foothills of Mount Meru on the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley. This is the gateway to the northern safari circuit, with easy access to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, Tarangire, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Mount Meru. Arusha’s elevation of 4,600 ft keeps temperatures relatively cool despite proximity to the equator, so temperatures generally range between 50 and 86F, with little humidity due to the altitude.
We spent two nights at the Mount Meru Game Lodge in Usa River, a few miles from central Arusha and explored some of the attractions in the city. I highly recommend arriving in Arusha a few days before the start of a climb to recover from the jetlag and to have a few extra days in case of flight delays or lost luggage.
The Mount Meru Game Lodge is a beautiful oasis with lush gardens and a small waterhole attracting birds and wildlife. The morning after our arrival we took a free walk through the village of Usa River with one of the lodge guides and it was a great way to see a bit of African daily life. The next day we visited the Cultural Heritage Center, an enormous complex of interesting architecture, art galleries, and tanzanite and curio shops. From there we headed to the Meserani Snake Park, located about 15 miles west of Arusha. The park is home to a variety of snakes common in eastern and southern Africa from the black mamba to the black & red spitting cobras and the African python. There are approximately 48 snakes you can view. It’s worth a visit to learn about some of Africa’s most dangerous snakes.
Later in the afternoon, our Kilimanjaro climbing operator met with us at the lodge for a detailed briefing of the trek, inspect our gear, and answer our questions. Rental gear was an option if we didn’t feel confident in the gear we brought from home. All of us rented sleeping bags to save space in our checked luggage. We all felt in good hands as he told what we can expect on each day and how the guides and porters will work to maximize our success.
Day 1: Lemosho Gate to Mti Mkubwa/Big Tree Camp
(4 miles, 6880-9100 feet, Sept 4 2022)
Following breakfast our guides arrived at the lodge and we loaded up the vans with all our gear for the four-hour drive from Arusha to the Lemosho Gate on the far western slopes of the mountain. The lower slopes of Kilimanjaro (~2600 – 5900 ft) were originally scrub, bush and lowland, however this has now all been cultivated and used for livestock grazing and local crops. The gravel road climbed gradually through farmlands and large stands of pine tree farms. As we approached the gate (at about 7000 feet), the forest thickened, and the road became rough with many sharp turns and steep grades.
At the gate, we found a scene of organized chaos. Lemosho Gate is a popular trailhead as many groups start the trek here. Hundreds of porters where organizing tents, food, and gear as scores of vehicles jostled for parking close to the gate. While the guides waited to complete the necessary paperwork and permits, our porters prepped a hearty lunch as we waited. As we’d soon discover during the trek, food would be plentiful, delicious, and healthy. Our guides told us we would need lots of fuel to make it to the summit and they advised us to eat as much as possible, even if the altitude dulled our appetites.
I suppose this is my biggest piece of advice if you’re climbing Kili: LISTEN TO YOUR GUIDES! They’ve summitted hundreds of times and know what it takes to reach the summit. There were many times in the next 6 days where I felt I just couldn’t eat or drink anymore. But the guides were right: you need lots of calories and water to fuel your body as it adjusts to the altitude.
Following lunch we were full of energy and excited to start the hike. The guides however, immediately set the hiking pace we would follow for the entire trek. We fell into a single file line with the head guide in front and another guide in the sweep position at the end of the line. The pace was very slow and deliberate, what is famously known as “pole-pole”. Meaning “slowly-slowly” in Swahili, the pole-pole pace is meant to conserve your energy and allow acclimatization to increase your chances of making the summit. On this first day such a slow pace seemed overkill but as we climbed higher and higher, I don’t think I could’ve gone much faster than pole-pole.
The trail was crowded, and we frequently had to step aside to allow a steady stream of porters pass by. The dirt trail gradually climbed through beautiful forests with the occasional monkey jumping around in the treetops. The forest zone (~6000 – 9000 ft) is the richest zone on the mountain. A band of extremely beautiful montane forest encircles the whole of Kilimanjaro, though frequently covered in clouds and mists. However, this side of the mountain gets less rainfall and the forest here was drier and open (compared to the southern and eastern slopes where the forest is much thicker and wetter). The forest is the home of most of Kilimanjaro’s wild animals although often they are hidden from view. Leopards live throughout the forest, preying on antelopes, monkeys and rodents, duiker, and bushbuck but we only saw the occasional monkey and heard a few bird calls.
Each group climbing Kili will have multiple guides and porters, depending on the group size. Our group of nine hikers had 4 guides with 38 porters and we only had to carry our day packs. The stamina and strength of the porters is truly unbelievable. They carried all our extra gear, tents, sleeping bags/pads, chemical toilets, stoves and fuel, pots and pans, fresh food (for 49 people over 7 days!), camp chairs, tables (complete with tablecloth and a vase of plastic flowers!), first aid gear, and all the other miscellaneous equipment needed to operate a fully serviced camp. In addition to all the client’s and camp gear, they also had to carry their own clothing and gear. It’s truly spectacular to see.
We were not the only group on the trail. I’d guess there were another 10-15 groups of various sizes hiking with us and with each of these groups having numerous porters, the trail was very busy. As we watched the porters pass, it was amazing to see how they carried all that gear. They balanced duffel bags on their heads and carried another duffel on their back. Tied onto these duffels were 5-gallon buckets, large cannisters of propane fuel, camp chairs, tables, and extra shoes. The porters carried all this with minimal footwear and basic clothing. They were not dressed in expensive, high-tech boots, Gore-Tex jackets, or breathable, wicking layers but mostly in cotton jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers.
The porters hiked (and even ran) much faster than us as they had to set up camp before our group arrived. This included setting up our 5 tents (as well as their own tents), a large mess tent, two latrines, and begin prepping snacks, hot tea, and dinner. They followed this routine every day of the trip: breaking down camp and then running ahead of us to set it all back up at the next campsite.
After about 3 hours we were less than a mile from the camp and the porters came back to meet us on the trail. They offered to carry our day packs and water for us until we reached camp. Big Tree Camp was very crowded as this was the only campsite close to the trailhead. The camp was a cacophony of noise and activity as porters collected water and set up camp while hikers wandered about trying to make sense of the scene and anxious of what lies ahead. Don’t expect an exclusive, wilderness experience here, but if you’re prepared for the crowds, it’s not too bad.
Day 2: Big Tree Camp to Shira 2 Camp
(10 miles, 9100-12,600 feet, Sept 5 2022)
Our guides woke us at sunrise and brought steaming mugs of ginger tea to our tents. After a big breakfast we packed our gear and prepped for the day’s hike. The camp crew filled our water bottles with clean, filtered water and gave us plenty of snacks to last until lunch. The guides advised us to drink plenty of water as staying hydrated is important to adjust to the altitude. We were all taking Diamox to help us acclimate and this med is a potent diuretic – another reason to stay well hydrated.
Today would be a long day of hiking as the guides wanted to have a long day early in the trek while we still had energy and were at a lower altitude. The remaining days would be a series of shorter hikes as we approached the summit. The trail would take us to the rim of the Shira crater and across the broad and relatively flat Shira Plateau to Shira 2 Camp where we’d spend the night. The Shira Plateau stretches west from Kibo for about 8 miles and is a caldera formed when the Shira volcano (one of 3 volcanoes on Kilimanjaro) collapsed about 500,000 years ago. Subsequent eruptions from Kibo filled in the crater creating the plateau.
The hike through the forest up to the ancient crater rim was steep in many places, as the trail climbed a series of hills as it approached the edge of the plateau. The trail was also very dusty from porters and groups passing us. I was wearing mud gaiters to keep dust and rocks out of my boots. Having done lots of hiking in New England and the western US, I was skeptical these were even necessary, but I ended up wearing them the entire trek.
It was a warm, sunny morning when we left camp as we made our way through the last of the forest. As we climbed higher, the vegetation noticeably changed from large trees to shrubs. By early afternoon we had reached the rim of the crater, with fantastic views across the plateau with Kilimanjaro off in the distance covered in clouds. We had now entered the heather and moorland habitat zone, a low alpine zone with a cool clear climate except for mist and fog. Heather and heath-like shrubs grow in this area, as well as gorse-like bushes, attractive grasses, and flowers. There are not many large mammals here and those that do visit the moorland are usually in transit to other areas, although eland, duiker, wild dogs, buffalo, and elephants have been seen. We saw no wildlife except for the occasional white-necked raven and a few small birds.
It was much cooler as we made our way across the plateau to our lunch spot at Shira 1 Camp. The altitude was already starting to effect people in our group, but I was feeling very good though a little tired from the long hike. We finally stopped for lunch around 2pm. The porters had raced ahead of us and set up the mess and cook tents and served us a hot lunch at Shira 1 Camp. To maximize our chances of reaching the summit, our climbing operator serves hot food at every meal. Their idea is a meal is more appetizing when served hot and you’re more likely to eat a hot meal than a cold one. They could shorten the hiking days (and workload of the crew) if they gave us a bag lunch every day. However, as we climbed higher and had less appetite, we probably wouldn’t want to eat a cold sandwich for lunch, thus reducing the number of critical calories we’d need to reach the summit.
We still had another 5 miles or so to Shira 2 camp so after a leisurely lunch, we started the last leg. The hike across the grassy plateau was beautiful but I was hoping the clouds would clear for that first view of Kilimanjaro. The sun eventually set, and we donned our headlamps for the final push to camp. It felt like we would never make but finally the lights from the camp appeared up ahead and we arrived at Shira 2. All our tents were set up, our sleeping pads rolled out and our extra bags waiting for us. After a quick change into dry clothes, we all met at the mess tent for snacks, tea, and another excellent meal.
Following dinner our head guide, John gave us a briefing on what to expect the following day. Safety is their top priority so John would ask how we were feeling, if we were eating and drinking enough, and taking our pulse and oxygen saturation. Tomorrow we would hike above 15,000 feet, have lunch, and descend to 13,000 feet for the night. The idea is to help the acclimatization process by hiking high and sleeping low. We went to bed early to rest up for another full day.
Day 3: Shira 2 Camp to Barranco Camp
(5 miles; 12,600 to 15,200 to 13,000 feet; Sept 6 2022)
I admit I was a bit apprehensive for today’s hike. We’d be hiking to the Lava Tower which sits at an elevation of 15,200 feet. I’ve hiked to over 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies and never felt the altitude but I was worried how I would feel going even higher. Would the altitude-induced headaches, fatigue, and nausea finally kick in? For the past few days I had been eating well, staying hydrated, and taking Diamox so I tried to stay optimistic. There was only one way to find out!
Following breakfast, we packed up once again and hit the trail. The weather was cloudy and cool, probably in the 40’s, so I wore hiking pants, base layers, and a fleece. Our guide John told us the weather could deteriorate rapidly at the Lava Tower so I brought my winter hat, gloves, and rain jacket in my day pack. The trail followed a gradual incline for a few hours and I could feel the air was much thinner up here. By now the Diamox really kicked in. I experienced no side effects, except needing to pee every hour or so. I did feel winded but the pole-pole pace kept us moving slowly.
As we hiked higher, the trail leveled off. We were well above tree line and had entered the highland desert zone. At this altitude there is intense radiation, high evaporation and huge daily fluctuations in temperature, nights can be below 32 F and, in the daytime, as high as 100 F in direct sun. Under these harsh conditions only the hardiest lichens, moss and tussock grasses can exist. This desolate area does not offer much in the way of wildlife buts its views are spectacular. To the north you could see the steep, southern cliffs of Kilimanjaro whose upper sections were obscured by clouds and to the south the expansive, barren, rocky terrain fell away and disappeared into the clouds and African plains far below.
By early afternoon we had reached the Lava Tower, an ancient volcanic plug over 300 feet tall. The tower formed when Kilimanjaro was active and lava erupted out of a vent, then cooled and hardened, plugging the lava source. When we arrived the mess tent was set-up and another hot lunch served. By now the wind had picked up, the clouds thickened, and sleet started to fall. I began to understand our guides insistence on serving hot food at every meal. The thought of eating a cold sandwich in the cold wind was not at all appetizing! Following lunch, we stepped out of the tent and back into the cold. I was hoping the weather would clear as I wanted to see the scenery that was hidden behind the clouds. Fortunately, it did.
The descent from the Lava Tower to Barranco Camp was one of my favorite parts of the entire trek. As we hiked down, patches of blue sky began to appear, the clouds lifted, and sun finally came out. After about an hour there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We could see towering cliffs whose tops were draped with the glaciers of Kilimanjaro, we walked through steep canyons and over small rivers with beautiful waterfalls. But perhaps the most interesting aspect were the strange and unusual plants growing at this altitude. We walked through stands of giant groundsels (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari) and giant lobelia (Lobelia deckenii). These plants are unique to the slopes around Kilimanjaro and are adapted to the harsh conditions here.
We finally arrived at Barranco Camp, set high in a valley surrounded by steep cliffs, giant groundsel plants, a blue sky, and a setting sun. This was my favorite campsite of the trip. The scenery and weather were spectacular, and I had just completed my highest hike ever and felt great.
We enjoyed another fantastic meal and John came by the tent for our daily check-up. Our entire group was doing well, though a few were experiencing the effects of the altitude. I was happy upon discovering I had the highest oxygen saturation of the entire group and felt optimistic about a successful summit attempt. After our briefing we were well fed and ready to rest up for the next day’s challenge: a long and very steep ascent up the Barranco Wall and onto Karanga Camp.
I'll be posting Part 2 soon where I describe our hike up the Barranco Wall to Karanga Camp, to our base camp at Barafu, summit day, and our post climb safari.
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