Lemosho and Shira Routes
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Lemosho Route – March 2020
Day 1: To Forest Camp
Driving in to the start of a Kili trail is a fantastically enticing experience: from the plains, the great mass looms vast and serenely white-capped amidst its cloudy robings, its scale deceptive, above the plains and forested lower slopes.
Approaching from the west, the road begins to climb, and the lush farmland turns to scrubby grassland littered with fumeroles, then rich dark farmland patched with pine plantations, then riotous forest.
The Londorossi Gate is heaving with people: long lines of porters awaiting the weighing of their loads, vans being piled with baggage, walkers watching and chatting, itching to be on the trail. We sign in, then wait for our team to be ready.
We drive up 6km of narrow track to the Lemosho gate at 2,100m (figures vary), where we eat lunch and tighten our boots. We are not alone: porters wait again in long military lines, packs are re-weighed and shouldered.
Then we’re off, at last, on a good path up a long but steady slope. Saimon, our assistant guide, sets a very steady pace, which even Serena, rapid walker as she usually is, complies with. We’re serious about acclimatization, here. We climb 550m, barely puffing, in 2hrs 20mins. It is a perfect temperature, warm enough to sweat a bit but eased by an occasional gentle breeze. We’ve got away with it, weather-wise: the online forecasts as we flew were so dire (heavy snow and rain for 10 days) that we contemplated changing plans. Phew. Every good day will be a blessing.
The forest is completely impenetrable, thick with creepers twining through low bush below stately straight-trunked trees and mad-rooted figs (well, they look like figs). It is beautiful, but quiet, with fewer birds around than I’d expected. The trees open out in places as we get higher, allowing glimpses of huge vistas down across the plains far below. A valley-bottom is lined with an avenue of pale, dead trunks.
I learn later that this is secondary forest which had grown back since the locals were resettled.
We work easily up steeper slopes, meandering on pretty paths through stands of fine trees on the flatter ground.
The Forest Camp appears, at 2,650m, at the top of a final slope: a narrow but flat ridgetop already stuffed with tents. It is very inviting even though full of voices. We sign in, and find our tents nearby. Our team (all 27 of them) have been waiting, and congregate to sing us in. It is completely charming, the first time I have met it, and the tip meter clicks up. We are introduced to each other, smiles all round.
Our chairs await us in dappled shade, and are soon occupied – but we are chivvied up to inspect our tents and internet tent (loo). Charles the guide joins us to talk through what’s coming as we sip tea and chew popcorn. Delightful.
We wash and get arranged in our tents, then return to our chairs and chat in the cooling air. Everyone is in good spirits, including Eugene, who has had the longest journey. We are summoned into the mess tent at 6.30 for supper of courgette soup, fish with fried spuds and vegetables, and a fresh fruit salad. Charles joins us to go over tomorrow – good weather again, with luck. Phew again.
We chat and play scrabble, and I write this diary. Bill and Eugene retire at 8.45, Serena and I read and write on in the mess tent.
The first night camping usually involves poor sleep as you get accustomed, and this is no exception, although it is comfortable night, thanks in large part to paying for a second mattress. I’m off to sleep pretty quickly, but wake at perhaps midnight. I’m reading Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, and can’t stop giggling: I hope I don’t wake anyone. I use my new camping tool, a urine bottle, to good effect, not leaving my sleeping bag – why didn’t I get one YEARS ago?? All those freezing late-night excursions…:. A crackling from nearby as Serena acquaints herself with her makeshift shewee (a cut-down water container) has me giggling again. I have to take a half Zopi pill to get back to sleep.
Day 2: to Shira 1 camp
We are woken by cooking noises some time after 4am: in this crowded campsite there is little distance from the active tents, although this one isn’t our team, I think. We are roused at 6.30 and receive tea at 6.45. We pack efficiently, and are out and ready well before an outrageous 7.30 breakfast of porridge with thick dark honey, pancakes with more honey, omelette and bacon.
A clear sky – thank goodness. Two good days banked.
We set off at 8.15 into really lovely varied, dappled forest. Yesterday‘s jungle has thinned to more stately trees, spread more widely, and thick lower undergrowth: this is proper cloud forest, with a goodly assortment of lichens and mosses.
Today is mainly a steep slog up the outer slopes of the old Shira caldera, the remains of the earliest volcano of the massif, with a very good slow pace being set. Even the whippet, aka Serena, is obedient. The track is crowded at first, with queues at the base of steeper climbs, and a constant stream of porters skipping past, their loads often teetering on their heads.
The forest ends quite suddenly after an hour or so, I suppose below the lip of a ridge although this isn’t clear, with a brief intermingling of the trees with the new heathery shrublands, then we are out in the full sun, with vast views back west over the slopes and plains below, framed by the swaying giant heather.
The next three hours are quite demanding, an undulating traverse across to the base of a long, steep ridge which we then labour up, with ever-expanding views. Clouds appear round the southern side of our view, leaving the north clear, and stay there, rather peculiarly.
We have lunch in a cleared area near the top of the Shira ridge, which swings round the south of the huge caldera, which has been filled in by eruption and erosion to form the Shira Plateau. Hot soup and a lunchbox of chicken, boiled egg, but don’t feel wildly hungry, so most of it is left for later: unusual for greedy me – it must be the altitude.
Things become easier, with a steady traverse around the ridge-end through head-high scrub (feels like Hong Kong, of all places), until we round a corner to find Kibo, the main Kili peak, looming across the huge, gently sloping basin: a moment of glory – it is magnificent and menacing amid its wreaths of cloud rather than beautiful.
As we drop into the basin, views of the peaks of the high Shira Ridge introduce themselves: Johnsell Point at 3,962m; Shira Needle; Shira Cathedral, which we will climb tomorrow, and East Shira Hill.
A steady march across the deceptive plateau – the lower Kibo slopes seem close, but it is enormous – gets us to the Shira One campsite early afternoon, 5 1/2 hours’ walking against a projected time of 6 to 7 hrs. Not bad.
There must be more than 150 tents huddled in patches spread out over a couple of hectares of heathland – perhaps 200 campers plus three times that number of supporters? Considering the numbers, it is remarkably unsullied: the authorities do a fantastic job keeping this in order – we have a recent comparison with Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, where the money clearly disappears and the sites range from dreary to miserable.
Sign in. Tea, wash, read Waugh and take a delicious kip, one of the pleasures of trekking. To the mess tent at 5-ish. It is a lot colder up on this windy plain as the sun declines. We chat and eat another good supper, and I write this account. I regret not having brought a bottle of something, although 9 dry days on the mountain is a lot better than a month in the lowlands.
Our team are incredibly cheerful. They were singing in the afternoon, and are laughing in their tents later on – with a girl in constant hysterics. It turns out that she is 16 and on her first ever expedition, as a porter/helper. Her mother is a trek administrator, and has sent her up for experience. She has clearly never heard anything like the boys’ stories that are coming out. I’ve never heard any one person laugh so much, and I hope she doesn’t make herself sick.
An interrupted night, with cold feet. But enough sleep.
Day 3: Shira Cathedral and Shira 2 Camp
What a day.
We're up at 6.30 again, emerging to a quiet grey sky with the prospect of sun – another good day to bank. 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 issue…). 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, with the moment fortunately not spoiled by their owners joining in.
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 (for me) the most enjoyable single day of our trek.
We attack lunch in the mess tent - pizza (how the hell?), amazing onion salad in mashed avocado sauce.
Another delightful kip in my tent, worried about spoiling night-time sleep but unable to help myself.
At 4pm, we make an acclimatisation climb, 30 minutes up old lava flows to another platform where we sit and enjoy the views of the cloud soaring up over the plateau rim to evaporate in the drier air, while gaining some useful time at around 4,000m.
At 3,840m, the camp is windier and colder. We wash, swig tea, have another big supper, chat, I compose this account while a game of scrabble rages, then Serena and I play backgammon while t'other William produces random numbers from his phone as I've lost the dice.
A cold bed: I haven’t got my layers right for this new world. But I love my pee bottle. The big issue is how to stow it so that sleepy fumblings don’t tip it over…..