Sunday, 6 January 2013

Kili 1 - Machame Gate to Machame Hut

In February of 2010 my daughter Lyndsey and I climbed Kilimanjaro – the highest walkable mountain in the world – and we made it to the top.

How do you write a travelogue without trying to ape Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Ernest Hemingway  – or any old hack from any old out-door adventure magazine? I don’t know - but perhaps while the whole trip is themed – walking up what is arguably the most spectacular mountain in the world, each day has its own special place within the whole. And as those great European travellers of the Victorian era; Speke, Burton, Baines, Chapman, Geddes, Livingstone, Stanley and those that recorded their exploits would have done, each chapter would, aside from a dry tabloid headline, have a brief resume of the contents to come, an “executive summary”, a “spoiler”; but of course it never is because it is meant to whet the appetite, and does so. The format goes something along the lines of –

Chapter 23 – From Mburru Mburru to a fast flowing River
In which Carruthers gets the squiggles, we lose half our Porters, sugar runs out, young Rodgers sees off hungry Male Lion with sharpened teaspoon, I get caught in man trap and have to self-amputate arm, finally set up advance camp, Jimbo tells damn funny story.

Stirring stuff, and that’s how it should be!

Day 0 – Getting There (600m)
The last cup of coffee. I see the mountain for the first time.

O.R. Tambo International Airport to Nairobi is a three and a half hour flight. The Nairobi stop-over is two or so hours and is only relieved by excellent but expensive coffee served at a cafe at the end of a seemingly endless circular shopping corridor. The duty free shops offer nothing of particular interest and could be anywhere. There are the obligatory copies of the Herald Tribune and the London Times. There is Whisky galore, there are tee shirts with vaguely East African designs, and there are lap-top computers priced in dollars that are significantly more expensive than those sold at home. Little am I to know that this is the last decent coffee I will get for some time. I should have had three cups instead of two – mind you at three US dollars a cup . . . .

The flight to Kilimajaro International Airport is aboard a Precision Air turbo prop which flies at a ceiling of 18,000 feet for the 50 minute flight. The pilot observes that Kilimanjaro will be seen to the left of the plane as we approach the Airport. Kilimanjaro is 5,895m high. This equates to 19,330 feet or there abouts; so the plane is actually flying lower than the mountain.

And there it is towering above the clouds, higher than we are flying, and it is magnificent, and I have committed to climb it, and I suddenly feel butterflies in my stomach.

Kilimanjaro an aerial photo
from below the peak.
The slopes are whiter than I had imagined they would be. It is vast beyond human scale. I am speechless and just a little scared. I take photographs but like all the subsequent photographs I take they do not do justice to the real thing.

Day 1 - Machame Gate to Machame Hut (3,000m)
We walk “Pole Pole”, have a picnic, get popcorn and are treated to plastic flower arrangements.

Having signed in at the Machame Gate we forgather – or rather the porters, cooks, bottle washers and other not-so supernumeraries forgather. There are two groups under the wing of Zara – the Outfitter. Lyndsey and I constitute one; and the other is 7 strong. We have two head guides between us.

Cloud Forest
Felix is our guide. He is old – one year older than me. Moody is the other guide – a stripling at thirty something. Felix and Moody assemble the porters, cooks and assistant guides into a military column. There must be over forty of these guys! What are they all doing there?

We set off at a snails pace. The watchword is Pole Pole, which is KiSwahili for “slowly”, because if you go any faster you will ultimately die. This advice we take at face value and comply, but it is very frustrating. I look back and already Felix is lagging far behind and I wonder if he is really up for this. Not only is he wearing the worst pair of surfing pants I've seen in a long time he is already walking at a sub-pole pole pace. Will he make it, or will we have to carry him back to base and swop him for a younger and fitter version?

The initial vehicle track soon deteriorates into a walking trail, and then to a series of steps. We walk through forests which should be dank and dark but are not. The canopy is high. Tree Trunks are embraced and festooned with moss. The air is cool and soupy. The vegetation is lush and familiar with ferns, restios and plectranthus.

We had been given lunch boxes at the start of this walk. White cardboard boxes that had expectations of carefully manicured and crust-less white bread sandwiches, iced cupcakes, juice cartons, party hats and those whistley things that you blow and they squawk as they shoot out in other peoples faces. The essence of all the above were there – boiled egg, meat filled bread roll, juice carton – but regrettably nothing as frivolous as a party hat. We browsed on this picnic while seated in a clearing on our as yet untested poncho’s. Some of our party ventured into the deeply foliated interior for toilet purposes and returned ashen faced with tales of signs of earlier visitors - a common theme throughout this trip.

At one point we glimpsed a distant waterfall, and it was here that I realized that we were in fact walking up a ridge with steep sides disguised by thick vegetation, and suddenly we broke through from the forest into sparser vegetation with no canopy, and within half an hour had arrived at Machame Hut.

Our tents have been set up and we are invited to partake of tea, coffee and popcorn. The popcorn is piled on an aluminium platter and tastefully decorated with chocolate cream biscuits. It is all covered with clingfilm. Lynds and I sit in palatial isolation in a battered mess tent set for two eating popcorn and drinking the worst instant coffee ever designed by man – this in a country that grows the stuff. Lynds suggests that it is silly to be sitting here like this and we should surely join the others. I think that this is a tad forward – she says don’t be stupid – and so do the others, and from then on we are a group of 9 rather than two groups of 2 and 7.

Supper consists of soup and chicken pieces. It is served on a table covered with a blue tablecloth lit by two candle stubs set in hollowed out sweet potato halves  and adorned at either end with a fetching bunch of plastic flowers. In the middle is a lonely battery operated fibre-optic spray centre-piece.  110% for presentation effort from our guides, cook and porters – but why?

Camp 1 Machame Hut. The blue tent to the right
 is a mess tent for two. The one on the left is a
mess tent for 7, now 9.
Next Day 


  1. Ha! I've also climbed Kilimanjaro! I think this is even the same route! Rongai correct?
    Here is my blog post my my own experience:

  2. No Anthea we used the Machame route. I looked at you account by the way and it seems like you had very similar experiences, but you said very little about Sibusiso Vilane. Tell us more!


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