Blinded by Majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro

Having successfully trekked to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu, Sabah, the mountain trekking bug has got deeply entrenched in five Malaysians and an American friend.

It was after the Mt. Kinabalu trek that I first met the other trekkers when a mutual friend mooted the idea of hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro. As a greenhorn as far as mountain trekking was concerned, I knew very little about the inherent risks involved in high altitude trekking. So happily off I went with my newfound friends to Tanzania to scale the mystical Mt. Kilimanjaro. Read on to see the outcome of my misadventure.

Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961) wrote in his prelude to "The Snows Of Kilimanjaro" : '------ Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.' Even up to today, it is not only the presence of the leopard's frozen carcass at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Even the origin of the name "Kilimanjaro" is still shrouded in mystery.

The group of Five

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in the African continent and is often referred to as 'the roof of Africa'. Located only about 300 kilometers south of the Equator, it is the only snow-capped mountain found in the tropics. The massif has three dormant volcanic craters, namely Shira, Kibo and Mawenzi. The highest peak, known as Uhuru Peak (5896m) is located at Mount Kibo.

The mystique and the majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro lured and inspired five Malaysians and an American, aged between 46 and 60, to scale this mountain from 16th to 22nd of April 2000. From the register maintained at the Kilimanjaro National Park Headquarters at Marangu Gate, this group of Malaysians was the first from Malaysia to have attempted to trek up Mount Kibo in this millennium.

There are six established trekking routes to Mount Kibo, all of them originating from the lower slopes of the southern part of Mount Kilimanjaro. The most popular route is the Marangu Route, which is also said to be the easiest. We chose this route as our experience in mountain trekking was only confined to trekking up Mt. Kinabalu, which is just over 4000 m at its summit. Also, instead of a normal 5-day journey (3 for the ascent and 2 for the descent) we decided to take an extra day so as to enable us to get better acclimatised to the high altitude. (A sketch of Marangu Route attached.)

We arrived at Kilimanjaro International Airport from Johannesburg in the evening of 15 April 2000 and were transferred to Nakara Hotel outside Marangu Town. The hotel is just about a couple of kilometers from the Park's Headquarters at Marangu Gate, the starting point of the ascent.

After dinner, we were briefed by the Tour Operator on the details of Marangu Route and the necessary gears and appropriate clothing to take along. A couple of tips, which proved to be useful during our climb, are worth mentioning and are listed below:

  • "Slowly" in Swahili : "po-le, po-le" which became the catchword during our climb. In action, you say to yourself "po-le, po-le" when you take a small step, pause, take another small step and pause. We were told that this was the only way to do battle with Kilimanjaro!
  • Expend as little energy as possible at all times during the climb and "let your breathing control your pace and not the other way round". I learnt this during my marathon running days, that by adopting this approach, it would be possible for one to achieve a state of "perpetual motion", as if one has an inexhaustible supply of energy.
DAY 1 (16/4/20000) EN ROUTE TO MANDARA HUT (2700m)

We were awake early in the morning in high spirit and ready for action. After a hearty breakfast we were transferred in two land cruisers together with our luggage to the Park's Headquarters at Marangu Gate (1800m) and arrived there just before it was opened at 9.00 am.

At the Headquarters, the guides and porters were waiting for our arrival. We soon learnt that one chief guide, three assistant guides, eight porters and two cooks were assigned to our group of 6 trekkers! The porters and cooks were not only assigned to carry our bags, but also the entire foodstuffs and cooking utensils that would be required for the whole journey. Our bags were assembled and two or more were put into a big sack, which would then be carried by a porter on his head.

The Mandara Hut (2700m)

We started our ascent after registration and renting other trekking gears and clothing that we had not brought with us. The weather was cool but humid. We walked through rain forests throughout most of the way to our first overnight destination, Mandara Hut at 2700m. The route generally followed the gentle slopes of Mt. Mawenzi. At noon we stopped at a resting place along the way for a light pack-lunch and reached Mandara Hut after three hours of easy walking which covered a total distance of about 12 km.

The Mandara Hut consists of a number of A-framed wooden cabins; each partitioned into two halves, which can accommodate a total of eight persons. The Hut can accommodate a total of 60 persons not including guides and porters who have their own cabins nearby.

Water supply is piped from springs located above the Hut and is said to be potable. Shower rooms and toilets are located within the compound of the Hut. There is no power supply and therefore after dinner and sundown the only thing to do would be to go to bed and try to sleep.

DAY 2 (17/4/2000) MANDARA HUT TO HOROMBO HUT (3700m)

As all of us were in bed before 7.00pm last night, we were wide-awake in the wee hours of the morning. At the crack of dawn around 5.30am all of us were up and about; some started packing while others dashed to the toilets.

We started our ascent at 8.30am to our next destination, Horombo Hut at 3720m a distance of about 15 km. The weather was fine and the trail dry but dusty. We first passed through forests, then skirted the foot of Muandi Crater before we emerged into heather and moorlands.

After trekking for more than three hours, we stopped for lunch. Thereafter, it took us another two hours of slow hiking before a majestic looking set of cabins suddenly emerged in front of us. It was a relief to be near our destination as we were showing signs of fatigue due to high altitude and sudden drop in temperatures.

The cabins here were similar to those in Mandara Hut but larger, each having a capacity of 12 persons. The whole complex could accommodate a total of 120 hikers. It was built bigger than other huts because many hikers would choose to stay an extra day here to allow more time to get used to the altitude and in addition, hikers descending from the summit also had to put up a night here.

Facilities like separate communal toilets and showers for men and women were available and located near the center of the complex. However, as in Mandara Hut, there was no power supply.


As part of the program to have more time to get used to higher altitude, we would be spending another night at Horombo Hut. But an ascent to the Saddle was planned in the morning.

The Saddle is a wide expense of alpine desert connecting Mawenzi and Kibo peaks.

We started the ascent at about 9.30am. The trail was stony dry and barren. After about two hours of trekking we arrived at the foot of Mount Mawenzi and at an elevation of more than 4100m, the highest altitude we had ever achieved. The Saddle, strewn with borders and volcanic larva, looked bleak and inhospitable, but from here the views of Mawenzi and Kibo peaks were simply spectacular.

Mount Kibo
Mount Mawenzi

After spending some time enjoying the beauty of Mawenzi and Kibo Peaks we returned to Horombo Hut for lunch. After lunch most of us spent the afternoon and evening resting or lazing around the cabin.

DAY 4 (19/4/2000) HOROMBO HUT TO KIBO HUT (4700 m)

At the last water point


We departed early at eight this morning for our next destination, Kibo Hut at 4700m a distance of about 15 km. The weather was cold and there was a bit of frost on the ground. An hour or so after we left Horombo Hut we came to the last water source, a small stream with little water flowing across the alpine desert. The trail then brought us to the Saddle.

After trekking for another hour or so we stopped for lunch. We went off the trail and found a place sheltered by rocks and boulders and sat on the desert floor to have our lunch. We were now on the ridge of the Saddle and from here the trail followed the length of the Saddle to Kibo Hut. The trek became more difficult because of steep ascent and we were rapidly gaining altitude. We finally reached Kibo Hut after 5 1/2 hours of trekking.

Kibo Hut is a rectangular block of dormitory built on stone blocks. The Hut is divided into 4 dormitories with a central corridor. Each dormitory has 12 to 16 bunk beds and a small dining area. There is no water or electricity supply. The toilets are located at the back of the Hut.

We had dinner before 6.00pm and were informed by our chief guide that the wake-up call would be at 11.30pm and only biscuits and coffee would be served before midnight. The guide also inspected the attires we intended to put on for our ascent and advised that we went to bed with, as much as possible, the clothing we needed for the ascent.

Immediately after dinner, I slipped into my sleeping bag with three layers of clothing and closed my eyes hoping to get some winks of sleep. But sleep did not come and after tossing and turning in my sleeping bag for over four hours, I was glad that it was time to get up and get ready to do battle with Mt. Kibo.



At exactly 12 midnight, we lined up in a single file in front of Kibo Hut. The chief guide separated us into two groups with the stronger three trekkers forming the first group. I was assigned to head the second group. Each group had two guides, one leading the group while the other followed at the rear.

It was a full-moon night and the path was clear and bright. Though no torch light was necessary, I carried mine as a contingency.

The first part of the trail leading to Hans Meyer Cave, half way to the summit, was uneven and steep and it was the first time that I felt tired even though I "po-le, po-le" and slowed to a snail's pace. From here onwards, the slope became even more steep and the going more grueling. There was no defined trail on this scree slope and making a direct ascent to the summit was not possible due to steep incline and the presence of loose scree and stones. We had to zigzag most of the way to the top. For the last 10m or so I had to scramble over rocks to reach Gillman's Point (5681m) and the rim of the crater.

It was real pain but I finally made it. It was six in the morning, six long and grueling hours to cover a distance of only 6km!

Gilman's Point 5681m

While scrambling over the rocks near the top, I could see over my shoulders that the morning sun was about to breakout over the vast horizon. But when I got ready to take some pictures of the sunrise, I suddenly noticed that Gillman's Point was enveloped by thick mists and clouds and the radiant hues of the morning sun were no where to be seen!

When a trekker beside me told me it was a bright and sunny morning, it suddenly dawned on me that I had lost most of my normal vision! I could not recognise the people around me for I could only discern their dark silhouettes. My body was warm. I felt no pain or discomfort and all my other bodily systems seemed to be working. I was aware of altitude sickness such as nausea, headache and vomiting. But I suffered none of these.

I knew I could not proceed further to Uhuru Peak (5895m), the highest point of Mt Kilimanjaro, and I had to return to Kibo Hut as soon as possible.

With the assistance of two guides, one holding each of my arms, we virtually slid down the slopes. We had a few falls but fortunately no one was hurt. Before 9.00am we returned to Kibo Hut safely. In spite of my condition the return journey seemed surprisingly easy and fast compared to the ascent.

We had breakfast in the Hut and rested for a couple of hours before we started packing for our descent to Horombo Hut. My sight did not improve but fortunately it did not deteriorate. We decided to have early lunch and started our descent by 12.30pm. During the descent, a guide held my arm and led me all the way down to Horombo Hut. I took about 3 hours to reach the Hut. Having had no sleep the night before and after over 10 hours of trekking, I was deadbeat when I arrived at Horombo Hut. So, immediately I made a beeline for my bed. Closing my eyes, I hoped to go to sleep. But sleep did not come. I opened my eyes soon after and "Hurrah!" I shouted, "I can see again!" My fellow trekkers and I were overjoyed. What a relief!


The descent to Mandara Hut was easy. By noon, we arrived at Mandara Hut after three hours of hiking. After a short rest and lunch, we descended to the Park's Headquarters at Marangu Gate after another 11/2 hours of hiking. From there we were transported back to our hotel.

A reception was held in the hotel compound in the evening and was attended by the six of us, the guides with the battalion of porters/cooks, the proprietor of the Tour Company and the Hotel owner. At the reception, we received our certificates of achievement, three including me received green certificates for reaching Gillman's Point while the other three received gold certificates for reaching Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Having reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro and returned with my sight fully recovered, I really do not want to know more about the loss of my sight as I wish it would remain a mystery just as that of the leopard's frozen carcass.

Note: An edited version of the above story was published in NST on 16th Sept 2000. And the story of this adventure also appeared in The Star on 17th June 2000.

Back to Main Pg

5/6/2000 2008