The hardest part of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is the altitude sickness. Everyone will get it to some degree; it’s just the severity that varies.
The track starts low (2,100 metres is the elevation of the trailhead for the Lemosho Route), and it isn’t easy to sneak in any pre-ascent acclimatisation. Arusha (the town most hikers will transit through) is 1,387 metres; too low to be of any use.
Those with time to spare can trek some of the other mountains in the region, such as Mount Meru (4,655m), and Mount Loolmalasin (3,682m), but the vast majority of hikers will be heading straight up Kilimanjaro via one of the shortest and cheapest routes – usually completed over six to seven days. The failure rate on these routes is high; some companies quote as high as 50%.
Which is why I opted for the 8-day Lemosho Route. It’s one of the less popular routes due to its length, but the extra days give hikers just that little bit longer to acclimatise, which significantly increases your chances of reaching the summit.
DAY 1: Mti Mkubwa Camp (2,750m)
After being picked up by your tour company on the morning of Day 1, you are driven to the Londrossi Park Gate, a two-hour drive from Arusha. Here your guides will process your hiking permits, and your group’s combined luggage – including tents, food, clothing, and chemical toilet – will be weighed on a set of giant scales to determine how many porters you will need (porters carry 25kg maximum, including 7kg of their own gear).
You will need an absurd amount of porters. Our group of six hikers set off with a workforce of 23 (one guide, two assistant guides, two cooks, and 18 porters).
Once weigh-in is complete you drive for another 45 minutes to the trailhead and at last your ascent of Kilimanjaro is commenced.
The first day of hiking involves a gentle climb on well-graded tracks through humid, wet-forest.
It’s possible to come across elephants, leopards, cape buffalo, zebras, and hyena on the Lemosho Route – another perk, if a somewhat dangerous one, of opting for this route – but sightings are rare. The only wildlife we saw was a family of Black and White Colobus Monkeys.
Mti Mkubwa Camp sits at a 2,750m elevation. Watch out for larcenous Blue Monkeys that loiter around the campsite. Don’t leave any food unattended.
DAY 2: Shira I Camp (3,500m)
Day 2 begins with a sweaty climb through the humid, wet-forest on Kilimanjaro’s lower slopes. After a decent workout you reach the wildflower-filled moorland of the Shira Plateau. The track levels out at this point.
While hiking across the Shira Plateau you’ll encounter some of Kilimanjaro’s more unique species of flora. There’s the Giant Lobelia (Lobelia deckenii) – seen in the photo below – and the mountain even has its own species of protea (Protea kilimanjaro).
This vast expanse of boggy heathland is actually an ancient – and now heavily decayed – volcanic crater. In terms of volcanic activity Shira is extinct – it was active approximately two million years ago – as is Mawenzi (a secondary cone near the peak). Kibu Crater (the crater at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro) is merely dormant and could erupt again in the future.
Shira I Camp (3,500m elevation) is in the middle of the crater, next to a narrow, slow-flowing stream (from which you get your drinking water). Day 2 includes about seven hours hiking all up travelling at an easy pace.
DAY 3: Shira II Camp (3,850m)
Knowing that you walked halfway across the Shira Plateau yesterday, you can probably guess what you’re going to do today.
Day 3 is actually easier than Day 2, as there is very little climbing involved. And it’s a short day; just a four-hour stroll.
Shira II Camp (3,850 metres elevation) sits on the interface between the boggy moorland and the arid, extreme-alpine zone.
You’ll get a few hours to yourself in the afternoon. There are some dramatic rock formations near camp that were calling out to me, but I had only just begun exploring them when one of the assistant guides ran over and asked me to stop. Rockfalls are common in this area apparently.
Tonight the temperature drops below freezing for the first time on our hike.
Tomorrow the wildflowers and pleasant strolls come to and end. It is time to enter the extreme-alpine zone.