Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest point, is a bucket list item for many travelers. Ascending the blue and white peak hovering over the African savanna is an image and goal that many aspire for- but it’s not always easy.
The Niemers are an adventurous husband and wife duo who decided to take on the challenge of hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t something for me, but my childhood friend Christina and her husband Greaham were up for the challenge! It was a strenuous and vigorous itinerary, and ended with a few days for safari. They agreed to let me interview them, so I could vicariously live through their adventure:
Alright guys, give us a quick idea of what your itinerary looked like:
Day 1– Fly from the USA to Kilimanjaro Intl. Airport. Arrive late, and get picked up by the tour group
Day 2– Meet our guide, Frankie. Leave to start the hike about 10am. Arrive at Kinapa Headquarters at the base of the mountain. Sign in and present documentation (passports/guide info) and start the hike. Hike for about 2 hours, lunch, hike another 2 hours. Arrive at Mandara Camp (elevation 2,720 meters/ 8,923 feet).
Day 3– Leave camp by 6am, hike for 6 hours, break for lunch, arrive at Horombo Camp (elevation 3,720 meters / 12,204 feet).
Day 4– Acclimatization day: Wake a bit later, get used to altitude, 3 hour round trip hike to Zebra Rocks and then back to Horombo Camp.
Day 5– Leave camp by 6am, hike for 6 hours, break for lunch, arrive at Kilo Camp (elevation 4750 meters / 15,584 feet). Usual nightly routines, but this time we went to bed very early as we had to wake at midnight and start the summit to the top! This time we slept in a hut with 20 other hikers in bunk beds.
Day 6– Wake at midnight and put warm gear on. Start the 7 hour uphill summit. About 6am we made it to the rim (Stella’s Point). Hike 1 more hour to Uhuru Peak (elevation 5,895 meters / 19,340 feet). Spend 30 minutes there, then hike down for 3 hours to get back to Kilo. Have lunch/nap, hike down to Horombo.
Day 7– Hike all the way down to the base of the mountain (7-8 hours). We signed the registry, showed proof of making it to Uhuru, and received some certificates. Took a bus to Moshi town, and had a SHOWER!
Day 8– Met our new guide for a 3 day safari. Took a jeep to Tarangire National Park.
Day 9– Ngorogoro Crater Safari, then on to a Maasai village.
Day 10– Lake Manyara Safari
Day 11– Fly home to the USA
What Kilimanjaro tour company did you go with? Would you recommend them?
We traveled with Zara Tours, and I would highly recommend them! They do a significant amount of charity work in Tanzania as well. They treat their porters and staff really well (which is not always the case), and we felt very safe with them. They set up our climb and safari, and also did hotel and airport transfers.
What led you to choose that company?
We did lots of research, and they had great reviews on Trip Advisor. We knew we made the right choice because… well, see above!
How did you physically prepare yourselves for the altitude and intense hiking?
Greaham was already in very good shape, so in the months before we left he just ran his usual 60 miles per week (7-8 miles on week-days and 10 on weekend days). I was in very poor shape prior to training. Our trip was in September, and I began preparing in March by going on long walks in a hilly park near my house- with my dog Penny of course! I wore my hiking boots and backpack with a 20lb weight in it. I did about 2 long 2-3 miles walks per week plus 2-3 days each week climbing “the steps” (an infamous set of 200 outdoor steps at a nearby park). Also, every day of the week I would do push ups, sit ups, planks, and lunges.
My family teased me because even when we went on a beach vacation that summer I brought my boots and backpack, and would walk the beach each morning. The main difference there though was that I had to use jugs of water and vodka as the weight since I had left the 20lb weight at home! 🙂
I think we were actually in very good shape by the time we got to Tanzania. The hikes were difficult (especially the last hike to the summit) but I felt strong.
We had no way to prepare for the altitude really, since we live in Kentucky and didn’t have time to travel elsewhere prior. We did take Diamox, and took this starting the day before the trip until the end of the hike. Luckily, we did not feel any altitude effects. Maybe we were a little short of breath towards the top, but I think that would be expected given how much we were exerting ourselves. Experts say that the best thing you can do is hike slow (or “pole pole” in Swahili). They also say that young men are more likely to get altitude sickness (headache, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath) because they are more likely to get competitive and want to hike faster.
It is important to take altitude seriously. Our guide told us stories of people he had taken up Kilimanjaro who got very sick when they did not listen to his advice. We saw a handful of people being evacuated off the mountain due to altitude sickness. If you get it, you are simply supposed to descend in elevation. If you do not, and you keep going higher, you can develop pulmonary edema and cerebral edema (fluid in lungs and brain) and it can be fatal. Most guides carry oxygen tanks and dexamethasone (steroid injection) in case someone needs it. Luckily, we had no problems! However, I definitely saw people much more fit than me feeling the altitude. This proves that it can also be random and some people just tolerate it better than others.
What are the most crucial or useful pieces of gear you recommend bringing?
Dry fit clothing– You want to avoid cotton. You sweat a lot and don’t want this sticking to your body and making you cold. You want something that will wick the moisture away.
Solid hiking boots with good high ankle support- You need to try them on yourself (rather than buying online). You want to be able to wear 1 thin layer of socks and 1 thick at the same time. The most important thing is to break them in well before you go, and waterproof them.
A Camelbak – You can wear this under your backpack (or there are some backpack/camelbak combos) and drink straight from the spout rather than always having to get your water bottle out.
Sun protection– A hat and sunscreen are very important. You can get snow blindness at the top, so sunglasses with UV protection are also key.
What was your favorite or most memorable part of the trip?
Definitely the last hike to the top of Kilimanjaro! We left camp at midnight, and there was a full moon. We were dressed very warmly (snow pants, down jackets, many layers, hand/feet warmers). We started out in a single file line: Frankie the guide in front of me, and Greaham behind me. There were at least one hundred other climbers in front of or behind us too (single file). We happened to be hiking to the summit when there was a full moon, and an eclipse. It was so crazy to be able to watch the moon be slowly eclipsed little by little. This hike took 7 hours, so we had plenty of time to watch. It was also completely and utterly exhausting. I literally cried tears of joy when we got the top. It was so hard, and I was so happy to have made it.
Our guide had told us prior to this hike that if you want to make it to the top, you cannot have any doubt in your mind that you will not make it. If you have any doubt, or let yourself think that you might quit, then you won’t make it. A fair amount of people truly do not make it to the top. The average success rate is 66%.
What was your least favorite part of the trip?
Having to hike 2 days downhill off the mountain. Uphill hiking might be physically demanding, but downhill is hard and painful on the body! Also we had completed this huge goal, and just wanted to celebrate. Sometimes, hiking isn’t fun (see below! 🙂 )
Do you feel that hiking the mountain allowed a different experience than one that a general visitor or tourist to Tanzania would have?
Hiking Kilimanjaro was definitely way different than doing just a safari. The mountain has different vegetation zones, and is just physically different from the rest of the country due to its elevation. For us, it was our goal to do this climb. We like to do adventurous and athletic travel, but it’s probably not for everyone.
I will say that through this experience we were able to learn a lot about the Tanzanian people and culture since we spent so much individual time with our guide Frankie and the rest of the team. There isn’t much to do besides talk when you are hiking all day and night!
What was your favorite part of the safari after the climb?
We went to Lake Manyara National Park, Ngorogoro Crater, & Tarangire National Park. My favorite part of the safari was the Crater. We stayed in a luxury tent that night in Ngorogoro Wildlife Camp.
At Ngorongoro Crater, we had our own tent. Upon check-in we were told that during daylight it was fine for us to walk around outside, but after dark we had to be escorted by a Maasai guide to the dinner tent. Soon, we found out why: I was reading a book just outside of my tent in the early evening when I heard heavy footsteps. I looked up and saw 3 giraffes headed our way! They literally came right up to our tent. I could have gone up and touched them, but I did not obviously. I sat and watched, and it was such an awesome experience to truly be in the wild. Apparently, elephants and the occasional lion sometimes venture up that way too, so that’s why we had to have a guide!
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