Climbing Kilimanjaro: The Remote Rongai Route

The sunrise over Mawenzi, as seen from Kibo.
The sunrise over Mawenzi, as seen from Kibo.

Every year, 31,000 climbers fly from around the globe to northeastern Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s easy to see why. From miles away, the solitary volcano rises from the plains and dominates the landscape, cutting through the clouds and peaking in a flattop.

Most climbers trek up the Marangu Route, which has earned the name “the Coca-Cola Route” after the hordes of Americans who use the route. The 12 members of my hiking party are looking for something more remote, and we find it on the east side of the mountain.

Our path is the Rongai Route, close to the Kenyan border. This relatively undisturbed route promises majestic views and a buffet sampling of the African wild, as it cuts through verdant jungle, alpine desert and glaciers.

We start our 10-day trip from the Kibo Hotel at the base of the mountain, in the town of Marangu. Jimmy Carter stayed here in 1988 when he climbed Kilimanjaro, but the cozy compound, draped with autographed jerseys of those who’ve summited, feels anything but presidential.

In the morning we pack the Land Rovers and head out on rocky, red clay roads. For three hours, the extreme vibration of the truck makes me feel like I’m in a hardware store paint shaker. Forehead pressed to the window, I take in the banana fields, and wave to barefoot children who line the road dressed in bright colors, on their way back from church.It’s a relic from the 1930s with aged tin roofs and, between the springy twin beds and the dim corridors, it has a distinct dormitory feel. Here at the foot of the mountain, the thick palm trees still tower over us.

As we get closer, there’s something out of place about the mountain. It sticks out from the landscape like the monolith from director Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s hard for any of us to take our eyes off it.

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