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Kilimanjaro Factfile

At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the only one of the seven summits (highest mountain on each continent) that is accessible without mountaineering equipment and experience.

It's the highest freestanding mountain in the world and one of the largest volcanoes, dormant rather than extinct.

On the summit, the lungs can only absorb half the amount of oxygen compared to sea-level.

The summit at Uhuru Peak is more than 1,600 feet higher than Everest base camp.

Estimates vary, but around 20,000 people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro each year. Almost half fail to reach the summit.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Arrival in Kenya and Tanzania, pre-climb trip report

I'm not sure whether I felt like royalty or the object of a game of pass-the-parcel when I arrived in Africa. I flew into Nairobi airport where I'd booked a night at the Hotel Boulevard (as expected, noisy and overpriced with a decidedly uninspiring room; not recommended for an extended stay). I'd also booked a car to meet me at the airport, as I didn't want to face the hassle of taxi touts late at night, although with hindsight, this was unnecessary. There seems to be a fairly good system for ordering reliable taxis from within the security area of the airport, before reaching the public and tout-infested areas. I was met by a very pleasant driver who arrived in a black London cab, introduced himself as Steven and then locked me and my luggage in the cab from outside with a key. I'd heard of Nairobi's crime-ridden reputation, but somehow, the key was a bit unnerving. We then made the short, bone-shaking journey into the city centre – my first experience of modern African roads, which I was to learn consist of a series of gigantic potholes interspersed with seemingly random speed humps every few hundred yards. This novel form of road surface is apparently standard for all metalled roads throughout East Africa.

I arrived too late for dinner at the hotel, so had to make do with a Coca Cola bought with some Kenyan shillings my niece had left over from her African trip four years ago. British Airways' cardboard snack (I'm not just talking about the box, here) had been neither inspiring nor satisfying, but at least I got a decent breakfast the next morning before another man with a car arrived to pick me up at 7.30am to drive me to a bus collection area a couple of streets away, where I was handed over to the driver of a minibus to begin my ride to Marangu. I was under the impression the bus would deliver me to my hotel there, but in fact I was left at yet another hotel in Arusha for nearly three hours before being passed on to another minibus driver for the final stage of the journey.

The journey across Kenya and Tanzania wasn't fun. Nairobi has definitely not improved since my last visit in the 1960s – it wasn't inspiring then, and time has not been kind to it. The morning traffic was horrendous, the road lined with ramshackle shantytowns and mile after mile of wasteland dotted with a mixture of factories and warehouses, half-built shacks and garishly painted villas. It took us two hours to clear the urban sprawl, and a further two hours of driving at terrifying speed through arid bush country interspersed with occasional dusty tumbledown villages before we reached the Tanzanian border. Immigration formalities were prolonged by an obvious staff-shortage, but eventually we were allowed to continue on our way.

Almost immediately, there was a discernible difference in the villages we passed through. Although the land was still dry and dusty, and the houses still poor, there were no more ramshackle shantytowns. Everywhere seemed tidier, and it was obvious Tanzanians like their gardens – almost every hut, however mean, had some kind of decorative tree or flowering shrub nearby in spite of the lack of water. The townships and villages were just as I remember them in Uganda years ago – poor, but moderately tidy with some sense of civic order, unlike the chaotic squalor on the Kenyan side of the border where there seemed to be more money around but no sense of how to use it wisely.

I was shocked by the arid landscape in Tanzania. I suppose I'd expected it to be like Uganda's poorer cousin (Uganda was called 'the Pearl of Africa' with good reason; fertile, with a high rainfall and moderate climate, just about anything would grow there). But in the areas I passed through the land was desperately parched with erosion a visible problem in the deep gullies and dust-laden wind. How the herds of Masai cattle survive on the sparse brown vegetation, I can't understand. We saw a few zebra and Thomson's Gazelles mixed in with the cattle as we rounded the flank of Mount Meru, Tanzania's second highest mountain. Kilimanjaro should have been visible from this point, but a combination of low cloud and the dusty atmosphere kept it hidden. In fact, it remained out of sight for the next three days – the first time I saw the peak was at dawn after our first night's camp on the lower slopes.

My final minibus driver was even more frightening than his predecessor. Driving at maximum speed, his single ambition seemed to be to overtake every other vehicle on the road at any time, anywhere. I was his sole passenger and I sat beside him on the front seat, my feet pressed hard against the floor, thigh muscles aching from the effort of using imaginary clutch and brake pedals. As night began to fall, we passed the added hazard of herds of goats and cattle being driven home to their bomas in the dusk. Lightless, broken down lorries and wandering donkeys also littered the road. I prayed for my driver's fast reflexes. Eventually, he slowed and began to drive at a more reasonable speed. I assumed either common sense or a police presence was responsible for the change. Unfortunately, not. He finally pulled over and indicated his temperature gauge.

"Hot," he said, pointing at the needle that was attempting to burst out of its enclosing glass.

I refrained from saying the engine was probably about to explode from prolonged excessive revs. The driver told me to get out of the vehicle so he could investigate the radiator, which was apparently under my seat. Great. I'd just spent the last two hours sitting on top of a potential volcano. A large quantity of water pooled from under the vehicle and ran down the road in a steaming rivulet as the driver clucked and fussed over the exposed engine. He went to a nearby house and emerged carrying a bucket of water, which he poured over the hot engine, producing a cloud of steam that filled the minibus, before he unscrewed the radiator cap. Should have made it two buckets of water. A violent gush of rusty boiling water hit the roof and showered all my possessions in the back seat. The driver then went to fetch another bucket of water, but it was almost pitch dark and he didn't have a torch, so couldn't see where to pour the water. Luckily, I had my trusty head torch in my rust-spattered rucksack, so I held the light while he poured water in through the top of the radiator and listened to it run straight out onto the road from somewhere below. Amazingly, he seemed satisfied with this arrangement and resumed our journey. I'd just about resigned myself to another night without dinner, this time spent on the roadside in my sleeping bag, when we arrived at the Marangu Hotel – we'd broken down only a mile or so from our destination.

I loved the Marangu Hotel. Staying there was pure nostalgia for me. It's exactly the kind of old-fashioned colonial style hotel I used to stay in as a child. The bungalows containing either two or four en suite double rooms are widely scattered amongst flowering Jacaranda and flame trees interspersed with huge hibiscus and bottlebrush trees in the twelve-acre grounds of an old coffee plantation house. The garden is a large-scale version of my own childhood garden, with identical trees and shrubs. Colourful bougainvillea arbours and hedges give a sense of privacy to the individual white walled buildings with their red oxide painted corrugated iron roofs. The only thing missing during my stay, which would have completed my memory trip, was a rainstorm to drum on the metal roof.

There's no pretension to luxury at the Marangu Hotel. The rooms are clean and comfortable, furnished adequately with matching chintz curtains and bed covers, but no extras like armchairs with cushions or pictures on the walls. There are mosquito netting screens over the windows and a small bedside rug on the polished floor. This is a picturesque but purely functional base for the serious business of climbing Kilimanjaro. The numerous staff are all welcoming and helpful and they serve wonderful ice cold Kilimanjaro beer in the bar (well, I had to drink something to vary the constant supply of Coca Cola in proper large glass coke bottles). There is a swimming pool, but for various reasons, I never got a chance to test the rumour about its source of water being Kilimanjaro's glacial runoff. The one luxury I really appreciated at both Marangu Hotel and Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge where I stayed later, after my climb, was the complete absence of TV and radio. I really felt I was in a time warp – even the food at Marangu is solid old fashioned British cuisine from forty years ago; tasty and filling with no gourmet pretensions. I wouldn't want to live on it for an extended period, but it's perfect fare to build up strength for the big climb.

I had a spare day at the hotel before my climb, so accepted an invitation from a fellow guest to go with her to see some small scale irrigation projects she'd helped set up in three local areas. The idea is to help people learn to grow vegetables for their own use and to sell any surplus for extra cash income. Although the slopes of Kilimanjaro are fertile and quite lush compared to the rest of the country, even a short distance from the mountain there is a desperate shortage of water. The riverbeds are dry except for a few short weeks during the rainy seasons, and for most of the year people buy all their water from young boys who deliver it on bicycles. There's little enough water for the family members and their odd livestock, so using such a precious resource to grow vegetables had been unthinkable until Eija's scheme was introduced. The idea is simple enough – villagers get together and choose one household to build the first tank. Each tank holds ten cubic meters of water and is built by local craftsmen using easily available local products. Water is collected from the house roof by gutters and pipes made of corrugated iron by more craftsmen (again readily available) and channelled into the tank during the rainy season. Everyone in the village will have access to this first tank, but the hope is that more houses will gradually acquire tanks now the people have the knowledge to construct the system. The three tanks we visited had only recently been completed, and as yet, hadn't had enough rain to be in use. The villagers had already germinated small areas of heavily protected seedlings, which they were hoping would survive until the short rains in November.

We drove almost right up to the first two villages in Eija's Landrover, but the third one was more difficult to find. Stupidly, I'd gone out in three-quarter length pants and trainers with no socks – something I began to regret when we walked for two or three miles through the shambas and I felt a blister forming on my heel. It wasn't a clever thing to do the day before beginning a six-day trek. Fortunately, my walking boots didn't touch the blister at all, so I got away with what could have been a serious impediment.

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sojournsafaris said...

Lemosho route is the most Scenic Climb up Mt Kilimanjaro Lemosho Route using different routes; the one that is most popular is the Mt Kilimanjaro Marangu Route Climb since it is the shortest, is easier and you get to sleep in bunker beds in the huts on the hiking trail with luxuries like beverages and beer. Marangu route up kili is the most popular and therefore the one with the highest traffic. Click here to see the Marangu Route Map

Climb Kilimanjaro said...

I was interested in reading your blog, as I am going to climb Kilimanjaro soon and I am going to follow the same sort of route you mention.
It sounds like the adventure of a lifetime but also a lot more organised and professional than I had at first thought it would be.
I can't even begin to imagine the feeling of standing on top of the moutain and looking down at the world below me. Moments like that are what life is all about

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Paul Deakin said...

Congratulations on your trip to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Nothing quite like a Kilimanjaro trek but a hike to Everest base camp is great too.

Paul Deakin said...

If you have enjoyed your hike to Everest base camp, why not come back and try climbing Island Peakor the Mera Peak trek.

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