We have a lot of “how-to” and general advice posts for climbing Kilimanjaro on our Blog. But reading an excellent recent post on CNN about Kilimanjaro, I was inspired to write a more humble ode of what surprised me the most on my Rongai trek to the top of Kilimanjaro. Here are my 9 biggest surprises on the Rongai route:
1) The elfin beauty of Kilimanjaro’s rainforest
While the Lemosho and Machame routes are the best known trails for rainforest, I was amazed by the vibrant, lush green beauty I found along the Rongai trail. Despite the Rongai being theoretically in the mountain’s “rain shadow,” I hiked through a fairy tale landscape in the lower reaches. While enjoying all the fresh air, I passed thick patches of beautiful towering ferns and so many massive, moss-laden trees – too many to count – with limbs twisting and turning into the sky every which way.
2) The abundance of water
Anyone who’s visited Tanzania on safari can attest that much of northern Tanzania is a rugged dry landscape. Not the Rongai in November!
We passed so many photogenic waterfalls and cascades, both big and small. We crossed little creeks by hopping on rocks and larger creeks via sturdy bridges. It was a marvelous twist to enjoy a water wilderness as I ascended and descended the lower and middle reaches of the route.
3) The wildlife
Seeing fresh buffalo tracks while traversing the barren upper stretches of the mountain was a surprise!
What the animal was doing up there only the buffalo knows. But lower down, we had eye-to-eye encounters with blue monkeys as black and white colobus monkeys watched us carefully from the treetops. Beautiful turacos alighted branches in the rainforest while cute little “tennis ball” birds delighted the eyes in higher altitudes. Kilimanjaro might never be a “go-to” wildlife destination but what you do see are casual reminders that yes, you are most definitely in Africa…
Despite the Rongai being the relatively dry route (compared to other Kilimanjaro trails), it was truly rainy in November, with some days seeing up to 4-5 hours of rain and/or drizzle. November is the “short” rainy season but this last November saw a healthy helping of rainfall. The mists were magic though, as parts of the forest and mountain would suddenly pop into view, then just as quickly, mists would swirl and descend, visibility could be reduced to what you saw just in front of you, only to open up again in a few short minutes.
5) The cold at night
Maybe it was because the days were relatively mild temperature-wise, or maybe it was because we were on the equator (and it should be warm there, right?). Whatever it was, the nights on the mountain felt very cold; you noticed it starting at dusk, how the climate was remarkably different on Kilimanjaro than it was in the nearby Serengeti. My guide brought me a second jacket to wear over my own down jacket for the cold. I originally thought that was overkill but I ended up using it on about 3 nights of the trek.
6) How easy it was to trek solo
I’m someone who’s very comfortable being on my own in the wilderness, but on a trip like Kilimanjaro, I wrongly assumed I’d get lonely. There are some climbers who make it a point to collect summits; they rack them up like trophies, almost like they are “taking” mountains. But on Kilimanjaro, I found the mountain took me. I felt a mysterious sense of belonging despite technically going solo on the trek. Maybe I never felt lonely since I was too busy being exhilarated? Maybe it was the unbelievable insight I gained into Tanzanian people by spending so much quality time talking with my guide instead of a friend? Maybe it was the constant smiles and laughter from the porters and rest of the crew while in camp? Or maybe it was the chance to finally sit down for long stretches and read a great paperback without distraction . . . Whatever it was, this was one of the best trips of my life.
7) The difference it made having my guide carry my daypack on the summit attempt
It really doesn’t sound like much at all, but our guides swear it helps summit success when they carry your daypack on the all-important summit morning. My guide explained how young ex-soldiers, proud and strong, would initially refuse the guide’s help, but somewhere around 18,000 feet, suddenly the lights would go on and the stubborn soldiers would finally give in and then continue on to summit successfully. People can and do over-estimate their own strength sometimes with high altitude, so take the guide’s advice, let them carry your day pack from the beginning of the hike on summit morning. It that sounds like “cheating,” remember that you still have to “carry” your own body up the slopes, and that’s what counts. There’s no glory in not summiting, so I learned to trust my guide and let him help.
8) How “vacationy” the trek really felt
While preparing and anticipating how difficult the trek was, I didn’t think even once that the trek could possibly be a “vacation.” My eyes were all on the goal of getting in shape, taking care of my body, preparing for the worst – all for summiting. But a funny thing happened on the way to the summit . . . I began to relax, enjoy the scenery, enjoy the steady support of my guide and the rest of the mountain crew, and appreciate the mountain and the solitude more and more each passing day. I found it a wonderful experience to get away from computers, cars, cell phones, and bills for a week. I felt all my day-to-day worries go somewhere very far away.
9) Just how beautiful being on the summit was
Nothing really can prepare for the mixture of triumph, jaw-dropping natural beauty, and all-round happiness you feel when you are on the summit. I’ve done many awesome things in life and been to many amazing places, but the combination of doing and being on that summit was electrifying. I was honestly surprised at how I felt, maybe because I had held out on hope, in case I didn’t make it to the summit. Or maybe I had expected to be absolutely exhausted, which I was not. Whatever the reason, nothing can match the deep thrill you’ll feel standing on the roof of Africa – it’s something everyone should experience for themselves!