Everyone has their own version of a travel ‘To-Do’ list; some have a few specific spots they can’t wait to see, others’ are miles long and seem to change from year to year. Though I’m certainly guilty of the latter, Africa has always been a place I’ve been dying to see, specifically East Africa. After a few failed attempts to organize a trip to the region, this past Christmas break I finally got the opportunity to travel to Tanzania. The trip focused on two main goals; climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, and venturing out on safari in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
With our gear packed up, after 30+ hours of flying time we landed at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, located 50km east of the city of Arusha, which would be our home base for the next 2.5 weeks. With a day and a half in our itinerary between arriving in Arusha and departing for Kilimanjaro, we had plenty of time to rest and re-adjust to the 10 hour time difference between Calgary and Tanzania, as well as some time to explore Arusha itself.
Our hotel set a group of us up with a driver who took us around the city for the day, in exchange for a small tip. We started the day at the Cultural Heritage craft mall on the western edge of the city, which boasted a wide array of typical souvenirs and more difficult-to-find hand made pieces. The heart of the mall is a multi-level art gallery that showcases local art from various periods. Our shopping then continued on at Shanga, located on the Burka Coffee Estate. Shanga started out as a small shop making beaded necklaces and has expanded to include clothing, paper, and decorative furniture. All of their items are made from recycled materials, and are made by disabled workers.
We injected some excitement into the day with a visit to Meserani Snake Park, and its collection of African snakes and other reptiles. The friendly and knowledgeable staff at the park toured us around and told us all about their poisonous and deadly inhabitants, and allowed us to take some photos with some slightly more peaceful box turtles and garden snakes – exciting, but certainly not for the faint of heart! The day was capped off with a late lunch at a local restaurant to give some local faire a try. We were treated to a spread of various grilled meats; chicken, beef, goat, and fish, with sides of chips, fried banana, and ugali – a maize flour dough that resembles polenta. This was a great introduction to the food that we would be treated to during the trip, grilled meats with lots of flavor and uncomplicated sides, simple and delicious.
The Mt. Kilimanjaro Trek
To climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, guides and porters are required as per the Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park regulations. To organize all of this, most folks book their Kilimanjaro trip through a touring or trekking company. There are several larger companies that provide Kilimanjaro treks, as well as several local companies that specialize in trekking in East Africa. There’s a lot of information about these services online, and extensive research is highly recommended to ensure that your expectations are met. What equipment is included and what kind of food/water is provided varies from company to company, and the ‘you get what you pay for’ rule certainly applies here. Many companies also offer safari tours and trips to Zanzibar as add-on options as well, which is also important to consider.
There are seven official trekking routes on Kilimanjaro, and we opted for the Machame route. Though it is one of the steeper routes on the mountain, its reputation for being one of the most scenic as well as being good for altitude acclimatization won us over. On our first day we packed up our gear, and our group of six along with our guides and a few porters from the Arusha area set out for the Machame gate. After arriving, applying for our permit, and a quick lunch, the trek was on!
Our first day consisted of hiking through the gorgeous rainforest that covers the base of the mountain. This first of five ecosystems that you pass through on Kilimanjaro showcases a wild variety of vegetation and wildlife, including several blue monkeys who posed for us as we snapped some photos. As the sun began to set we arrived at the Machame Hut camp site, where we feasted on a hot dinner and crawled into our tents for the night, collectively amazed at where we were.
The next few days then followed the same pattern. We would wake up early and pack up our tents, splitting what we needed for the day into our day packs that we would carry, and packing our other belongings into our larger bags for the porters to carry along with our camp equipment. After breakfast, we would set out for the day’s hike, which would usually be between 4-8 hours. We would have lunch either on the trail or upon arriving to the next camp, depending on the day, and finally dinner at our next camp before climbing back into our tents for the night.
The terrain we covered in those first five days was anything but routine. Our hikes alternated between longer, more gradual climbs and shorter, steeper days, while we wound our way through the diverse regions of the mountain. The rainforest was followed by the Heather zone, complete with low-lying vegetation and an eerie fog that would roll in every day just around lunch. As we climbed higher, we entered the Moorland zone where the vegetation grew thin and aside from small insects and rodents, we were the only ones on the mountain. The Moorland then gave way to the even more barren Alpine Desert, which hosted very little life and very dramatic changes in weather. The terrain we covered changed with each zone, from easy walks over even ground to loose scree similar to that found in the Canadian Rockies, to my personal favourite, a moderate scramble up the rocky face of the Barranco wall.
Our big push for the summit fell on the sixth day, which proved to be the longest and most challenging, but also most rewarding day of the trip. We were up just after midnight to pack up our things and start on the long journey towards Stella Point, which sat roughly 1,100m above our camp where we spent the night. Bundled up in more layers than I could count, and with only our headlamps to guide us, we slowly trudged along in the dark. Some hours later, the sun finally peered over the horizon, and Stella Point was in sight – the endless trek finally seemed possible! We soon after reached Stella Point, the ‘almost there’ point of Kilimanjaro, and celebrated with some hot tea and a quick snack. From there, it was a relatively easy walk from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak, the true summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the roof of Africa!
After some much-earned celebration and photo-ops at the peak, we slowly made our way back down. We stopped at our high camp from the night before for a hot meal and a quick nap before continuing farther down the mountain to another camp. Our last day was bittersweet, having to say goodbye to the rest of our group and team of guides and porters proved harder than anyone anticipated after spending 7 days together. After a celebratory breakfast, we packed up all our gear one last time and headed for the Mweka gate park, where a final hot lunch and congratulatory beers were waiting for us. We then headed back to Arusha to regroup, and for some well-earned showers.
Safari in Tanzania
After a much-needed rest day to regroup, do laundry, and re-pack, we were off again! There are several National Parks and conservation areas within both Tanzania and neighboring Kenya, and countless different ways in which you can explore them. It’s entirely possible to have a 2+ week trip on safari alone! For our timeline and budget, we opted for a 4 day safari starting in the Serengeti and moving on to the Ngorongoro Crater.
We started by loading into a tiny commuter plane to fly into the heart of the Serengeti, where our safari guide met us at one of the Park’s small landing strips. Our adventure started right away and within minutes we were spotting the local wildlife the park is known for; lions, zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, the list went on and on.
With over 10 years of experience as a guide under his belt, our guide Jon knew the park like the back of his hand. On top of that, most of the guides in the parks communicate with each other over radios to point out any of the rarer animals that are sighted within the park, ensuring that all the guides are able to offer their clients the best possible experience.
Early January in the Serengeti is migration season for zebras and wildebeest, as they make their way from Kenya to the southern Serengeti, following the rain and vegetation growth. They stay in the southern Serengeti as they drop their young in late February, before they start heading north to Kenya again a few weeks later. As we drove through the southern area of the park our tiny Toyota truck was surrounded by hundreds of zebras and wildebeests as they marched on together in search of food, a truly surreal feeling.
My favourite part of our safari adventure was the day we got to spend in the Ngorongoro Crater. This 20km wide volcanic caldera is a world of its own, where a 2,000ft high rim surrounds the lush, green landscape that is home to thousands of animals. Here we had a truly lucky day for spotting wildlife and knocked off almost every animal off our collective wish list. This included spotting three separate black rhinos, a truly lucky feat considering there are less than 50 black rhinos left in Tanzania, with only 25 or so of these residing in the crater!
Whether you’re an animal lover, an avid photographer, or somewhere in between, a safari experience is not to be missed.
Overall, my first trip to Africa exceeded any and all of my expectations for the region. The welcoming people, gorgeous landscape, and impressive wildlife made for a truly unforgettable trip. For the active hiker and camper, trekking Kilimanjaro is an absolute must if travelling to East Africa. If roughing it in the backcountry isn’t quite your thing, or if you’re looking to treat yourself after a big hike, Tanzania has so much more to offer. Exploring the country’s larger cities, taking in a safari, the beaches of Zanzibar (which we didn’t have time to explore) could fill an entire month’s worth of adventures. Though proper research and preparation is definitely needed beforehand, Tanzania is a great destination for any traveller looking to try something new.
Erin is located in Calgary Alberta Canada. She loves to travel, and is always getting outdoors to explore, hike, and climb. With her recent adventure she’s starting to combine the two and it’s taking her somewhere unlike anywhere she’s ever been before; by sharing this experience with the Hike365 community, she hopes to motivate other girls to venture out somewhere completely new as well.
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