IT’S an inauspicious start. Only three weeks before we are due to fly to Tanzania the route we’d hoped to climb is closed.

The Western Breach is generally considered to be the most challenging way to the top of Kilimanjaro and involves an exhilarating scramble between two glaciers.

But a rockfall had killed four American climbers at base camp and the national park authorities have decided to close the route on safety grounds. Instead we are to take a more conventional route involving mile after mile of gruelling loose scree.

Apart from the change of plan for summit day though, the rest of the trip is largely unaffected. We start off with a four-day warm-up hike up neighbouring Mount Meru. At 4566m the volcanic cone of Meru is Tanzania’s second highest mountain and is a fine climb in its own right.

Surrounded by the wildlife-rich Arusha National Park, Meru also offers stunning views of Kilimanjaro, which is around 50 miles to the east.

On summit day, we get a taste of the challenges that face us on Meru’s bigger cousin. We set off at 2am but after four hours of plodding upwards in thick mist, two of the party have had enough.

As dawn breaks the mist shows no sign of receding and, with two hours to go to reach the summit, I also decide to call it a day. The three of us descend to Summit Hut where we had spent the previous night and wait for the rest of the party to return with tales of success and stunning views in all directions.

After a quick descent, we repair to the relative luxury of a wildlife lodge for a day of relaxation before embarking on Kilimanjaro.

Our route to the top is the rarely-used Shira Route which starts at 3840m. A convoy of jeeps takes us along a bone-shaking dirt track to the start of the trek.

As we drive through villages smiling children emerge from houses shouting karibu and jambo, Swahili for welcome and hello. At the end of the road we disembark and meet our 40-strong team of porters, cooks and guides.

We spend the next three days climbing steadily upwards around the western flanks of Kilimanjaro, below the southern icefields. By the time we get to the Moir Hut at 4200m the effects of high altitude begin to kick in. While we rest in our tents nursing splitting headaches, the well-acclimatised porters play an impromptu game of football outside.

The following morning we cross the crags of the so-called Shira Cathedral and scramble up the magnificent Barranco Wall. The arid lava landscape is dotted with giant lobelia and cacti, but apart from the odd moment, the mountain remains stubbornly shrouded in mist.

Summit day begins with a wake-up call shortly after midnight. It’s bitterly cold and the shorts and T-shirts used at the beginning of the trek have been swapped for three or four layers of fleece, balaclavas, down jackets and mittens.

The final push involves a thousand-metre climb in the dark to reach the crater near the summit. Although nobody is hungry we force down as much breakfast as we can in a bid to keep energy levels high.

It’s a clear night and the path ahead is illuminated by the flickering head-torches of dozens of climbers zig-zagging their way to the summit. It is already minus six degrees and by the time we get to the top it will be colder still. With oxygen levels almost half that of air at sea-level, every step is a struggle.

I feel prematurely aged as I put one foot ahead of the other and, as if in slow motion, plod on and on. Our guides, who have made the trip hundreds of times, make light of it and offer their encouragement and advice. “Pole, pole”, Swahili for slowly, slowly, is their constant refrain as we trudge our way onwards and upwards in single file.

At around 5500m we make way for a group of walkers who have decided to abandon the climb and are heading down. A short while later one of the fittest members of our party also turns back. Most of the group, myself included, have been taking a drug called Diamox to combat high altitude sickness. Chris hadn’t and it’s too late to start now.

The temperature has dropped to minus ten and the water in our rucksacks has begun to freeze up. However, as if timed perfectly to lift our spirits, a few moments later an intense orange-red band appears on the horizon as dawn finally breaks over the Indian Ocean and the serrated outline of neighbouring Mount Mawenzi.

After several days of greyish weather it’s a majestic sight as the sun lights up the peaks and glaciers ahead of us. Reflected against the snow and ice the sunlight soon becomes blinding and I reach into my rucksack for sunglasses and sun cream. We eventually reach Stella Point and the true dangers of what we are doing are driven home. A man’s body lies a few yards to one side of the path and is covered in foil. We only learn the details later but 63-year-old Richard Buchholz from Wisconsin died from a massive heart attack in the arms of his daughter shortly after they reached Stella Point.

The pair were around 20 minutes ahead of our party when he started to feel unwell. We are only told of his death on the way down and, with mental awareness at a low ebb, it is only when we get back to our base camp that it really sinks in. We later learn that he had an undiagnosed heart condition.

From Stella Point the path becomes less steep and skirts around the crater rim towards the highest point, Uhuru Peak. Bathed in sunlight, the summit now appears to be within striking distance and, with one last push, I finally make it to the top.

The travel company’s brochure had warned that the summit day is the toughest physical challenge of most of their clients’ lives, and so it proves to be. At an altitude of 5896m it’s the highest I have ever been and my brain is too numbed for any feelings of elation.

I take in the magnificent views of Tanzania and Kenya sprawled out below us in a curiously dispassionate way, and make an attempt to contemplate Kilimanjaro’s fast-receding glaciers just below us.

Over the last century more than 80 per cent of the mountain’s ice cap has melted away because of local deforestation and global warming. Scientists now expect the few remaining glaciers to melt away completely within the next decade, when the iconic snows of Kilimanjaro – the only snow-capped mountain on the equator – will be no more.

Of the 12 folk in our group, only two fail to make it to the top of Kilimanjaro.

Having spent four days getting to the top, getting down only takes two, but the summit day is punishingly long. After our seven-hour ascent, it will be 10 hours before we get to the Mweka Camp at 3100m for our last night on the mountain.

The final day of walking is a real pleasure as we descend through a forest of acacia, eucalyptus, camphor, mahogany and baobab trees. Spirits soar at the thought of a hot shower for the first time in a week.

After 10 days of strenuous hiking the prospect of three relatively sedentary days on safari comes as a welcome relief.It’s also good to exchange our tents and foam camping mattresses for the luxury of a real bed. The delightful tree lodge we stay in near Lake Manyara is made up of 20 or so twin-bedded lodges thatched with woven palm-leaf.

A trio of lizards shoot up from behind the sink every time the tap is used. I hadn’t expected to be sharing my bathroom with anyone but the discovery adds to the charm of the place.

The vast stretches of plain, grassland, bush and woodland in northern Tanzania are among the top wildlife-viewing spots in Africa.

From the foothills of Kilimanjaro, no fewer than six national parks are within striking distance including Tarangire, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara and the Serengeti. Of the three we visit the Ngorongoro Crater is geologically the most spectacular. Around 15 miles wide, the park is in one of the world’s largest calderas created thousands of years ago by the collapse of a volcano. The steep walls around the crater, which rise to 3000 feet, create a natural bowl which effectively traps animals within it and leads to a remarkably high concentration of wildlife.

In just one day we have close encounters with elephants, giraffes, cheetahs, zebras, hippos, ostriches, antelopes, wildebeest, hyenas, buffaloes and warthogs, as well as the red-caped Maasai herdsmen. In the distance we also spot some of the crater’s rare black rhinos.

Lake Manyara’s main draw is its tree-climbing lions and pink flamingos, thought to number around three million in total. Another of the attractions is the vast numbers of hippos who spend the day cooling off in pools around the shoreline.

In addition to safaris, another popular add-on for many of the tourists who come to climb Kilimanjaro is a few days relaxing on the paradise island of Zanzibar. Tempting as it sounds, it’s too late to rearrange my return flights. Perhaps next time ...


UK travel company Exodus offers a number of 10 to 15 day Kilimanjaro expeditions. Prices start from £2799 including accommodation, meals, park fees, services of a mountain team and flights from London, with the option of connecting flights from UK regional airports.

Popular add-ons include safaris in the Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara national parks and/or a few days on Zanzibar.