Mount Kilimanjaro During COVID - Tanzania Travel Company - Machame Route
Mount Kilimanjaro During COVID - Tanzania Travel Company - Machame Route
A little background. We are both middle aged, in good health and we believe we may have had contracted COVID 19 in February 2020. We had been planning the Kilimanjaro adventure for many months. Our driving force was to raise funds for a close friend diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. ‘Climb Kili for Kille’ had extensive support across social media.
We felt emotionally compelled to climb Kilimanjaro, but also recognised that there were many other risks, issues and challenges to overcome before we set out on the Machame Route in September 2020.
We booked the adventure in January, before the world pandemic. The plan was to climb Kilimanjaro in 7 days (Lemosho Route), then off to Zanzibar for a 5 day rest. We booked flights with KLM, Air Tanzania and Emirates (Fly Dubai). By the end of March 2020 the aviation and hospitality sectors around the world had closed down. The entire tourism and adventure industry in and around Mount Kilimanjaro had also stopped operating.
For us this was all about our risk appetite and whether safety measures were in place in a country that had not reported COVID related figures to the WHO since April 2020. The Tanzania Government had declared the country free from COVID and all testing had ceased as a consequence. To compound matters further, the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office had ‘all but essential travel’ advice in place for Tanzania and our own travel insurance company confirmed that should we decide to travel against FCO advice, our cover would be invalidated. The odds were stacked against us
In August, KLM re-commenced commercial flights to Kilimanjaro and we were also able to secure alternative travel insurance - including enhanced cover for Hazardous Activity(Nationwide)
By the end of August 2020 our hotel, Riu Palace Nungwi, had still not re-opened and there was a further dilemma. There was no approved COVID testing laboratory or hospital in Zanzibar that could provide you with a recent negative PCR COVID test. One of Fly Dubai’s main travel condition into and out of Dubai International Airport was having proof of a negative test. We had no choice but the cancel the entire Zanzibar part of our trip. It seemed that hospitality, aviation and Government policy were not adequately aligned. This may have changed.
Tanzania Travel Company (TCC)
Choosing to use this fantastic company was the main reason why the expedition took place and the climb went as smoothly as it did.
Mr Sam Diah has been the Director since the company’s inception decades ago, and he prides himself on service excellence, safety and regular communication. He immediately advised that the best Kili route, given our time constraints, was the Machame Route - a 6/7 days trek with a high summit success rate. Attempting the Lemosho Route in 6/7 days would be too risky and may not allow us enough time to acclimitise. TCC are certified and accredited by the Tanzania Government to operate within the COVID pandemic. They have clearly set out COVID Standard Operation Procedures and Minimum Standards covering a multitude of activities - wearing of masks, social distancing, transportation, use of sanitiser, washing, cooking, handling of bags/food and emergency procedures. We quickly agreed a price in USD and everything was set up. Sam fully engaged in the fund raising effort on Facebook and he even posted videos himself. In the final weeks before the venture, I believed Sam and I messaged or spoke on almost a daily basis. This was very reassuring. We became 'virtual friends' instantly.
Another unsung hero was our Expedition Leader Richard ‘Rich’ Kikoti. An immensely experienced leader with over 100 Kili summits on his CV. His briefings were detailed and his care and attention towards us was 5 star.
What was the reality on the ground ref COVID?. So the flights to Kilimanjaro, transfers to the hotel (Green Mountain Hotel in Arusha), the hotel itself and the 2 hour bus journey to Kilimanjaro - we felt completely safe. Most folk wore masks, hand sanitiser was available and it was easy to socially distance. When we started the actual expedition, all masks got put to one side as they were simply not practical to use. Air becomes thinner and breathing deeper. If you can’t socially distance on Kilimanjaro, then where can you?
However, on both journeys to and from the airport, through the main cities of Arusha and Moshi virtually nobody was wearing a mask. Literally thousands in the streets, selling and trading and not a mask in sight. Tanzania’s President Magufuli has declared his country free of COVID and that his nations religious belief and prayers have protected them. Make of that what you will
What I can say is that people tend to vote with their feet. At most of the 6 mountain camps we stayed at during our climb, we were the only clients. These camps usually see between 200 to 400 tents every night. Tanzania is a beautiful country full of amazingly friendly people. It boasts an array of natural produce from fruit to vegetables, the precious Tanzanite stone and the jewel in the crown, Mount Kilimanjaro. Witnessing the effects of COVID on the country, Kili and the people that depend upon it is heartbreaking.
A brief mention on training. Put the work in!!. Extensive dog walks around 3-5 miles will not cut it. Prepare by trekking up/down and across some hills and similar terrain. Invest in a quality pair of hiking boots and be sure to break them in a few months ahead of your travels. We climbed the UK 3 Peaks - Ben Nevis, Mount Snowdon and Scafell Pike. This was not essential but it certainly prepared us, physically and mentally, to cope with the rigours of Kili - and there are many.
You are spoilt with an array of information on this subject - YouTube, blogs and vlogs. My advice is to closely follow the list provided by your tour operator. They have been doing this for years and know what works and what doesn’t. It is also important to establish what is and what is not included in the price. A few tips……
Sleep is essential and temperatures drop considerably at night. Invest in a quality sleeping bag that caters for at least -10. A comfy sleep mat is also a must.
During the trekking it's all about layers - stripping down ASAP when hot, not sweating, then layering up when things get cold. You will be walking through various climates and terrains so the layering demands will change constantly. Don’t overly pack you day sack with stuff you don’t need. Your water, warm layers and snacks should suffice
Batteries for digital devices and torches etc will loose power due to the cold. During the night, have your phone/camera in your sleeping bag so as to keep it warm and preserve battery life. Either, take additional batteries or take charger/booster packs. You want to make sure you have 100% power in your head torch and camera on summit night. During the 6 hour push to Uhuru Peak, make sure your camera or phone is inside your warm layers and as close to your warm bits!. My 100% charged phone had dropped to 1% but the Porters phones were 80% - they had theirs under their arm pits.
It is also worth paying that little extra for your own private toilet. The alternative is not for the faint-hearted
The package will usually include 3 meals a day. The food is excellent and is designed to keep you hydrated and energised through carbs - soups, chicken and fries (chips), broths, peanuts, popcorn, porridge and copious cups of tea. The higher you ascend, you may experience a loss of appetite. This is natural. We didn’t eat any of our energy bars and sweets. We gave all of them to the Porters
Staying hydrated throughout the day and night is essential. You will be advised to drink between 2 and 4 litres of fluid per day. We struggled to drink 2 litres per day, but then add in the soups, cups of tea and ‘mess tent’ intake and you pretty much get there. A 2 litre ‘camelback’ bladder in your day sack should suffice. Dehydration makes you more prone to altitude sickness. More on that below.
Altitude Sickness (AS) & Diamox
As aforementioned, choosing the right route is very important. Lemosho and Machame have high summit success rates. Some may experience little or no AS and others may have terrible time with it - leading to a swift descent. We decided to take Diamox (Acetazolamide). This is a prescription drug both in the UK and USA. Diamox hastens acclimatization and helps prevent high altitude disorders. This is not for everyone and many would prefer to Climb Kili completely free of drugs. One of the main side effects if Diamox is that it makes you pee more. It can also lead to a tingling (pins and needles) sensation in your fingers, toes and on your lips. We regarded this as small price to pay. I experienced some headaches at night and one severe one following our summit. Paracetamol and rapid descent took care of these episodes. I guess we will never know what would have happened if we didn’t take Diamox.
To guard against AS, stay hydrated, keep your Expedition Leader appraised on how you are feeling throughout the day. They will be keeping a very careful eye on you anyway - watching your behaviour, listening to your breathing, monitoring your peaks/troughs in conversation etc. Poly Poly (Swahili for Slowly Slowly) will be heard all day, everyday. At times, ascending may feel painfully slow but it is important. Also important is the ‘climb high - sleep low’ philosophy. The guides will get you to climb to higher points during the day, then drop as much as 800 metres to sleep the night - its all part of the tried and tested acclimatisation plan.
I don’t know where to start. They are legends. We had a team of 12 for just two of us. They literally carry between 15 and 25 kilos of weight up the mountain everyday at triple your speed, so as to set up camp, cook and make your experience all the better. They dance, sing and lift your spirits at every opportunity. During the pandemic, they have had no work and many have lost their mountain fitness. Most have taken to selling goods at the roadside for no more than 4 dollars per day and they struggle to feed their families. I mention this because the tipping element is so important. You should look to tip each of them a minimum of 5 USD each day. Trust me when I say that this is nothing for what they go through. We took 500 USD in tips and we should have taken more. We gave the cash to Richard for him to distribute amongst his team. We knew there would be some hierarchy to how tips were given but thought it best he did this as team leader. I found a further 180 USD in my wallet which we also handed to this fantastic group of men. We also made sure that much of our kit was gifted to them individually - mats, gaters, clothes, torches, ponchos and even my solar charger. They were so made up and grateful.
The Machame Route
Again there is plenty of information out there about this particular route. In brief, it suited our needs and time constraints. Acclimatising felt good and the pace, steepness of ascent, terrain and duration of daily hikes was also ideal for us. The highlights were climbing Baranco Wall (Day4) and the jaw-dropping views from Uhuru Peak. The day would normally start with a cuppa brought to your tent at 6.30am. Breakfast at 7am with us being required to have packed up ready to trek at 8am. You get into this routine very quickly. We found that the the mountain tended to experience beautiful weather in the mornings, with clouds drifting up and over later in the day. As soon as the sun sets, temperatures drop considerably. Wrap up real warm and keep the thermals on at night.
We experienced many highs and lows, the odd emotional wobble and plenty of self-doubt - particularly on summit night. One of our main issues was sleep deprivation. Having trekked most of the day to reach base camp (Barafu), you then take another acclimatisation walk up a few more hundred metres then back down. After a 5pm dinner you are required to sleep until 11pm that same evening before the midnight push begins. We did not sleep at all due to sheer excitement and anticipation. The 6 hour push to Uhuru Peak in the dark was the hardest thing we have ever done but also the most rewarding. Richard, Mweta and Adam kept our spirits up, they sang and motivated us. I felt extremely cold at times and a short time after the summit, my nose bled and I experienced a severe headache.
What we seriously under-estimated was the speed and extent of the descent. The steep scree descent from Stella Point is very hard on the body. It’s like skiing on gravel. Use of poles is essential. A brief stop off at Barafu Camp followed by a longer and more physically demanding descent to Mweka Camp (between the moorland and rain forest) was very tough on the joints and feet. The two pairs of socks worn for summit night resulted in us both having badly bruised toe nails, some of which we will lose.
The mood at Mweka Camp was incredible - a real sense of team spirit and personal achievement. The Porters danced and sang. Many of these guys will be our friends for life. Saying our goodbyes at Mweka Gate was a tough one.
Was it worth the risk? 100% - we would go further and argue that it may be the best time to go. It is quiet, and the overall experience more personable.
Did we ever feel unsafe? Never - we knew the risks and we took steps to mitigate those risks.
Would we do it again? 100%
As we come to the end of our 2 week quarantine period I have pledged to Sam and Rich that we will do as much as we can to promote the fantastic Tanzania Travel Company and the amazing people that worked for them. Without each and every single one of them, we would not have reached the summit of Kilimanjaro.
Asante Sana !! (Thank you so much)