What you need to know to get to the top of Africa’s high­est moun­tain — and back down again


Stand­ing on top of Mount Kil­i­man­jaro, Africa’s high­est moun­tain, was one of the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing and re­ward­ing mo­ments of my life. The hours be­fore that were some of the weird­est. “Sum­mit day” ac­tu­ally starts about 11pm the night be­fore. That’s when you wake up, put on up to six lay­ers of cloth­ing (I had on two ther­mal tops, two jumpers, a down jacket and a hik­ing jacket) and try to eat a meal that can only loosely be termed break­fast be­fore em­bark­ing on the last sec­tion of the climb with the aim of mak­ing it to the top for sun­rise.

I switched on my head lamp and stepped out of the tent just af­ter mid­night, fol­low­ing my guide, Re­spick, as I had the past five days, and we joined the end of what looked like a line of fire­flies dis­ap­pear­ing up into the black­ness.

As a two-man group we soon found our­selves at the front of the line. Then for the next six hours or so I walked in dark­ness in be­low-zero tem­per­a­tures on a never-end­ing up­hill slope, see­ing noth­ing but the small patch of ground in front of me il­lu­mi­nated by my torch­light and hear­ing lit­tle but reg­u­lar calls of “pole, pole” (pro­nounced po-lay and mean­ing “slowly, slowly” in Swahili), the mantra of the moun­tain guides. Climb­ing too fast can bring on al­ti­tude sick­ness and climb­ing slowly doesn’t al­ways pre­vent it, es­pe­cially at this stage when you are above 4000m.

Fa­tigue is an­other se­ri­ous risk – the sum­mit is more than 1.5km higher than the fi­nal camp­site and you are op­er­at­ing on a few hours’ sleep; some hik­ers ac­tu­ally fall asleep as they walk.

The big­gest chal­lenge for me was psy­cho­log­i­cal. With no ref­er­ence point it feels like you are walk­ing in cir­cles. Over six hours the only men­tal stim­u­la­tion came from a light­ning storm over the town of Moshi, a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence with the van­tage point a few kilo­me­tres above the clouds. Ar­riv­ing at Stella Point just as the pre-dawn sky started to il­lu­mi­nate the land­scape is breath­tak­ing (lit­er­ally, since ev­ery­one is short of breath at 5756m above sea level). Above all, it’s a mas­sive re­lief and some­thing of a sur­prise to see ex­actly where you are: on a nar­row ridge that rings a gi­ant snow-cov­ered crater at the top of an an­cient vol­cano en­veloped in cloud.

The fi­nal sec­tion of the walk from here to the sum­mit at Uhuru Peak (5895m) is a (rel­a­tively) gen­tle stroll around the crater rim, pass­ing spec­tac­u­lar, if shrink­ing, glaciers en route to one of the world’s most pho­tographed wooden signs mark­ing the high­est point on the con­ti­nent.

Then you have to get back down.


If you’ve ever wanted to tick off one of the fa­bled Seven Sum­mits but don’t have the time, fit­ness or courage to in­vest in be­com­ing an ex­pert ice­climber, Mt Kil­i­man­jaro is for you. You can, quite lit­er­ally, walk all the way to the top (although there are some tricky bits). The big­gest chal­lenge is the al­ti­tude and fit­ness re­quired to walk up­hill for up to a week. Here’s what you need to know.


Mt Kil­i­man­jaro is in Tan­za­nia, East Africa. You can’t climb it with­out a guide and most vis­i­tors join a party sup­ported by a team that in­cludes cooks and porters. When you ar­rive at camp each day, your tent is set up wait­ing for you along with a hot cup of tea and a bowl of pop­corn.

The real he­roes of the moun­tain are the car­a­vans of porters cart­ing as­sorted items of heavy camp­ing equip­ment on their head. Most don’t speak much English so it pays to know some ba­sic Swahili like jambo (hello), habare (how are you), ah santé (thank you), karibu (you’re wel­come) and of course hakuna matata (no wor­ries).

Each mem­ber of your party will ex­pect a tip and I’d ad­vise you fig­ure out how much be­fore you start, and carry the cor­rect de­nom­i­na­tions of US dol­lars. This will avoid a lot of has­sles at the end of the trip.


There are seven main routes up the moun­tain and the one you pick will de­pend on how much time you have, how much you want to see and how much you want to spend.

Dif­fer­ent guid­ing com­pa­nies of­fer dif­fer­ent routes rang­ing from the five­day Marangu route to the Le­mosho route, which takes eight days to com­plete (six days of climb­ing and two to de­scend). There are pros and cons of ev­ery route but the longer you spend on the moun­tain the bet­ter your body will ad­just to the ef­fects of al­ti­tude. And you’ll see more of the in­cred­i­ble and sur­pris­ingly var­ied land­scape. Kil­i­man­jaro­routes.com is a good place to start.


All climbers – re­gard­less of age, fit­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence – can fall vic­tim to al­ti­tude sick­ness if their body does not ad­just to thin­ner air which re­sults in less oxy­gen reach­ing tis­sues of the body. Most climbers on Kil­i­man­jaro ex­pe­ri­ence some mi­nor symp­toms like headaches and vom­it­ing. In se­vere cases fluid can build up in the lungs, brain or both, caus­ing se­vere ill­ness and even death.

The only way to avoid al­ti­tude sick­ness is to give your body time to ac­cli­ma­tise. Spend a few days in Tan­za­nia be­fore start­ing the climb, take a longer route – pole, pole! – and lis­ten to your guide.

The only cure is to de­scend.


Do your re­search: speak to ex­pert travel agents (like Out­door Travel in Mel­bourne’s Lit­tle Bourke St), seek out ex­pe­ri­enced climbers and read re­views. I climbed with Ah­sante Tours and highly rec­om­mend them.

The tour com­pany will let you know what cloth­ing and equip­ment to bring and what is pro­vided. AHSANTETOURS.COM


If you’re fly­ing all the way to Africa, why not spend a bit of time ex­plor­ing. Arusha and Tarangire na­tional parks and the mighty Serengeti are all within a day’s drive – sign up for a short (or long) sa­fari to wind down af­ter the climb.

Kil­i­man­jaro tour com­pa­nies of­ten run sa­faris as well or can re­fer you to some­one who does.


Fly from Mel­bourne or Syd­ney to Dubai, then straight to Kil­i­man­jaro In­ter­na­tional Air­port. From here it’s a short drive to the towns of Arusha and Moshi, which serve as the base for Kili trips. Or you can get a bus there from Nairobi, the cap­i­tal of Kenya.


Af­ter hik­ing for hours in the dark, the il­lu­mi­nat­ing pre-dawn sky is a mas­sive re­lief (above); and the wooden signs mark­ing the high­est point on the African con­ti­nent (be­low).

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