Conquering Kilimanjaro from the North

Kilimanjaro has been on my bucket list for a very long time, but I never expected that somewhere between climbing Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro I would have a life transforming experience that over the six day trek would change my outlook on life forever.

I really wanted to see Kilimanjaro at its least crowded. Given thousands of people climb it every year this was unlikely to happen, but the Rongai route seemed like the sensible choice as it comes from the North and avoids the main route of Marangu on the way up, which is used by large groups climbing the mountain for charity. All routes use this path to descend so that everyone gets to the national park gate. So on the way down I had chance to walk the incredibly busy route making us glad for my route choice.

Day 1 heading up to Simba camp, day 2 to Kikelewa Cave, day 3 to Mawenzi tarn hut and day 4 to Kibo before heading for the summit. This route allows for 2 days descent down the Marangu path to the main gate.

Taking this circuitous route means that there is plenty of time for acclimatization and the walking each day isn’t too strenuous.  It also means that you get to see two of the volcanoes that make up the Kilimanjaro massif, Kibo (the highest and the one you climb, which is a dormant volcano) and Mawenzi, a striking tower of rock, all that remains of an extinct volcano. There is also a third and also extinct volcano, Shira, but on the Rongai route you do not pass this.

A few things to note if you’re heading off to do Kilimanjaro, you’ll have had a kit list but here are my essentials:

– take a good down jacket – it gets cold at night and you’ll need this for summit night

– a good sleeping bag and mat is essential – you won’t make the ground comfy but providing your warm you’ll be fine

– earplugs – otherwise you might never sleep from the noise at camp, although they do heighten the sensation of blood rushing around your head with the altitude so its not a complete solution

– lots of layers – its warm during the day if your in the sunshine, but cloud can descend after lunch so it can get cold so carry lots of layers. Including thermals for night.

– wetwipes/ alcohol gel – you’ll never manage to stay clean as volcanic ash gets everywhere but wet wipes will at least make you smell better. Washing facilities are a bowl of warm water at the tent so hygiene is limited

– keep your camera warm – that way your batteries won’t die on you before you get to the summit. As happened with one of our group members. I kept mine in my sleeping bag at night and on summit night, in my down jacket pocket.

– a buff or scarf – see earlier comment on volcanic ash – this is the only way to not choke to death on the scree run down from the crater rim

– plenty of painkillers – if you’re anything like me altitude will give you head/ear aches so pain killers are essential. At this point I’ll also add that no matter how much volcanic dust you have up your nose, don’t blow it. It will hurt like hell.

The Route:

Day 1 to Simba Camp

The route’s name as ‘Rongai’ is a bit of a misnomer as we actually started the route at Nalemoru. We set out at 10.50am from Nalemoru; its hard to not notice the giant warning signs at the start of the route.

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The walk up to the first camp, Simba camp, took until just less than 3 hours, passing through pine plantations edged by small holding farms.

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As the walk wasn’t too strenuous on the first day we arrived at Simba Camp before the porters had, so we had time to watch them arrive and have their loads weighed by the camp rangers. Almost every campsite has rangers to weigh the loads of the porters to ensure that they are not carrying too much kit.

Simba camp has great view of both Kibo summit and also Mawenzi.

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Day 2

Today’s walk takes about 6 and a 1/2 hours to reach the next camp. The vegetation lowers and becomes more like scrub. We started out early and arrived at the ‘second cave’ for lunchtime.

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Second cave is also a camping area for those requiring an extra day or heading from there directly to the summit, so there is plenty of long drop toilets and even picnic benches, which by day two I was used to seeing, but certainly an odd addition to one of the 7 highest mountains in the world!

The cloud descended as we left the second cave and headed for our campsite for the night. We joked with the guide that the terrain was a lot like our native Dark Peak area in England – peaty, heathery scrub and bare earth. It just lacked the squelch under foot.

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After a few hours at second camp the cloud lifted and we could see back towards the Kenyan plains below. It was a cold night but the coming full moon at least meant that torches weren’t needed for night time excursions!

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Day 3

Today’s walk took us over the 4000m altitude threshold. As we’d already done this on Mount Meru we were all fine, and the pace was slow enough that we didn’t stop very often as the path headed uphill.

I did notice I had a very mild headache for a short while, but it disappeared – around about the time the cloud lifted and we saw an amazing view of Mawenzi peak in the sunshine.

Mawenzi Tarn Hut is rocky and desolate except for the hut itself and the surrounding tents. And the green pond which is your water source for the day. Even cholorinated we could taste the dirt, but eventually you get used to it.

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We arrived at camp for lunch so after food we had a short acclimitisation walk to see our route to Kibo huts for tomorrow, the sun was shining and we had a great view of Kibo and the route across the Saddle.

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Day 4 – to Kibo Huts

The walk to Kibo huts feels almost flat and isn’t very far from Mawenzi tarn camp, even though you can barely see Kibo huts as you walk across the Saddle. The Saddle area is where the traffic on Kilimanjaro starts to become more noticeable as the track is very wide and many more people are visible. This is because Kibo camp is used by a number of routes to get to the summit.

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The camp at Kibo huts was so busy our tents were tucked away around rocks. We arrived at Kibo camp late lunch time and after food and our summit briefing from our guide, we were ordered to bed to get sleep before the long day ahead. This is where earplug come in handy as you’re in bed while it’s light and before the porters so there’s quite a bit of noise to block out!

Day 5 – Summit night

Midnight is a strange time to have breakfast and after only a few hours sleep the days had begun to blur into one. We left camp at 12.30am with a lot of people ahead of us. The pace was incredibly slow, and endless zigzags to get up the steep scree slope. Our guide didn’t let us stop a lot or for long which meant we eventually overtook other groups, an odd sensation to overtake anyone when you are shuffling along at snail speed!

Just before Gilman’s Point on the crater rim there is the obstacle of Jamaica rocks to get over. These are not a scramble and can easily be tackled, but when your heart is racing (despite the shuffling slow pace) and there’s a mild headache throbbing, they feel like a challenge.

We got to Gilman’s Point for sunrise which was magical, although my real memory will always be looking down to the path and seeing the line of ‘zombies’ shuffling up the path!

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Despite the walk on to Uhuru peak not being more than a mile, it took us almost an hour of shuffling and stopping for breath to get there. I have to admit I didn’t expect the terrain to be as it was, from the bottom Kibo peak looks like a huge smooth dome, so the crater in the middle is a bit unexpected. The glaciers are beautiful though and what I’d really wanted to see most of all.

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Unfortunately, reaching the summit is only half the battle, as you have to get back to Kibo huts. This is a shot of looking down from Gilman’s point to Kibo huts, with  Mawenzi peak in the back. So high up you can’t even make out Kibo camp below amidst the rocks.

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After food and a short sleep we had to pack up and continue walking down the Marangu path to Horombo huts. Despite the snippets of sleep its starts to feel like you’ve been awake for 36 hours.

Day 6- to Marangu Gate

We were awaken at 5am, so that we could eat and pack up and tip the guides before leaving camp. The tipping ceremony is a Kilimanjaro tradition which is fabulous as they sing a celebration song and we were lucky to have Kibo in the background.

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We then left camp and headed down to the Marangu gate. There is no doubt that this side of Kilimanjaro is greener as you descend into proper woodland, but the path is also a very wide track and was extremely busy with porters and hikers heading up. So I’m glad that I didn’t use the Marangu route to ascend.

Over all I would definitely recommend the trek to anyone. If you have the determination you will succeed, as apart from the altitude the walk itself isn’t that difficult and apart from the summit night/ day you rarely walk for more that 10 miles or 6 hours a day. But there is not telling how altitude will affect you so do take care.

On Kilimanjaro I met four other fabulous people who made me realise over the whole trip that all you need in life is adventure. So in the week I’ve been home I have rearranged my life having realised that I want a lifetime of adventures.

Who knew two weeks walking in Tanzania could change my life so much?

4 thoughts on “Conquering Kilimanjaro from the North

    • You could always climb it a second time! One guy on our trip was on his second route to the summit having successfully made it once before on the Machame route. Frankly I happen to think there’s too many places in the world to see to do anything twice.

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