Christmas Tunes on Top of Africa

This is the first posting in a series on our trip and will be about our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, which I’ll shorten to “Kili” for brevity.

The Basics: At 19,300 feet, Kili is the highest point in Africa and is in Northern Tanzania near the border w/ Kenya. It has 3 main peaks, Shira (now collapsed), Mawenzi and Kibo (the one most people clilmb). You have to use a licensed guide, and usually you have porters in your party to carry your things up the mountain. Your fee includes park fees ($30-40 per person per day), salaries for your party and food & incidentals. There are several routes up the mountain varying in length, scenery & difficulty, most of which are non-technical in nature. We chose the non-technical Machame route, aka the “Whiskey” route. It is supposed to be relatively popular, strenuous and one of the most scenic routes, and it lived up to each of these traits. Many trekkers use the base city of Moshi as a base before setting out on their trip, which is what we did, though there are other options like Arusha (a large city) and the mountain villages of Machame, Marangu and others.

Day 1: We meet our guide and head to the village of Machame passing coffee plantations along the way. Towards the end of the half-hour journey, the dirt road gets steep and almost impassable. We make it to Machame Gate, the entrance to the park, where our guide registers our party with the Parks Dep’t. After completing the formalities, we take off up the trail with our guide, Tobias, while our porters pack the equipment up and bring up the rear.

Approaching From the West
Approaching From the West

The theme for the trek is “Pole Pole” (pronounced “pole-ay pole-ay”), which means “Slowly Slowly” in Kiswahili. All guides know that it’s best to go as slowly as possible to allow your body to acclimatize to the altitude and give yourself the best chance to get to the top. We would hear Pole Pole A LOT during the trip!

We hike for about 4 hours through rainforest at one point hearing Colubus monkeys crashing about in the foliage and stopping for lunch along the way. The trail is steep at times. There’s was an Aussie brother and sister we meet who were staying at our hotel in Moshi. The sister was not doing so well, and it’s only day 1. We feel good though and make it through the tree line of the jungle and a short while later get to Machame Hut (aka Camp). All this time Kili has yet to show her face, preferring instead to shroud herself in clouds. Finally, just before night falls, the clouds part and we see the summit with the setting sun reflecting off it. It looks far and high.

Days 2 – 5: I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow description of these days. Generally they were spent hiking 2 – 4 hours each day before getting to camp. We’d be served dinner and then bundle up for the nights, which would be FRIGID. Beautiful scenery – scrub brush, then it starts thinning out, giant senesia and lobelia plants, then rocks, like a lunar landscape. All the while the summit loomed larger each day. At one point we had to ‘scale’ the Barranco wall, which looks very intimidating but is over after about 1 hours of clambering and climbing.

Under the Great Barranco
Under the Great Barranco

Day 6 — Summit Day: This is by far the hardest day of the trek and we’d been preparing ourselves for it all week. Summit Day actually begins the night before where we were woken up at 11:30 pm for tea and biscuits with the departure set for midnight. Dara and I were so keyed up that, combined with the altitude, we didn’t get a lick of sleep in. So we’re enjoying our tea and biscuits in the tent and doing last minute preparation for the climb, like wearing the last of our 6-7 top layers (yes it was that cold!), when all of a sudden the tea thermos gets knocked over and there’s tea all over our tent and my 3 layers of wool socks. The culprit of the spill is still in dispute I should note. Anyway, we’re trying to clean it up and get ready, and I’m kind of upset when I head outside the tent, look up at the starry, moon-less sky and see a shooting star. That’s when I knew everything would be okay, and that we’d make it to the top. After further wrangling, including a last minute headlamp emergency, we set off on the trail. There were 4 of us – Thobias, our guide, Dara, myself and Yassin our cook and assistant guide.

It was an incredible scene. We could see the lights of Moshi down below, the stars twinkling above, and faint blips of light on the dark mountain representing other trekkers above and below us on the trail. Poor Yassin had to carry a pack and had no headlamp and so was stumbling a bit in bringing up the rear. Going up to the summit is all about pole-pole. Because you can hardly see, your neck is craned downward focusing on the person in front of you and their footsteps (which was literally a pain in the neck). Thobias, our guide, was in great spirits and was whistling and singing. One of the more surreal moments was when we heard him whistling the tune to Christmas carols like Silent Night — who would think I’d be hearing that atop Kilimanjaro in July?

I Thought Africa Was Hot?
I Thought Africa Was Hot?

I had a very dull headache that got worse as we ascended. Dara was doing okay but felt drowsy due to lack of sleep. I took some Advil to tide me over but the real problem was that I was continually out of breath. Despite this and our late 12:30 am start, we made good, steady progress, passing several parties along the way, some of whom I was sure would not make it to the top — we passed one person early on who was in tears, while another was retching mid-way up. I kept a clock in my pocket to mark our time and progress.




Dara mentioned her sleepiness to Thobias and he told her that there’d be a hut at the top that she could take a nap in for 20 minutes, which kept her going. It was bitterly cold even though we were huffing and puffing our way up. The wind would whip through and leave our digits numb. Our 6 top layers and 3 bottom layers kept us fairly warm otherwise.

Step by step we climbed, our eyes searching for rocks or solid scree (gravel) on which to take the next step. After 15 minutes of agony, we came to a flat area and Thobias informed us that we were at Stella Point, considered to be a ‘peak’ of Kili. We were excited and there were hugs all around until he informed us that THE high peak of Kili, Uhuru Peak, lay another 45 minutes up the trail. Groan. But he assured us that it was easy going. And so we continued walking. At this point, I started seeing this bluish tent with what looked to be a light in it and thought to myself how strange it was that someone was camping this high up. The tent would appear closer but we never past it. I was hallucinating! Finally the tent I thought I was seeing became the white sign of Uhuru Peak and we were there!! We made it to the top at ~ 6:05 am in time to see the sun rise (below us!). It was beautiful and I got emotional as I thought of Dave and everything else. After taking photos and taking in the sights — the glacier, the crater, the windswept beauty — we headed back down, giving encouragement to the other trekkers that were starting to reach the top.

We stopped for tea (that Yassin had carried in a thermos in his pack!), and, after 2 hours of sliding down the loose scree (it felt like we were snowboarding down gravel), we got to camp. On the way up, at about the halfway point, Thobias took Dara’s day pack, and Yassin took mine because they said we’d need all our strength for the top, and they were right!

Thobias resumed his singing, including the “Kilimanjaro” song, which we had them write the lyrics down for that night. We took a quick nap and then broke camp to head straight down for Mweka camp. We were tired and dirty, the trail was steep, and our knees hurt like hell from the descent. We could have done without the ‘denouement’ of the trek, which had all the people from the other trails (many of whom didn’t make it to the top), and unremarkable scenery compared to the Machame route.

The Trip: While we were always with people whether on the trail or at camp, we did a lot of thinking and self-reflection. Somehow, being on a mountain halfway across the world from home makes for a great setting to do so.

The porters routinely performed superhuman feats. They’d carry these huge bulky items, like duffle bags and kerosene bottles, often on their heads. No back brace, no helmet, most of them didn’t even have proper hiking boots. They’d break down camp after you’d hit the trail, pack the stuff up, pass you on the trail, and have the tents and stuff set up for you by the time you got to the next camp, all this while dealing with the altitude. On the last day, while we were going slowly down the train because our knees were singing with pain, they practically jogged down the path, even though it was raining and the ground was muddy. Besides Thobias, our guide, there were 8 porters in our crew including Yassin the cook! We felt kind of ridiculous having such an entourage, but I suppose we were helping out the local economy and employing its men. They were earnest and hardworking and seemed to be having a good time when they hung out in their tent.

We were glad to have taken Diamox, the altitude sickness medication, which let us get a bit of sleep and generally cope with the conditions. Even still, I would sometimes get winded and we both got intermittent headaches. It’s all about maintaining equilibrium — make a sudden move like bending over or getting up, and you’ll feel the pangs in your head.

All in all, climbing Kili was the highlight of our trip. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking. Literally. With the altitude, you really did lose your breath taking it all in! We were lucky to be able to make the summit (I’ve heard the summit success rate to be 25-33% depending on the time of year & the route). We felt a great sense of accomplishment and will cherish the memories from what was a very rewarding trek.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my friend JJ and Donovan at for their invaluable advice.

Special thanks to Rags Soapbox webblog for sharing this article.