Tanzania: Trekking on Mt Meru
1st March - 5th April 2002
Our transport arrived at 09.00 to pick us up outside the guesthouse in Arusha. We had a few last minute things to buy on the market, the perishables like meat and cheese and also a big knife for Joseph to use for cooking. We took Joseph's little helper, a young local lad, with us and stopped at the market and sent him off with a shopping list. He ran off into the crowds and presently reappeared with a bag full of purchases. We were now all set and drove off out of town along the Arusha - Dar es Salaam highway to the turn off for the Arusha national park, about 11km along the road. On route we stopped to buy a couple of litres of fuel for the stove at the small village of Usa River. A dirt road led off the main highway to the park, a distance of 24km. The road became increasingly rough as we slowly drove past fields, farms and small villages. The farms eventually gave way to bush as we crossed the boundary of the national park. We passed by a clearing where a large herd of buffalo grazed and giraffes wandered about alongside the road. The bush soon turned into dense tropical forest before returning back to bush and grassland as we approached the Momella gate.
We had reached our final hurdle, paying the park fees and hiring a guide. Of course, as expected, things were just going too well and we very soon hit a major problem. The park rangers would not let Joseph enter the park at resident rates (a fraction of the cost we had to pay) and insisted that as he was Kenyan he had to pay the non-resident rates. Our long arguments that he was an East African and should only pay resident rates fell on deaf and very uncompromising ears. In Kenya and Uganda other East African nationals could enter a national park at local rates, otherwise how else could they afford to visit these places? We reckoned that all this hassle was just a ploy to get us to hire a local Tanzanian to cook for us rather than Joseph, a Kenyan, who was being treated here like a second-class citizen. The park ranger didn't count on the fact that we were good friends and after all the way Joseph had travelled and all his help organising this trek the previous day, the last thing we were going to do was leave him at the bottom of the mountain.
When our increasingly animated discussions were getting us nowhere and the ranger wouldn't accept a gift or donation I decided to call a conference under a shady tree between the three of us. I told Gerald that I knew that a problem like this would be thrown at us; it's all part of the challenge of travelling independently. I had a plan. We originally intended to spend four days trekking up and down the mountain, even though it was possible to do it in three. My plan was to do the trek in three days, the money we saved in park, guide and hut fees from day four would almost pay for Joseph to climb the mountain as a non-resident. It would mean a long day on day three, as well as climbing to the summit, we would have to descend all 3,066m back down to the park gate; it seemed the most logical solution to our problem. On the positive side it gave us, especially Gerald, an extra day to do something else instead; after all he was only in Tanzania for three weeks. We all agreed to this plan so I broke the news to the ranger and soon we were on our way with Mr Nasser our appointed, obligatory guide/ranger for the mountain. I also was not happy about being 'given' a guide; I would have preferred to choose one out of the crowd that was gathered around the park gate. He was armed with the most useless gun I had seen for a long time; it was more like your great grandfathers rifle from WW1 rather than an effective hunting rifle to protect us from Buffalo and other nasties whose home was Mt Meru; at least he had five bullets with him.
We had wasted a lot of time at the park gate and it had now gone midday, so we took the shorter route up to the Miriakamba Hut along a ridge, which lead almost directly to the hut rather than taking the more scenic route along the valley floor through the forest. We crossed a flat grassy plain from the park gate, where herds of buffalo and giraffe grazed to reach the foot of the mountain. The mountain started abruptly at the edge of the plain suddenly rising from the ground at an almost 45 degree angle. We began to climb the trail leading mostly through grass and bush along the ridge with the forest below us. Occasionally the trail would dip into a valley, which was thick with forest. The vegetation on the mountain is zoned according to altitude. The lower slopes are the Montane forest characterised mainly by trees like the East African yellowwood and the African pencil cedar. Mt Meru is drier than the other large mountains in East Africa and the canopy of the Montane forest is not quiet as thick and dense.
Along the way we hiked passed more giraffes, which were very close to the trail. They stopped munching leafs and just peered down on us quizically as we past by. We dropped into a small valley to cross a river, which was thick with vegetation and trees. There was little respite from the continuous climb up the mountain, the whole world seemed to be sitting at a 45-degree angle. About half way to the hut the cloud began to blow in across the mountain and the peaks ahead of us disappeared in a shroud of cloud. It wasn't long until the first drops of rain began to fall and the thunder started to rumble around the mountain, echoing ominously. The rain didn't let up and steadily became harder and harder; we stopped to put on our waterproof gear. A few minutes later the heavens opened and we were caught in the middle of a torrential, tropical downpour. The raindrops were huge, more like bullets falling from the sky, one raindrop could absolutely drench you. Within seconds water was pouring off my hat and the trail had turned into a river. We plodded on regardless up the steep trail suddenly with an extra incentive to reach the dry hut. Just when we thought it could not rain any harder, it did. Our guide was not looking very happy. It turned out that he hated the rain, which we thought was strange for someone who is a mountain guide.
The trail lead through a patch of open woodland and then steeply up another hill. We reached the top and through the grey mist of cloud and rain we finally saw the Miriakamba hut, the hadnful of huts laid out around a grassy clearing surrounded by trees. We ran for the nearest hut, which had a veranda and stood there exhausted, dripping wet and deafened by the heavy rain drumming on the metal, corrugated roof. This was the kitchen hut, the bunkhouse was next door only a few metres away. After walking all this way in the rain and at last finding shelter, we found it impossible to step out into the rain again to make the short dash to the bunkhouse. We stood under the veranda and waited for the rain to stop. Eventually, after an hour or so, it did and we went and dropped our gear off in the nearest of the two bunkhouses and dried ourselves off. The cloud slowly began to lift and I saw my first tantalising glimpses of my new surroundings.
Mt Meru, at 4,566m is the second highest mountain in Tanzania and is often over shadowed by it's near neighbour, Mt Kilimanjaro only 40km to the east. Meru is a classic volcanic cone formed during the creation of the Great Rift Valley, with its circular base measuring approximately 20km across at 2,000m. The eastern wall of the giant crater collapsed during subsequent eruptions at about 2,500m, leaving today a horseshoe shaped crater with the highest peaks along the western rim. The cliffs below the summit drop a staggering 1,500m to the crater floor inside the volcano, making them among the highest cliffs in Africa. The volcano has still been active over the past one hundred years and is not thought to be extinct yet. These more recent eruptions have formed a new ash cone, which rises from the crater floor.
The Miriakamba hut is at an altitude of 2,514m and sits on the collapsed eastern rim of the crater near to where the northern rim rises almost vertically from the crater floor. The views into the crater were stunning with the ash cone rising up at the back of the crater looking like a mountain in its own right. The sheer cliffs of the rim rose up all around, water still cascading down the rocks after the torrential rainstorm. The hut was surrounded by forest, which stretched out across the floor of the crater and clung to the sides of the rim. It truly looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Just before the sun set the cloud lifted from the summit and we could see once again the challenge we had set ourselves. A light covering of snow and ice from the recent storm clung to the rocks inside the rim around the summit peaks. Looking out to the east we could at last see the snow capped dome of Kilimanjaro rising above a sea of cloud that covered the plains below us.
While we admired the views, Joseph was busy cooking dinner in the kitchen hut. We had hit our first snag, we had lost the valve from the pressure stove. I felt rather gutted after all the trouble we had gone to searching for this stove in Arusha, it now stood before us useless. All was not lost and we managed to borrow a kerosene stove from the caretaker, the only problem was that a kerosene stove takes a lot longer to cook on. Joseph did a grand job though and served up a delicious three-course meal, a far better meal than either Gerald or myself could of cooked up under similar circumstances.
We woke up on day two of the trek as the sun was rising on the horizon, the skies above us were clear, but cloud still covered the plains below. Kilimanjaro was silhouetted black by the sun rising behind it, the inner walls of Meru's crater glowed orange in the first rays of sun. Today would be a hard days hiking. Before we began hiking we left some excess food supplies at the hut, as we would now only be spending one night at the Saddle Hut, rather than the originally planned two after yesterdays problems at the park gate. This made our packs a lot lighter and easier to carry. Why I was carrying 2kgs of passion fruit up the mountain, to this day remains a mystery. The trail lead off to the north from the Miriakamba Hut for a few hundred metres along a pleasantly flat path through the forest. It didn't last long and soon we were once again plodding slowly up a 45-degree slope.
The trail continued up through the forest, the trees draped in Usnea, old man's beard, mosses and small ferns clinging to the trunks and branches of the trees. We reached Topela Mbogo, Buffalo Swamp, after about three quarters of an hour and continued up the relentlessly steep path passing through pleasant glades in the forest to Mgongo Wa Tembo, Elephant Ridge. We stopped here for a break on a small patch of grass, right on the edge of the crater rim, the cliffs dropping away to the crater floor far below us. The cloud had begun to roll in over the rim of the crater above us, most of the crater floor was now obscured by low cloud, although we did catch glimpses through the occasional break. It had only been two weeks since I climbed Mt Kenya, which was still fresh in my mind. This was a far tougher mountain to climb than Mt Kenya. It may not be as high as Pt Lenana on Mt Kenya, at 4,985m, but it had a greater vertical climb in a shorter distance. There was no let up from the continual steep gradient on Meru whereas on Kenya the mountain rose in stages, with stretches of relative flat ground in the valleys in between the steep sections. Joseph agreed with me as he sat on a rock in the shade, sweat dripping down his face, looking absolutely exhausted. At least I was no longer carrying the 2kgs of passion fruit up this steep mountain trail.
The forest began to thin out at around 2,800m and the montane forest trees were replaced by giant St John's Wort and Hagenia, which were quite widely spread apart. The trail wound its way continuously upward, crossing over several small streams and grassy clearings. Unlike on Mt Kenya there was no bamboo zone on this mountain and the trees finally gave way to moorland at around 3,000m. The moorland was covered with giant heathers with the odd bright red Mackinder's lily growing by the side of the trail. There were no giant groundsels or lobelia growing on the moor, which are so characteristic of other moorland on the high mountains of East Africa. Joseph was beginning to suffer by now from the exertion of the climb, he brought up the rear of our group and all we could hear was a constant stream of expletives as he swore with every step up the mountain. Finally we emerged from the giant heathers at the Saddle Hut, 3,570m the end of today's climb, well almost. We had only hiked 4km today but climbed 1,050m; it had taken us just over five hours.
Our guide was rejoicing that we had made it to the hut before the rain; his only aim seemed to be to get to the hut as quickly as possible to avoid the afternoon rains. After lunch Gerald and myself went to climb the nearby peak of Little Meru, 3,820m to the north, which formed the saddle with the main peak of Meru to the south. Our guide refused to come with us because, yes you've guessed it, it looked like it would rain. So he just pointed out the trail to us and we went off by ourselves. The cloud was rolling in from the north, but we reckoned we would make it to the summit before the weather turned. It took us only thirty-five minutes to reach the peak, where there was a convenient, weathered wooden sign announcing that you had made it to the summit of Little Meru. We stopped to take some summit photos just as the first clap of thunder crashed around us and the cloud drifted over the saddle below us. It made me jump but rather than hearing the thunder crash above us it was all around and below us; we were standing in the middle of a thunder cloud on the top of a mountain. It was time to make a quick exit and we almost ran back down the mountain to the Saddle Hut, which only took us fifteen minutes, just beating the approaching storm.
Again Joseph managed to borrow a stove from the caretaker and cooked us another three-course dinner. The bunkhouse we were staying in was very new and looked like it had only been built a few months ago. Out of all the bunkhouses I had stayed in so far on this trip, this one was the nicest. It was more like an alpine ski lodge than an African bunkhouse; it was entirely built with timber, which had been completed with a coat of varnish. Even the benches in the dining area had soft cushions. I didn't feel any ill effects from the altitude while staying at the hut, I was feeling quiet well acclimatised after my trek on Mt Kenya two weeks ago. The only time I felt short of breath was while we were eating that evening; it's difficult to eat and gulp enough air to satisfy your body's oxygen demands at the same time. We went to bed early, at 20.00, as we had a 02.00 start in the morning to climb to the summit in time for the sunrise. Apart from a mouse scurrying about the room as soon as we put out the kerosene lamp, it was a fairly good nights sleep, until 02.00.
There were only two other trekkers staying at the hut that night, a couple from Germany but only one of them was climbing to the summit. I woke just before 02.00 when I heard people's boots clumping along the wooden floor of the corridor. I groaned when I woke up, here I was again getting up in the middle of the night to climb a mountain. It was not the easiest thing to do to force myself out of my warm sleeping bag and out into the night. Joseph was already up and had made us a pot of tea. The cloud that was still hanging around the mountain when we went to bed last evening had lifted and the sky was perfectly clear. We could see the distant lights of villages on the plains far below us, the crescent moon was just rising over the horizon to the east and the southern cross hung in the sky over the summit of the mountain showing us the way.
At 02.15 we began our final ascent to the summit. Joseph decided not to come, climbing up to the Saddle Hut yesterday had worn him out, so the three of us began to trudge through the night up to Rhino Point. The trail led west from the Saddle Hut along some fairly flat ground past bushes of giant heather before turning south and climbing up steeply to Rhino Point. It took about an hour to reach Rhino Point, which is marked by a cairn and a pile of very large bones, supposedly Rhino but no-one knows what a Rhino would be doing this high up on a mountain. Rhino Point was devoid of vegetation and was covered by rock and soft volcanic ash, we had reached the high altitude desert zone of the mountain known as the nival, where nothing grows. The trail dropped down from Rhino Point before climbing steeply again around the edge of the rim where there were sections of rock that had to be negotiated around by scrambling, with many 'hands out of pockets' sections. In between these scrambling sections the path lead steeply up along the volcanic ash, most of the time on the western slope of the volcanic cone of the mountain.
At times the path lead right along the knife edge of the rim, the trail only being a couple of metres wide with sheer cliffs on one side and the steep slope of the mountain on the other; it felt very exposed, especially in the dark. The moon had risen high enough by now to help illuminate the way and on the less exposed sections, trudging up along the volcanic ash we turned our torches off and just relied on the moon to light the way. I wasn't feeling any effects from the altitude and continued hopping up the rocks without getting too much out of breath. Once we passed about 4,200m Gerald began to slow down and brought up the rear of our group; in the dark all I could hear behind me was Gerald's heavy breathing and his boots crunching on the rocks. It seemed to take forever to reach the summit, ahead of us we could see the black silhouette of a peak but once we had climbed passed it there was always another in the distance. False summits can become demoralising after a while.
The weather conditions were still perfect, the wind wasn't too strong, although while hiking right on top of the rim we were blasted by a cold wind blowing up the cliff face, which helped to give us that rather exposed 'on the edge' feeling. It wasn't as cold as climbing up Mt Kenya but I still found myself wearing all my warm clothes, including my gloves and woolly hat. The horizon to the east was beginning to brighten and the ground under foot was now frozen and covered in frost, patches of frozen snow lay in the more sheltered places between the rocks; we must be nearing the summit by now. Gerald still puffed his way up the mountain behind us at his own pace; I had an unfair advantage after spending two nights trying to sleep at just over 4,200m while climbing Mt Kenya. Finally we saw a peak rising up in front of us and our guide told us that this was the summit; we were almost there. The peak looked huge and I felt rather demoralised at the thought of climbing up yet more rock as it seemed like we had been hiking around this crater rim for hours now.
The final push to the summit took us up steeply, scrambling over the rocks until we were at last on the summit at 4,566m, marked by a metal Tanzanian flag. It was 06.45, it had taken us four and a half hours of hard work to reach this point, Gerald and myself shook hands and congratulated ourselves on our achievement as the sun rose up over the horizon. We had come a long way since that lunch break one day last July in the George public house back home when I first suggested trekking up this mountain. It had taken a lot of work and organising but we had at last conquered the mountain; don't you just love it when a plan works! The view from the summit stunned us into silence it was almost magical. All of Africa and her beauty lay below us; to the east the giant snow-capped dome of Kilimanjaro dominated the landscape; to the west the Crater Highlands, punctuated by the domes of many volcanoes including Oldoinyo Lengai, 2,878m and Oldeani, 3,185m and beyond these volcanoes the Serengeti Plains. As the sun rose the mountain cast a huge shadow across the plains to the west, shaped in a perfect triangle with us standing at the tip.
It was tough to tear ourselves away from the summit, but after fifteen minutes of gazing at the breathtaking views and taking photos we reluctantly began our long hike back down the mountain. Now in daylight we could see the route we had climbed up during the night, and suddenly understood why this section of trekking is described as one of the most exhilarating sections of trekking in East Africa. We stopped many times on the way back down to the Saddle Hut, to take photos and to admire the dramatic view. The crater walls dropped well over 1,000m as a sheer cliff from the rim to the crater floor where the ash cone now just looked like a tiny hill, whereas from the Miriakamba Hut at 2,500m it had looked like a mountain. It only took two and a quarter hours to return to the Saddle Hut, we even ran down some of the trail through the soft volcanic ash, it was almost like running down a sand dune.
At 09.15 we triumphantly reached the Saddle Hut where Joseph was waiting for us, anxious for news of whether we had successfully made it to the summit. We broke the good news and sat down to rest while Joseph served us a well deserved breakfast. It had taken us seven hours to complete the round trip to the summit, a good days hiking for anyone, but we had done it all before breakfast and still had just over 2,000m to descend that day. We only stopped for about an hour and a half before we continued our trek down, we didn't want to rest too long so that our muscles would not seize up on us. Today would be the most demanding days hiking I have ever done; I have never before hiked over 3,000m down a mountain in the space of eight hours. I had no idea how my legs would cope with such strenuous demands. I strapped my knees up just in case. The path back down to the Miriakamba Hut was so steep I found it hard to believe we had climbed it in a day. At times it was so steep we could only walk down one boot length at a time, occasionally slipping on the damp ground.
After two hours we were back at the Miriakamba Hut in time for lunch at 12.30. We planned to take the longer, more scenic route through the forest on the valley floor rather than the direct trail down the ridge back to the park gate, which we had taken on our way up. Our guide had different plans though. He refused to take the longer route and told us that we had to take the direct route. That is when I lost patience with this rather useless, selfish guide and our disagreements developed into a very heated and animated argument. I knew we had time to take the longer route as I knew the distances and how fast we could walk. I had after all been researching this trek for months. The only reason I could work out why our guide insisted we take the shorter route was that he wanted to get home as soon as possible and of course, it would probably rain at some point later in the afternoon and we had a mountain guide who hated the rain. We reached a stalemate, our guide sat hunched over his rather useless rifle while Joseph and the caretaker of the hut tried to talk some sense into the situation. We made it very clear that if he persisted with these plans not to expect to receive a single shilling as a tip. He persisted so we reluctantly took the direct route down from the mountain, we were left with no alternative, as we were not allowed to walk unaccompanied through the park.
Having a fairly good hunch that Mr Nasser only wanted to get home early we employed some delaying tactics along the rest of the trip down the mountain. I have never walked so slowly down a mountain before, stopping very frequently and at every opportunity to take photos, gaze at the view, watch the wildlife or just have a rest and drink some water. We did not speak to Mr Nasser again for the rest of the trip and ignored his presence. In a bid to try and speed up our progress down the mountain he swapped from leading us down (he always found himself on his own, way out in front of us) to herding us down and walking behind us. In response we just walked slower. Meanwhile Joseph led the way down the mountain, he knew exactly what we were doing and laughed to himself. Mr Nasser had unfortunately ran out of water and looked very hot and thirsty as he sat watching us drink during one of our many rests. Rather than ask us for a drink he waited until we caught up with Joseph and asked him instead for some water. They had a conversation in Swahili that Joseph told us about later that evening. Mr Nasser asked Joseph if we were really annoyed with him; Joseph was fighting our corner and in no uncertain terms told him that what he had done was disgraceful and had ruined our trip up the mountain; good one Joseph.
We finally reached the park gate, disturbing a giraffe in the bush just as we crossed the river sending it crashing through the undergrowth. I don't know who looked more startled, Joseph or the giraffe. It had taken us two and half hours to get back to the gate, about the same time it takes to hike down along the valley floor through the forest at a steady pace. Our transport was waiting for us but before we left we continued our arguments with the head ranger and Mr Nasser; the arguments were getting us nowhere but it felt good to release our frustration. At the end of the day I felt most sorry for Gerald, this had been his first trek somewhere tropical and it would have been an ideal opportunity to spend a couple of hours hiking through a rain forest, which is something Gerald has never done before. We departed, Joseph and the head ranger still arguing in Swahili as we drove out from the park gate.
Continue reading this journey: Safari to Ngorongoro Crater