Shira Cathedral

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

What a day.

We're up at 6.30 again, emerging to a quiet grey sky with the prospect of sun. Our regular huge breakfast to set us up, and a seat in the sun outside the mess tent as we get sun-creamed up.

We're off to the Shira Cathedral, a short ridge high on the southern caldera rim and a diversion from the direct track to Shira 2 camp. 

We have a gorgeous walk across the plateau, gradually climbing on a good path which winds through vivid, ravishing shrub-land, widely spaced to aid appreciation of each individual specimen, from elegantly sculpted junipers to bright yellow bushes to a mixture of harmonious greys.

We are heading straight towards Kibo, with a constant stream of porters flowing past us, the path often a pedestrian dual carriageway in which we are the lorries. We turn right onto a cycle path, of all things, a wondrously smooth trail across the upper basin. We are feeling good, plodding steadily, with enough spare energy to talk discursively (whether we make sense is another issues…). Beyond a wide area of rough grass, we reach a belt of shapely heather clumps at the foot of the Cathedral. It has taken us three hours to cross a long radius of this vast oval bowl.

After a water break, we climb the lower slopes to a narrow col where we meet our first view along the southern slopes of the great massif, which recede in a series of ridges and deep barrancos. A steep 20 minute climb gets us onto the summit ridge, greeted by views across the southern plains around Moshi some 3,000 metres below us. Immediately below us is a tumult of sheer ridges and spires protecting what looks like an Eden of an untouched hanging valley.

The full extent – and grandeur – of the caldera is done justice from here. It is the remains of the first volcano, which must once have rivalled subsequent Kibo in size, but which collapsed in on itself, with later ash and lava flows from Kibo filling the chasm to leave the strange flats we see now and overwhelming its north-eastern rim. Our broken southern ridge swings round to a western buttress round which we walked for our first view yesterday. After a break for the Engari Nairobi river, the sides circle round less distinctly to meet Kibo's lower slopes. Above it all, the emperor of mountains lurks in its cloudy mystery.

Away to our west, Kili’s twin volcano, 4,560m Mount Meru dominates the skyline, still some bit higher than our perch on the Cathedral’s roof-line. It looks like a laughably perfect cone, an African Fuji, but the half of it facing Kili collapsed, leaving an enormous chasm surrounded by a horseshoe of cliffs which are getting on for 2,000 metres high at their centre. It is a staggering place, commanding its own view back to Kili at dawn, when it stands serenely above the low early morning clouds.

Our hearts sing, fortunately not accompanied by their owners.

We climb back down to our packs, and walk northwards along and behind the ridge-top towards its junction with Kibo. A wonderful trail. At an area of hard sand flats, adorned with scores of stone assemblies, we meet the head of the emergency track from the Shira Route entrance. We then slog for half an hour up maybe 200m to the Shira 2 camp on a fine platform with huge views back across the plateau. It is emptier than Shira 1, to our relief.

In retrospect, this is the most enjoyable single day of our trek.

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