If climbing Kilimanjaro is on your bucket list, then you’ve come to the right place. Everyone will tell you that it’s challenging and rewarding – but what you really want to know are the details. Do you need trekking poles? What’s the weather like? How early do you start each day? Who and what will you encounter along the trail? Speaking of trail…which is the best route to take to the summit? Read on for answers to all those questions and more from our Sydney consultant, Kyle Super. Kyle has trekked all around the world and recently climbed to the top of Uhuru Peak (5985m) via the Shira Route. As a well travelled trekker, Kyle has a great perspective of how Kili compares to the world’s best treks. He took the time to speak with us about his experience – the highs and the lows.
How long have you been working for World Expeditions and where have you travelled?
I am originally from South Africa and moved to Australia 20 years ago. For the past three and a half years, I have been working as a travel consultant for World Expeditions in the Sydney Office.
I have travelled across the world to six of seven continents and will be going to Antarctica later this year. I’ve trekked in Peru, North America, Nepal, China, New Zealand, and Europe. Climbing Kilimanjaro was my first time trekking in Africa.
Why do you love trekking so much and what keeps you coming back for more?
It’s mainly the physical challenge that keeps bringing me back to trekking, as well as getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and into nature. I also love the stress relief of trekking and being able to just switch off. You’ve got everything taken care of and all you have to think about is putting one foot in front of the other.
Working for World Expeditions, with hundreds of incredible adventures to choose from…why was Kilimanjaro on the top of your list?
I first saw Kilimanjaro in 2010 on an overland trip across Africa that I was doing from Cape Town to Cairo and since then it has always been a goal to climb it. The snow-capped peaks were captivating and it’s been stuck in the back of my mind ever since as something to conquer and accomplish.
When did you climb Kilimanjaro and who was in your group?
I climbed Kilimanjaro with my partner in October 2016. We had travellers from all over the world in my group including from UAE, the UK, America and Australia. There was also a wide age range with people from in their 20’s up to their 60’s.
Which route did you choose and why? What’s the ‘best’ route in your opinion?
For me, one of my biggest prerequisites for trekking is having something that’s remote and not crowded. There are quite a few routes you can choose from to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. The majority of trekkers choose Machame or Marangu, which can get very busy. Particularly the Marangu route which sometimes has up to a 1000 people per night at each campsite. I chose the Shira Route as it avoids most of the crowded trails and you share your campsite with only one or two groups each night. You only see more people towards the summit.
Another important aspect to consider when choosing a high-altitude trek is to choose a route that will give you ample acclimatisation. There are a few routes that give you the highest success rates including Machame, Lemosho, Shira and the Northern Circuit. Again, I chose Shira because it avoids the crowds. Lemosho and the Northern Circuit are also really great options if you want to encounter less people.
No matter how fit you are, you can never know how well your body is going to react to high altitude each time. Therefore, you always want to give yourself the very best opportunity for your body to acclimatise and the only way you can do that is by having extra days at altitude to allow your body to create more red blood cells. When the time comes to head for the summit you’ll have given yourself a higher chance of success. We noticed that when we got to the summit night, we were handling it pretty well. Even though many trekkers in our group had never experienced high altitude before we all managed to get to the summit.
Kilimanjaro has become very popular with charity and corporate groups due to its accessibility. Trekkers can tick it off in just over a week. What do you think about Kili’s ‘bucket list’ appeal?
It’s so much more than just a bucket list trek. Yes, Kilimanjaro is something that a lot of people feel they need to tick off their list. However, it’s such a beautiful mountain and the journey itself is something very spectacular.
There are diverse landscapes and there are a lot of surprises along the way, like stunning meadows full of evergreen flowers that bloom throughout the whole year. There are birds and forests at the beginning of the walk that change into a dramatic lunar landscape as you get higher. Also, people need to consider that it is a challenging trek, and they need to be serious about putting the right training in for it. To avoid the crowds, and get the maximum enjoyment out of the trip – rather than just ticking the “summit” box, it’s really important to choose a quieter alternative route.
What gear do you recommend as essential?
You need to have good warm weather gear, quality trekking boots and a day pack. Make sure your boots have good ankle support and won’t give you blisters. You need to be able to walk in them for up to 10 hours.
Throughout the trek, temperatures are usually mid to low twenties, but can drop down to zero at night, depending on the time of year. It can get up to minus 30 degrees on the summit night. I highly recommend hiring the sleeping bag and the down jacket from our local crew in Tanzania. The down jacket is Mountain Equipment brand, which is used on many six thousand meter plus climbs by mountaineers and keeps you absolutely toasty warm even at minus thirty.
Also, ensure you have good thermals and a quality rain jacket. Even though it’s not raining, it helps to break the wind. Once you book the trek a full list of gear will be sent, so make sure you go through it thoroughly.
Did you use trekking poles?
I did bring trekking poles, and that’s another piece of gear I highly recommend – even if you are someone who doesn’t usually use trekking poles. Not so much for the uphill, but more for the downhill. You descend quite quickly and the ground is covered in scree which is really quite slippery. Having poles takes some pressure off your knees and ankles and provides more stability. I carried a 35 litre day pack. Make sure you choose one that has good hip and back support.
What type of clothing did you wear? Did you wear trekking pants?
I wore quick dry trekking pants, and most days I wore shorts because it’s actually quite warm. Even though it’s in the middle of winter – it can be quite exposed throughout the trek. Sun cream and a good broad-brimmed hat is also really important because there are not many trees. You are exposed to the sun almost every day apart from the last day when you’re coming down through the rainforest.
Alpine weather can really be quite variable. What kind of conditions did you encounter?
The weather was very good throughout the whole trek. We didn’t get any rain so we were very lucky. I trekked during the dry season which runs from the end of May through to beginning of October. Although it is the coldest time of year, it is also the driest, and that’s why I chose it.
What were the guides like on your trip?
The guides and crew were the best I’ve had anywhere in the world considering all the other treks that I’ve done. There’s quite a big crew that support you going up a mountain for a group of six of us trekking. There was a whole team of 30 people including guides, porters and cooks. There are a few reasons for the number of crew on the trip. World Expedition have strict limits on the number of kilograms a porter can carry which means that there needs to be more porters to carry the camping equipment including the portable toilet.
Were they supportive and did they make people feel comfortable?
There are lots of little things that our guides did to help make the trek enjoyable and take the stress out of it for people who had not been trekking before. Every single morning our guide would go through the day ahead tell us what to expect. They were constantly checking in on us to see how we were coping with the altitude. They would tell us stories about their own home life and share their culture with us and were genuinely interested in our own lives. On the very first day, our lead guide brought out the whole crew and introduced us personally to every single member of the team, from porter to cook.
We felt like we had a personal connection with every single crew member. They weren’t just people working in the background. It felt like a whole family heading up to the summit. There were a few particularly challenging parts, like the Barranco Wall which does involve a little bit of scrambling, and our guides were there to lend a hand. They sang to us the entire way up, lifting our spirits.
The guides looked out for our well-being and we really felt that we were in safe hands. We knew that if there was anything wrong or if anyone was showing signs of altitude sickness, then they would make the call to take us down off the mountain. It wasn’t just about them getting us to the top no matter what. We didn’t see the same from other guides along the trek, where we did see people who were groggy or should have been turned back still being lead up.
You said there were some first timers doing the trek, so it must be pretty achievable?
As long as you are physically able and put the effort into training – it really is a challenge that anyone can take on. We had a wide range of ages and trekking abilities in our group with travellers from their 20’s all the way up to their 60’s. As long as you walk at your own pace and you’re the kind of person who can mentally stick through 10 hours on the summit night attempt, even though it’s cold then yes, it’s an achievable trek for anyone.
What type of food did you eat on Kili?
The food was great. Breakfasts were usually mixture hot and cold foods – including cereals, porridge, pancakes, eggs on toast and some fruit. We were provided with snacks for the day including bananas, chocolate and biscuits. Lunch was usually at our next campsite which would again be a mixture of hot and cold. Lunch was usually sandwiches, pasta, soup and salad.
At dinnertime we’d always start off with a snack like popcorn or a biscuit and a hot drink. It was absolutely amazing. Dinner was three courses with anything from local cuisine like East African curries and stews to Western staples like pasta and chicken dishes. They usually took some of the spice out of the curries so you could add some if you wanted it to. We also had a vegetarian in our group and they were well taken care of. Surprisingly we had dessert each night ranging from cakes to jellies.
Waking up at 2am for the summit – was it really worth it?
Yes! There is something quite special about being on the crater at sunrise, above the clouds, as the savannah lights up beneath you. It’s all about mental stamina, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and taking things nice and slow. There’s no rush to get to the top. When you get there, the sunrise just lifts your spirit and you feel like you’re on top of the world looking down on Africa. It’s definitely worth it.
How did you find walking through the dark?
You trek through the dark so that you can get to the summit in time for sunrise. By the time you finish your long 10 hour day it would be too late if you started any later. Also, trekking through the dark is quite good because coming back down you realise how much distance you’ve covered. All you’ve got to look at is your feet and you don’t worry about how much further you’ve got you go.
What was the most memorable moment of the hike?
Probably my most memorable moment of the hike was the night after the summit. All of us had made it, there were no longer any nerves, and we were all able to relax and celebrate together. Everyone, including the guides, were singing and dancing and enjoying our final night together as a family.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to climb Kili?
My advice for someone who wants to climb Kili is that it’s achievable if you put in the right training. Also, I’d recommend choosing a trek that takes longer – even though you may not feel like you have the time. A longer trek will increase your summit success rate and you’ll thank yourself afterwards. You’re giving yourself the absolute best opportunity for success and the most enjoyable trekking experience possible.
How did you train physically and mentally?
To prepare for the trek I went to the gym two to three times a week and that usually involved some cardio training on the treadmill or rowing machine, as well as a bit of weight training.
I think the most important part of my training came from outside of the gym and that was through bushwalking. I can’t recommend doing bushwalking enough. That would involve a five to eight hour hike in my closest National Park with a day pack, using the hiking boots that I’d be using on Kilimanjaro. I made sure that I included one very long hike over eight hours to try and put myself in the mindset of the summit night.
How many months prior did you start preparing?
I’ve always gone to the gym a couple times a week but I started adding in bushwalks about three or four months before. I wasn’t bushwalking every single week. In the first couple of months it was one or two times a month. And then in the final two months I was doing one every weekend.
I made sure I included a lot of steep inclines and declines because going up Kilimanjaro is basically uphill the entire way and then downhill the whole way back. If you’ve got problems with your knees, it’s a good way to strength your leg muscles, test your trekking poles and prepare your knees for the experience.
You’ve done a lot of independent travel…how did you find trekking with a group?
Hiking with a group of other trekkers was really refreshing for a number of reasons. It gave us a common goal to work towards which meant that when some people were feeling down you’ve got your team members there to lift you up and help you keep going. It also means that you’ve got some friendship and entertainment at the end of the night. When you get to the campsite there’s not much to do besides enjoy the natural beauty and talk to people. That really makes the trekking experience for me, when you’ve got people there to share your stories with.
What’s next on the list?
Next on my list would be the Huayhuash Circuit in Peru which is a beautiful remote, high altitude trek.
Once you’re in Africa and ticked Kili off your bucket list, what did you do after (or before) the trek?
If you have the time and budget I would always recommend flying in a little bit earlier and doing a safari. That could range anywhere from three to seven days. You’ve got some of the world’s most famous national parks and the great migration of the wildebeest in the Serengeti and in Ngorongoro Crater. I did the 7-day Serengeti Explorer because it takes in the very best parks especially for that time of the year. I always recommend doing a safari before the trek as it gives you some time to get over any jetlag and get yourself in the right frame of mind. After the trek we added in a short stop in Zanzibar. The beaches are absolutely beautiful with turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. There are lots of fresh seafood and interesting markets to explore. So in an ideal world, the ‘perfect’ East Africa experience would be a trek, safari and Zanzibar retreat.
Breathtaking wildebeest migration though the Serengeti. Image: Kyle Super
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