It’s June 2016 and we are about to embark in one of the most exciting and life changing trips of our lives.
My cousin Marta is organizing a trip to Africa together with eight friends from business school. Knowing how adventurous I am, she asked me to join – who could say no to a plan like this?
- A seven day climb up Mount Kilimanjaro
- Relax for a few days in Zanzibar after the climb
- Fly from Zanzibar to Rwanda – visit the city and do a gorilla trekking tour
- Fly from Rwanda to Kenya and do a game drive for 3 days to make pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro
- (Optional) – visit the deserts of Namibia
A trip like this requires a lot of organizational preparation. For Tanzania we were glad we could count on the support of a great company called Serengeti Pride Safaris. They are an approved partner for responsible travel with the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC) which was important for us because their porters are treated better than in other places. Erika Bloom was our contact in the US who would tell us everything we needed to know to prepare in advance for the trip that was about to get started.
First we decided to do the most popular (and easiest) route to climb the Mount Kilimanjaro: the Machame Route with an extra day for acclimatization. I will get back to this later but this is something we actually really needed!
Erika informed us about: visa requirements, equipment, expenses and physical preparation. I won’t be disclosing everything within this post as it might take you too long to read but to give you a little glimpse:
- Applying for a visa in advance might be the best option or you may get one upon arrival at the airport of Tanzania – please watch out for the most updated information regarding the visa (see here for US). If I remember correctly, US citizens have to pay $100 to entry the country while EU citizens are lucky enough to pay only $50. You will also need to apply in advance for a visa for Rwanda.
- You can rent a lot of equipment from the tour provider. If you choose to take your own sleeping bag, make sure it can hold up comfortably with temperatures around -10°C / -20°C! A solar charger might be a good accesory to take with you along the trip too.
- Take US Dollars ($) with you as Euros (€) won’t be accepted in most of the places.
- Yellow fever vaccination – as we were travelling later to Rwanda and Kenya a yellow fever vaccination is a must. Otherwise you won’t be allowed to enter those countries. Make sure to take your vaccination pass (yes the yellow one) with you.
- AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness is when your body doesn’t hold up with the height you are climbing. Even the best prepared runner can get it. You can prepare yourself a bit by climbing some mountains in your area beforehand. Listen to your body.
- Malaria: I took a drug called Malarone during the whole trip. Most health insurances in Germany will reimburse you for the cost of it. Make sure to make an appointment with your physician prior to the trip (at least 3 weeks).
- One thing to be aware of is that we were offered to take Diamox to prevent the onset of symptoms of AMS. 50% of us took it (not me) but we all made it up to the top!
- The only hotel we booked was the one in Zanzibar – we used booking.com. Our other accommodations were either part of the tours we booked or we stayed with friends.
- For our flights we used expedia.com and skyscanner.de
- Some people in our group took a game drive in the Serengeti (Tanzania) and Amboseli (Kenya). The game drive in the Serengeti seemed to be the better one with less elephants but more animal diversity.
Everyone arrived to the Kilimanjaro airport from different cities. Getting to the hotel wasn’t difficult as we were picked up by the Serengeti Pride Safari. After gathering around and getting the briefing for the trip we were all set to begin our tour to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro on the next day.
We arrived early in the morning to the Machame gate. There we met all the porters that would go with us on this exciting trip. We had about 4 porters / per person and each porter needed to weigh in at the gate, as they are not allowed to carry more than 25kg. For us, the weight limit was 15kg, which should be more than enough for everyone.
The trip starts off pretty easy. You will be walking through the forest/jungle so expect humidity, heat, some mosquitos and probably rain so make sure your bag is waterproof or you have a rain cover with you all the time. Be prepared as you will experience almost every weather condition on the trail in the next week – sun, rain or even maybe snow.
We climbed around 15km every day and when we arrived to the different camps everything was already set up for dinner and our tents were already prepared. Thinking back about the dinner, we never had the feeling we were climbing a mountain. Our “chef” prepared a different meal every night and they all tasted good! It was great to sit around and talk about our experiences. Measuring the oxygen level of our blood was a ritual we did every night. Talking about dinner.., it is inevitable to go to the toilet at some point. In order to preserve the park our porters were carrying “toilet-tents”. The privacy of such a tent might not be for everyone but you will get used to it!
Our porters were really kind to put small basins with water every day in front of our tents. We also brought some baby wet wipes with us which proved to be a great way to clean ourselves when arriving to the camp.
After walking through all kind of natural environments we arrived at our last camp. Everyone was feeling excited and we didn’t have any sign of AMS although the tiredness was already setting in. We were told to get to sleep early as our hike to the top would begin at 12AM. (Yes – “AM” – which means at midnight!).
We put our headlamps on and packed our bags with our hand warmers and the warmest jackets we had along with our boots and gloves. After 1km we started noticing the lack of air. I am an ultra-marathon runner with some +60km races behind me and I can tell you I have never walked so slow in my life. Step by step, and literally feeling like a turtle we made our way to the top. It was incredibly cold and sometimes we had the feeling we were about to lose a toe but when we saw the sun rise over the horizon every negative feeling we had vanished. We were still 2km from our goal when Marta started to feel a little bit sick. We were afraid she wouldn’t make it but she is a fighter and after resting a bit and taking it easier she was able to get back on her feet and catch up with us.
Breath after breath we approached the glacier that lies on the mountain.
After a little while we had the top in sight – before we knew it we were at the top, standing on top of the highest (5,985m – 19,341 feet) mountain of Africa, over the clouds, even the sky seemed closer…
Africa by Toto was playing from one of our boxes – we were free.
They way back wasn’t easy either and my knees were shaking more than jelly on a washing machine. But we felt strong and so we made in 1.5 days the way back to the bottom of the mountain that had taken us 5 days to climb. It was time to get on a plane and fly to Zanzibar but not after saying goodbye to all these people that were not only our porters but really had become our family during the climb.
The beaches in Zanzibar are beautiful, and if you are a kitesurfer or a diver you will definitely not get bored. If you can, take half a day and visit the city center where you will find exotic spices to take home.
After putting our legs up for 2 days in Zanzibar and making up for all the calories we had lost during our climb we took a plane to Rwanda. You may have heard about Rwanda 25 years ago… because of that dramatic event that started on the 7th of April of 1994 – the Rwandan Genocide. This is when the Hutus began to destroy the entire Tutsi tribe. And this would change (and end) the lives of many.
But Rwanda got on her feet again and today is a country full of folklore and wonderful people. At first I thought of Rwanda as a country with bulky roads and an insecure infrastructure. I thought it would be difficult to communicate with the people but Rwanda was nothing like that. We set foot on streets that are better paved than the German Autobahn. There was almost one police officer on every corner. Rwanda is much more than a modern city now. Its volcano national park, which borders with the Congo, is also the home of wild gorillas. Have you watched the movie Virunga on Netflix? That might give you a glimpse of the nature you will encounter here.
We booked our tour through the Gorilla Safari Company. Donna Robins was our main contact during the planning phase and helped us out with the visa application. We spent only one night at Volcano National Park as the price for our tour was pretty high ($750). We were happy though that this money helps to preserve the park and that a percentage of this amount is donated to the farmers around the national park.
We woke up in the morning and were ready to take the challenge. Making your way through a dense jungle might be tougher than you think. Poison plants, steep paths and dense foliage will present a challenge for you. We were divided in two groups of six and our guide made his way through the jungle with his machete. He is experienced and knows where the Gorillas normally are. We suddenly arrived at a clear space and there they were, two deep black eyes starring at us from the other end. There they were. Our guide told us to stay really quiet and some younger gorillas came closer to take a look at us. They were just 2m (6 feet) away from us. Watching a 250kg (around 450 pounds) gorilla approach you can be quite intimidating but watching these great animals in their own environment is a beautiful thing.
We spent 30min with the gorillas. 30mins to save everything we could in our memories about these great animals. Is it expensive? Sure… Is it worth it? More than that! After that experience we went back to the city – just a few hours away from the place we just had encountered the gorillas. If you want to re-live our experience make sure to watch this video!
My cousin Marta has a friend who lived there so we stayed at her house. She told us she hadn’t taken Malarone (remember – the drug to prevent Malaria?) in a year and she hadn’t had any problems with the mosquitos… Well I killed 16 mosquitos that night after having sprayed myself all over with deeds (chemical name, N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide. – the smell that makes mosquitos fly away from you). I don’t know what she is made off, but me – I didn’t want to take any chance of getting Malaria and kept taking Malarone for the whole trip.
On the next day, we met a former UN ambassador who ran a school. She was over 80 years old but it felt as if she was younger than we were.
We had the chance to spend half a day with her, play with the children and learn from them and the teachers. It was a great experience! Did you know that besides Kinyarwanda, most Rwandans can also speak French, English and Swahili?
We also stopped at a nearby supermarket and bought a shopping cart full of learning materials: books, pencils,… that we donated later to the school.
We felt that time was passing too quickly and before we knew it we were already flying from Rwanda to Kenya.
Kenya… the country I thought would be the most modern was the one where I felt most uncomfortable. It’s not that you are in danger but the city is HUGE and the poverty level is high. Children begging for money at 12AM is common a sight. If you are going there be prepared.
The next day we left the city behind us and drove north to Masai Mara in the Amboseli National Park for our game drive. Ironically all the pictures you might have in mind for Mount Kilimanjaro have been taken from here. Yes – Mount Kilimanjaro is indeed in Tanzania but it is from Kenya where you can get the best view of the mountain. That was also the reason why we had chosen this national park for our game drive and we were not disappointed. Africa Flash McTours and Travel was our way to go.
You will hear a lot about the big five while on a game drive: buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion, and leopard. Equipped with binoculars we watched out for anything moving in the horizon. There were elephants literally everywhere – we were even told, that the elephant population was outgrowing the park and they have to keep an eye on the water and pasture supplies as other species depend on these too.
In the end, we didn’t see any rhinos but we had the opportunity to see all the other animals in our three day tour.
We had been for two and a half weeks now in Africa and couldn’t believe it was time now to fly back. Only my cousin Marta who originally had brought us all together decided to make a detour with her husband and went to Namibia. The desert there is incredible so consider it for your next trip!
And of course, in the end we also took the awaited picture of the mountain that had brought us together – Mount Kilimanjaro.