“We’re going back! It’s bloody cold, my torch has died and he just slipped down a rock face,” shouted Erica, a seasoned hiker whose sun-kissed skin and amputated small toe held testament to her adventurous life. I watched her in the hope that she would coerce me into doing the same. But she and her husband, Ian, walked past without waiting for a response. Lashings of hail whipped at our exposed faces and rain managed to worm its way through multiple layers of waterproofing. I’m not sure if it was high-altitude delirium or blind determination that drove my group of six forward.
My family and I had decided to climb Mt. Meru in northern Tanzania. Straddling a volatile zone of geothermal activity, this 4565m giant gets dwarfed both in size and respect by its larger sister, Mt. Kilimanjaro. However, this forgotten monolith bears similar moss-drenched forests, titanic vistas and altitude enriched adventures that endow Kilimanjaro. All this with not less-fewer hikers and the added charm of walking through Arusha National Park, laden with Africa’s big game, before reaching the mountain’s slopes.
Most climbs begin in Arusha, initially a garrison town founded by German colonialists, now a bustling city and a base for safaris within the world-famous northern circuit. Interestingly, it also lies at the mid-point between Cairo and Cape Town, strategically marked by a clock tower.
The hike begins at Momella gate, where we opted for a longer route that navigates past waterfalls and allows slower acclimatisation. We cut through savannah dotted with giraffe and zebra before being engulfed by the dark bowels of the forest. The trees hold a plethora of epiphytes that colonise their branches. Rainbow coloured Turacos flit through the canopy, iridescent sunbirds prance from flower to flower and kites hover gracefully on the thermals overhead. The rich biodiversity kept me occupied over the five-hour hike.
Our first night was at Miriakamba hut, which comprises stone blocks with toilets, running water, bunk beds and a dining room. Gone are the days, where tinned meat and stale bread were the norm for mountaineers. Our porters and cook conjured up a three-course feast of fresh vegetable soup, a spicy chicken curry with rice and a banquet of tropical fruits with yogurt. All eaten under candlelight with stainless steel cutlery! I finished off by nursing a hot chocolate, whilst staring at the twinkling lights of a sleepy town below.
The morning was stirred up by a cacophony of guttural hoots emanating from the forests; Colobus monkeys verbalising their presence. I mounted a viewing platform just as the sun clambered over the horizon, silhouetting Kilimanjaro against a sky pulsating in pink, tangerine and crimson. The warmth teased away dense clouds off Mt. Meru’s highest point, revealing the ‘Socialist peak’, a reflection of Tanzania’s political past.
The day’s hike started off through a dripping forest. The previous night’s deluge was still finding its way through the canopy and onto the forest floor. Occasional gashes amongst the foliage revealed forested slopes tumbling down towards corn yellow grasslands. All hikers tread the same path, making for many interesting moments; from a potential elephant feeding in a thicket that turned out to be a guide answering nature’s call to a group of over-fascinated tourists cooing over mice tracks. Gradually though, our enthusiasm was curbed by a few thigh-burning sections and the rising altitude.
The hike took around four hours to reach Saddle camp. Here, after a cup of tea and marble cake, we went on an excursion to climb Little Meru. The 45-minute trek is steep, but offers grand views of Communist peak and a 360-degree panorama of the land below. It also confers to the mountaineering theory of ‘climb high, sleep low’ to enable acclimatisation.
We woke up for the summit assault at 11pm. This meant that we had slept for only four hours and our kit hadn’t dried from the previous day’s rainstorm. However, stepping out of our stone walled chalet made up for this. A bowl of black enveloped the sky, sprinkled with shimmering stars. The distilled air allowed a clear view of the Milky Way. A fresh dollop of snow made the peak glow in the feeble moonlight.
Frost strangled the sparse vegetation and ice had silenced the soporific gurgling of a nearby stream. The air held an unnerving calm to it.
Halfway up the climb, a benign looking cloud sneaked up on us and within minutes we were engulfed within its ominous embrace. Hailstones and rain pummelled us, whilst the fog narrowed the visibility to a few feet. At times, we found ourselves on all fours clinging precariously up 40-degree rock faces, smeared in a sheet of piercingly cold water. My heart began to pound away with the effort. At that altitude, I was puffing like I had just run a marathon. My legs were as hard as steel, but felt like jelly as I beckoned them to surge forward. Our guide, named ‘Honest’, kept ferrying us over difficult sections, coercing us with the monotonous ‘its just here, not far now!’ Carrying on was as much a mental challenge as a physical one.
Seven hours later, the sun began a pathetic effort to peer through the calming storm. As the morning brightened, the fog melted away and heaven unfolded before us. The peak resembled a giant serving of chocolate chip ice cream: steep slopes dressed in white snow and peppered with black rock. Shafts of golden sunlight finally pierced through.
Eventually, after hours hallucinating about a hot shower and a soft bed, the sun glinted off the summit- the flag! I opened up a tank of energy, unbeknown to me and scrambled up the last incline. The elation was grand, a tear snaked down my cheek; the result of exhaustion, happiness and fear. We celebrated with half-hearted photographs and hugs before repeating the entire process again, downhill! In retrospect, I am glad I wasn’t convinced to turn around prematurely.
This article was written by Kush Patel