Mweka Route

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

March 2020, from Stella Point (I’m not sure where the upper terminus is!) down to the gate. Roughly 4,000m in 28 hours.

The first switchbacks are rock and ice and require care. Then the path becomes easier, ash grit which you can teeter down – or skate down at a semi-run. I've always loved scree-running, but, in keeping with everything else here, it goes on too long, and becomes shattering. 

We drop rapidly through cloud, down steep rocky slopes into a grim, murky world of the barest and least charming of rock. This isn't enjoyable walking, working to keep alert, every step needing care, in a sleep-deprived fog. Some way below the peak, we pass a huge (30 strong?) and very extended group (Russians, Charles later tells me), who look underprepared, and horribly tired, and ill: they haven’t had enough acclimatisation time. They make me feel better about myself.

Way below, Barafu campsite crouches among wild crags above the huge, wittily named South East Valley. Barafu is weird close-up, scores of brightly-coloured tents crammed into a sloping field of joyless boulders. There must be tentage for more than 200 climbers here, plus their entourages.

And here is lunch, in the lee of the office: delicious hot soup and a box of carb-rich goodies, although exhaustion makes me picky. I ask to stretch out on the concrete veranda, but Charles nips off and a couple of minutes later I'm in the bunk room behind the office, stretched on a greasy foam mattress which I'm sure would render up a small army of bugs but for the cold. My last sight as I drift straight off is a small but healthy rat, sleek even, sauntering across the back of the room. Charles got us 15 minutes in here, and, true to our word, we're up and out within that, extraordinarily refreshed from having taken just the top off the sleep deficit.

A clamber down through some rocks has us in a curious sloping plain veined by braided trails. I guess it is an overflow campsite. Below that,  we get properly stuck into another 2 hrs or so of descent – not so steep, now, but feeling every step, in a tough landscape of rock and... er...rock, which gradually softens into low Alpine scrub then pretty shrubby heathland. By the time we reach Millennium Camp, we are in gorgeous, vivid giant heather forest. I am able to enjoy it, thanks to my quick sleep, but only up to a point – I just want to get there!!

I reach camp at around 2.15pm, in quite good time but no less than FOUR hours after Serena and Eugene! What a pair - they are sitting in the mess tent looking cheerful as I lumber in. I think Serena is doing her tapestry as if she's just pottered up the local hill.  Bill was well ahead, too, although he is not to be seen. S and E got to our brunch pit-stop before brunch had arrived, and here before the porters! One of their poor guides took himself to bed and wasn't seen till the next day. Extra tip needed for what can only be designated a form of abuse...

This is a very different place from where we've been of late, a series of pitches down a gentle slope, separated by stands of giant heather. Not a word you often use at just under 4,000m, but it is charming. Kibo presides amidst its cloudy majesty behind the uphill heather hedging. 

All is fuzzy by now. I guess I drink and eat a bit, then it is time for my tent and that longed-for kip. A truly sleepless night is an unlovely thing. 

I emerge at maybe 5.30, and we chat and sup in the mess tent. We are all in good spirits, although I at least feel discombobulated by the extraordinary experiences I've been through.

We talk over tomorrow's tipping, always a subject of careful focus on the last night, but fairly easily and efficiently despatched as everyone is getting top-of-the range tips and Bill brought envelopes, which aid the process no end. To add to Walkopedia’s checklist! Our only issue is we were told a maximum sum each which gets us nowhere near the amounts we want to pay. We are also aided by Serena’s being crisply decisive (some could argue bossy, but I’d never say that!) when others (well, me anyway) are fuddled, as if she hasn’t just walked 14 hours – oh, but of course she didn’t. It is very helpful. Honestly.

I write notes for this account: it says a lot about the demands of the last week that I have seldom had energy to get beyond notes. A few rounds of German whist, then it is back to my sack. I finish Sebastian Faulks' Engleby, still unsure what I think of it. I sleep like the proverbial baby: I'm not sure I turn over at all during the night. 

Day 9: final descent to Mweka Gate

The day starts beautifully, with clear post-rain views out over a side-lit cloudscape behind the elegant tops of our campground’s giant heather. An efficient get-up and slipshod (sod it, bung it in) last-day pack, then breakfast with mess tent flaps open and bright tropical light streaming in. Our porters are already beginning to gather, tongues hanging out, for the tipping ceremony. We twitch nervously under their gaze, and make final preparations for departure.

Charles arrives and we’re off: I make a short speech of huge appreciation, and it is plain sailing after that: we hand out envelopes, shake hands and embrace, then it is song time, led by Juma, a wonderful and happy sound accompanied by clapping and swaying with some quality showing-off by some younger players at the front. A wonderful end.

Considering yesterday’s rigours, I feel surprising well, probably as a result of a heavy Ibuprofen dosage for my legs.

The descent to the Mweka gate is a gorgeous if tiring way to end a magnificent trek: 2,300m (or so) down through heath, giant heather (erica excelsa, lovely name), upper and lower montane forests, on an often slippery but beautifully maintained path the gravel for sections of which has been portered up from elsewhere.

The upper stretch is stunning, winding along the top of a lava sill with wide views across the steep ridges and valleys of the southern flank, between tall, elegant heather clumps; then into even taller heather dripping with old man’s beard, then lovely open and very mixed woodland. I am on my own with Charles at the back after half an hour or so. The dense cloud- then rain-forest full of competing trees looks richer than the Lemosho forest we climbed through, and he confirms that it is primary, unburned in contrast to the Lemosho area.

We see [podocarpus, fig, hagenia at the higher end, with spindly 30ft heather struggling for their scrap of sky, and later [mahogany, wild mango,] giant ferns, thick undergrowth and flowers in clearings, including the beautiful elephant head and trunk-shaped and impatiens kilimanjari the national flower; and a little deer. Charles is a fount of knowledge.

The trail gets damper as we descend, and I am thankful for my two poles, as I was yesterday. (My arms ache more than my legs by the end.)

We overtake groups of limping climbers, and are passed in turn by a torrent of porters, balancing head-loads as they hop from one slippery stone to the next. Charles says that the Russians we saw yesterday had 120 porters. And 3 of their group needed rescuing.

The forest gets taller and thicker. We reach the head of a service road, and meet an ambulance fighting up the hill to drop off a mate (we surmise). Another hour or so gets us to the gate, where I sign out and sign in for a certificate of achievement, not that I feel I deserve it. Another 15 minutes in light rain I am too tired to protect myself against has us down at the village to meet the others in a bar. 4.5 hours down: I am really tired, too fuzzy to savour what is a special moment, but can’t believe what good nick my legs are in after descending 4,200m (nearly 14,000 ft) in less than 28 hours. All those flights of stairs at home have paid off. Phew – did it, and quite well – on my terms if slow compared to my exemplary companions.

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