Backpackers’ Guide to Climbing Kilimanjaro

Written by: Ella O'Brien

How to Survive Climbing Kilimanjaro

Out of the van we clambered, 14 whiter than white tourists ready to experience a once in a lifetime opportunity, climbing Kilimanjaro. A huge 5895m to be accomplished in 4 days, followed by a 2-day descent.
It would be fair to say that we hadn’t exactly ‘trained’ for it in any sense of the word, but even so, we were confident that we would somehow manage. Machame Gate bustled with tourists and guides alike, not forgetting the porters who were to carry our bags and camping equipment throughout. Here, we filled out passport details, refilled our camelbaks and emptied our pockets of change to those selling merchandise. Flags can be quite fun to have if you’re feeling patriotic, or for other Kilimanjaro-goers to identify where you’re from, which opened up some good conversations during the climb.
Danish flag-bearing on Kilimanjaro's Machame Route

Starting off

The starting point itself was quite the anticlimax as we began walking; no one waved us off or fired the gun like they did for Mo Farah in the 2012 Olympics. Machame is one of the best routes to take when climbing Kilimanjaro as it allows your body to acclimatise to the altitude due to the ups and downs of the landscape. As the saying goes in The Tortoise and the Hare, ‘slow and steady wins the race’ and with a total lack of competitiveness combined with the most laid-back attitude, this suited me perfectly!
Machame Hut, Kilimanjaro - first camp
Initially, I’d thought that we’d be trekking through jungle terrain, moulding the trail by swiping at motionless grass with machetes, so it was a little disappointing to see manmade paths wide enough for us to walk side by side, but perhaps for the better.
To start with, it felt like any old terrain and we could have well been in Somerset. But I was rapidly reminded where I was when we discovered the toilets. I entered the ramshackle shed with rotting wood, and using the single strip of sunlight shining through the keyhole as my only guide to refrain from tumbling into the fateful hole of faeces, I carefully tiptoed around until I, quite literally, stumbled upon the two blocks on which to place my feet, before adopting the most elegant squat position.

Food on Kilimanjaro

A breakfast delicacy on Kilimanjaro is ‘stiff porridge’, which is about as runny as a jar of honey and requires a minimum of five teaspoons of sugar to taste the slightest hint of sweetness. After the first day of eating this, it didn’t take much to convert to bread.
Each morning, the guides woke us gently asking whether we would prefer tea or coffee – both are Kilimanjaro specialities, taste delicious and can be a good Christmas gift for the grandparents. The packed lunch is an improvement, consisting of a sandwich, chocolate bar and piece of fruit, afternoon tea is eaten upon arriving at camp and is made up of salted popcorn and biscuits, and finally, dinner is usually soup or pasta with fruit for dessert.
Our first encounter of 'stiff porridge' on Kilimanjaro

Altitude sickness

By the second day, it seemed that altitude sickness was next up on the agenda – oh the joys! It’s something you’ll not know you suffer from until you’re there, which makes it much harder to prepare for. While others struggled with vomiting and numerous Mother Nature calls (diarrhoea), a loss in appetite worked out rather well for me and resulted in half a stone weight loss!
Climbing Kilimanjaro with altitude sickness

The final ascent

Despite the fact we experienced almost every type of weather possible, nothing had prepared us for the summit. This is the final ascent, which begins at 11.30pm in order to reach the top in time for the sunrise. As we climbed out of our tents, still half asleep and dreaming, there were hundreds, if not thousands of people lighting the way with their head torches in the dead of night. It was an unforgettable sight which reminded me that it was all worth it.
Unfortunately, the snow storm not only prevented us from reaching Uhuru Peak, but also stopped us from watching the sunrise in all its beauty, nonetheless, it is all about the journey, and not the destination!
Upon descending Kilimanjaro with our guide, Wenga

Tips on what to bring (pack lightly)

  • Toilet rolls (note the plural)
  • Altitude sickness tablets (Diamox can help the acclimatisation process, or Ginkgo Biloba for those who prefer herbal remedies)
  • Imodium (treats diarrhoea)
  • Walking boots that are broken in
  • Walking poles can be hired from the gate for a small fee
  • Isotonic powders to mix with water
  • Simple snacks (mixed nuts/ dried fruits etc)
  • A camelbak
  • A variety of clothes suitable for sun/ wind/ rain and snow

Tips for the climb

  • Be friendly to the guides and porters – show an interest in their culture by learning some basic words in Swahili. They cater to your customs, so why not cater to theirs?
  • Be prepared to suffer from altitude sickness (research possible symptoms beforehand so you know how to combat it)
  • Most importantly, as with any holiday or adventure, take lots of pictures – this is a once in a lifetime opportunity!

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