Not quite Ibaria yet, but already part of the Basque region. Food and accommodation is expensive here. Even more than in Paris.
Stayed at Surf Hostel Biarritz, a little off the coast in a quiet residential area. They rent out bicycles and let you grab a board for free.
First time I’ve ever used a surf-board rack on a bicycle. Turns you bulky and sluggish, but works quite well otherwise. Beware, the coast in this area is quite hilly.
Tue, Sep 20th, late afternoon, Grand Plage
My first surf since January. Grabbed an 8+ foot board (don’t know exact size), like most other surfers at the spot. Waves were small (less than 1m) and chaotic, but I caught a couple of them. Good start.
Wed, Sep 21st, noon, Côte des Basques
Looked fairly disappointing when we got there. It was clear that this would be a short session. Didn’t even put on a wet-suit. Just some tiny waves to catch and some white-water.
Wed, Sep 21st, before sunset, Grand Plage
Looked better than Côte des Basques and slightly bigger than the day before (maybe just up to 1m). Still very chaotic, with widely shifting peaks. Everyone struggled, but good paddling workout. Slightly more powerful, but very short rides.
As so often on day two, muscles felt sore and ribs were hurting.
Beautiful sunset seen from the town of Biarritz and the cliffs around it.
Donostia (San Sebastian)
There’s beaches right in the city. I settled in at Surfing Etxea (etxea meaning house or home in euskara) just hundred behind Zurriola beach. Just put on your wet-suit, grab your board, and walk to the beach bare foot.
Thu, Sep 22nd, before sunset, Zurriola
Still barely more than 1m, but very clean, with long intervals (~11s). Fairly pronounced peaks for a beach break. When you could catch a wave they felt quite powerful, allowing for big bottom turns and nice sideways speed. Never seen such crowds before though. After initial success I struggled to make my way in the line-up. Even though I was on an easy 8 foot board.
Fri, Sep 23rd, late afternoon, Zurriola
A little hung over. Waves were similar size as the day before, but less clean. Risked a shorter board (7’10”) and had trouble catching enough waves, even though my paddling is slowly getting stronger. But when I got one, it felt great.
Sat, Sep 24th, afternoon, Zurriola
Ripped a big hole into the leg of my wet-suit when putting it on. Works fine for now, but won’t get any better. I’d already fixed so many other holes, should start thinking about a new one.
Slightly smaller, with shorter intervals. Grabbed an 8’3” board. Still struggled with the crowds. Only got a few nice rides.
No wind initially, occasional drizzle turning into strong rain eventually. Gave the sea a mystical appearance. It stopped raining after a while, but later the wind picked up.
Sun, Sep 25th, late morning to noonish, Zurriola
Too lazy to get up earlier and check forecast and webcam in the morning. Picked the 7’10” again, which was a mistake.
Waves where slightly bigger (up to 1.5m), but came at short intervals. Peaks where shifting and waves tended to fade out. Everyone was struggling to catch waves and stay on them, but long-boarders were definitely better off today. Still a couple of successful pop-ups and at least one nice ride.
I’ve been struggling with my sportsendeavors recently. And it’s not just that I’m getting too old for this shit. I am definitely, but so far it’s not holding me back. It’s more like the conditions are stacked up against me all the time, e.g. when it comes to weather and equipment.
Case in point: I’ve been mountain biking at Saalbach last weekend, and suddenly my rear derailleur exploded for no apparent reason. It got stuck in the wheel, breaking away and damaging a couple of spokes. This is what it looked like afterwards:
This happened on the fairly mellow Z-Line for no apparent reason. I guess I must have been on the lowest gear, bringing the derailleur close to the spokes. Normally I wouldn’t use this gear on a downhill trail, but I may have forgotten to shift gears. It was downhill, but not too steep or too rough. I wasn’t going very fast either.
Then suddenly the rear wheel just blocked completely, which caught me by big surprise. I don’t want to think about the consequences of this happening on the in-run to a gnarly drop or double.
Luckily I was over-equipped with tools and I was able to unlink the chain, remove the derailleur and finish the run without propulsion. A few hundred meters further down, I encountered another biker who had the exact same thing happen too him. Which is really weird, because I can only remember seeing a completely torn-off derailleur once before in my whole live.
Anyway, I had practice now, so helped him removing his own derailleur. Then I took off to the valley in search for a bike workshop. Big shout-outs to the nice folks oat Bike’nSoul Hinterglemm! They had the right spare part, started working on it at once, and got it done in just half an hour.
Auf meinem letzten Kite-Trip bin ich auch durch Hamburg durch gekommen. Ist jetzt schon ein Weilchen her, will aber trotzdem mal ein paar Eindrücke teilen. Shout-outs an meinen Gastgeber Arne! Hat mir gut gefallen insgesamt.
Recht weit im Norden, zwischen FKK- und Hundestrand. Viel zu kalter Wind für Ende Juni, obwohl ich erst mittags ans Meer komme. Aber immerhin um die 14 Knoten von Westen und nicht zu böig. Dafür etwas Welle, maximal 1 Meter. Zwischendrin bildet sich in kleinen Prielen ein bisschen Flachwasser, dies ändert sich aber ständig mit den Gezeiten.
War sehr lange nicht mehr in Wellen Kiten und habe ein bisschen Bammel. Aber Wind ist side-on und am Strand ist viel Platz, kann also wenig schief gehen. Richtung Norden muss man ein bisschen Höhe laufen um vom Strand weg zu bleiben. Dafür stören die Wellen in Strandnähe kaum. Ab und zu muss ich zu Fuß ein paar Meter weiter ins Meer.
Richtung Süden kann man es sich aussuchen: entweder in Strandnähe leicht Wind-ab im flachen rum-cruisen, oder ein bisschen Höhe laufen und mit größeren Wellen kämpfen. Das macht zwar ziemlich Spaß, aber ab und zu bleibe ich hängen und verliere mein Brett. Es zurück zu holen ist kraftraubend. Selbst weiter draußen brechen die Wellen hier und da. Entschließe mich daher eher in Strandnähe zu bleiben. Alles in allem, komme ich gut zum Fahren, ist aber noch ausbaufähig.
Update: Auf jeden Fall schöne Stimmung, ein paar Stunden später und ein paar Meter weiter südlich, Böhler Strand:
Generell ist weniger Wind vorausgesagt. Im Osten sieht es aber ein wenig besser aus als in SPO. In der Ostsee sind die Wellen tendenziell kleiner als in der Nordsee. Außerdem gibt es viele geschützte Buchten mit Stehrevieren.
So zum Beispiel an zahlreichen Spot auf Fehmarn. Nach 3 Stunden Autofahrt komme ich gegen Mittag in Lemkenhafen an. Leider habe ich das Beste schon verpasst. Nur noch ca. 11 Knoten Wind und nur noch ein paar große Schirme (meist 15m2) und große Bretter auf dem Wasser. Ich selbst habe maximal einen 12m2 Schirm und ein 146cm Brett (und wiege immer noch fast 100kg).
Ich baue trotzdem auf und versuche mein Glück. Schon beim Start (bei side-shore vom Deich) spüre ich kaum Kraft im Schirm. Nach etwas Kurbeln komme ich aber ins gleiten und kann eine Zeit lang gut Höhe halten. Draußen ist auch ein bisschen mehr Wind. Leider mache ich nach der Wende den Fehler zu nahe zum Ufer zurückzufahren. Beim nächsten Schlag erwische ich den Wind nicht richtig und falle ab. Komme immerhin noch zum Deich zurück. Lande per Auslösung im hüfttiefen Wasser und mache Selbstrettung.
Ein weiterer Versuch lohnt nicht: der Wind wird noch weniger. Alles in allem, komme ich zumindest ein bisschen zum Fahren, ist aber noch sehr ausbaufähig. Für die nächsten 2 Tage ist Flaute vorhergesagt, aber am Freitag könnte was gehen.
Update: Freitag, immer noch Fehmarn
Endlich wieder Wind, zumindest ein bisschen. Viel Sonne, keine Welle. Geht was.
Well, they might as well. Because I just got my first fax machine today. No fax hardware though, just a virtual one. My e-mail provider is offering that as a service. Even got my own number (which I had to verify via snail mail) and I can send and receive faxes.
It’s 2022 now, and I’m still running into situations where someone asks me to send information by fax or letter. Since I have neither a printer nor a stash of stamps, letters are a bit of a hassle. I’m hoping the fax will help avoid some of that.
The plan for the second half of my Tanzania trip was to go to Zanzibar and do some kite surfing and surfing. Or, let me be less ambiguous and use the more unwieldy term “wave surfing” for the latter. I had almost a month of time for getting as much as possible of both. In the end, one worked out better than the other. Let’s see, if you can tell which one…
I first headed to Paje on the east coast. An endless beach runs north to south here and there is a barrier reef about 1.5 km off the cost. A wide lagoon forms between the beach and the reef, which can be knee deep to head deep depending on tides. (Some patches actually become dry land at extreme low tide, but there’s enough water left the main body of the lagoon.) The bottom is mostly sand, which makes it an ideal place for kite surfing beginners. Consequently there’s a lot of small kite centers all along the beach.
When I arrived in Paje, I could see some kites in the air right away. But during the next days and weeks, the wind would be just a little too weak most of the time. In the late afternoon hours, thermal winds from the east would usually pick up. But even they would hardly get much stronger than 10 knots. You’d occasionally see a couple of foilers with big kites (15m2 to 18m2) but even they were struggling. Way too little for my 95kg and my biggest kite being a 12m2.
So I focused on wave surfing instead (see below) and kept watching the wind forecasts. At some point, the forecast for Nungwi looked a little more promising than the one for Paje. So I relocated to Nungwi (at the northern tip of the island) after about a week.
Nungwi is weird. To the north and east, it is also shielded by barrier reefs, which extend the islands northern tip with shallow waters over sandy ground. But somehow this area is not too popular with kiters. It seems that the tides are just a little off here: too much dry land at low tide and too deep to stand in at high tide, making it more challenging to teach beginners. Moreover, the coast is so packed with holiday resorts that there is little public beach access. Where there beach is more accessible, it is packed with boats. Mostly fishing boats, but also some dive boats and speed boats for all the tourists.
Maybe there’s also other reasons, but in any case there is almost no kite surfing infrastructure. There’s at least one kite center in Nungwi, but they merely have an office there. Most renting and lessoning happens elsewhere, like in Matemwe or Mchangani, both at least half an hour away by car.
There isn’t many independent kiters either. After exploring the whole coastline, I finally met some guys from Spain, who were kiting to the east of Nungwi. But the beach is very narrow there at high tide and you had a hard time getting there. Either walk all around the northern tip of the island, bribe one of the beach resorts to grant you passage, or climb down a small cliff.
The next day I came back there with my own kite equipment, but once again there just wasn’t enough wind. One guy, who had been foiling confidently the day before, was now struggling to even keep his kite up in the air. We waited, hoping the wind would pick up a little just before sunset, but in the end there was no kite surfing that day.
The wind forecast had been corrected downwards by now and it became clear that there wouldn’t be much kite surfing in Nungwi for the next couple of days. I couldn’t find any surf rental either, let alone anyone who’d organize wave surfing trips to the outer reef. Disgruntled, I settled for a day of diving and started planning my return to Paje.
After a short stopover in Stone Town (the historical part of Zanzibar’s only urban center) Paje had me back. There still wasn’t much wind, except for early mornings and late afternoons. But even then you’d need a big kite and great low-wind skills.
I was watching the situation from the beach. Some evenings I regretted not setting up my equipment, but by the time the wind seemed strong enough, there was only a couple of minutes left till sunset. Then there was a day when the trade winds from the north finally kicked in. Still it was mostly big kites and foil boards during most of the day. But as usually, thermal winds kicked in in the late afternoon adding to overall wind speed. They also turned the side-shore wind a little more onshore.
By the time I had pumped my kite, the whole lagoon was crowded with kites. I hadn’t been the only one who had been starved for wind for days and weeks. My 12m2 was still on the lower end of all the kite sizes on the water. I really struggled to get going, let alone navigating between all the other kites. Especially all the beginners, who were either standing there with their kites at 12 o’clock or relaunching them after they crashed it. Impossible to get through. In the it was an involuntary down-winder and I had to walk back on the beach.
The next days were similar: just enough wind for me to get going, but not enough to beat against the wind. I tried to rent a bigger kite a couple of times, I think it was a 16m2. But following Murphy’s law, that just made the wind blow slower. So it was more drifting down-wind and more walks of shame on the beach. I also watched a couple of low-wind tutorials (e.g. from Kitesurf College) and got a few helpful hints from the local instructors. But in the end nothing helped.
Finally, on the last day before I left Paje, I got the wind that I needed for my 12m2 kite. I could reliably keep up against the wind. I didn’t drift downwind, but I couldn’t get too far against the wind either. And all that without attempting jumps or any new maneuvers. I finally reached the level of kite surfing that I thought I had surpassed 10 years ago. After just half an hour, it began to rain and a thunderstorm came moving in. I thought it’d be too dangerous to stay on the water, and the wind was dropping, too. By the time I reached the beach, I could barely land my kite without stalling it.
In summary, this was the most frustrating kite vacation that I’ve ever had!
While Zanzibar attracts a fair number of kite surfers, it is not known as a wave surfing destination at all. An obvious reason are the barrier reefs all around the island, which shield the beaches from the waves. The reef is more than a kilometer off the coast in most places and can only be reached by boat. Or, by a lot of paddling.
There’s also very little information about surfing Zanzibar on the web. Tanzania and Zanzibar are not even on the map at magicseaweed. And there’s only one Zanzibar spot listed on Surf Forecast: Nungwi. Eventually, I found a short article at GoSurfAfrica, which mentioned a company called Aquaholics. They run a kite & surf center in Paje and they offer organized surf trips and surf rental. That was all the stuff that I needed and it was the reason why Paje was my first stop on Zanzibar.
I was very skeptical at first. The surf spot descriptions on the Aquaholics website sounded promising, but surfers tend to exaggerate. And, if there were good surf spots, why the heck wasn’t anyone else surfing on Zanzibar? Spoiler alert: I was not disappointed.
It was a little hassle though: car transfer, picking equipment, warm-up and intro for beginners, boat ride, then paddle out to the line up. Then the same procedure backwards. Actual surf sessions were about 2h, but you’d have to plan 4h for the whole trip.
Aquaholics usually go to 3 spots near Dongwe, and those spots work best just after low tide, when the tide starts rising again. The first day, I grabbed a a big soft-top board and went to the spot named Tamarins. This spot is mostly for beginners and has a lot of whitewater. But it also breaks as a fairly decent right, if the swell is right. I could catch some mellow waves fairly easily. And I could see that the other surfers had good fun at the next spot, just 100 meters further south. I could definitely see some potential and I signed up for more.
The next day, I went to that other spot, which they call Doughnuts. It’s also a right, but it has slightly bigger waves and you’ll get longer rides. There’s also a channel at the end of the ride and a little current that takes you back to the lineup. I have never seen such conveyor belt work that well before.
I was still on my big soft-top board and I could catch plenty of waves with it. So the next day, I changed to a smaller hard-top board. It was still an 8ft, but it had a narrower shape and less volume. It was way more agile than the hard-top. Just a nicer feeling on it. Since the swell would remain fairly small during the next days and weeks, I stayed with this board for some while.
The best thing about surfing Zanzibar is the crowds. There are no crowds. To the best of my knowledge, Aquaholics are the only ones on the island, who organize surf trips. And I haven’t seen independent surfers during the whole month. The size of our surf group varied though. Some people would surf for a whole week, others would only join now and then, and some only once. Sometimes it would only be 4 tourists with 1 guide. Other times it was around 15 tourists with 3 guides/instructors. And this could be surfers with very differnt surf skills. So the group usually split up: beginners to Tamarins, more advanced to Doughnuts. Thus it was never more than 8 surfers competing for a wave.
This often led to the bizarre situation that I was the best surfer in the lineup. Well, except for the guide, of course. But they were busy pushing intermediates into the waves and generally herding the group. No pushing for me though. I was fairly self-sufficient, especially after I got to know the spot better. That isn’t to say that the guides did nothing for me. On the contrary, they watched each of my rides and gave me a lot of useful advice.
I had a lot of fun at Doughnuts. I finally got to a point, where I felt that I was catching enough waves. It all came together: picking the right wave, getting into the right spot, paddle the right speed, and pop-up with the right timing. So I could finally pop-up without thinking too much about it. I could finally focus more on the wave riding part: bottom turns, going sideways, making turns up and down the face, pumping to stay on weaker waves as long as possible. Not everything was perfect: I still took waves that closed out on me, I did a few nose dives, or I simply lost balance after the pop-up. But there wasn’t too much of that anymore. And it got better with each surf session.
Maybe that was because the surf conditions remained constant and the wave at Doughnuts was really mellow. I was eager for bigger swells, but they just didn’t come. One day, there wasn’t even enough swell for Doughnuts to work. Luckily, the Aquaholics crew had a plan B. We hopped back on the boat and went to another spot, called Keep Lefties. As the name says, it’s a left handed point-break. And indeed we got lucky there. Took me a while to get used to the spot, because I’ve mostly been on right handed waves in recent years. But in the end, it worked surprisingly well.
A couple of days before I left Zanzibar, bigger swells finally arrived. Some described the waves as head high. However, there was also a lot of wind, which made the waves choppy and lead to a stronger current at Doughnuts. You’d have to paddle all the time just to hold your position in the lineup. With that, I just didn’t have the energy to go for many waves. But the few rides that I got felt awesome — so much more power!
The next day I switched to slightly smaller board, still a 7ft 6in though. The board worked well, but current and chop at Doughnuts were even worse than before. I only caught very few waves and they mostly closed out on me. Even though there were a couple of good surfers in our group that day, no-one seemed to have a lot of fun.
On my last day, the conditions were similar, so most of us decided to go to Tamarins instead. The waves there were a little smaller, but still more powerful than the weeks before. And there was not much current at all. Even though I stayed on the smaller board, I could catch plenty of waves again. In the beginning, they often closed out on me, but that got better throughout the session. It was a good finale for my trip to Zanzibar.
Altogether I got 18 days of surfing, thanks to Aquaholics. Big shout-out at their surf crew! Ryan, Rachel, Hussein, Jason, it was a blast!
I’m on my way home to Munich now, currently sitting at DAR and waiting for my flight. I’ve spent the past month in Zanzibar (specifically Unguja), but I’ve been too lazy to post about it. Let’s fix that…
And let’s start with the sunset trip to the mangroves of Chwaka Bay, which I joined with other guests from Ebb & Flow Paje. We reached the mangroves on a traditional dhow, a small trimaran with a triangular sail. I was quite impressed with this kind of sailing. Dhows do not have a boom, and for jibing or tacking, they bring the sail around the front instead:
Here’s some other other impressions of the boats, the beach, and the mangroves:
Being driven around in a vehicle all day and staring at things was not my favorite. That said, I still enjoyed our 4 day Safari in 3 parks of Tanzania’s Northern Circuit. We saw way more animals than I had expected, and we got pretty close to many of them.
In the afternoon of day one we visited Tarangire National Park. Not the most famous one, but very easily accessible from Arusha. A tarmac road gets you almost to the northern gate of the park. And there is settlements and agriculture right next to the park’s boundaries. Yet we saw elephants and a lion not far from there. We saw heaps of other animals, too, even though we only visited a tiny section of the park.
After visiting Tarangire, we drove northward and spent the night in camping hotel nearby Lake Manyara.
Ngorongoro (pass through)
The next morning, it was just a short drive to Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with its iconic crater. However, today we would only drive by on our way to our main goal, the Serengeti. We did stop at a view point on the crater rim though, and saw heaps of animals by the road on the outer slopes of the crater. Btw, the road was all gravel from here on.
Serengeti may be derived from a Maasai word for endless plain. And indeed, after Ngorongoro the landscape gets very flat. There’s still moderate slopes, a few wadis, and hills in the background. But by the time we reached the gates of Serengeti National Park in the late afternoon, it was plains all around.
We weren’t done driving yet. For the rest of the day, we followed an almost straight dust road towards Seronera at the center of the park. Even from that road, we could see tons of animals all around us.
We reached Nguchiro camp site around sunset. Though there is a lot of human activity here in the Seronera area, there’s still wild animals around. When I went to the bathroom at night, I saw eyes staring at me in the distance. After turning the corner to the bathroom, there was hyena just ten meters away. Since it was looking the other way, I first thought it’s a lion.
In the morning our guide explained something like: “Don’t worry, lion killed buffalo nearby. Hyenas are here for the carcass.” Wait what? There was lions nearby!?
Anyway, all tourists and crew survived. We got up early and started exploring the Serengeti.
We came back to the campsite for a late lunch, and in the afternoon we slowly started heading back to Ngorongoro on that long straight gravel road that we had arrived on the day before. Tanzanian massage, is what they call it.
We headed back up the outer slopes of the Ngorongoro caldera, zooming by Maasai herds and villages. We arrived at Simba campsite before sunset and set up camp. We were soon joined by a buffalo and several zebras, who kept grazing between our tents all night.
The next day started early and was all about Ngorongoro crater. The main road down into the crater was not far from our campsite, and it’s the only sealed road that I’ve seen in Tanzania’s parks. A gravel road this steep would just erode away too quickly, in particular during rainfall.
The slopes of the crater are partly forested, but down inside the crater it’s a huge plain, hosting a landscape of steppe, savanna, and a few bodies of water, the biggest one being Lake Magadi. We’d see much of the same animals that we’d seen the days before, plus a few new ones. There’s also supposed to be rhinos, but we could only make one out in the far distance.
In the early afternoon we returned to Simba campsite for a late lunch. Just as we entered the campsite, we had our third flat tire. Luckily our crew had fixed it by the time we finished lunch. After that, it was smooth cruising back to Arusha.
You’ll hear “pole pole” a lot on a Kilimanjaro climb — and frankly anywhere in Tanzania. It means “slowly, slowly” in Kiswahili, but could be more loosely translated as “take it easy”, “relax”, or “don’t rush”. The latter is key to a successful Kilimanjaro climb. Especially, if you’re not super athletic and/or accustomed to high altitudes.
Here I’m sharing my personal impressions of the climb that I did end of November 2021. There are many different routes to climb Kilimanjaro and I picked the 7-day Lemosho route. It is designed to get climbers accustomed to high altitudes for a couple of days, before actually tackling the summit.
I’ll walk you through the climb chronologically, but let me first explain some basics. Mount Kilimanjaro is not part of a mountain range, but is a free standing volcano. It consists of 3 peaks: from west to east it’s Shira, Kibo, and Mawenzi. Most tourists (including myself) aim for Kibo, which is the middle one. And, at 5895m also the highest. That is over 2000m more than other mountains that I had climbed before, e.g. Rinjani or Fujisan.
When it comes to terrain, climate, or mountain hazards, Kibo is a fairly easy mountain. The climb does not require crossing dangerous cliffs and is not even very steep on average. But the weather can get a little ruff further up. I climbed Kilimanjaro during the short wet season (Oct/Nov/Dec), when it can rain (and further up snow) at any time, though typically less than during the long wet season (Mar/Apr/May). But being located close to the equator, it’s warmer on Kilimanjaro than on most other mountains.
The main challenge is the high altitude, and climbers try to address this by gaining altitude slowly, and getting accustomed to the thin air. (And also by taking medication that helps prevent altitude sickness, typically Acetazolamide.) On the Lemosho, route you’ll stay at around 4000m for several days before climbing further up towards the summit.
Therefore you’ll spend a lot of time on the mountain. This, and the fact that publicly accessible roads only go up to about 2300m, means that almost all climbers will be part of an organized party, including guides and porters. In my case, I joined a climb organized by tour operator Climbing Kilimanjaro. Upon request, they teamed me up with two other tourists, so we ended up in a group of 3 tourists, 2 guides, 1 chef, and 13 porters. I plan to write another blog post about how such a climb is organized. For now, let me just share that I was very happy with how the guys from Climbing Kilimanjaro handled everything!
I think that me and my fellow tourists (shout-outs to Pierre and Masaki!) were a good team. Despite the pole-pole-doctrine, we were moving fairly fast compared to other parties on the mountain. Uphill, I was just a little slower than the other two, but I didn’t feel pressured to rush. As expected, I made up for some of the delay downhill.
The first day started with pick-up and transfer from Arusha to Lemosho Glades in Kilimanjaro National Park. That’s how far our bus could take us. We tourists got lunch there and the porters prepared and distributed all the baggage. Meanwhile our guides arranged all formalities with the national park rangers.
From here on, we had to continued on foot, starting in the early afternoon. It was quite a short hike and we reached Mti Mkubwa Camp in less than 2 hours. We were moving in the forest climate zone throughout. The flair was similar to a deciduous forest in Europe, though a little more overgrown. Also, the species of trees were different and looked somewhat exotic to me.
It started raining a little, but it stopped after half an hour. It was like a warm summer rain in Europe, so not too bad.
We had already seen monkeys during transfer, and we saw more of them along the way. And yet more at the camp, specifically blue monkeys. They were quite cheeky and tried to loot our food supplies, while our porters and the chef were still busy setting up camp for the night and preparing dinner. The monkeys were joined by white-necked ravens, which would be ubiquitous during the whole climb.
Since the Mti Mkubwa Camp is located on the western slopes of Kilimanjaro, we witnessed a beautiful sunset through the forest canopy. We then had a rich dinner (incl. soup, main course, and dessert, but I forgot the details for this particular day) and went to bed early. The first night was colder than I had expected, but no match for our tents and sleeping bags.
We woke up around 7am, packed our stuff and had a nice breakfast. As for the rest of the tour, this included warm porridge, pancakes, toast, honey, jam, eggs, sausages, beans, tea, and coffee.
Today was going to be the second toughest hike, when it comes to distance and gained altitude (only surpassed by the ascent to the summit on day 6). We would be en-route in the morning and in the afternoon, with a generous lunch-break in-between.
So we left camp and continued upwards the gentle slopes of the Kilimanjaro massif towards Shira plateau. This part of the route had many turns and ups and downs, crossing several small valleys. In some places we had a good view of nearby Mount Meru rising from the clouded plains.
We soon gained enough altitude to leave the forest and enter the moorland climate zone. On average this segment was a little steeper, but it was still an easy walk.
At about half way to Shira plateau it started raining again. We were only about 500m higher than when it had rained the day before. But it was still early in the morning, and there were no more trees providing protection. Thus the rain felt way more unpleasant. (I also got worried, because my wet clothes had not fully dried over night. If it continued raining at this rate, I might soon run out of something dry to wear.)
The rain was quite heavy, too, and the dusty trail soon started to turn into a little creek. The built-in rain drains prevented the worst though, and our sturdy boots allowed us to continue at normal pace. And once again, the rain didn’t last much longer than half an hour.
After the rain I had a closer look at the vegetation. The shape, distribution, and superficial appearance of the shrubs reminded me of the Alps at home. However, inspection of the plants revealed that they were quite different from the familiar mountain pine. I assume that these plants here are only distantly related to our mountain pines, but both have been subject to convergent evolution. Same with the salamanders that I stumbled across later. They are certainly distinct from our alpine salamanders, but they fill a similar niche.
As we continued, we soon reached Shira plateau. The plateau is located in the Shira caldera, which is the remnants of an ancient volcano. At around 1.9 million years ago, Shira imploded and only left the caldera and the plateau. Today the south-western part of the caldera is most pronounced, with it’s highest point at 4005m forming Shira’s summit. Most of the northern part of the caldera has eroded away, while the eastern part has been taken over by Kibo.
We passed the ridge of Shira’s caldera to our right, and entered Shira plateau from the west. The trail leveled here and even had a moderate descent. The shrubs were growing lower and sparser, so we could soon spot Shira 1 Camp (or Moir Camp, according to some maps?) in the distance. We approached it in a fairly strait line, without any further ascent. On a clearer days we might have seen Kibo at the other end of the plateau, but for now it was hidden in the clouds.
Some climbing parties do the Lemosho Route in 8 days rather than 7 days, and they would stay at Shira 1 Camp over night. For us it was just a lunch break though. It was still partly clouded, but when the sun was coming through, it was quite sharp. That allowed us to dry all our soaked clothes.
Lunch was as opulent as dinner the night before. And frankly all of our meals on this Kilimanjaro climb. So I’ll stop mentioning food from now on.
After lunch, we continued crossing Shira Plateau in south eastern direction. The plateau is not fully level, but slightly rises to the east. The incline was moderate and the landscape was planar, with few obstacles. With clouds overhead, it looked barren and vegetation got sparser the further climbed. We saw smaller shrubs, bushy grasses, and more and more rocks, covered in lichens. The only vaguely tree-shaped plants that we encountered up here were giant groundsels. These look a bit like joshua trees, though they are not closely related. They do not grow tall and are distributed sparsely, but we’d see many more of them during the rest of the hike.
At one point we crossed a gravel road, which leads almost all the way up to our own destination, Shira 2 Camp. However, that road is not open to the general public. Park rangers use it to supply their posts, and for emergency situation. As far as I understood, the road can also be used by mountain bikers, and there are several bike trails across Shira Plateau.
We arrived at Shira 2 Camp, our destination for the day, in the late afternoon. It continued to be clouded, and partially foggy. Most of us put on our winter jackets and hats for the first time. At roughly 3890m, this for now was the highest point that I had ever climbed. After a fairly exhausting day, I had no trouble sleeping at night.
We had heard rain hitting our tents during the night, but we woke up to a beautiful morning. While the plains below us were covered in thick clouds — with Mount Meru peeking out in the distance — there were only few small clouds above us, with lots of sunshine peeking through. This was also the first time that we had a good view of Kibo’s snow-covered crater-rim above us.
The next few days would be all about altitude acclimatization: “walk high, sleep low”. At this point we were still on the west of Kibo. From here, we would circle the mountain along its southern slopes, and finally approach its summit from the south-east. This means there would be a lot of up-and-downs, but we’d always return to an altitude of about 4000m. We’d only be climbing in the morning, just after breakfast, then have lunch and dinner at the next camp, with lots of relaxation time in between.
The goal for today was climbing up to a place called Lava Tower, then climbing down to the next camp. The ascent was only a little steeper than the afternoon before and initially the landscape looked much the same. But soon it would turn more and more barren, dominated by gravel, rocks, and lichens, with only few small sturdy plants. We had reached the alpine desert zone, where we would spend much of the following days.
What we had heard as rain the night before, had come down as snow further up. With each of the small ridges that we crossed, we saw more of it. By the time we reached Lava Tower, it was a solid blanket of snow. It was only 5cm deep though, and despite the more cloudy weather up here, it was soft and slowly melting.
We reached Lava Tower after 3 hours. While Lava Tower is an impressive rock structure, it pales against its surroundings. Nevertheless, a small saddle forms between Lava Tower and Kibo. And today’s route took us straight through that saddle. At just over 4600m, this was my new personal altitude record (like so many during this hike).
We did not camp at the saddle next to Lava Tower, but we had a 20 minutes break, had some snacks, and took lots of photos. I tried to pick a snowball fight, but missed my first shot and got destroyed by our experienced guides.
Shortly after, I noticed those tiny rodents for the first time, whom we would see again during the rest of the trip. I think they were four-striped grass mice. They looked cute with their stripy back, but they were very elusive. I was surprised to see them this far up. Not sure, if they subsist hikers’ food droppings, or on the sparse grasses that were still growing here.
At lava tower, the trail splits: climbers, who want to tackle Kibo from the west, continue upwards to Arrow Glacier Camp. But for us, it was all the way down-hill to Barranco Camp. As snow continued melting, sections of the trail had turned into small creeks. But we reached dryer regions soon, where there was little traces of either snow or water. It remained cloudy and foggy though. That gave a ghostly appearance to those giant groundsels, which we met again shortly before reaching the camp.
The defining feature of day 4 was Barranco Wall, which we had already seen from Barranco Camp the day before. The camp is located right underneath, and looking upwards to the wall is a little scary. It’s rather steep and found it hard to see where we’d find our way through it. However, Barranco Wall is part of a long ridge, whose other sections look even worse. See the beginning of this pan:
I was kind of nervous about Barranco Wall, because I tend to be afraid of heights. From below, it looked like there might be many exposed points above tall vertical cliffs. In the end, it turned out that it’s not too bad after all. While the wall is steep, it is far from vertical. It rises in a number of terraces and the hiking trail makes good use of these. There’s no place where you’d fall more than a couple of meters. (Of course, in the worst case, you might keep tumbling further down, with a good chance of killing yourself, but somehow my brain processes that as less frightening.)
That said, Barranco Wall was certainly the steepest climb of this Kilimanjaro tour. In some places, I found it easier to use my hands as climbing aids. That made it more fun, but was not strictly necessary. The porters, who only had one free hand, got by without it. In the upper sections, the wall got less steep and we reached its top in about one hour. At just about above 4200m we had reached our highest point for the day — no new altitude records for now.
From here it was downhill again, but we still had a few up and downs ahead of. We had to descend into two small valleys and ascend two small ridges before we reached our destination for the day. Luckily the slopes were more moderate from now on. And we were walking just around the boundary between moorland zone and alpine desert zone, enjoying the varied landscape.
This was one of our shorter hiking days and we reached our destination for the day, Karanga Camp, well before noon. That gave us enough time to explore the area around the camp. The ubiquitous ravens were joined by other birds, which looked like a variety of pigeon, most likely dusky turtle doves. And I found more of the four-striped grass mice that I had first seen at Lava Tower.
I used the afternoon to talk to some of the other hiking parties on the mountain. Some of them had been hiking alongside us for the past few days, but we had not found much time exchange our experiences yet. They were all very happy with the hike so far — especially with their crews — and excited for Kibo’s summit.
So far this day had been dry, but rather foggy. In the late afternoon a little more sunshine pierced the clouds, once again giving us scenic views of the surroundings.
The morning greeted us with a blue sky and all clouds below us. Also, clear views of Kibo above us, and Mount Meru in the distance.
Today was another short hike, even shorter than the days before. However, no more of that up-and-down altitude-acclimatization nonsense. No, today would be entirely uphill, bringing us closer to the top of Kilimanjaro. The incline was moderate, but all the walking of the past days began wearing on me. Or maybe it was the altitude?
Even though clouds started to form around us, indicating some humidity, the landscape looked yet more arid. A solar-powered communications relay station (presumably) almost looked like a Mars-rover (ignoring blue sky, clouds, and low-tech appearance).
We reached Barafu Camp after about two hours. “Barafu” means “Ice” in Kiswahili, and it’s easy to imagine why they picked that name. There wasn’t much ice or snow at the camp when we arrived, but there wasn’t much of anything else either. Only rocks and lichens here. But when weather allows, there’s a good view of some of Kibo’s icy glaciers.
Barafu Camp is located on a pronounced ridge, and reaching that ridge we could see Kilimanjaro’s eastern peak for the first time. It’s called Mawenzi and is 5149m high. Though smaller than Kibo, Mawenzi’s peak is more pointy and more rocky than the other two Kilimanjaro summits. An impressive rolling saddle plateau forms between Kibo and Mawenzi at about 4400m.
At almost 4700m, Barafu Camp was yet another personal altitude record for me (slightly higher than Lava Tower). It was our last camp before attempting to reach Kibo’s summit. Like most climbing parties, we would start that endeavor in the middle of the night. We’d climb up to the summit, then down to Barafu Camp, then to a lower camp.
So we had a big day ahead of us! That’s why we tried to catch some sleep as early as possible. I went to bed soon after lunch, and I told our crew not to wake me up for dinner. I thought that sleep would be more important for me than food. In the end I happened to wake up around dinner time, so I had a few bites after all. I went back to bed right after, and had not trouble falling asleep again.
I’ll count this as day 6, although it started before midnight. After our guides had woken us up, we put on all our clothing layers, including winter jackets and (for the first time) winter pants. It had started snowing a couple of hours ago, and our tents were already covered in a thin white layer. However, it was cold and dry, and the snow was much preferable to the bursts of rain that we had experienced a before.
We started the day with some tea and snacks at camp, but we got going at around midnight. Obviously it was dark outside and we all had to wear headlights. For the summit ascent, the tourist-to-crew ratio was one-to-one. We tourists were joined by our two guides and an experienced porter.
While we had been flexible about pole pole in the days before, this time we took it seriously. Our head guide took the lead and set a slow but consistent pace. I walked right after him — being the slowest in our group, I feared that I might fall behind otherwise.
Altogether we approached Kibo from the south-east, in a fairly straight line. The very first segment was a little rocky, and slippery underneath the soft snow. Then it was mostly gravel as the trail wound up Kibo’s slopes in serpentines. The snow cover wasn’t deep enough to be much of an impediment — besides we had one other climbing party ahead of us, whose steps we could follow.
We took short breaks from time to time. The guides had brought hot tea for us, and even small snacks. But we never rested too long, because motion protected us from the freezing weather.
The voyage upward seemed endless and dull. From time to time I pointed my light upwards, hoping to see the crater rim; or the slope getting less steep; or at least some interesting feature, like a ridge. But there wasn’t any of that and I knew that we still had a long way ahead of us.
I got very exhausted and at times I thought that I could faint. I was reminding myself to drop into a favorable direction, should that happen. Luckily it did not happen.
At some point it must have stopped snowing, but I do not remember when. As the sky above us cleared up, we could eventually see the stars.
Somehow, after five and a half hours, we reached Kibo’s crater rim. This was at a place called Stella Point, at about 5750 meters high. It had started to dawn by now, and we could see the sun rising behind us, above Mawenzi to the east. As usually, the plains below us were covered in thick clouds.
At Stella Point, we got a first glimpse of Kibo’s volcanic crater. It isn’t very deep, but it is a lot waster than I had expected. By now, there was a thick blanket of snow all around us and covering the whole crater plateau. The landscape reminded me of a high-mountain pass or plateau in the European Alps in winter.
We could also see the highest point of the crater rim from here, the summit of Kilimanjaro. It was just about 1 kilometer to the west and still about 150 meters above us. So we turned left and started traversing the southern crater rim in clock-wise direction, towards the summit. The rest of our ascent was a lot less steep than our climb to the crater rim. Surprisingly, there was almost no wind up here and the rising sun started compensating for the freezing air.
After an hour on the crater rim, we finally reached Uhuru Peak (Uhuru means freedom in Kiswahili). At 5895m, this is the summit of Kibo, the highest point of the Kilimanjaro massif and of Africa. Another personal altitude record, and this one will stick for a while.
I do not remember any signs of altitude sickness, other than extreme fatigue. As can be seen on the photos, I was totally destroyed by now. I don’t think that I could have climbed much higher. But in this moment, joy prevailed. And the knowledge that getting down the mountain will be a much easier task.
The crater rim at Uhuru Peak is very wide, appearing more like the top of a mellow hill. From here we had a good view of Kibo’s crater to the north and its outside slopes to the south. There where several small glaciers on both sides, all with a vertical wall at their upper edge, unlike anything that I had seen before. In the distance we could once again see Mount Meru peeking out from the clouds.
We weren’t the only climbers today. A small group had reached the summit before us, others joined us soon. But it wasn’t crowded either, I’d estimate that only about 30 people visited the summit that day. We all enjoyed the views and took photos. This meant taking off my thick gloves, and despite all the sunshine my hands would soon begin to freeze. That’s why I have so little footage of the summit.
Normally, I like to linger on summits. Sit down, eat a snack, have a drink, and maybe a cigarette. Enjoy the landscape. But there was nowhere to sit down and it was still freezing cold. Besides, we had a long descent ahead of us. That’s why none of us climbers stayed at Kibo’s summit for more than fifteen minutes. Instead, we headed back down, following the same route along the crater rim that we had climbed up.
At Stella Point, we entered the steep slopes of Kibo once again. We did not follow the zig-zag trail that we had used for ascent though. Instead, we tried to find more open fields of gravel and slide down on them as fast as possible. Unfortunately, that did not work quite as well as on some other volcanoes. Our way was blocked by different sizes of boulders. So we could not simply let gravity pull us down, but we constantly had to change course and evade obstacles. The snow that was still lying around made it even harder to find the path of least resistance.
That said, walking downhill was a piece of cake, compared to our uphill struggles earlier this morning. We reached Barafu Camp less than 2 hours after we had left the summit.
It was still morning and our day was not over yet. First we had a nice breakfast and tried to relax. I lay down in my tent and tried to catch some more sleep. But I was way too psyched to sleep, and by the time I had calmed down, it was time for lunch.
After lunch, we started hiking again. After all, we were still at an altitude of 4670 meters now. And we wanted to get to a lower camp, to avoid altitude related problems. It was an easy trail, all down-hill and moderately steep. But after all the uphill climbing and downhill running this day I was super exhausted. I just didn’t had the energy anymore to go downhill at a decent pace.
The clouds had moved upwards by now and it was all foggy around us. We passed a pile of one-wheeled stretchers, which are allegedly used to get altitude sickness victims down the mountain. They looked surreal with the fog and the desert wasteland around them. The landscape would change rapidly though. We met the first moorland shrubs a little above a place called High Camp. However, our destination was yet lower, just at the upper boundary of the forest zone.
Unfortunately, it started raining before we could reach that destination, Mweka Camp. Once we arrived, in the early afternoon, I hid away inside my tent as quickly as possible. We had walked over 1200 meters up and 2800 meters down that day. I fell asleep fast and I did not wake up until the next morning.
Our last day on the mountain was just a formality. Luckily, it had stopped raining and it would remain dry for the rest of the day. All that we had to do was hiking down to Mweka Gate.
It was all forests around us, but I was still too exhausted to give much attention to our surroundings. Not even to the monkeys, which we heard howling somewhere in the distance.
The past few days had been exciting and memorable. But now I was looking forward to more relaxing holiday activities.
* Overall climb and descent as calculated from GPS data. Numbers seem exaggerated, because GPS altitude measurements have a lot of jitter. Apparently more than the latitude/longitude measurements used to calculate distance.