Tackling the beast that is Mount Kilimanjaro


Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world, and the tallest peak in Africa. — Photos: POH YING LOO

Scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in the African continent and the largest free-standing mountain in the world (which means it is not part of a mountain range), had always been a dream of mine. With its majestic crown of ice and snow, it stood as a beacon of adventure and challenge. My close friend Francis shared the same dream, and together we set out on a journey to conquer this mountain.

We were joined by our adventurous friend Regina, and with our team complete, we eagerly prepared ourselves for the journey ahead.

The mere thought of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m) brought about a mix of excitement and anxiety. The fear of altitude sickness loomed over us, as did concerns about our physical and mental preparedness for the demanding routes and the extended duration of the climb. We trained diligently, gathering as much information as we could to ensure we were ready for the challenge.

Before we knew it, the day of reckoning arrived, and we set off for the faraway land of Africa and its legendary great white mountain.

We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, the nearest city to Mount Kilimanjaro, and were greeted with “jambo jambo” by our local tour guide, Charles of Tanganyika Ancient Routes. Jambo means hello in Swahili, the widely spoken language in Tanzania.

After a gruelling 24-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur, we rested for a day and used that time to familiarise ourselves with the surroundings, in preparation for our trek. We were advised do the hike “pole pole”, which means “slowly, slowly”, to avoid altitude sickness.

While there are several routes up the mountain, we opted for the Lemosho route, renowned for its scenic beauty, which would take us six nights and seven days to complete.

The writer (centre) with his adventurous buddies Francis (left) and Regina.The writer (centre) with his adventurous buddies Francis (left) and Regina.

Day 1: Mti Mkubwa Camp

Accompanied by our guide Richard, we drove to the Londorossi National Park Gate for registration and other formalities. After a hearty lunch, we began our hike from an elevation of 2,246m. The first day’s trek took us through a path in the tropical rainforest, a serene and peaceful environment. Despite the initial chill and mist, the weather soon cleared, and we found ourselves shedding layers of clothing.

Our team of 15, comprising a guide, an assistant, a cook, a waiter and 12 porters, provided incredible support throughout the journey. We reached Mti Mkubwa Camp (2,560m), where the team had set up our tents and prepared hot meals. After dinner, we retired early to rest our tired bodies.

The meals that were prepared for us over the next seven days were excellent, and exceeded our expectations. Some of the meals we had included porridge, soup, fried chicken, fish fillets, mixed vegetables, pancakes and pizzas. Chilli and tomato sauces were always on hand. In the mornings, we had hot beverages like coffee, tea and hot chocolate.

We were served fresh fruits for dessert, and had popcorn to snack on while waiting for our main meals. Amazingly, all the produce and ingredients were brought along with us by the porters.

The Malaysians had a 15-member supporting team who trekked with them throughout the journey.The Malaysians had a 15-member supporting team who trekked with them throughout the journey.

Day 2: Shira 2 camp

We got a 5.40am wake-up call the next day and was ready to start our hike by 7am, when it was still cold and chilly. The dusty trail led us out of the rainforest, presenting undulating and steadily steep terrain. The initial part of the trail still offered shade in the moorland, but as we ventured into the open plains, the sun’s direct rays and occasional chilly winds posed new challenges.

Protective gear such as sunglasses and face covers became essential. After a strenuous six-and-a-half hour trek through undulating terrain (9.4km), we reached the Shira 1 camp for lunch. Situated at 3,531m, the air was noticeably thinner, and caution was necessary to prevent dizziness.

With renewed energy from the meal, we pressed on, finally arriving at the Shira 2 camp (3,896m) in the late evening. The last kilometre in darkness proved challenging, as any misstep on the rocky terrain could result in injury. But the it also offered a breathtaking sight with the sunset on one side and the moon providing a postcard-perfect backdrop for Mount Kilimanjaro.

Day 3: Barranco Campsite

The morning brought a gentle ascent amid panoramic views, leaving the moorland plateau behind as we walked on lava ridges beneath the glaciers. After a 7.12km climb (which took us about five hours), we reached Lava Tower at 4,600m.

The journey was laborious, characterised by a sandy trail strewn with rocks and boulders. The cold winds and undulating terrain demanded that we put on more clothes, and wear thicker gloves. This leg of the trek emphasised the importance of having total focus, reasonable fitness, a strong mental mindset, endurance, and stamina. While the trail didn’t require technical skills, it necessitated complete concentration to prevent any injury on the rocky path.

The ascent to Lava Tower served as an acclimatisation exercise for altitude sickness.

After lunch, we descended to Barranco Campsite, resting at an elevation of 3,950m. Nestled by towering cliffs on one side, Barranco provided extensive views of the plains and clouds below.

Along the way, we marvelled at the unique giant groundsel plants, known as Dendrosenecio Kilimanjari. These prehistoric-looking plants were a sight straight out of a scene from Jurassic Park and can only be found atop Mount Kilimanjaro.

Day 4: Karanga Campsite

We started the day with a slow climb up the rocky slopes of Barranco Wall, a towering cliff surrounding one side of the campsite. Cautious foot and hand placements were crucial on the steep and narrow rocky paths along the wall’s surface.

The trail was congested with a continuous progression of hikers and porters. At times, we had to wait in queues, giving us opportunities to appreciate the surrounding terrain and the vast expanse of clouds below.

On the infamous “Kissing Wall”, a narrow and intimidating drop-off section of Barranco Wall, we followed the tradition of hugging the wall to pass, exchanging affectionate kisses.

Climbing Barranco Wall took slightly over an hour, and after revelling in the awe-inspiring views, we descended through the Karanga Valley. The sandy path, strewn with loose rocks and boulders, required careful navigation and steady footing. The trekking poles we carried proved immensely helpful.

At noon, we reached Karanga Campsite (3,995m), where we stayed the night.

Day 5: Barafu Hut

We embarked on a 4km trek from Karanga Campsite to Barafu Campsite, arriving at 12.50pm. The trail initially led us through sloping, dusty paths with sharp rocks. From there, we descended into a valley before embarking on a 2km ascent to reach Barafu Campsite, which is the base camp before the summit.

Barafu Camp sat atop a ridge, characterised by rocky terrain and volcanic ash. The high elevation meant the absence of significant flora or fauna. As expected, the campsite bustled with activity, with numerous people attempting the summit. Luckily, our team secured suitable spots for our tents.

The writer at the Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Mount Kilimanjaro. The writer at the Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Day 6: Uhuru Peak and Mweka Camp

At 11pm, we woke up to begin our ascent to the summit, equipped with headlamps and guided by Richard. The midnight air was bone-chilling, and we wore an average of five layers of clothing. The climb was steep, with loose volcanic scree and a well-graded zigzag trail. Progress was slow but steady due to the thin air at such elevations.

The trail was illuminated by a long line of headlamps from those ahead and behind us, creating a mesmerising spectacle. As the morning sun gradually rose, the surrounding views grew more stunning, instilling a renewed sense of determination.

After a seemingly endless night climb lasting about seven hours, we reached Stella Point (5,756m) at dawn. An hour later, we finally stood atop Uhuru Peak (5,895m), the highest point of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was an immensely fulfilling achievement after an arduous climb, and we were rewarded with breathtaking views of glaciers and ice cliffs.

Fortunately, the weather was favourable, with no rain or snow, allowing us to capture unforgettable moments and delayer our clothing as the sun rose. We spent about an hour at the summit, taking in the surroundings, before beginning the descent back to Barafu Camp.

The descent was considerably faster, as we slid through the volcanic ash. However, it did take a toll on our knees. After lunch at the base camp, we continued our descent to the final campsite, Mweka Camp (3,100m). The trail to Mweka Camp was physically draining and demoralising, leading us through a seemingly endless mossy forest path.

In total, on the sixth day, we endured a gruelling ascent and descent for almost 15 hours.

Enjoying a breather amid a sea of clouds. Enjoying a breather amid a sea of clouds.

Day 7: Mweka Gate

After breakfast, we embarked on a final four-hour descent, following a path that wound its way through a lovely tropical forest. The route led us back to Mweka National Park Gate (1,640m), where we enjoyed our last meal with the team, expressing our gratitude and bidding farewell. Finally, we were transferred back to our hotel in Arusha, for a well-deserved rest.

Overall, the journey up Mount Kilimanjaro provided us with spectacular views and tested our determination. Along the peaks and valleys of the mountain, the surroundings were often serene, punctuated only by the cool winds that whispered through the landscape. The sight of vast expanses of clouds beneath our feet and the seemingly infinite horizon of the plains reminded us of our insignificance in the grand tapestry of the universe.

The challenges we faced on this arduous climb put into perspective the smaller concerns of our daily lives. Our dream had become a reality, and the memories and lessons from this extraordinary adventure will forever hold a special place in our hearts.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.


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