You’ve seen the summit photos, the smiling faces, epic backdrops, happy hikers and endless cloud inversions. But we all know what promo photos and social media is like. You often only get to see the best bits. It may leave you wondering, “What is it really like to climb Mt Kilimanjaro?”
For that reason, I have decided to share with you my personal journal notes from my first summit attempt of Mt Kilimanjaro. The notes belows are taken straight from my journal, where entries were made either on the same day or the following evening.
I hope this helps you live the experience with me, as well as pushing you towards taking the first step of climbing Mt Kilimanjaro for yourself!
My Kilimanjaro hike was from the 19th – 23rd November 2020. We took the 5 day Marangu route. I was hiking Kilimanjaro as a scouting mission for Global Shenanigans Expeditions, therefore it was supposed to be just me and my crew of porters and one chef. However, the majority of another group had to cancel, leaving just one person on their own. To avoid paying to upgrade to a private trip, this solo traveller joined our group.
So here we go – let’s find out what it’s really like to climb Kilimanjaro!
Kilimanjaro Trip Report: Marangu Route Day 1
19th November, 2020
Our hike started with a crack of lightning directly above our heads. The thunder had been rolling all day, but this was now on top of us – we were in the ‘light rain’ season after all, so this was to be expected.
We suited up in our rain gear and embraced the downpour. I wondered whether this is what the next 5 days were going to look like…
I felt oddly nervous when I stood under the gate to Kilimanjaro National Park. This was the official beginning of the hike. I just really, really wanted to make it to the summit. And I was excited to get moving.
We entered the montane forest and into a magical world of life and growth. Plants, trees and fungi all perfectly entwined in synergy. The Old Man’s Beard hung off of every tree and a stream meandered along the path, as did we.
The rain eased off after lunch, and if anything it was quite nice to keep the temperature down. It allowed for a steady walking pace without overheating.
We reached our first camp, Mandara Hut (2,720m), in good time as it’s a short first day. Greeting us at the camp was a troop of the extravagantly dressed black and white colobus monkeys – a first for me and a new animal for my Pokédex.
They were high up in the trees above the toilet block. Mostly just feeding. I spotted a mother with a tiny baby colobus hanging off of her.
Kilimanjaro Trip Report: Marangu Route Day 2
20th November, 2020
I didn’t sleep well last night, so I took a walk outside and watched a distant lightning storm.
It was far enough away that I couldn’t hear it, but the occasional flash lit up the horizon. This was accompanied with a chorus from what I later found out to be Tree Hyrax. A marmot-squirrel sort of animal that has a loud call at night.
The day started with a blue monkey strolling past the door. I remembered these guys from my safari around Lake Manyara.
He didn’t seem bothered by our presence in any way – or that of the colobus monkeys that were still hanging out in the trees nearby. He foraged around in the bushes before disappearing.
We began hiking at a slow and sustainable pace. ‘Pole pole’ is a phrase that you will hear many, many times. As we continued we slowly broke out of the forest and into the moorland. Except the moorland was not how it once was.
A bushfire had raged through this section for an entire week, only a month earlier. Local firefighters battled hard to save one of the campsites. It was oddly beautiful. Lush greens popped out of the dark ashy backdrop.
New life was pushing through and flowering.
Once we made it to Horombo Camp (3720m) I thought it would be a good opportunity to film a time-lapse of the sunset.
A time-lapse wasn’t necessary as the mists moved so quickly around the mountain.
The clouds danced, the sky lit up and I was finally able to lay eyes on Kibo, the highest point in all of Africa, for the first time. I was also able to see Mt. Mawenzi, the second highest of Kilimanjaro’s three craters.
Kilimanjaro Trip Report: Marangu Route Day 3
21 November 2020
It seems like I’ve finally made it above the cloud line and was rewarded with some of the most epic star gazing I’ve ever witnessed.
I’ve never been a great sleeper anyway, but up here I am just in a perpetual state of awe and wonder. There is no time to be sleeping when I could be staring off into the vast beauty of the mountains.
Today’s hike from Horombo to Kibo Camp (4720m) was incredible. The environmental changes throughout the day were so dramatic and contrasting. There was a definitive point from moorland to alpine desert, where no plant life was able to survive beyond an exact line in the sand.
After spending an entire week in Moshi and never getting a clear view of the mountain, due to cloud cover, I was finally able to get eyes of Kibo, the crater rim and Mawenzi. I foolishly felt like it didn’t seem that far away.
Unfortunately the other person hiking with me had to turn back, so from here on out it was just me, my guide Benny and our support crew. This meant we could move at a much faster pace and made it to Kibo for lunch, 1.5hours faster than the estimated time.
I was hoping to spend the remainder of the day resting and sleeping, as I knew the following day was going to be a big one.
Unfortunately my mind and body had other ideas as my insomniatic phase I was experiencing throughout the week increased. I was unable to sleep. I also started to feel the first signs of high altitude. The short walk from the bathroom to my room felt more arduous than it should have. I could feel my heartbeat pulsing in my neck.
However, my appetite was so far unaffected and I had no problem polishing off the comically sized portion of pasta I was served for dinner. As day turned to night, Mt. Mawenzi became enticing. With every light change it drew me in further. And when the stars came out I had no choice but to venture with my tripod and continue on my astrophotography mission.
I met up with Benny for what felt like a serious briefing on what was to come, as well as a gear inspection. Shit was getting real.
This did not help with my inability to sleep – I was just too excited. I lay awake in bed until my alarm rang and the summit attempt was to begin.
Kilimanjaro Trip Report: Marangu Route Day 4
22nd November 2020
Kibo Camp – Uhuru Peak – Horombo Camp.
12:30am, go time.
Waking up was easy as I hadn’t actually fallen asleep yet.
I felt completely zombified and took on some tea and biscuits, got my layers on and began the climb. Slight headache.
As we moved up my hands and feet felt really cold, so I put on my thick mittens and stuffed boot warmers into my boots when we took a break in a cave. I’m not sure if these had any effect.
I took this moment in the cave to turn off my headlight and appreciate the Milky Way as it spread across the night sky directly overhead. I pointed out some constellations to my guide Benny and told him that I think the planet we could see is Mars.
We moved as slowly as possible. ‘Pole pole’. This was to help adjust to the altitude and to try and avoid fatigue. All I could think about was the sunrise. I was exhausted and knew the sunlight would wake me up.
I matched Benny’s steps and told myself I would not under any circumstances ask for a break. He would set the pace. I will stop when I am told to stop and I will get up and walk when he tells me it’s time to walk. I will follow him to the top and that’s that.
Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot.
The thought of not making it never even once entered my mind. I wouldn’t let it. There was absolutely no way I wasn’t reaching the summit. I felt the struggle, sure. I felt tired, needing rest and hoping Benny would soon call for a break – but I would never ask for one.
At 6:30am the sun began to rise above Mt Mawenzi. There was an ocean below us, a cloud inversion reaching for as far as the eye could see. I took a bite of Snickers to celebrate, hoping for energy and immediately regretted it. I’ve survived hangovers that would put some people in hospital and still managed breakfast, yet here I was unable to stomach a Snickers. I felt nauseous and decided I wouldn’t eat again until I was at the crater rim.
We plodded on and I couldn’t believe our luck. Endless clouds below us and clear blue skies appearing above. Perfect conditions for summit day.
Now that it was light I was feeling revitalised and even more determined. We caught up with the only other group we would see the entire day. Just one guy and his porter on a 9-Dayer. We said ‘hi’ and incredibly slowly overtook them.
My head throbbed and I felt heavy. I continued to remind myself that this suffering was temporary. I was here by choice. Others had endured far worse throughout history and here I am just going on a hike. Deal with it.
Left foot, right foot. Left foot, right foot.
We made it to the crater rim at 08:00am and looked across the volcano. Glaciers in the distance, snow fields and rocky outcrops. Not a soul in sight. Spectacular. I ate a bland muffin and had some mango juice.
From here the path was still uphill but not steep. I started to recognise the otherworldly ice sculptures that I’d seen in other people’s photos posted on the internet.
I focused on my breathing. Slow and deep. I stop when Benny tells me to stop and I match his footsteps exactly.
Finally at 10:00am we reached Uhuru Peak. The highest point in all of the African continent. We high-fived, took some photos and had a quick rest. Making it to the top of the mountain is half way, and the clouds were quickly rising up towards us.
It was only upon beginning the descent that the wave of relief came over me. A huge feeling of achievement. On 3 weeks notice, in the middle of a pandemic, arriving 2 days before a national lockdown… and I’d done it. I had made it to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro!
I couldn’t stop smiling.
The further we went down the better I felt, right up until we reached our base camp and I managed to eat a full lunch. I negotiated a quick power nap before we continued down to the lower camp of Horombo. I woke up, drank as much water as I had available to me, packed up my gear then headed down.
From here it was a breeze. We moved fast and arrived at Horombo Camp after nightfall. It was expected (part of the negotiations) and I immediately passed out.
Kilimanjaro Trip Report: Marangu Route Day 5
23rd November 2020
I woke up feeling fantastic.
I took my morning coffee to a rocky perch and watched as the morning light spread across Tanzania below me.
The remainder of the hike was brisk. We marched back down to our first camp, Mandera Hut, for lunch. I passed around a bottle of whiskey I’d brought along and toasted Kilimanjaro with the porters, cook and Benny my guide.
I’d thought of having a sip on the summit, as is tradition. But I was in no shape to be drinking alcohol at that point!
Huge respect for all of the mountain staff who facilitate the successful and safe expeditions of Mt Kilimanjaro. It would absolutely not be possible without their support.