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.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

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.

Mt. Kilimanjaro. Flickr/Gary Craig
Mt. Kilimanjaro. Flickr/Gary Craig

Rongai Route

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.

Marangu Route. Flickr/Geir K. Edland
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. Flickr/Geir K. Edland

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.

For an amateur hiker like me, Kilimanjaro offers a unique opportunity. At 19,340 feet (5,895 m), it’s the highest mountain in Africa, and the highest  peak in the world that’s not part of a mountain range. Situated just south of the equator with a relatively gentle incline, it’s also one of the few  mountains in the world this high that you can ascend without technical climbing skills.

During our previous briefing by the head guide at the hotel, we’ve been told we can all make it, but I’m still nervous, and unsure about how I’m going  to adapt to the altitude.

Hikers close in on Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjario.
Hikers close in on Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjario.

That’s the biggest challenge of the mountain, and for the past six months I’ve been training to prepare myself. One rule of thumb is that you should be  able to run for a half-hour straight before you attempt the climb. My training consisted of runs and trips to the gym, but you can do anything that will  build up your cardiovascular endurance.

It’s a slow pace, but if you go on an organized tour, you’ll likely be hiking for four to eight hours a day (and as many as 17 hours on the summit day). There’s also a lot of required equipment. Your travel agent should provide a list of recommended gear. Follow it to the letter. I did, and was thankful later.

To see how you’ll adapt to the altitude, you can try to climb a high mountain, but if you don’t have one nearby, just try to build up your endurance. A word of caution: Those who are hypoglycemic or have low blood pressure should consult a doctor before committing to this. The altitude will affect you more than others. That being said, my climbing team ranges from 25 to 64 years old, and includes a wide span of fitness levels.

Things to keep in mind when climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Flickr/ActiveSteve
Things to keep in mind when climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Flickr/ActiveSteve

On the plus side, if you go on an organized tour, you’ll have help. The porters outnumber our hiking team by about three to one. These guys are mountain goats, putting us all to shame by hauling up tents and cooking equipment twice as fast as we can climb, so by the time we arrive, all of our sleeping tents and the larger mess tent are already dotted about the campsite. The guides and porters are all extremely friendly, and they provide some essential encouragement along the way.

After unpacking the Land Rovers, we start out at an unmarked trail head with a view of Kenyan farmland below us. It’s sunny and hot, and we strip down to T-shirts and shorts before walking slowly through a half-mile (800 m) of maize and sunflower crops. The stalks are as tall as us, and I occasionally spot a bulge of ripening maize in its husk.

The incline is slight, and although we’re only at 6,000 feet (1,829 m), the pace is polepole — Swahili for “slowly” — a word I come to love throughout the six days of the trek. I’ve been on safari for the past nine days, and after more than a week of wildlife watching from a vehicle, my unused legs have the consistency of Kobe beef. I relish the slow pace.

The terrain changes quickly from cornfields to rain forest. A thick forest canopy blots out the sun, and we find ourselves on a narrow, root-heavy path lined by ferns. Beneath towering, moss-coated avocado trees, the air is rich with damp, earthy odors.

Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. Flickr/ActiveSteve
Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. Flickr/ActiveSteve

We’re even lucky enough to see monkeys hiding in the foliage. Soon, we’re out of the forest and back in the sun, winding through shrubs on the way to camp. I focus on my breathing as a warm up for what’s to come.

The first night it snows at the top, giving the summit a sugary dusting of powder, but the equatorial sun melts it within an hour of sunrise. The incline gets a bit steeper and the air a bit colder. Shrubs and heather cover this part of the mountain like a coat of fur.

At first, the vegetation reaches to our shoulders, but the higher we climb the shorter the shrubs, until they’re only ankle high. At this point, we can look out over the Kenyan plains for hundreds of miles.

In the mornings and evenings, we convene in the mess tent for porridge and soups that can help us hydrate for the long days. I was expecting swarms of mosquitoes, but they stay below 6,000 feet (1,829 m). The nights in our tents are progressively colder, and even in my thick sleeping bag, rated to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-23° C), I wear thermal underwear.

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