The pandemic has decimated tourism across the world and Kilimanjaro has been no exception. But how can we avoid the over-crowded trails we saw pre-pandemic? By exploring the lesser-known ones, says Laura French, who took on the Rongai route shortly before COVID-19 struck.
“Forget everything you’ve heard about Kilimanjaro,” were the words of our guide, Makeke. “Go with no preconceptions.”
It was September 2019, and I was sat in a hotel in Marangu, Tanzania, ready to start a six-day expedition the following morning—and I was feeling a tad anxious.
Not just because of the -20 Celsius temperatures I’d been told to expect; nor because of the sleepless nights, or the high altitudes, or the strenuous inclines.
But because I worried I was going to be just another dot on the 50,000-strong conveyor belt of people that, pre-Covid, had come flocking here every year.
I’d seen the images of overtouristed Everest, and I’d read about the issues facing Kilimanjaro — not least litter at campsites, soil degradation on the mountain and rock erosion on the shale where many hikers ‘skied’ down the slope after summiting.
Rising tourist numbers had also led to a growing competition among the numerous climbing operators servicing Kilimanjaro, according to Karen Valenti, program coordinator for the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), a non-profit organization focused on protecting the welfare of porters.
“This enabled unsatisfactory working conditions for porters,” she told Adventure.com. “Issues included reduced salary amounts or inadequate food provision, as companies were finding ways to lower climb prices in their bids to obtain business.”
I’d heard the park had taken action to target some of these issues; plastic bottles were banned, rangers were asked to weigh every group’s rubbish on entering and leaving the huts to prevent litter, and guides were tasked with ensuring trekkers didn’t venture off the trails. And when it was clear the 2020 climbing season was not going ahead, 15 climbing companies and over 400 mountain crew took part in the first Leave No Trace effort on Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro generates around $50 million a year in tourism revenue, according to the World Bank and other reports. It employs 20,000 porters, (estimates by Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project – KPAP), and thousands more guides, chefs and other staff.
All of that sounded promising – but it didn’t stop me wondering how it would play out in reality.
To avoid the busier routes, I’d deliberately chosen the Rongai: a lesser-known trail and the only one to approach from the northern (Kenyan side), touted to be one of the quietest, driest and most remote. It was also supposedly one of the flattest; the downsides were it was more expensive, supposedly less scenic, and didn’t offer the option to “climb high and sleep low”.
Estimates said the Rongai represented only 5 per cent of hikers, while the better-known Machame and Marangu drew a whopping 85 per cent between them. But how would reality tally with the statistics?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The following day, we set off for Nale Moru, the park’s northern entrance. We spotted a couple of other groups, but otherwise it was deserted.
The litter-dotted trails I’d pictured were nowhere to be seen, and as we made the gentle, three-hour hike up through the dense, rocky forest, we didn’t encounter anyone else bar the occasional porter dashing past, greeting us with a gleeful “jambo”.
The next four days were similarly peaceful. Some campsites felt busier than others, most notably at Mawenzi Tarn, a scenic spot set around Kilimanjaro’s only permanent lake. But as we traversed the changing landscapes, turning from emerald forest to thick, bushy heather; then grey, volcanic rocks to the arid ‘lunar desert’, we had the vast, cloud-clapped stretches almost entirely to our-selves.
It wasn’t until day four, when we arrived at Kibo Huts (the base camp for summiting for both Marangu and Rongai hikers) that that changed. Suddenly there were wooden huts and bunk beds, hordes of climbers and clusters of tents; a mini civilisation in the middle of nowhere that felt at odds with what I’d seen for the previous few days.
Setting off that night to make the long ascent to the peak made me realise how much of a contrast those days had been. Now I was an ant in a long, zig-zag trail of hikers; a single head torch in a line of hundreds of others, twinkling away like a string of fairy lights leading the way ahead.
Not that I was really concentrating on the numbers. It was –15C, my fingers and toes had turned into blocks of ice, and I was struggling with the altitude. I wasn’t alone; hikers splintered off to the sides, hunched over and vomiting, while two from our group turned back, light-headed and energy-less.
Fortunately the surrounds made up for it. Stars covered the sky in an ethereal glaze, whiter and brighter than I’d ever seen them, and a crescent gold moon hovered over the silhouetted Mawenzi peak. Then the sun started to rear its head, turning the sky into a strip of navy-orange and bright, burning red, and it pushed me to go on.
After 8 hours spent panting and puffing my way up one long, steep slope, I reached the peak, Uhuru, set at 5,895 meters. It felt like more, as I stumbled between glassy shards of ice, weak, breathless and exhausted. But the views more than made up for it, with ice fields sprawling off in every direction beneath a chlorine-blue sky, brushed with swathes of ruby from the burning glare of the sun.
“The pandemic arrived suddenly, without giving anyone time to prepare for the extended impact it would have. Since March 2020, mountain crews would be counted lucky if they even made one climb.”
Karen Valenti, KPAP
It was busy, of course; I snapped a few photos before being ushered away from the sign to make way for the next group. Again, it felt like something of a contrast from the empty paths I’d got used to on the Rongai — but it didn’t detract from the feeling of having finally made it, after four long days and eight long, cold hours.
The final descent was via the Marangu route, and, unlike on our first few days, we didn’t have the jade-green rainforest and tail-swishing colobus monkey to ourselves. Instead we passed several groups on their way up, rushing to make the ascent.
The end point, Marangu Gate, felt like a mini-Center Parcs, with a café, souvenir shop and actual, real-life toilets. It’s easy to see how images of this might have suggested the whole of Kili was one big, overtouristed theme park, but based on my experience, that’s a deceptive angle.
Of course, none of the trails are crowded right now, and any visitors are likely to have much of the mountain to themselves. Among the companies collaborating with KPAP’s Partner for Responsible Travel Program, the number of climbs from April to December 2020 is 9.7 per cent, compared to this timeframe last year.
That might have given the vegetation a chance to recover, but it’s also brought its own issues. Kilimanjaro generates around $50 million a year in tourism revenue, according to the World Bank and other reports, of which around $13million goes into improving the lives of the park’s communities. The trekking industry there alone employs 20,000 porters, (KPAP estimates), and thousands more guides, chefs and other staff.
Many of them have been without work since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, according to KPAP’s Karen Valenti. “The pandemic arrived suddenly, without giving anyone time to prepare for the extended impact it would have,” she said. “Since March 2020, mountain crews would be counted lucky if they even made one climb.”
It seems clear that tourism here is desirable—but what’s also clear is that continuing to flock in such high numbers is unsustainable. For organizations like KPAP, the pandemic is a chance to promote responsible trekking, such as choosing an approved partner company when it comes to mountain protocols and how staff and crew are treated. Bridging the gap between supporting the economy while limiting damage to the mountain will be key when travel starts to recover.
How the national park and the operators on it tread that line will be interesting to see in the coming years. Promoting the less-busy routes is one option (the Umbwe, Shira and Northern Circuit routes represent less than 2 per cent of all Kilimanjaro hikers between them, for example). Limiting numbers with Machu Picchu-style permit caps could be another solution.
However it’s handled, there’s certainly hope for the future on this vast, still-wild mountain—but it hangs in a delicate balance.