adventures, exploring

My Kilimanjaro Experience

I have always dreamt of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and being at the top of my home continent, Africa. To make my bucket list adventure a reality, as part of the Joburg2Kili Expedition not only had we planned to cycle 4650km to Moshi at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro but also to summit the mountain.

Instead of a day-to-day account on my Mount Kilimanjaro experience I am rather going to focus on the highs and lows and everything in-between of summiting the “small hill” as our guide, Gilbert, describes it. For a daily update on our climb, please check out the Joburg2Kili website by clicking here.

Warrick, Gareth and I at the start of the Machame Route
Warrick, Gareth and I at the start of the Machame Route

Warrick, Gareth and I climbed the Machame route up the mountain, which is quite a tough route but it allows you to acclimatise well as you sleep at a lower point than you ascend during the days’ hike. We also did the 7-day option which also allows you to acclimatise better as you have one extra night sleeping at 4000m at Karanga camp before heading to base camp, Barafu where you start your summit climb. We went with a company called Zara Tours who I would definitely recommend as our guides, waiter, porters and chef were all very professional and looked after us well.

What I absolutely loved about the climb is how each day was unique in terms of the vegetation you walked through as well as the different views of the mountain you got to experience along the way. The Machame route starts on the southern side of the mountain in the rainforest and then you move into an area called the moorlands where there are smaller trees covered in old mans beard and small shrubs and eventually you are walking in a very dusty and rocky terrain as you make your way to the summit. The weather is also very unpredictable the higher you ascend; one minute it is all misty and you can only see the person in front of you and then all of a sudden it is sunny and clear with amazing views of the mountain and surrounding vegetation.

Relieved to make it to Shira Cave Camp after having a "sugar low"
Relieved to make it to Shira Cave Camp after having a “sugar low”

My low point on the mountain happened on day 2 when I nearly thought my dream of summiting the mountain was all over. I had a sugar low and felt like I was going to faint. Our guide, Gilbert, suggested that we descend back down the mountain but as I have experienced a sugar low before I asked if we could rather sit in the shade for 10 minutes whilst I had a “Gu” and some biscuits and drank lots of water. I instantly started to feel a lot better and so we proceeded to make our way to Shira Cave Camp very pole-pole. I made it to camp with no more sugar lows and thankfully I was able to continue climbing the mountain.

One of my favourite days on the mountain other than summit day was the hike up Baranco wall to Karanga camp. When you first see the wall you question how it is possible to get to the top as it just looks like this massive vertical wall; however, there is a very well defined switchback path that you have to walk up and in parts rock climb which ended up being a lot easier to climb than I expected. Whilst climbing Baranco wall it was amazing to see how the porters manage to rock climb with heavy bags and supplies on their heads and backs. I just had a backpack and walking poles which was hard enough to carry up the wall. The porters continue to amaze us in terms of their strength and endurance carrying everything up the mountain. Once at the top of Baranco wall we had the most incredible picturesque views of the peak of Mountain Kilmanjaro.

Climbing up Baranco Wall with Barney safely secured on my backpack
Climbing up Baranco Wall with Barney safely secured on my backpack

It is no surprise that my highlight of my Kilimanjaro experience was summit day. But what made it that much more special was the fact that it was Warrick and my 5th wedding anniversary. Not sure how we are ever going to top this anniversary in the future. We started climbing after midnight and as it was full moon you could see a beautiful silhouette of the mountain with headlamps making a zigzag pattern like Christmas lights all the way to the top.

I have always felt the cold more than most people but as I layered up so much I looked like an eskimo and ended up being quite toasty. My hands and feet did end up going numb when we stopped for a break and the cold wind was blowing hard but as soon as I started to move again I warmed up and as soon as the sunrises you have to start removing layers as it gets very warm quickly.

Once we reached the summit after 7 hours of climbing very pole-pole, Ngwasha our assistant guide was waiting for us with a table setup with champagne and an anniversary cake that he had carried all the way up the summit. Whilst cutting the cake all the guides sang some Swahili songs for us which created such an incredible atmosphere I will never forget. Summiting the roof of Africa, was simply one of the best moments of my life and to be able to share that moment with my husband is indescribable.

Summiting the mountain is really tough going as every step you take, takes a lot more effort as you are struggling to get enough oxygen in at such a high altitude. However, what people do not realise is how hard and jarring the descent is on the body. I really struggled on the descent to Barafu camp as you end up sliding down this slippery scree. In fact, Ngwasha ended up holding my arm and helping to prevent me from falling on my backside as we slid down the mountain.

Ngwasha helping me slide down the slippery scree back to Barafu camp
Ngwasha helping me slide down the slippery scree back to Barafu camp

From Barafu camp we decided we didn’t want to camp another night on the mountain and would rather like to go back to the hotel for a shower and to sleep in a bed. The descent down to Mweka Gate is brutal on your legs as you basically are descending down 4km in altitude on a rocky stairway path. Warrick’s knee started to give him issues so each step down was really painful for him. We were all suffering and absolutely exhausted by the time we got to the end of the path. We were really lucky though as there was an ambulance which acted as a taxi for us that drove us the last 3 kilometres down to the gate where the Zara team had prepared a dinner for us before heading to the hotel. The Zara team really went above and beyond for us. My recommendation if you are training for Kilimanjaro would be to strengthen your legs for the descent by practicing walking down lots of stairs as that is by far one of the hardest parts of tackling Mount Kilimanjaro. A perfect place to train is Westcliff stairs in Johannesburg – read more about the stairs by clicking here.

All dressed up like Eskimos at sunrise on our way to the summit
All dressed up like Eskimos at sunrise on our way to the summit

Warrick and I both took Diomox whilst climbing Kilimanjaro and despite having to drink over 3 litres a day of water and needing the bathroom frequently and some pins and needles in our hands we didn’t have any issues with altitude sickness on summit day. I know that there are many conflicting opinions about Diomox but even if it is just a placebo-effect I would recommend people chat to their doctor about it. There were a lot of people suffering altitude sickness on summit night and Gareth also struggled with a really bad headache, dizziness and nausea on the way up.

For anyone looking to climb Mount Kilimanjaro I would recommend that the secret to success on the mountain is to walk slower than you have ever thought possible, drink more water than you feel you need, eat well on the mountain and just enjoy every minute climbing the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

I have also put together a Kilimanjaro packing list based on what I found most useful and essential for the climb which you can download for free by clicking on the image below.

My Hi-Tec Hiking Boots I used to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Check out my kit list for more info on what to pack.
My Hi-Tec Hiking Boots I used to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Click on the image to download my kit list I have put together.

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