Hiking Kilimanjaro Day 1: Machame Gate to Machame Camp

I was anxious, but felt ready.

We said good-bye to the Karama Lodge staff in Arusha where Scott and I have been staying for two nights. Christopher came in the night before during the England-Germany World Cup game and made our hiking trio complete. It took a year to plan this. I invited about ten people, but unfortunately, they dropped off one by one as the date got closer. I couldn’t have asked for more mature travel partners than Scott and Christopher. (I didn’t say old!) For three people to meet in Tanzania and share amenities when they have never traveled together before and still get along afterwards is a stunning feat in itself. Hiking the highest free-standing mountain in Africa (and in the world! Thanks, Scott!) and making it to Kibo’s summit was just icing on the cake. The others missed an unforgettable trip.

We were in a small Tropical Trails bus to Moshi with our main guide, Samuel, and the rest of our wagumu, our porters, or “strong men” in Swahili: Majengo, Peter M, Nicodemus and our assistant guide, Godibless. A second but shorter Peter will meet us at Machame Gate with Anton, Komoyi and Puzizi, making our six-day group a total of twelve. (Every time we met up with the porters during our trek, I cheered Puzizi! I loved saying that name!)

After a two-hour ride with a stop at the butcher for meat, we arrived at the starting point of our route. There were several hiking groups already there, most we’ll recognize and greet throughout our ascent. Locals waited outside the gate for last-minutes shoppers. They sold gaiters, ponchos and hats. Scott managed to get used hiking poles for $15!

We registered with our names and passport numbers and waited for our guides to weigh all our gear. Hiking in Kilimanjaro requires a licensed guide, and everything you carry and weigh in, you must carry and weigh out including garbage. Contrary to popular knowledge, Kilimanjaro is made up of three peaks: Kibo, Meru and Shira, the first being the most popular and thus referred to as the Kilimanjaro. (For the purpose of accuracy, I mention Kibo in all my posts and photo captions when referring to the summit itself and Kilimanjaro for the entire national park.)

We left the gate and started our hike at 12:30pm through Machame’s lush rain forest. Godibless hiked with us while Samuel stayed behind to make sure the porters had everything in order. For the next six days, we’d either hike with Samuel or Godibless, or both would flank the three of us on the trail. I imagine it was for a case when someone has to descent–the other guide can stay with whoever still feels good about continuing to the summit. This way, if one got sick, the rest of the group may continue.

Vegetation gradually changed as we ascended and because we were exerting effort, we had peeled our layers off down to a shirt. It would get cool again whenever we stopped for a break and a long-sleeved left around my neck would go back on. We took one long stop to eat the lunch that Majengo, our cook, had packed for us. We learned our first useful Swahili word: pole-pole, pronounced poh-lay poh-lay, which means “slow down”. Every few hours, Godibless reminded us to pole-pole; to conserve our energy and take our time.

He also cheered us on and complimented us on our progress. We later learned that he was basically assessing if we will make the summit five days later. To keep our minds off the hike itself, he taught us what other guides teach their tour group: the Jambo song. We never memorized it completely and by the end of our trip, Scott and I were making up the lyrics. But it went a little something like this:

Jambo
Jambo, Bwana
Habara Gani
Mzuri Sana
Wageni, Mwakaribishwa
Kilimanjaro
Hakuna Matata

which roughly translated to:

Hello, how are you?
Very fine
You’re all welcome here
You can climb Kilimanjaro
There are no worries

and I was told that “you” referred to the white people, or in today’s parlance, the foreigners.

As we gained 4,954 feet in altitude, our surroundings turned to Tim Burton-inspired trees covered in moss, hardier ferns and yellow flowers. I was out of breath during the higher hills, but I was amazed how strong my legs felt: the past year I spent swimming alone and working out with a trainer has paid off.

We checked in Machame Camp at 5pm after eleven miles of hiking just in time for Holland to score the first goal of three against Slovakia. Our tents were not yet set up because the porters got held up at the gate. It was the coldest I would feel throughout the entire trek because all my warm clothing was still inside my bigger backpack with the porters. We tried to stay warm inside the park ranger’s cabin while we entertained ourselves by checking out the log book for the youngest (13 years) to the oldest (71 years) hiker in the same camp.

We were given a small basin of hot water each to wash up. They would end up brightening my day for the rest of the week because after several hours of hiking–and then several days without showering–washing our hands and faces was a big thing to look forward to. When the mess tent was set up, we sat inside to eat our first tea and popcorn of the week. I would never think of the combination and I rarely eat popcorn, but they always warmed us up before dinner. Our first meal was cucumber soup with some spring onions, boiled potatoes and a mix of vegetables in tomato sauce, plus battered and fried tilapia. Carrots, cauliflowers and bell peppers would appear on our plates every night that I started referring to them as quasi-mirepoix just to give the repetitiveness some class. Majengo tried to be very creative and I did not look forward to anything else but his meals at lunch and at the end of each day.

I lost my sense of time while I was in Kilimanjaro. We would retreat to our tents (Scott and Christopher shared, while I had my own!) as soon as it got dark which was probably 8 or 8:30pm. For the first couple of days, because of jet lag, I would wake up in the middle of the night to relieve myself thinking it was almost dawn. (I am now an expert in peeing in the woods because it was too much effort to walk to the outhouse.) There were times when the moon was so bright that I would think it was already morning, only to step out of my tent completely dressed up for breakfast that I would realize the stars were still out. How much longer until 7am? I caught my first glimpse of Kibo’s snow-capped peak the first night. I remember thinking, I should ask which mountain that is because I couldn’t believe that it was already visible from our first camp. Those were my solitude hours when I wrote in my journal and reflected on the day that just past. It was just me, my pen and my headlamp; they were also the loneliest hours of the trip.

Day 1: Machame Gate (4,888 feet) to Machame Camp (9,842 feet)
Altitude gain: 4,954 feet
Miles: 11
Time: about 5 hours from ~12pm to 5pm

Related post/s:
Hiking Kilimanjaro: Machame Gate to Machame Camp photos