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Adventures in East Africa

2012/08/14

Africa begins with climbing Mt. Meru, Tanzania

What I walked by: Cape buffalo, upepo (wind)

I climbed two mountains and went on a safari while in Tanzania. In writing about my trip the intertwined nature of the people, the mountains, and the animals is apparent.

I went to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Believe it or not, climbing Kilimanjaro was never on my list of things to do. It was always Mt. Kenya. Since reading the book No Picnic on Mt. Kenya, I’ve wanted to climb Mt. Kenya. Still do. The book is an account of three Italians who in 1943 escaped from their P.O.W. camp for the sole purpose of climbing Mt. Kenya, after which they snuck back into camp. That’s my kind of adventure, both physically and psychologically.

Mt. Meru is an active volcano that last erupted in 1910 and is the third highest mountain in Africa (after Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya). It also makes for a great acclimatization climb before Kilimanjaro. Flying into Tanzania, I could see Massai villages circled by protective acacia branches. But driving into Mt. Meru National Park is where I saw the first of Africa’s wildlife: zebras. They would be followed by monkeys, warthogs, dik diks, cape buffalo, and giraffes. You don’t see many animals on Kilimanjaro, maybe just some monkeys. On safari, you see plenty of animals, but you’re likely in a vehicle. On Meru, when you see all of these animals, you’re on foot. You simply walk by. You also have an armed park ranger with you for protection from buffalo and, to a lesser extent, elephants.

Meru_Gideon

Gideon, our armed park ranger scanning for buffalo.

The other great thing about Meru was that there were three other climbing parties and their guides with our park ranger, which made travelling from trailhead to the camps a social affair. We learned Swahili on our way from camp to camp, and learned about all the guides and their cultures. Our head guide, Raymond, is from the local Chagga people who live on and around Meru and Kilimanjaro. He works on his family farm between guiding trips.

Our 4-day climbing itinerary:

Day 1: Momela Gate (1597m, 5240ft) to Mariakamba Huts (2503m, 8212ft) – The trail is gentle but you feel the altitude. Lunch is next to a grand old fig tree. The day ends around the elevation of the crater floor.

Meru_monkeys

Monkeys near Momela Gate.

Day 2: Mariakamba Huts to Saddle Huts (3560m, 11,689ft) – This is a steep hike through the rest of the rainforest and into the moorland (that reminds me of the vegetation where I live in California). After lunch, we did a short acclimatization climb up nearby Little Meru (3799m, 12,398ft).

Meru_crater_highcamp

The view from Little Meru. Summit Huts in lower left. Mount Meru summit on far side of the crater rim.

Day 3: Summit climb – Leave at 1AM to reach summit around sunrise, return to the Saddle Huts for lunch then descend all the way to Mariakamba Huts. A long day, as summit days usually are.

Meru_summit

Mount Meru summit.

Meru_Socialist_Peak

Mount Meru, also known as Socialist Peak.

Day 4: Mariakamba Huts back to the Momela Gate down a steep track where we saw lots of Cape buffalo.

Meru_waterfall

Much warmer as you descend.

One final note about this climb. My guidebook said, “do not underestimate Meru.” That’s true. In general, it’s steeper than Kilimanjaro. There’s more scrambling over rocks and gentle rock faces. We also had the strongest winds our guides had ever experienced on our way to the summit. While I can’t give a wind speed, by strong, I mean strong enough to nearly blow people off their feet. The wind lasted almost the entire six hours to the summit. My right ear was caked with volcanic dust. It just didn’t stop until sunrise, which was spectacular.

Meru_Kili_sunrise

Spectacular sunrise. Mount Kilimanjaro in relief from near the summit of Mount Meru.

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