2006 Kilimanjaro Climb and Safari Trip Report
by Bhavesh Patel
"Niiiiiiice!", exclaimed Phil Ershler as group members introduced themselves at Gate E9 of Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, prior to boarding our KLM flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport. Indeed, Phil's comment aptly summarizes the once-in-a-lifetime, two-week trip sixteen of us undertook in late September. Through IMG's meticulous planning, superb execution by our local guides, and Phil's terrific leadership, each of us experienced an African adventure that has no parallel.
Our group consisted of a very broad spectrum of people, ranging from medical, technical and business professionals to outdoors professionals and even a honeymooning couple. Even Tammy Gorman, who runs IMG's office in Ashford WA, joined the group to gain hands-on experience of the expeditions she tirelessly plans for IMG. Yes, she was also kind enough to give us some "insider information" on Phil! Despite the diversity of our group, every one was great to get along with - so much so, that this trip definitely served as a foundation upon which many new friendships have been built.
After an uneventful flight, we landed and were driven to the comfortable Keys Hotel in Moshi, where we got the first of many samplings of great Tanzanian hospitality amid greetings of "Jambo! Karibu!" (Swahili for Hello! Welcome!). The next day provided recovery and preparation time for the group. Sipping various libations, including the local Kilimanjaro-branded beer, we were briefed by Phil on various aspects of the climb, including route, logistics and gear. A briefing was also provided by the local representative of the Porter Assistance Program, a project that IMG supports to assist the local Chagga porters. During the course of the day, Kilimanjaro's summit would make itself visible from behind its veil of clouds and elicit "Wow's" as excitement continued to build within our group.
The adventure started in earnest the next day with a drive to the Machame Gate, where we would start our 7-day, 40 mile round-trip trek. We were introduced to our Chagga guides and porters, who were collectively led by Eric Massawe and his two trusted assistants Reggie and Thomas. One of the main highlights of the climb was the wonderful interaction we all had with Eric and his team. They were eternally courteous, immensely helpful and totally indispensable towards the successful completion of our climb.
The first day's hike started in a lush rainforest. A steady drizzle had us trudging through the muddy and wet trail, but as Phil said, "that is why it is called a rainforest!" By the time we arrived at our first camp, Machame Hut, the porters had already set up our tents and soon had us in the mess tent drinking hot drinks and munching away on popcorn and peanuts. Throughout the course of the climb, the Chagga cooks did a phenomenal job of feeding us with some very delicious food. Our routine for the next few days was similar - we would enjoy these gastronomic delights while engaging each other in stimulating conversations.
Next day, as we climbed up to our camp on the Shira Plateau at 12,200 ft, views of Kilimanjaro's central summit cone, Kibo, started to open up. At camp, we observed the sun set behind a sea of cloud while Kilimanjaro basked in alpenglow.
After a cumulative elevation gain of over 6,000 ft during the first two days, we gained only 600 ft in altitude over the next two days as we first made our way to Barranco Camp and then to Karanga Valley Camp. While the altitude gain may seem meager, the route actually took us up to almost 15,000 ft before descending to the two camps on each day. This time-proven "climb-high, sleep-low" climbing philosophy greatly aided our team's acclimatization.
Barranco Camp has got to be the one of the most scenic high-altitude camps I have ever seen. Nestled within imposing rock faces on three sides, the campsite offered a stunning above-the-cloud view to the south. The lobelia and senecio added a somewhat soothing contrast to the stark rock walls. Of great importance to us was the Barranco wall, which we scrambled up the next day on our way to Karanga valley.
Our mission for Day 5 was to get up to high camp called Barafu (Swahili for "ice") at 15,000 ft - a short but steep 3 mile hike. By early afternoon, we were at Barafu and started preparing for summit day, while apprehensively looking up the rather steep and rocky trail leading out of camp and up towards the summit.
After a few sleepless hours, some chocolate and hot drinks, we set off for the summit around midnight. It was a clear, crisp night and the summit loomed in front of us against a backdrop of a plethora of stars - truly a sight to behold. The air was thin and cold and the terrain was steep, but Eric set a slow and steady pace up the countless switchbacks. We would climb for 60-90 minutes and then stop to rest, eat and drink a little bit. The high altitude started to affect a few of us, but the group as a whole stayed strong thanks to the assistance and cajoling of Phil, Eric and the Chagga climbers.
And what a reward we got for our perseverance! We reached Stella Point, just as the sun was rising over the horizon. It was a surreal moment. Energized by the rapidly rising sun, we congratulated each other and embarked on the walk along the crater rim to the true summit, Uhuru Peak. About 45 minutes later, we were on the roof of Africa! After the mandatory summit shots, we feasted our eyes on the sweeping panoramic views of the summit crater and glaciers. Then, it was time to head back to Stella Point and continue our descent to Barafu.
The descent portion of the climb was a blur! Taking the Mweka route, which is different from the Machame route we took during the ascent, the group made a very speedy descent back to Barafu where we arrived by late morning. After an hour or so to rest, pack up, and eat, we were off again to continue the descent down to Mweka Camp, with a brief stop along the way to sip Kilimanjaro beer and Coca-Cola in celebration. It was a long, tiring but extremely satisfying summit day - in about 16 hours, we had done 12 miles and over 12,000 ft of elevation change. On the last day of the trek, we descended from Mweka Camp to Mweka gate and signed out. Phil and Eric conducted a tip ceremony where they paid and tipped each porter. That memorable ceremony was concluded by a singing of "Kilimanjaro". We reluctantly bade farewell to our awesome Chagga porters and drove back to the hotel for much-needed showers, beers and celebration.
Twenty-four hours after leaving Mweka gate, it was time to start the second adventure of the trip the safari! It was an adventure that had the same amount of enjoyment and excitement as the Kilimanjaro climb, but required infinitely less effort and energy! We flew in two small planes to Serengeti National Park, where we commenced the first of many "game drives" in three 4-wheel-drive vehicles.
Within minutes, cameras were clicking away as we started getting "up-close" views of a wide variety of animals including lions, leopards, zebra, giraffes and elephants in their natural surroundings. Our hotel for the night was quite luxurious and set on a hill overlooking the plains. In fact, so natural were the surroundings that, after dinner, we had to be escorted back to our individual rooms by armed guard because wild animals are known to enter the unfenced hotel grounds!
The next day, we continued our game drive through Serengeti and saw more lions, cheetah and hippo. In one instance, a female lion and her cubs were less than 30 feet away from our vehicles - it was truly astounding. By the end of the day, we had arrived at the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater which has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife, a fact we observed with our own eyes the next day. A massive herd of baboons crossed the road in front of us in single file. Shortly thereafter, we saw an elephant carcass being devoured by a swarm of vultures and hyena. But, the best viewing of the day for us was a lion and his pride napping next to a wildebeest that they apparently had just feasted on. It was such an adrenalin rush to see them by the roadside and within a few feet of us!
After lunch by a small, scenic lake that contained a herd of hippo, we began our drive to Tarangire National Park. During dinner at the hotel that evening, Phil and the group surprised the honeymoon couple (yours truly and his wife) with a "Kilimanjaro" cake, a memory the couple will cherish forever. In addition to being tasty, the cake was shaped like Kilimanjaro, had a dark texture to represent the natural features of Kili, and also had white frosting to represent the snow and ice! Thanks gang!
Next morning, sadly the last day of our adventure, we set off in our vehicles to exit Tarangire and head back to Arusha to catch the flight back. As each of us was immersed in our recollections of the amazing trip, someone yelled "herd of gazelles at 10 o'clock", followed a few seconds later by "cheetah at 9 o'clock!" In the following minutes, we witnessed the natural spectacle of a female cheetah teaching her three cubs how to hunt - all in front of, and within close proximity of our vehicles. Yes, you may have seen such a thing on Discovery Channel, but how many people get it see it with their own eyes, in real-time and within a stone's throw distance? What a way to end the safari!
Throughout our safari, the encyclopedic knowledge of our driver-guides never ceased to amaze me. In addition, they had the uncanny ability to spot wildlife at long ranges. In just three days of safari, we were fortunate to see all the Big Five animals (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, rhino) as well as a wide variety of other animals such as cheetah, rhino, giraffe, ostrich, zebra and gazelle living in their natural surroundings and engaging in their natural activities.
As we headed back home, each of us had our minds overflowing to the brim with great memories of our experiences, and our cameras overflowing with amazing pictures to document those experiences. A good trip/climb/safari, in my mind, has four critical ingredients: meticulous planning and execution; great location and experience; effective leadership and teaching; and a great group of people. IMG delivered on all counts to make this one of the best trips I have ever taken.
A sincere "Asante Sana" (Swahili for "Thank You") to IMG, Phil, Tammy, local guides and the rest of our group!