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Published: January 19th 2012
A warm up for Kilimanjaro
To give ourselves a better chance of climbing Kilimanjaro we did a warm-up hike on Mount Meru, the second highest summit in Tanzania, at 4652 metres altitude. Meru is nowhere near as popular as Kilimanjaro, but it's becoming busier as more and more people realise they need a proper acclimatization before tackling the big one.
The Meru hike is a 3 or 4 day climb depending on how fast you do the descent. The summit attempt begins very early on the third morning, when, like on Kilimanjaro, you set off for the summit at midnight.
Ruth and I had already been in Tanzania for 4 days on a safari before we met up with the rest of our group, who flew in the night before Meru. We were joined by our guide Jill, her husband Tom, Gareth & John from UK, and Tim from America. Day 1 - Momela Gate to Miriakamba Huts
The Meru hike begins at the Momela Gate, where your guide usually hires porters and pays park fees. To add to our party of 7 we had a local guide - Douglas, an assistant guide - Alfred, 2
cooks, about 12 or 13 porters, and even a ranger, whose job it was to scare off the animals with his gun! The Meru hike is part of Arusha National Park which is teeming with wildlife, hence the compulsory ranger that accompanies each group.
There is a large amount of bureaucracy with hiking on Meru or Kilimanjaro; if you are used to hiking independently then it can be a little disconcerting but that is quickly forgotten once you finally set off.
After lunch at the Momela gate we were on our way. Felix the ranger took the lead and we set off at a brisk pace and almost immediately we saw some warthogs and buffalo across the plains.
The views weren't great the first day as the clouds were low but it was still an enjoyable hike as we passed through open plain then into the forest before emerging at Miriakamba Huts at 2500m. The huts were surprisingly well equipped with a total of 48 beds in 2 large huts, with 4 beds to a room. There were also flushing toilets and a large mess hut whose balcony overlooked the Arusha National Park and had views of
Kilimanjaro in the distance. There was even wildlife - one of our group spotted a giraffe walking close to the ladies toilets. At least that was his story!
One of the best things about a guided trek is that all the real hard work is done by someone else. Once you've finished trekking for the day you can take it easy until the next day and you don't have to worry about preparing dinner as the cook and team take care of it all. And you never needed to worry about running out of food...that first night, despite having walked only 8km, we were served popcorn, nuts, biscuits and tea as soon as we arrived, followed shortly by the main course, which was cucumber soup (at least 2 bowls each), and a mini mountain of pasta, meat and fruit washed down with endless cups of tea.
Over dinner we got to know the rest of our group. Aside from me and Ruth, we had Tim from Brazil (originally from Texas), John and Gareth, a father and son from Shropshire in England, and our guide Jill and her husband Tom. None of the group had climbed much about 5000m
so it was up to Jill and Tom to fill us in with their tales of high altitude from the Himalaya.
The huts were fairly comfortable though my main memory from that first night was popping out to the toilet at 4am and seeing these very bright pair of eyes in the trees. I didn't wait around to see what animal it was! The feasting continued next morning with porridge, toast, coffee, juice, pancakes and probably much more that I've forgotten. It was something of a relief when we finally set off as this tour was beginning to resemble some sort of reverse fat camp. Day 2 - Miriakamba Huts to Saddle Huts
Day Two on Meru took us through the forests. The clouds were again low today so we didn't have any of the amazing views we'd expected. The clouds did make the hike through the forest a little more atmospheric, with the lichens in particular looking good in the mist. We felt we were making good pace, but were put in our place when our porters soon passed us - each carrying 15kg, mostly on top of their heads.
It didn't take long until
Ruth and me near the summit
Getting close to the top of Meru not long after sunrise
we arrived at Saddle Huts, which at 3500 would be base camp for our attempt on the summit. The huts here were less salubrious than the previous night, but still made for a comfortable place to relax. At this height the altitude began to kick in and I started to notice my breath becoming more laboured. We were encouraged to rest, drink water and keep eating.
In the afternoon we had a one hour acclimatization hike to the top of Little Meru, a small peak on the north side of the mountain, overlooking the huts, which took us up another 300m to 3800 altitude, providing us with more acclimatization before our summit attempt that night. In the past I've had "issues" at high altitude so I tried to take things very slowly. As we reached the top of Little Meru the clouds were finally beginning to part and for the first time we saw the ridge and the summit of Meru. Any ideas we had about Meru being a simple warm up were quickly being banished as it dawned on us all we had quite a trek ahead of us that night.
Back down at camp I remember
feeling a bit of a head rush after the altitude but otherwise I was all set to go. We had an early dinner, again eating far more than I would have thought healthy, before trying get a few hours sleep ahead of our midnight wake up call. It was difficult to sleep with all the nerves. I was just lying there trying to force myself to sleep knowing that the clock was ticking ever closer to our midnight call. Day 3 - Saddle Huts - Meru Summit - Miriakamba Huts
We were unsure how cold it would be so we put on every conceivable layer before heading out to the hut for our midnight breakfast. Porridge at any time is bad but especially so at midnight...At about 1.30 am our group set off across the hill. It was a stunning night, and there was nearly enough moon and star light to guide us along without torches. The initial path was fairly flat, the skies were clear and there was no wind. So if that held for the next 6 to 7 hours we'd have perfect conditions on top.
Our first major stop was at Rhino Point at
View of Meru from somewhere near Arusha
3800m where we huddled in the darkness, removed our layers and had a drink and some food. Felix the ranger turned back here, meaning there were no wild animals beyond this point, though we all suspected he just fancied some sleep.
The next section was the toughest as we had to scramble in the dark across a long section of the track, no easy task at 4000m altitude. This brought us out onto the rim of Meru, though we were still 700m or so below the summit height. For the next few hours it was slow steps up the hill with occasional views into the crater rim where we could make out the outline of the Ash Cone, a smaller crater within the crater.
At about 6am the path lead up to the rim of the crater and we had a glorious moment when we saw Kilimanjaro appear to the east in what was probably the most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen. Despite being in Tanzania for 5 days, this was our first full view of Kili, and what a time and place to view it from. In front of us was a sea of cloud, on the
Group about to depart
Tom Jill, John, Gareth, Ruth, Tim, Barry
horizon was the start of the sunrise and between the two rose the peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi, the highest peaks on Kilimanjaro. Magical!
But we still had work to do. The summit of Meru was in view and appeared tantalizingly close though there remained about 200 metres of altitude to climb. It took us another hour to climb those last 200 metres to the top, an hour I don't remember very fondly. Altitude sickness had started to kick in, and despite walking very slowly and taking a rest every few minutes it simply got worse. Just like my previous attacks in South America it felt like being drunk and hungover at the same time with a headache and feeling of sickness that would not abate. There were a couple of false summits before we finally reached the summit at 7.40 am. All of our group had made it to the top, quite a good omen for Kilimanjaro.
I was absolutely spent and didn't have the energy to take photos or even enjoy the views. I sat down beside the flag and tried to enjoy the moment. At 4652 metres this was far more than just a warm
up for Kilimanjaro, it was a very tough hike in its own right. There was a visitors book on the summit which we all signed. I was visitor number 3010 that year, making an average of about 15 people a day.
As we sat there on the summit contemplating the views and looking apprehensively at Kilimanjaro 60km to the east, I remember thinking there was no way I'd be able to climb another 1200m altitude, which is the difference in height between Kili and Meru. We would find out in exactly one week's time, which would be our planned summit night on Kili.
My problems really started on the way down from Meru's summit. At about 4100 metres, we stopped for a rest and I remember feeling like I needed to sleep. When we got up to go again, I felt worse and next thing I chundered everywhere! Not attractive! Sorry, Mount Meru! The rest of our group were ok so I felt a bit embarrassed but also immediately better after being sick. We got back to Saddle Huts at 12.30, making it a 10 hour trip in all, 6 hours up, 4 down. But that wasn't the
end, as we had to force lunch down us, before another two hour trek back down to Mirikamba huts. So it had taken us 12 hours walking to cover 13 km, but that included 1100 metres of descent and 2000 m descent. Quite a day it had been. Back at the huts Kilimanjaro was now in view - we knew we'd be seeing it up close very soon. Final Day: Miriakamba Huts to Momela Gate
At 6am on the final day some random guy barged into our room in the hut and said "You've got to come out and see the sunrise..." before seeing us, realising his mistake and saying "Sorry wrong room". He was correct about the sunrise though, as Kili was in view and looking spectacular.
At dinner the previous night we had debated whether to walk out to Momela Gate the way we had come in or to take the longer route via the forest road. Our guide was encouraging us to take the shorter one but I think this was because he fancied clocking off earlier. In the end we voted for the road and it was a good choice as we got
Felix, our ranger on the trip to Meru. We had to have an armed ranger with us as there are wild animals in the park.
very close to the Ash Cone below the summit and saw some other amazing sights on the way. The path led uphill initially with Kilimanjaro in view to the east and Meru straight in front of us and nice scenery all around.
The 13km trek through the forest took in sights such as a waterfall, more viewpoints of Kili, colonies of red ants and finally the famous Fig Tree, whose trunk contains a gap so big an elephant can pass through. I had expected the last day to be a bit of a trudge but it was a very enjoyable hike, I would encourage anyone doing Meru to take this longer route during the hike - it's probably better to do it on the first day if you can.
Back at the gates we had lunch, received our certificates and handed out tips to the porters. The journey back included a safari through Arusha National Park, where we saw giraffe, warthogs, baboons and more animals. By late afternoon we were back in our hotel, where we had a bit of time to relax and wash our clothes (and ourselves). It had been quite an eventful few days on
Meru and a memorable climb. But at dinner that night, rather than look back on what we'd done on Meru, thoughts were turning to what lay ahead of us on Kilimanjaro.
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