Mt Meru

Tanzania

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

This is miserable, but it is almost over. At 4,550m, we are pausing for breath every few steps as we scramble up the final mounds of broken boulders to Mt. Meru’s peak. I am sweating and freezing at the same time.

Then, as I step onto Meru’s Socialist Peak, suffering is in a scintilla replaced by wonder at the glory of existence. Straight across the vast crater, Kilimanjaro is silhouetted against the streaky pre-dawn sky, proud by two or three thousand metres of the rumpled cloud that blankets the east African plains.

We have been walking round the high ridge of this immense exploded volcano for four hours, and are now at the centre of a horseshoe of cliffs which here fall 1,500 metres to the crater floor.

Meru lies just off that vast cross-continental fissure, the Great Rift Valley, in an area of violent volcanic activity. It was once larger than its celebrity neighbour, but was shattered by a cataclysmic explosion 8,000 years ago, similar to the 1980 blow-out at Mt St Helens in north-western USA. Even with the evidence – a 5,000 ft chasm – in front of you, it is still impossible to imagine the scale of the fury and destruction.

A special joy of climbing Meru is the dramatic change of vegetation, wildlife and scenery as you progress from scrub and grassland, to some of the most beautiful forest I have seen anywhere, to tree heathers festooned with Spanish moss, to coarse grass and alpine shrubs, to the most new, naked and smashed of rock. All in 48 demanding hours.

Day 1

At the Momella Gate, there is half an hour of packing and weighing baggage. Then we are off, on the longer southern route to the Miriakamba huts just off the crater floor. Oswald, our guide, takes the lead, a rifle slung over his shoulders. We pass through dry scrub which reveals pockets of wet, close-cropped grass. A large group of somnolent buffalo lie around in the biggest of these, some 20 giraffes protruding elegantly above the bush to the rear. Three shy bushbuck graze nervously in another.

We enter a ravishing montane forest, tall trees - pencil cedars, diospyrus, strangler figs – towering over varied undergrowth and areas of clear-cropped foliage. Groups of colobus monkeys frisk about high in the trees tops. We pause at a euphonious waterfall in a perfect glade; my friend Reggie dunks himself in the pool at its base.

We encounter more bushbuck, which bounce away through the undergrowth; a vast hornbill flaps clumsily between the trees. At an old campsite on a ridge, we enjoy a hazy panorama over the foothills and plains far below, then turn into the suddenly different vegetation: stunted and twisted little trees festooned with trailing moss. We can hear elephants tearing at the bushes somewhere above us. Damp cloud is clearly endemic here, but today we are lucky: shafts of bright sun illuminate the vivid greens of the forest trees, and the vast cliffs soar in a clear sky above the more recent ash cone – which, although it looms 1,000 metres above the crater floor and in Scotland would be a Munro in its own right, is still dwarfed by the high ridge. We are properly inside the vast cauldron now and the horseshoe of the rim encircles us.

Finally, we drop back down, immediately below the sheer northern crater wall, to the comfort of the Miriakamba huts. A trio of buffalo poking their noses out for a cautious sniff at us, before lumbering off, are our final animal encounters.

Day 2

An early start, as we are walking inside the crater before tackling the steep three-hour slog to Saddle Hut. We meander through the weird, moss-dripping ericaceous forest, all quiet shades of grey in the morning stillness. Thick bush alternates with clearings, and we are always alert for buffalo, dangerous when surprised. The ash cone lowers high above. We cross curious “little craters”, flat, stony fields between forested lava-ridges. Then we are winding through long grass, under magnificent forest trees, out onto a spine to view the Njeku Falls across a deep chasm. This is truly wild country.

We return, rest and then address ourselves to the tough upward path, clambering up steep wooden steps for half an hour. There are compensations: the forest here on the outer flank of the crater wall is gorgeous: Hagenia drip with their clusters of red flowers, twisted Augaria support miniature jungles of their own – ferns, mosses and other parasites. Bushbuck bound across clearings, bright little birds fill the air with sonorous intimations of love and death.

Around a bend, we find our porters laying our lunch on a sheet under a tree. We fall ravenously on the miscellaneous heaps.

Pressing on to the crater rim, we reach another angle on the Meru abyss. We pass through an area of red hot pokers, which contrast vividly with the lush scrub.

Then, quite suddenly, we are out of the trees and climbing through thick clumps of giant heather, silver-leaved Phillippia and yellow St John’s Wort. The views expand and we can see the fumerole peak of Little Meru high above us. We slog, tired but elevated, around endless sandy switchbacks, then flop thankfully into the warmth of the Saddle Hut.

Day 3

We trudge off at 1.30 am, after an evening of anticipation but no real sleep. We walk by the light of our headtorches, across the saddle between the two Merus, under a superb equatorial array of stars, then up a steep hillside to Rhino Point on the crater rim. After getting our altitudinous panting back under control, we start round the rim, clambering over rocky spines that run far away down the hillside, threading on soft volcanic ash along the very rim of the crater, between the sheer cliffs on one side and the steep, broken mountainside on the other. The walk develops into a battle; tiring clambers over smashed boulders alternating with agonising slopes of cinders, half a step back for every one taken.

We finally make it to the crags below the broken tower of the peak itself just as the darkness begins to dilute. As we pause for breath below a jagged outcrop, we first see the majestic bulk of Kilimanjaro, silhouetted against the red glow of the eastern sky. Thousands of volts of resolution coursing through us, we trudge on along the rim, its crags beginning to glow a deep orange as the sun breaks the horizon. We switch our head torches off: the definition is now better without them.

We begin the final agonising scramble up jumbled rock to the Socialist Peak. It is now down to 25 steps before each panting pause. Reggie, who has plodded steadily behind me the whole way, sees his opportunity to slip past and be first to make it to the peak – again. He thinks I haven't noticed.

The top at last, and not too many of us there. All around us, the plains slumber under the thick blanket of cloud. 70km away, Kilimanjaro presides over all around it, only outdone in majesty by the already blazing sun to its right. It is 6.30am. To the west, the mountain's shadow recedes to eternity. It will gradually return to the safety of the mountain’s skirts, shrinking around it as its nemesis circles menacingly above. Far below in the crater is the Ash Cone; it looks tiny from here. From this height, we can see the varied patterns of the lava flows down its flank.

Ginger tea and cashew nuts are offered round but I am too queasy to eat much.

Descents are usually anticlimactic, but not this one. We revel in what we see: the different layers of the crater-edge rock telling of the aeons of ash deposit and lava flow before the final cataclysm. The hillsides to the west and north fall steeply, often in almost unbroken slopes of clinker thousands of feet high. Far below, the forest starts abruptly beneath a narrow alpine belt. Why there, and why so sudden? Must speak to a botanist.

We get back to the Saddle Hut at 10.15 am, and collapse into a deep sleep on our bunks. After a light lunch - we still have little appetite - we start the long trek down to the Miriakamba Huts. Our feet hurt and our legs are like toddlers’, but we are again entranced by the zones we descend through, the wondrous forest with its parasite-infested trees and contrasts of foliage and texture it would take a gardener years to achieve.

In a daze, we pick at another feast to which we do poor justice and are asleep by 9pm.

Day 4

We get up early for the final descent to the Momella Gate. Reggie has a loud spat – totally justified – with an old Spaniard who, when he thought he wasn't being watched, had a wash in my laboriously heated water. Shrugs, but absolutely no apology is forthcoming… the happy brotherhood of walkers.

Departing at 7.15, we are the first down the trail, so meet undisturbed game in the golden morning light. At first we pass through beautiful forest, shafts of light coming almost horizontally through the foliage. Then we are on long tongues of grassland between belts of forest on each side. Old lava flows apparently, which, like the Serengeti, have solidified in such a way that they are impervious to tree roots.

Ahead of us, Kilimanjaro appears through rents in the cloud. Above the trees at our back, Meru's high ridge is framed by a clear sky. We pass a lone buffalo – always slightly unnerving – and a group of giraffe. A kite circles on huge wings on the thermals high above the trees.

After a couple of delightful hours, we are gazing back down onto that first boggy meadow, again replete with buffalo, warthogs and other game. We wind our way across springy turf, we cross the Ngare Nanyuki River and we are back at the Momella Gate and seated in preparation for that essential final formality, the pre-tipping meal.

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