Hiking Kilimanjaro: Reaching the Top of Africa

Hiking Kilimanjaro: Reaching the Top of Africa

It’s dark, pitch-black actually, except for the dim spotlights our headlamps create. We are in a race against time – against the sun. We want to reach Uhuru Peak, the tallest point in Africa at 5,895m before the sun does. We are exhausted –I’m exhausted– and we still have to climb over 1,100m in the darkness of the night, in less than seven hours.

This will be the longest night of my life.

As an avid backpacker and adventure seeker, hiking Mount Kilimanjaro has been a dream of mine for quite a long time.  I like to challenge myself and push my limits, and Kilimanjaro seems like the right challenge for me now.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

For my hike, I decided to do the Marangu Route with G Adventures. They are not the cheapest tour company, true, but I’ve traveled with them before a few times, so I know the type of quality I get from this kind of trip. And believe me, on hikes like this, a good tour company makes a significant difference.

I’ve been traveling through Africa for a few weeks by now, so I reach Moshi –the base point to start the Kili hike– on my own after a seven hours bus from Nairobi.

There I meet with the other hikers who I’ll be joining on the hike.  We make our introductions, talk about the hike, and get a good night rest…  the last one for the next five days.  Tomorrow, the strenuous hike begins.

Day 1

At 8:00 am we part from Moshi, by bus, and head to Marangu Gate – where we officially start our hike, at 1,840m.

The hike starts slow, too slow.  This is not even a leisure pace; this is the pace of someone sentenced to death, dreading his unavoidable fate.  There are a few reasons behind this pace: to prevent sweating, conserve energy, and better acclimatization.  All imperative to take seriously if I want to reach the top.

We walk pole pole, slowly slowly.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

For the first few hours, we walk surrounded by a green, lush rainforest.  Tall trees give cover from the sun and monkeys make their intriguing appearances now and then.  From what I can see, other than the monkeys and a few small animals, there’s not much wildlife in Kilimanjaro.

I’m hiking with a group of interesting people from all over the world.  Along the way, we walk and talk – there’s nothing else to do than walk and talk. I share travel stories with Matt and Ryan; discuss random topics with Hugh, Dave, Neil, and Vik; and play games with Laura, Yanny, Avi, and Susan.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

As we make our ascent, we can clearly see the change in our environment.  The trees now don’t look much like warm weather forest trees, they are slowly morphing into cold weather pines, and they are less dense and shorter than the former.

We get to Maranda Hut, our campsite located at 2,720m.  Dave, Hugh, Neil, and I become roommates – and very cool roommates they are!

At dinner, we get to know each other even better (beyond all the talking we did during the day hike) and listen to some music on my x-mini while playing the Monopoly card game that Laura brought. Brilliant!

We call it a night at about 8 pm. I never go to bed this early, but I’m tired, and so are they.

Day 2

There’s the 6:30 am knock on the door indicating our hot water is ready and that we should prepare for breakfast.

After breakfast, we depart in our usual manner; pole pole.

After about an hour of walking, the scenery changes to something completely different.  Now, there are no trees; only a variety of bushes in a gradient of greens and browns.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Today, our goal is clearly visible. The top of Mount Kilimanjaro waits for us at the end of the trail.  I can see it so close, yet I know it so far still.

Today I’m dressed with one more layer than yesterday.  I can’t feel the altitude through the typical altitude sickness, but I can feel it through the temperature change.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

The day proceeds for the most part like the day before. Talk and walk, though a bit less of talking to save our breath and energy.

The hike during these past two days has not been challenging or strenuous at all. It is just a consistent tiring pace that goes for hours and hours, on a gently sloped uphill.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Now, the one thing I feared before the hike makes its appearance. The knee I injured a year ago in Honduras is calling my attention. The bending of my right knee sends this energy through my nerves that makes each stepping painful – more than the last. I try to dissimulate the pain by limping the least possible, but trained eyes cannot be fooled that easy. Issa, our main guide, comes to me and discretely asks me if I’m fine.

I nod.

He looks at me with an “are you sure?” look. He’s unconvinced, but lets it go.

After dinner, no games or music. Our tiredness is accumulating, and we still have a long journey ahead of us.

While I walk back to my hut, I can see far in the distance the noiseless thunderstorm that is covering Moshi. We are above those clouds by now, so I enjoy watching it rather than worry. Before heading to bed, I load on painkillers and pray to God that my knee will not be the reason  I’m not making it to the top.

Now I just have to wait and see… and rest.

Day 3

I’m right in the middle of one of the most challenging hikes I’ve ever done.  Uhuru Peak (the top of Kilimanjaro) is 20km ahead of me, and so is Marangu Gate (the entrance to this hiking route).  Last night my right knee was giving signs of “no-go,” but now, after a relatively good (yet cold) night’s rest everything is back to normal – painless.  For now, at least.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

The morning starts with the same routine as yesterday, and the walk follows the same pattern, only with less talking – much less talking. Altitude is slowly creeping its way on us.  We drink more water, we lose our breath faster, and we tire quicker. So far no serious altitude sickness on any of us.

Our surroundings no longer look like anything recognizable as an African environment. It looks more like a foreign planet, and we are here to conquer it.  We are definitely on a volcanic mountain, and we are too high for any plants to grow and survive. Only a few mountain rodents and birds are seen now and then.

By about 4 pm we reach our camp, have a quick dinner, and immediately go to bed to take a nap, rather than sleep.  We still have more walking to do today – the hardest part of the whole hike. The last 1,200m in height and the steepest terrain.

Day 3 ½ and 4

10 pm… We all wake up tired and groggy, have a quick snack, and get ready to hike again by 11 pm.  This is it. The last run. The challenge.

The reason for hiking overnight is to be able to reach Uhuru Peak by sunrise and to enjoy it from the top of Africa. But, this is an immense challenge as these last 10km are the steepest, coldest, and hardest part of the trail – and we only have seven hours to do them.  Sure, 10km in seven hours sounds easy – but not on Kili, not on this terrain.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

We start hiking as a group, accompanied by our porters for any assistance we might need.  We are quiet and exhausted and the porters know that, so they start singing cheering songs in Swahili. Among those, the Kilimanjaro song:

Jambo. Jambo bwana. Habarigani. Mzurisana. Wageni, mwakaribishwa. Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata.

(“Hello. Hello men. How are you? Very fine. Tourist, you are welcome. Kilimanjaro, no problem.”)

I have to say their cheerful singing works!  It’s a little spark of energy that makes me want to keep going.  Also, hiking with a group has been very helpful for me, psychologically at least, since I want to keep up with them and I want to reach the top – as a group. There’s no room here to quit, at least not for me. Oh, and the knee? Still quiet… thank God!

The path, only lit by our headlamps on this moonless night, zigzags up the endless mountain. We are recommended not to look up. I look up, but seriously, there’s absolutely nothing to see. Not even the faintest outline of a mountain. I’m hiking up to nothingness.

We take 5-minute rest stops once per hour. I feel like I need them more than once per hour, but I keep the pace, not stopping, and waiting for the scheduled stop to drop dead.

I’m dressed with five layers on the bottom half and seven on the top. I feel warm enough, especially when walking. But my hands; oh my hands!  I have them out the whole time handling the walking poles, but my two pairs of gloves have nothing against the -10 degrees Celsius temperature. They are freezing! It’s time to ask for help; and help I get from one of the porters who trades his gloves with me. They warm my hands a bit.

The water in my daypack is starting to freeze. I drink as often as possible to keep the water flowing – thus not freezing as quick. But, I don’t want to run out of water, so I drink not more than the necessary.

The group is no longer hiking together. While some are still walking as a group, some have stayed behind, due to altitude sickness, and some are walking at a slower pace to make sure they get to the top.

After about five hours of hiking, a porter asks me again (for the third time now) if I want help with my daypack. This time I say yes. I have already slipped a few times on the steep rocky path, and while my body is walking in “automatic” (giving steps without any though on the action or even looking where I’m stepping), I’m finding it harder to reach the rest stops. Liberat, the porter, takes my daypack and we both continue.

While not having my daypack is helping in a way, it put another challenge on my path.

My water froze.

Luckily, in my backpack, I’m also carrying a small 20oz bottle inside a sock (for insulation).  That will do, partially, since it’s not enough water.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few of us reach Gilman’s point, about 200m below the summit, and we start seeing the first rays of sunlight.  The sun is slowly waking up from behind the mountains on the horizon.

There is something rich about reaching Gilman’s Point. The hardest part is over, and it is a sign that you are almost there!

The mountain is now covered with snow on most parts, and thankfully there’s no wind today (otherwise the wind chill would have made this walk even more strenuous).

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

It’s a race with the sun, and there’s no clue who will win. In the distance, I can now see the shape of the sign that crowns Uhuru Peak.  It is all I need to get a boost of energy.  My tired body speeds its pace, and the cold doesn’t bother me as much. It’s the adrenaline.

I reach the top, just in time as the sun makes its entrance. It’s a tie. Part of the group is already here, and part is still behind.

Dave, Hugh, Ryan, Vik, Matt, Laura, and I make it to the top by sunrise.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
From left to right: Vik, me, Laura, Ryan, Dave, Matt, and Hugh; at Uhuru Peak.

Right when I arrive Matt says, “You made it!  How do you feel?”

“Great and miserable at the same time!”, are the only words I utter, with a smile.

I watch the sunrise and tear up a bit. My tears not only come from watching the sunrise, but also from the fact that I just made it to the top of Kilimanjaro!  It is the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

We celebrate for a while, take pictures, and not long after we start hiking again.

What goes up, must go down; and the path is the same.

Walking down the steepness of the mountain is easier, though painful on the knees. At points, we run down the mountain –like gravel skiing– to ease the shock on our knees.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

Now, what lies ahead of us are two days of backtracking, a lot of happy and adventurous stories to be shared between us, and a good celebration dinner in the end.

Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania
The most awesome group of hikers/friends! We did it!! From left to right (top): Avi, Susan, me, Ryan, Matt, Vik, Yanni; (bottom): Laura, Dave, Hugh, and Neil.

I have conquered Kili. Now I wonder, which one will be next?

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12 thoughts on “Hiking Kilimanjaro: Reaching the Top of Africa”

  1. This sounds like an amazing experience! How many hours did you walk each day? And why didn’t you want to tell the guide about your knee, do you think he wouldn’t have agreed that you continued on the trek?

    1. It was a really amazing experience! We hiked an average of 6 to 7 hours per day. I didn’t want to tell him about the knee because I didn’t want him to think that I wasn’t going to be able to make it. 🙂

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