“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” -Barry Finlay
The first day of the climb following the Machame Route up Kilimanjaro is a relatively easy 4-6 hour walk (depending on speed) ascending through lush tropical rainforest filled with Podocarpus trees, vine-like lianas, tree ferns and nettles. The trail is well-maintained yet can be muddy given the high levels of rain this part of the mountain receives. The thick foliage provides a verdant canopy letting in little light except tree-filtered rays of the sun. It is absolutely serene.
The weather was absolutely perfect. It was no too hot or too cold and it wasn’t raining which is always a relief. Until you are above the clouds, it can pour down rain making the journey up to Machame Camp a slippery, muddy, uncomfortable mess. Thankfully, we never experienced any bad weather the entire week of our climb which was rather remarkable and very fortunate. You never know what kind of extreme weather you may find on Kilimanjaro and just the week before the summit was unbearably windy and cold. The general rule of thumb is to always be prepared for everything and dress in layers.
We left along with several other large groups of climbers and their teams. Our group of nine climbers had four guides, and about 25 others as our support staff, all local Tanzanians who were being paid as either porters, cooks or waiters. Since the entire Machame Route is camping only, everything we needed for the entire week had to be carried which required a large support team. Tents for us as well as the support staff, a cooking tent, a “kitchen” tent, two “toilet” tents and all our food and cooking supplies had to be carried up and down Kilimanjaro.
Before we left, every single bag was weighed to ensure it was under the maximum weight amount of 33 lbs (15 kg). It is a strict rule enforced at all gates up Kilimanjaro to protect the porters. I have been trekking in many other places around the world where there is no rule which is horrible. In Nepal it is not uncommon to see porters carrying double this amount.
I noticed right away that many of the porters carried their loads on their head as opposed to their backs. It is common for both men and women to carry heavy loads of water, baskets and other supplies this way because it is actually easier and better for your back. I have no idea how they balance it so well especially going up and down a mountain at breakneck speed.
The hike to Machame Camp meanders up about 7.5 miles (12 km) from a starting altitude of 4,890 feet (1490 m) to 9,780 feet (2980 m) and almost the entire hike is through thick rainforest common at the lower altitudes of Kilimanjaro. It is the only part of the hike that is shaded yet the temperature can be quite hot.
“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.” – Greg Child
I enjoyed the gorgeous surroundings and getting to know our group better. We talked. We laughed. We told stories, and we bonded. To me, that is half the fun of the journey.
The thick-vined trees made me feel like I was someplace else not climbing the largest peak in Africa. There were no monkeys to amuse us but we could hear the birds singing deep within the trees.
One thing that you learn about hiking in a group is that normally not everyone is the same speed. It all depends on preference, physical ability and endurance on how fast you go and inevitably a group naturally splits up into different pace groups. That is why it is essential to have more than one guide so when a group splits up, you can assign a guide to each group. It is not legal to climb Kilimanjaro without a guide therefore it is very important to have more than one, especially on the summit day when different factors such as altitude sickness, can become an issue in keeping a group together.
As the day passed, we naturally broke up into a few different pacing groups and the group I was with arrived a little after six o’clock. The campsite was packed with tents and people, and it was getting cold. Thankfully our speedy porters (who are in absolutely tremendous shape) had arrived hours before and set up our tents. I could hardly wait to take my hiking boots off given my swollen left foot. Although the injury from the rice paddies did not slow me down, my left leg swelled every single day of the climb and caused me weeks of problems when I got home.
At every camp along the way, you have to check in with the Ranger. It is a way to track all the climbers for their safety. The ranger was very excited to show me his gun. He obviously was proud of the fact that he was our protector which made me smile. I tried to take a photo of him standing in front of his station but he told me it wasn’t allowed.
Every meal was served inside our dining room tent, a large tent that held a table for ten and chairs. Our cooks prepared fresh, hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner and even popcorn for a snack at sunset. The food was delicious and we were always starving.
Slowly the sun began to set and the cool, moist air of the rainforest seeped inside the tent. Day one was complete. I was cold, tired and ready to sleep. As the sky grew dark, the only noise I could hear was the singsong chatter of Swahili which lulled me to sleep.
I slept fitfully trying to adjust to the hard, cold ground and the moist cool air. It would take me a few more days to figure out how to effectively keep warm and sleep on the mountain. But the first night I froze and wondered what on earth I’d gotten myself into.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved”.