Tanzania: Kilimanjaro, safaris and paradise in Zanzibar

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Tanzania was the grand finale of my 5 week long summer in East Africa. I can honestly say this is a country that has it 'all' in terms of varied landscapes, cultures and adventure activities. I took a seven hour bus ride from Nairobi in Kenya, across rolling and arid savanna to Arusha. Tanzania is not without turbulent beginnings when it gained independence in the 1960s. The first leader, Julius Nyerere managed to form the country by merging the land of Tanganyika and the Island of Zanzibar to form the name 'Tanzania'. The 1970s saw Tanzania get into heavy debt whilst dabbling in socialism, like so many fledgling post colonial African states. Thankfully today Tanzania has become one of the more stable countries in the whole of Africa.

 

The town of Arusha is where many travellers start their Tanzanian adventures. It is nothing really much to write home about, just a big busy town with a few hotels and travel agencies who are out to get your business. My prime reason for being in Arusha was to team up with my adventure agency to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Now there is no denying that finding a good adventure company to climb Africa's highest mountain is not the easiest job in the world. However, after hours and days of trawling the internet back in the UK I settled on a company called Focus in Africa.  I chose them because they were an affordable price, in the region of $1400USD which sounds a lot of money, but is way cheaper then many Kilimanjaro adventure companies. The second reason I chose them was of the positive testimonials they'd received online. As I write this several years after my adventure I am still happy to recommend them as a great company as they've maintained a very healthy reputation with clients.

After a comfortable night in a hotel on the outskirts of Arusha I met my fellow hiking companions, comprising of a lovely American couple from Boston (Dave and Jen) and also a pair of young Australian doctors from Melbourne (Siobahn and Danielle). After the two hour minibus journey to the start part of our big adventure, we kitted up ready for a ten mile hike starting at 6000ft through cloud forest to the first nights camp at 10,000ft called Machame. It's important to bear in mind that Mount Kilimanjaro has half a dozen different routes to the summit. I settled for a route which took 5 days up and 2 days down called the 'Machame Route'. Apparently it has a good track record for the all important acclimatisation.  The first day is fairly gently up hill and your biggest barrier is the mud under foot. The temperatures are a nice comfortable 15 to 20'c as you are in cloud forest. 

You are not expected to carry much with you as your adventure company will carry the bulk of your gear. You just take a day backpack with a few snacks, drinks, jacket and of course your camera equipment. The track was certainly well worn and you could see why with so many people using it, more porters than actual climbers. With a group of five climbers in our group, we actually had around 20 odd crew supporting us, including two guides, a chef and 15 or so porters. They were a friendly and delightful bunch of guys. As we trekked through the trees, every now and then we saw some beautiful rare orchids that are native to only this very region of the world.

After several hours we arrived at a viewpoint right by our first nights camp which unveiled the almighty mountain which we were aiming for, Mount Kilimanjaro, or more widely known in Tanzania as Uhuru (Freedom) Peak. It soars to 19,341ft  or 5895 metres, making it the highest 'free standing' peak in the whole world! That's down to the fact there are relatively few high points surrounding it, unlike Mount Everest or other Himalayan giants. 

When you get to your first camp, feeling a little jaded from walking through the forests, you at least feel a sense of elation at arriving at the view point, but also a little bit of fear at what's still ahead of you. As you stand at 10,000ft, you know you have four more days and a further 9000ft of ascents to get through. However, as the Swahili proverb goes from all the porters and guides, just take it 'pole-pole' (slowly, slowly!)

 

Day two would take us out of the damp and beautiful cloud forest and onto a bit of a plateau above the cloud base above the savanna. It would be a relatively short hike of only 3 hours to our next camp called 'Shira' at around 13,000ft. The trail became quite exposed but with little wind, the temperature remained a comfortable 12 to 15'c, which was more or less perfect hiking temperature. We had only been hiking together for one whole day but already our group formed a close bond. It was nice to chat away and get to know one another, our jobs, previous travels and other interests. Walking a few hours a day gives you a great chance to just to chat away to folks whilst taking in the ever increasingly beautiful views. 

One of the great features you encounter when climbing Mount 'Kili' is that you cross through a multitude of ecosystems from the beginning of the hike to the summit. Our first day took us through dense cloud forest. Our second day took us into heather moorland like you see in the above picture. Then you eventually leave all vegetation behind as you encounter more barren lunar landscape, as you get closer to the summit, experiencing 'Montane' ecosystem.

 

It is to be noted that to successfully climb Mount Kili you have to give total respect to the conditions and particularly the lack of oxygen, as you get much higher. When you start at 6000ft the oxygen percentage is not that much depleted, but by the time you reach Shira Camp on day 2 at 13,000ft you are already down to 60% of the level of oxygen you breath at sea level and you feel very breathless just walking slowly. It is because you're body is struggling to produce enough red blood cells capable of running on depleted oxygen, that is sensible to take 7 days climbing Mount Kili. The next 3 days, you only walk short distances and scale another 2,000ft to allow you body to adjust for the summit attempt. Even then, dozens of people will fail to make the summit, even if they are in good shape. Altitude sickness can be fatal and is not to be messed with. If you experience faintness, pounding headaches and vomiting, chances are you have the first stages of Acute Mountain Sickness  or AMS, and you will be taken down the mountain for your own safety (and survival!)

 

The second afternoon at Shira Camp was an absolute delight when it came to late afternoon. We were spoilt for choice as to where to look for views, because we were blessed with a full moon rise behind Mount Kili itself, whilst the sun was setting simultaneously over the Shira Ridge. I experienced what I call a 'travel moment' - one of those particular vivid instances that make travel what it really should be, building mindblowing and unforgettable memories!

Seeing a full moon rise is amazing in itself, but blessed with seeing the moon plus Mount Kilimanjaro lit up all orange in the early evening was something that put a tear in my eye!

So once the sun had set over the distant Shira Ridge, the temperature quickly plummets to below zero. The nights are very long on Mount Kili, as it gets dark at around 6pm and as you are so close to the equator, it doesn't get light until 6am the following day. In those 12 hours, it's essential you keep warm as once you chill, your core temperature never rises and you shiver all night long. Around 7pm each evening we would all eat in the mess tent. I could not believe the standard of the food we were served! We got a full on three course dinner every evening, usually a soup or stew to start. We got some kind of high-carb main meal with some chicken as the main, plus some fruit desert. You have to drink plenty and re-hydrate from your day's efforts but then you also know you will have to brave the cold for a middle of the night toilet visit!

I will not dwell too much on the next three days of the hike of Mount Kili, suffice to say we circumnavigated half the mountain in our preparation for the summit, in what was fairly average conditions of cloud and a day time temperature of around 10'c. The views were not really spectacular again until we had got past the famous Lava Tower, a clump of rock a hundred feet high. Then on day 5 we climbed up the steep Baranco Wall, onto a plateau which once again gave us views of our final destination - the summit of Kilimanjaro.

This beautiful photo is taken on the morning of Day 5 at Karanga Camp, which is one camp just before the Barafu Camp where you head to the summit. You have a real sense of angst staring up to the summit, wondering whether you have what it takes to scale in the middle of the night! I marvelled at the icy glacial streaks down the flanks of the mountain, or should I say - volcano! Even though Kili is referred to most often as mountain, it is in fact a dormant volcano. However, it was last active 200 years ago, and the main cone of Kibo has not erupted for over 300,000 years. Notwithstanding this, volcanoes can re-awaken whenever they please!

 

On Day 5 you get to Barafu Camp at lunch time and have the whole afternoon at 15,000ft, in which you must try to sleep, because at midnight that same day of arrival, you will begin your final assault of the summit. We were a bit unlucky on our arrival at the final camp because heavy cloud had hit us, bringing the temperature right down, making it a damp cold. We had what we joked was the 'Last Supper' at 6pm that evening then crept back into our small tents to get some more vital rest before the final slog commenced.

 

Nothing quite prepares you for what comes next. You exit your tent at 11.30pm and head to the mess tent in icy cold conditions. We layer up in every item of clothing we possess as the temperature is down to minus 20'c! Then we walk slowly out of camp in a slow trudge, a line of weaving head torches. We had the most beautiful of nights to climb to the summit, as the moon was fairly full and lit the mountain up quite well. You could also see the entire milky way above your head, making you feel even more insignificant as you climb Africa's highest mountain.

I am very proud of the above photo as it took an extreme effort to capture it. You can see several lines of people in the shot, filing slowly up the flank of the Kili. I took this time exposure at 10 seconds long by balancing my camera on a rock and hitting the self timer. My hands went numb fiddling with the settings but it was worth it! This was taken at 2am, and we still had another 4 hours to make the summit before the dawn.

 

For me personally, the scaling of Mount Kilimanjaro was not so much about the physical effort, but about the perishing and biting cold. That is what most of all saps away at your energy. Granted the final climb is steep and you have to stop often to catch your wheezing breath, but the cold went right through your bones. At 5.30am we arrived at the infamous Stella Point. It was still dark but there was the faintest of glows on the eastern horizon to our right. The last half an hour wasn't quite as steep as you rounded a quarter of the Kibo crater to the summit.

Here I am at 6.20am on 16th August, 2011 at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, aka Uhuru Peak. The big grin on my face pretty much says it all, absolute jubilation at having conquered the beast! At 19,000ft you are only breathing 50% of the oxygen you have at sea level. Every footstep is a real effort.

I spent a total of 1 hour on the summit so I could enjoy and awesome sunrise and also wait for the rest of my group to arrive. One member of our group, Dave, suffered particularly from the altitude but we were ecstatic to see he also made it to the summit. This called for a summit photo of the whole team, including our brilliant guides, of Ronald, Florence and Eric, who'd looked after us so well during the last 5 days.

So our happy crew made in one piece and then we spent the rest of the morning making a tricky descent back down to the base camp of Barafu. The way down is actually quite precarious because you are already exhausted from climbing in the night, plus you on fairly loose scree. You get a spectacular view of the glaciers, which are very much under threat from climate change. Some estimates say they will have melted in the next ten or so years.

The glaciers are so stunning in the morning light. You could barely see them in the darkness on the way up just hours earlier. Beyond the glaciers you can appreciate why Kili is the world's tallest free standing mountain as there are no other mountains hardly near it, just miles of savanna. Back at the base camp we rested up, ate, drank, and had short sleep before we had a gruelling 10 mile long descent back to our last campsite of all at Mweka village. The incredible thing is, you descend a whopping 9000ft on your penultimate day on Kilimanjaro. It certainly takes its toll on your knees and ankles. I recall feeling a little punch drunk with tiredness when arriving at camp on day 6. 

This view on the way back down is one you'd miss during the final summit push as it was totally dark. The steepness makes it quite precarious but you are spurred on by gravity also! So I can honestly say that conquering Kilimanjaro ranks in my top 3 physical achievements of all time. I have been a little higher in Bolivia, but there is something special about Kili in that you have summited the very highest point on the continent of Africa. It's what draws most people to the region. It is not for the faint-hearted but I would recommend it to anyone who is in reasonable shape. It helps if you are already into hiking, but even if you are not, do it!

 

My next three to four days were spent doing another safari. I had a little over a week to enjoy in Tanzania before I flew home to the UK, so I decided to split that time equally between enjoying more epic wildlife, and also chilling on the beaches of Zanzibar. I signed up for a 300USD tour of 3 national parks of Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara. It was something I did a little off the cuff, without much planning, but I got lucky with the company I chose. Apologies however, as I don't recall their name! There are an abundance of companies in Arusha in which to choose safari adventures with, and it's safe to say most are pretty similar in what they offer for 3 or 4 day adventures. You get to travel invariably in a standard Toyota Land cruiser to see the wildlife.

Although I posed in this photo by the drivers seat, I didn't actually drive it, though I'd have liked to! We had a fantastic first day in Tarangire National Park, seeing some playful lions with lion cubs. We also got close to some elephants, giraffes and a whole host of antelopes.

I love this particular photo with the big daddy lion showing his cub who's boss. In addition to Tarangire, you get a whole day out in the famous Ngorongoro Crater which is a fascinating enclosed 20 mile wide crater. It gets busy with loads of other vehicles, but you get very close to the wildlife. My favourite moment was seeing a herd of wildebeest come blasting past a 7 tonne bull elephant. They looked so skinny and nimble compared to the elephant.

Our final day of safari was out at Lake Manyara, which is a giant soda lake and reminded me of Lake Nakuru back in Kenya, which I'd visited 4 weeks earlier. The highlight of Manyara was most definitely the Hippopotamus. When you see them almighty jaws of a hippo open up, it's a stark reminder that they are more lethal than lions and do kill humans from time to time! 

I must freely admit that after climbing Kilimanjaro and also doing a three day long safari straight afterwards almost brought me to my knees in exhaustion. However, I was determined to squeeze a safari in as part of my Tanzanian adventure before heading off down to the Indian Ocean. I got a 10 hour bus from Arusha down to the massive coastal city of Dar es Salaam. From here I caught a catamaran out to the island of Zanzibar where I knew I had the best ending I could wish for by the most heavenly of beaches.

I got the most majestic of sunrises as I departed Dar es Salaam and out to the gorgeous setting of Zanzibar. On arrival at the island I had a little wander around the old colonial settlement of Stone Town, where the Queen leader singer, Freddie Mercury spent his youth before moving to London. There are quaint little alleyways to explore and it's worth picking up handicrafts here before getting a bus out to the eastern shoreline. It took me a little over an hour to reach the beach side village of Jambiani in the southeast corner of the island. I can honestly say that the crisp sandy white beaches and palm tree location is about the best I have ever encountered on this planet, and I've seen plenty in my 40+ years of travelling overseas!

I had a lazy couple of days at Jambiani where I enjoyed snorkling out at sea by day, costing $10 USD for a 2 hour boat trip out to the reef. By night I'd enjoy sipping my new favourite beer, Kilimanjaro, which I had now conquered! There is little much to tell of my stay at Zanzibar, because let's face it, I was there for a relaxing end to my stay in Tanzania, but also the previous weeks of travel through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. I wouldn't like to definitely stick my neck out, but perhaps Tanzania edges the other other countries as a travel destination just because of the variety it offers. What can beat climbing Africa's mountain, experiencing quality safari and world class beaches? It's all in one country, yes, Tanzania has everything!

If you enjoyed this article then please share it with those who would appreciate it. Also please check out my great photo travel book - Eight Weeks in Africa on sale at Amazon. 

 

If you would like to see more of my photos of Tanzania then please click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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