Climbing Kilimanjaro – With a Headache

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Not tonight dear. I have a headache!

I was talking to myself. Always a sign of madness. But my thoughts and sentiments were aimed well and truly at Kilimanjaro’s snow covered Kibo peak.

‘She’ looked so close from where I lay prone on the floor of my tent in the pre summit Barafu camp.   Close enough to quickly bound from my sleeping bag, sprint up for a photo on the 5895 meter high summit, and then be back in time for hot chocolate and an invigorating bout of pushups before an evening of a celebratory yodeling.  Yeah right! As if!


The summit of Africa was a mere 850 meters above the camp, but because I was suffering from altitude sickness, it may as well have been a million miles away.

Acute Mountain Sickness (for those of you who don’t know what its like) is like the mother of all hangovers.

Your body assumes it has done several rounds with an overly enthusiastic blood donor machine. Your breathing is labored. You feel nauseous. You lose your appetite and you stop being chatty and happy and bodacious.

There’s not enough oxygen in the air up there for a normal slobish body like mine, and as such, I was feeling absolutely shit.


Not tonight dear indeed I said one last time before nodding off into a dog-tired sleep  Not tonight or any other night.

Kilimanjaro had killed my resolve.

“But its not your fault,” said Mary Kariuke, my lady mountain guide on the morning of what was supposed to be our push to the summit.

Her voice was soft and sympathetic, like that of a daycare nurse talking to an incontinent patient.

“Altitude sickness happens to the best of us,” she told me as we slowly walked down through Kili’s alpine desert region; a strata above 5000 meters where the only living things are lichens and tourists.

The billowing tops of great grey nimbus clouds could be seen below us, out of which rose the conical shape of Kili’s beautiful neighbor; the stunning Mount Meru.

“ It does not discriminate,” she continued. “You can be fit or fat or young or old and it can still get you. The only way to be sure is to spend time at high altitudes in advance.”

According to some of the guides I met, only about 50% of the twenty or more thousand sightseers who attempt the summit each year actually make it.  The rest end up like me.  Flaccid, floppy, and feeling forlorn



OK, I had failed to summit Kili, but I wasn’t going to let that spoil my experience.

The hike, which varies from 6 to 10 days depending on which of the six routes you choose, is fantastic all by itself .

On the Machame Route (which is one of the most popular paths because of the scenery) one kicks off the climb in the most lush and verdant forests imaginable; an exuberant environment made of evergreen giants rising out of an omnipresent ethereal mist.

More than 600 bird species have been recorded on Kilimanjaro, many of which reside in the forested canopy, but  it takes a keen eye to see them up there amongst the foliage and draping mosses.  I certainly heard them though.

Its generally wet and rainy on the lower slopes, and the hiking can be muddy. But the sights sounds and smells of such a vibrant ecology eclipse any discomfort you may feel from the inclement weather and the thousands of steep and slippery steps you must climb.


Epiphytical ferns and mosses are abundant as are Colobus and blue monkeys and touracos and large glossy ravens.

I found the forests both enchanting and surprising, simply because I wasn’t expecting to encounter such jungle like environs. After all, very few people associate Kilimanjaro with forests, so focused are they on the snow covered peak.

When the forest comes to an abrupt end (at around 3000 meters) a delightful heath like moorland takes its place, and for the first time on the hike, the rocky summit can be seen in all its snow clad glory.

Dew covered thistles and flowers cluster around tall heather like plants, the majority of which are festooned in bright green old man’s beard (a wispy type of lichen)

There are big beautiful protea flowers and pretty little sunbirds feasting from them, and as one goes higher still, giant groundsels begin to dominate the landscape.

These bizarre, and very large, cabbage like plants stand aloft and alone on thick spongy stems

“Its like its wearing a jacket,” said Mary as I collapsed in a heap beneath one. “The insulation stops them freezing when the temperatures plummet.”



Between 4000 and 5000 meters lies the inhospitable alpine desert; a waterless Luna landscape that, until one inspects it closely (such as when one is down on hands and knees retching) appears completely bereft of life.

Lichens cling to some of the rocks, and scraggly tussocks shelter in various nooks and crannies, but other than that, the only apparent life up there are the hundreds of exhausted humans who shuffle along the open paths like a chain gang.

Hungry eyed ravens can also sometimes be seen up here; circling above the weakest hikers with vulture like intent.

Again, any altitude induced unpleasantness (and it can be quite severe at these heights) is eclipsed by the magnificence of the landscapes through which one crawls.

The higher reaches are reminiscent of some of the more barren areas I’ve seen in Namibia, and one truly feels that humans have no business being here.

Mind you, if the Alpine desert seems harsh, its got nothing on the next environment up.

The ‘Equatorial Arctic’ zone is just as its name implies.

Glaciers and snow and ice and sleet and bare rock and cold toes set the theme for a location where one should aim to spend as little time as possible.

It would have been nice to reach the top of this icy landscape and touch Africa’s sky, but on reflection, it didn’t really matter that I wasn’t able to summit.

As I slogged my way back down her flanks, I looked back up at Kibo peak one last time just as a great lump of ice and rock came crashing down.

“Its melting,” said Mary sadly. “Global warming. And when the snow and ice has gone, which will be soon, there will be no more permanent snow in the whole of Africa. That’s very sad don’t you think?”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

And so, although I had failed to reach the top, I made a promise to myself there and then to return when next I could, and try once more to reach the icy roof of Africa before its gone forever.


Bolster your chances

Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain on earth and is also the highest mountain one can simply walk up without the need to use technical equipment.

However, its no walk in the park.

One can improve ones chances of reaching the top in several ways

  • Acclimatize yourself at altitude before attempting the hike. Try not to go straight from sea level to Kilimanjaro. If you can spend at least a few days in advance at higher elevations then your body will be better able to cope.
  • Consider taking Altitude sickness medicines such as Diamox.

Talk to your doctor and do some research on the internet before making a decision.  I believe I would have had a much easier time of it had I taken an altitude sickness prophylactic.

  • Kit yourself out accordingly and bring plenty of good warm and waterproof clothing. Being cold and wet up there is not only dangerous but will sap vital energy. Do not skimp on a sleeping bag.
  • Drink loads and loads of water. Evaporation and hence dehydration are accelerated at altitude.
  • Eat Carbs and lots of calories. Sports bars are good.
  • Walk slowly. Its amazing how far you can actually travel when moving at a snails pace, so don’t try to compete with yourself or anyone else.



There are six official trails to choose from, but bear in mind that due to the effects of altitude on the human body, its probably wise to choose a longer rather than shorter trail. The more nights spent on the mountain, the higher your success chances will be.

  • The Marangu Route (5 or 6 days 64km) is the oldest of the trails. This is the only trail where one stays in dormitory huts and not in tents. An option to spend an additional night acclimatizing should be considered. Still, the short duration makes for a difficult summit attempt.
  • The Machame Route (6 or 7 days 49km) is not the easiest due to several ups and downs along the way, but these actually do help your body to acclimatize.

Machame has a higher summit success rate than the other trails. Its also one of the most scenically spectacular with the descent taking a different path from the climb up. It can be extremely crowded though

  • The Rongai Route is the only trail that goes up Kili’s Northern flanks. Its not particularly scenic and because its relatively flat on the approach, the summit attempt is very hard.

There are far fewer tourists on this route so one does enjoy a certain feeling of wilderness.

  • The Shira or Lemosho Route (7 or 8 days 56km) joins up with the Machame route on day 4 and has a pretty good summit success rate. Its also a very beautiful hike.
  • The Umbwe Route (5 or 6 days 37 km) is the least popular due to the short duration and lower summit success rate. It is by far the most remote and quite trail though but should only be considered by experienced climbers.
  • The Northern Circuit (8 or 9 days 90km) is a newish route and has a good summit success rate due to the amount of time you spend at altitude. Due to its length, you get to see a lot of Kilimanjaro from some very spectacular viewpoints. Its also a very quite trail but that is likely to change in the future.



There are more than  200 operators on the mountain and many of them are cowboys.

Porter abuse, dangerous practices, unqualified guides, bad equipment and zero first aid knowledge could easily turn a dream holiday into an absolute nightmare.

Don’t go for the cheapest. Just DON’T!

A good company will have plenty of porters and camp staff for the journey (At least two per climber, preferably more). Guides should be first aid trained. Ask about the quality of the tents used as well as what the meals will consist of.

Research and cross reference any company you are contemplating travelling with.


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