Africa’s tallest mountain was a temptress, her flat volcanic cone dripping snow, her flanks spread broadly, as if she were opening her arms in supplication. But we passed up the mighty Kilimanjaro to hike Tanzania’s second highest peak, Mount Meru.
My friend Karen and I wanted a unique, less expensive, less tourist-filled adventure. Also, Kilimanjaro stands at 19,344 feet, and Karen had never done high altitude hiking. So Meru’s humbler 14,979-feet seemed a safer, easier choice.
Although the volcano was dormant, everyone who later asked Karen what it was like climbing Meru received the same answer: “It was hell.” Ah, but what beauty lay atop Hades.
First, we spent a night in paradise: Momella Wildlife Lodge, a resort with stunning views of both distant Kilimanjaro and nearby Meru. Our cute white hut had a thatch-style roof and hot running water. Our compound was bursting with flowers, and boasted a hippo pool.
The next day, we met our park ranger and our porter at Momella Gate, just a mile away. The ranger wasn’t a guide in the typical sense, but a man armed with a rifle, required by law, in case we encountered buffalo, elephants, or bandits.
We passed through Momella Gate, which stands at about 5000 feet, crossed Nanyuki River on a small, rickety bridge, and started up the long route. The other groups who set out that day took the short route, straight up the mountainside. So it felt as if we had the entire forest to ourselves – except for a bushbuck, and the monkeys swinging through the trees.
Two fig trees choked the life out of a third tree, now gone.
We passed under the Fig Tree Arch, where two gargantuan parasitic fig trees once choked the life out of a third tree, now gone. The result looked like a single trunk with a hole in the middle big enough to drive a Volkswagon through.
After five hours, sweaty, breathless and humbled, we arrived at 8337-foot Miriakamba Hut. Kilimanjaro floated in the distance like a ghost, it’s lower flanks invisible in the haze, its snowy top painted pale pink by the setting sun.
Kilimanjaro floated in the distance like a ghost.
I struggled with my new camp stove with all the vigor of a parent assembling a bicycle on Christmas Eve. An Englishman named Brian offered to help, but was equally baffled by the instructions. “I think this piece goes here… no… hmmm.” We finally produced a tiny blue flame. I felt proud of this macho feat of self-sufficiency.
“Brian and I have made fire!” I shouted.
No one laughed.
Pride turned to envy, as other trekkers sat down to await heaping platters of fresh, hot food made by their cooks. Meanwhile, I huddled over my tiny stove in the cold, waiting for water to boil, then ate dejectedly out of the plastic bag my dried food came in – “just add boiling water and stir.”
That night, several people reported seeing buffalo in our camp during their trips to the outhouse. Karen spent the night with a full bladder rather than try to dodge the brutes. I saw nothing. Someone saw the wide, night-bright eyes of a bush baby in a tree. I didn’t see that either. I also missed the elephants Brian and his trekking partner, Tim, saw on the trail the next morning. I felt like Charlie Brown: “I saw a buffalo!” “I saw an elephant!” “I saw a bushbaby!”…
“I saw some dung.”
On day two, in the early mist, we began our 4-hour ascent to the Saddle Hut lodges. Tree limbs tangled amid hanging mosses in a crowded steam bath, as we climbed through the clouds. It was a steep haul, rising more than 4000 feet in 2-and-a-half miles. From Saddle Hut, I took a side-trip up a hill called Little Meru. From there, I could see the narrow ridge to the summit, which we’d soon tackle in the early morning dark.
Behind me: the ridge to the summit, which we’d soon tackle in the early morning dark.
The moment the sun set, the temperature plummeted. We went to sleep early, as a rising wind moaned through the camp.
Our third day was summit day, and we woke at midnight. I stepped into the quiet center of the universe, filled with neophyte wonder at the gauzy white sweep of the Milky Way and the Southern Cross – a reminder of how far I was from home.
We left 12,450-foot Saddle Hut at 1:00 a.m. As a giant honey-colored moon rose in a sky alive with stars, the light of my headlamp bobbed slowly up the dark volcano.
“I can see why they make you do this at night,” Karen said. “If anyone saw this in the daytime they’d realize it was crazy.”
A warning, if you plan to hike Mount Meru: when the Lonely Planet guidebook says you’ll take a “dramatic and exhilarating walk along the knife edge of the crater rim,” it really means an “insane and terrifying walk along a deadly precipice.”
I had to force my feet to move when I saw the first narrow saddle. It fell to a sheer drop of some 5000 feet on one side, and a steep slope sliding into unseen distances on the other. The rim wasn’t tightrope-narrow, but it was slender enough to make me consider my mortality. Just how steep was it really, out there beyond the light of my headlamp?
The next heart-stopper was a scramble up and then down a nearly vertical tumble of rocks, at the first of many false summits. As my foot desperately sought a toehold in the dark, Karen shouted from below, “There’s definitely no falling here, Cara!”
Rather than getting closer, the true summit seemed to recede. That’s because the crater was shaped like a horseshoe, and the summit was on the far end of the curve.
The volcano’s ash cone winked in and out of sight to our left, while we rose pole-pole (slowly-slowly), The wind grew increasingly fierce, volcanic ash blasted my eyes and Khassim kept grabbing my butt on the pretext of helping me over obstacles… until I demanded he stop.
Soon, the air grew so thin I could only take 10 steps at a time: 10 steps, breathe, 10 steps, breathe.
Just minutes from the summit, Karen calmly announced, “I’m going to throw up,” and promptly did. I suggested we head back down, in case she had altitude sickness. But she insisted the problem was that she’d eaten breakfast, which she rarely does. She convinced me she felt better and wanted to continue.
After 5 hours, we summited at 6:13 a.m.
After 5 hours, we summited at 6:13 a.m. When I saw the blush-and-orange promise of approaching sunrise spreading around Kilimanjaro, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – or just throw up like Karen. We huddled behind rocks, backs to the wind, waiting.
Kili was a snow-covered island, floating in a sea of clouds.
The sun emerged around 6:30. Kili was a snow-covered island, floating in a sea of clouds. Below us, Meru’s ash cone looked like something from another planet. Around us, white crystals of frost clinging to the rocky summit began to glisten in the sunlight. Karen snapped a few photos, said she couldn’t feel her fingers anymore, and rushed down the mountain with Khassim. I stayed behind to wait for better light.
Meru’s ash cone looked like something from another planet.
Brian and Tom arrived a few minutes later, frozen and spent. I joined them for the four-hour limp back to Saddle Hut, during which Brian said, “The novelty is beginning to wear off a bit.”
It took another 2 hours to reach Miriakamba Hut. That’s more than 11 hours of high altitude hiking in one day: one of the hardest days of walking in my life.
The next day we returned to Momella Lodge to recover. I felt knackered, but filled with the confidence only a difficult mountain can inspire. Though it would have to wait for another time, I gazed at the seductive silhouette of Kilimanjaro with longing.