Monday 28th November 9.30am, we meet our guide, porters and cook then head off in the direction of Arusha national park.
Mount Meru is located in the middle of Arusha national park and sits about 70km away from the largest mountain on the African continent, the aforementioned Kilimanjaro. Meru is one of a number of Volcanoes that litter the surrounding area of northern Tanzania, all formed as part of the powerful tectonic activity responsible for the Rift Valley. All but one of these volcanoes are now extinct, the only current active one being Ol Doinyo Lengai, a fierce, steep, caricature of a volcano situated in the stunning Lake Natron region.
With all these volcanoes spotted over the land, it’s little wonder so much of the area produces such green and fertile land, which is exactly how I can describe the national park in which Meru is situated, and we soon find ourselves wondering through on a gentle incline heading towards the forests on Meru. Our porters have gone on ahead and we are left with our guide, a masai native by the name of Losai and our armed ranger, Boniface, there to protect us from any of the dangerous animals that can be found up to more than 3000 meters above sea level.
Some quick facts about Meru. We’re heading for Socialist peak, a jagged outcrop some 4,562.13 meters above sea level. It is believed to have once been taller than Kili, but blew itself apart some 8,000 years ago. So what we are left with is half a crater, creating a long ridge, which later in our journey will be part of our spectacular climb to the top. Within this ridge is the beautifully formed and younger ash cone. The whole journey is usually managed in 4 days, however due to time restraints, we condense it to 3. Day 1 to the first hut, day 2 to the next hut, midnight at the start of day 3 we head to the peak, then continue on all the way back to the Momella gate at the entrance to the Arusha national park. Quite an undertaking, but we have been assured that we ‘look’ fit enough to do it. The four day trek would have you stop for the night at the first hut before heading down the bottom the following morning.
The first day up to Miriakamba hut (2,514m) is a 4 – 5 hour walk through the beautiful national park. Lush green grasses and trees are grazed on by buffalo, warthogs, giraffe, Baboons and numerous birds as well as some Elephant and Leopard we did not have the luck to see . As we pass over a river and start into the rainforest the climb begins to steepen, at times there are wooden steps built into the mountain side to aid with the walk, but it continues to be just that, a walk. A walk through a wondrous forest, home to the black and white Colobus monkey. The sun shines throughout the day, and I can recommend a good strong sun protection and appropriate clothing for some hot work.
At Miriakamba hut we are treated to relative luxury. Johan and I have a room to ourselves, consisting of two bunk beds. There are showers, toilets and wash basins. A large dining room is adjoined by the kitchen where our team of porters are preparing a hearty meal. There is even electricity, supplied from the solar panels attached to the roof of each hut. Dinner is an excellent spread started off with one of the best leek soups I have ever had! Soup obviously being a specialty of our chef as he excels himself twice more in the days to come, with a carrot soup and later zucchini.
The next morning we’re up early. The night had been ablaze with stars, but now with the sun up and the sky clear, we are treated to a fine view of Kilimanjaro and its two snow capped peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi. A beautiful sight we have the pleasure to turn around and look at for the whole journey up to the second hut, the Saddle hut (3,570m). The climb is steep, but not too long. We head off just after 8am, and after three hours of zigzagging our way through a landscape slowly changing from rain forest into long grasses and flowers, we arrive at the Saddle hut. Here we we are able to take some lunch and rest for a short while, then given the option to scale little Meru, some 200m above our camp. Despite the incoming cloud, we head on up.
The trip to little Meru is blighted by cloud cover, which as it sweeps through creates ever changing temperatures from cold to hot as the sun is covered then revealed with the passing clouds. However, at the top we are lucky enough to get some periods of clear viewing to see our camp below, Kili towards the horizon and the landscape far below, some 3 miles down! For the first time I begin to wonder if climbing anther 1000 meters up is such a good idea!
Dinner is early and we’re in bed by 6.30 in preparation for our midnight start to the top. I can’t sleep. A combination of it being somewhat too early, the altitude and my nervous/excited state. I couldn’t stop thinking about that ridge. For the most part of the six hour climb to the peak is spent on this windswept ridge, at points no wider than 4 feet, with sheers drops on each side falling several thousand feet into the rocks below. I toss and turn thinking about this ridge and worrying that it may be my undoing, stopping me from reaching the top. One guide I read specifically said that anyone suffering from vertigo should not attempt this climb, and I certainly do not like heights!
Anyhow, the time comes and after some strong coffee and biscuits we head off into the darkness on our way to socialist peak! The good thing about climbing in the dark is that you don’t have any sense of height. Though the real reason to set off at this time is to get to the peak in time to see the sun rise over Kilimanjaro.
It takes about one hour to hike up to Rhino point, the place where we begin across the dreaded ridge. For the night climb we have prepared ourselves for the cold. Beanie hats, face and neck warmers, gloves, thermal undershirt and fleece, plus a pair of trousers. It’s cold, but you soon get warm hiking up this steep mountain. The key is not to sweat and to stay warn when you stop. I kept a waterproof jacket in my backpack, which I donned each time we stopped to rest.
The ridge at night was no real problem, as the depths below could only be imagined. I fought to keep any negative thoughts at bay and just concentrated on the job at hand, following the guide and the small light from my head torch, pushing myself physically on towards the goal of reaching socialist peak before sunrise. Along the route there were three cliff edge rock escarpments to shimmy across. These again would be frightening had you known what would happen were you to fall. However at this time they just represented a fun challenge. I hadn’t expected to be rock climbing, but here we were, hanging on to the side of this mountain far above the plains below.
The air is thin up there and you need a good breathing rhythm. You notice it most if you take a sip of water or eat something. If you miss one breath it takes a few gasps to catch up again. The climb, was tough, tougher than Kili. However, the prize at the end has got to be one of the most spectacular views on our planet. We had set off at 12.40 am, and now, 5 hours later we crested over the last rock and stood next to the Tanzanian flag in front of the sign confirming we were at socialist peak, exactly 4,562.13 meters above sea level. The sun had not yet crept over the horizon yet, I even had to use my head torch to take a photo of the sign.
We had made it. I felt exhilarated, happy, I don’t know how to describe it, but a trek totally worth making. There in front of me towering thousands of meters above the cloud was the majestic mountain known as Kilimanjaro. The sky beaming from darkness into a myriad of blues and oranges as the sun blasted its way up into the morning sky. This is the finest sunrise I have had the pleasure to see. We spent a good twenty minutes up the enjoying the view. I wish we could have spent longer, but the time came to head on down.
To my own personal amazement, I had no fear on the return journey, despite now being able to see all around and down with clear sight. I think the elation of the sunset must have boosted my confidence, but the return journey was an absolute pleasure. On the left was the giant shadow of Meru stretching to the horizon, where one could pick put numerous other of Tanzania’s highest mountains. Including in the far far distance, the pointed cone shape of Ol Doinyo Lengai. To my right, looking down the other side of the ridge is the perfectly formed ash cone that nestles inside the old volcano. Raising your eye at any point almost the whole way down and you were treated to yet another glorious view of that great free standing behemoth, Kilimanjaro.
We descend to saddle, have a short break, a quick bite and then head on down to Miriakamba and then continue on to the park gate. This I would rate as the worst part of the journey. A four day trek would be far more enjoyable. The walk down was extremely tough. We hadn’t slept, we’d trekked our way to the top of one of tallest mountains in Africa, and now we were in for six hours straight down to the Momella gate.
By the end, we were both finished. Our legs were, and still are, as I write this the following day in quite a lot of pain, but I would do it all again without a doubt. Meru has been the greatest mountain I have climbed so far!
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