Ever since tourism expanded on Kilimanjaro the Marangu Route has been the most popular trail, and with a path that takes in such glorious features as the deep rich forest of the south-eastern slopes, the flower-filled Maundi Crater and the wind-blown high-altitude desert of the Saddle, it’s not surprising. The Marangu Trail is also the only trail where you sleep in huts rather than under canvas. Do not, however, be misled into thinking this route is easy – indeed, many people fail to reach the summit on this route because they have failed to acclimatize properly. For this reason, we have included a ‘rest’ day in our itinerary, where we spend two nights at Horombo Huts in order to increase our chances of acclimatizing properly – and making it to the summit safely!
Note that the following itinerary is for just five days. Those sensible folk who opted for a six-day climb will in all probability take a ‘rest day’ (or, more accurately, an ‘acclimatization day’) on day 3. This point needs emphasising: a five-day trek is not recommended as it does not give your body sufficient time to acclimatize. This means that you are less likely to reach the summit – and are endangering your health too. For this reason we – and several other companies – do not arrange five-day treks.
Day 1: Marangu Gate to Mandara Huts
Distance: 8.3km (8.75km if taking the Nature Trail Loop):
Altitude Gained: 818m
Marangu to Mandara Huts
Our trek begins at Marangu Gate (1905m), the home of the park authorities and the busiest gate on the mountain. We put particular emphasis on being as early as possible at the gates, for many reasons. For one thing, it means we don’t waste time queuing up to register but can be processed immediately – which means we can get trekking sooner!
This first day takes us deep into the jungle bearding Kilimanjaro’s lower slopes. Being one of the first on the trail means we have the path ‘to ourselves’, enabling us to appreciate the mountain more and increase our chance of spotting wildlife on this first day, before they are frightened off by the noise of other groups. So we’ll be keeping an eye out for the beautiful colobus monkeys as well as blue monkeys, as well as some of the flowers for which Kilimanjaro is famed, and in which the Marangu Route excels, such as the vivid red Impatiens kilimanjarii and Gladiolus Wastonides.
Having taken lunch in a small clearing known as Kisamboni, we continue up the slopes past small waterfalls alongside a babbling stream, to the Mandara Huts, our accommodation for the first night. Another advantage of setting off early on this first day is that you can choose the best spots in the dormitory before the other trekkers arrive, and you can be sitting enjoying the popcorn served by your crew whilst other trekkers are still struggling up the slopes. Those with the energy can join me for a brief stroll to the Maundi Crater, home to some of the lesser-known flowers on Kilimanjaro, and a place that offers stunning views east towards Mombasa and the Indian Ocean. Or, alternatively, you can simply sit, relax and reflect on the first day while your crew, as they will on every day of the trek, cook your evening meal.
Day 2: Mandara Huts to Horombo Huts
Altitude Gained: 998m
Mandara Huts to Horombo Huts
Today is an important one in your Kilimanjaro trek: a day when you not only climb above the treeline and leave the forest behind, but also catch your first sight of both the Mawenzi summit, Kilimanjaro’s second summit, but also its snow-covered bigger brother, Kibo – your ultimate destination!
Today is also the day that we start to really pace ourselves, taking each step slowly, to help us acclimatize to the increasingly rarified air. We are now in the heath and moorland zone, Kilimanjaro’s second vegetation zone, with such unusual plants as the giant groundsel and Lobelia deckenii decorating the path.
Our destination on this second day is the Horombo Huts (3721m), a chilly but welcoming set of A-Frame huts offering glimpses of Kibo to the west. Popcorn and a hot drink will be served to you upon arrival, followed by dinner in the evening.
Day 3: Horombo Huts to Kibo Huts and return to Horombo Huts
Distance: 9.5km (10.3km on the Mawenzi Alternative)
Altitude Gained: 993m
Horombo Huts to Kibo Huts
If we were sensible and opted for a six-day climb, the third day will be a ‘rest day’ – though that doesn’t mean we actually rest! Instead, today’s walk takes us up the southern slopes of Mawenzi, to get some of the best views of Kibo to be had anywhere, as well as a gorgeous panorama overlooking the wild and inhospitable desert of the Saddle. We also visit places such as the strange Zebra Rocks – rocks streaked over the centuries by water until they resemble the flanks of a zebra.This day is not just about sightseeing, however, for the rest day serves a more important purpose than that: helping your body to acclimatize fully, to make the rest of the trek easier – and hopefully help you to reach the summit too!
For those who are continuing straight to Kibo, the scenery once again changes to day as we leave just about all vegetation behind to enter the windswept wilderness of the Saddle, the high-altitude desert separating Kilimanjaro’s twin peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi. That doesn’t mean that the day is not without interest, however, for the beauty of the desert is undeniable, the light is usually wonderfully clear, meaning that you’ll be wanting to get out your camera every few seconds to photograph Kibo; and there are enough features on the way, including some weird and wonderful parasitic craters, to take your mind off the exhaustion you may now be feeling.
Our goal on this third day are the Kibo Huts, set at the foot of the summit of the same name. Attractively built in stone, and with the occasional mountain buzzard soaring overhead for company, you’ll spend the rest of the day sleeping and eating in preparation for the night ahead…
Night 3/Day 4: Kibo Huts to summit and descend to Horombo Huts
Distance: 6.25km to Uhuru Peak; plus 15.75km back to Horombo Huts (16.55km for Mawenzi Alternative)
Altitude Gained/Lost: 1181m to Uhuru Peak, then 2174m descent from Uhuru to Horombo Huts
Kibo Huts to Uhuru Peak
Rising at around midnight, we begin our slow march up to Gilman’s Point (5719m) on the edge of the Kibo crater, past such features as Hans Meyer Cave (5259m). It’s a steep, slow, cold march and a test of your endurance – this is where you’ll earn your Kilimanjaro certificate. Nevertheless, providing you have avoided altitude sickness and have acclimatized well, there is no reason why you shouldn’t make it up to Gillman’s. This we reach, all being well, at around 5am, though it can be much later depending on both your condition and the conditions on the mountain.
Our work is not yet over, however, for it’s around another hour and a half to Uhuru Peak. The gradient on this last section, especially by the standards of this night, is relatively flat – but at this altitude, every step can be exhausting. It is also a glorious walk, however, with glaciers and snowfields on one side and with views over the Kibo Crater on the other. At the end of the trail lies our ultimate destination, Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa! Here, if we’re on time, we can watch the sun rise over the African continent, take photos – and take a breather too!
Uhuru Peak to Horombo Huts
After a rest at the top, we continue back down to Kibo Huts – a walk that is considerably quicker than it was on the way up! At Kibo we take breakfast and relax for an hour or so, before continuing our march down the mountain, through the Saddle, heath and moorland zones before stopping, finally, at the Horombo Huts once more. We should arrive there at about 4pm – and you have been walking for around 16 hours, less breaks! Exhausting but, if you made it to the top, you’ll think it was worth it!
Day 5: Horombo Huts to Marangu Gate and return to hotel
Distance: 20km (20.75km on the Nature Trail)
Altitude Gained/Lost: 1816m
Horombo Huts to Marangu Gate
And so we come to the last day of our trek, as we march back through the forest to Marangu Gate, smiling smugly at all those coming up the slope the other way. Stopping at the Mandara Huts for lunch, we continue heading down until we once more reach Marangu Gate, where those who conquered the mountain – or at least made it to Gillman’s Point – collect their certificates. A jeep will be waiting to take everyone back to their hotel – and the land of cold beers and warm showers. Your adventure of a lifetime is at an end – and civilization will rarely have felt so good!