Mt. Meru, Tanzania
Of the many things to do in Tanzania, Mt. Meru is not usually on people’s list. There are some good reasons to choose other things to do. It’s sort of a pain to get to. It’s a hard climb. Its sister, Mt. Kilimanjaro, is only about 30 miles away and happens to be the tallest mountain on the continent. Moreover, her name if often mispronounced. If Meru (may-ru) were human she’d be suffering from a multitude of complexes.
Nonetheless, some friends and I decided it was something we wanted to do and we started making preparations. The fact that Priya and I were going to be in South Africa the week before was good news and bad news. The downside was that it complicated planning with our two climbing companions who were in Dar. The upside was that our camping supplies were minimal and Cape Town has good outdoor stores.
Our unofficial leader was Jenn. She sort of launched the idea and Priya and I latched onto it. I’d been wanting to do it and when she mentioned doing it during this particular Tanzanian holiday it sounded ideal. Jenn is from upstate New York and has lived in a few different parts of Africa over the past few years. She speaks decent Swahili and made a lot of the arrangements. I’ve known her for a few months and I figured she’d make a decent climbing partner. She’s thirty-ish, energetic and seems to enjoy new challenges. She and two others did the scuba certification with me a couple of months ago.
Our fourth person on the trip would be the Irishman Joey. I’d met him briefly and we had a short lunch to discuss the trip but I didn't know him very well. My rough assessment was that the four of us would be able to pull it off the climb.
We started from our place with a very overloaded taxi. The driver was very accommodating, however, and the five us knew there’d be a big tip in it for him. We got to the bus station and boarded almost immediately. The bus we were taking, Scandinavia, is notorious for leaving on time. And we did.
The ride to the Arusha area was long and hot. There was no AC for some reason but it never got unbearable. We made frequent stops to get our regular harassment from the police and the trip ended up being much longer than we’d anticipated. As we got closer to our stop the weather began to look more and more ominous. Sure enough, about a half hour before our arrival it began to sprinkle. By the time we were unloading our stuff it was pouring. We had arranged transportation from the stop to the lodge and the driver fortunately was there. Unfortunately, however, he wasn’t the most accommodating. He pulled up in front of where we’d been waiting. As we scrambled to load our things in the downpour, our discourteous driver remained seated in the shelter of his Land Cruiser. Once we were fully drenched and out of packing options, Mr. Driver forced himself out of his seat to unlock and open the rear door of the vehicle. We hurriedly loaded the last of our things and dove in. As we all sat in the Land Cruiser completely soaked there was a brief silence as the rain pounded the metal roof. Mr. Driver proceeded to complain about the fact that we made him get out and get wet, saying that it was “unfair”. Naturally we were incredulous at his self-centered attitude (uncommon to Tanzanians who are not only usually more welcoming but rarely bothered by any sort of weather conditions). A few “in kind” comments were fired back in his direction and thus began the more or less frosty, conversation-less, rainy, two-hour, bumpy, have-to-pee-all-the-way drive to Momela Lodge.
Not to say that it wasn’t beautiful. We drove through a number of cool villages, which don’t seem to get a whole lot of traffic. Kids were waving at us the whole way partly due to seeing a vehicle and partly because foreigners were on the inside. We also passed a lake loaded with flamingos and as we approached the lodge a dozen or so giraffes were scattered about.
Arriving at the lodge we had time to basically check in, scope out our foggy surroundings and get ready for dinner. Our mountain didn’t reveal itself to us until just before dinner as the clouds began to part.
It was a beautiful sight. It’s a Mt. St. Helens-esque volcano with a large blast zone. In the middle there is a cinder cone that hasn’t seen much growth over the past century. The top is rock and cinders with vegetation increasing to full on rainforest at the lower altitudes.
After dinner we went to bed fairly early. The lodge is rather large with individual cabins and huts for a capacity of probably about 150 people. Giraffes roam everywhere, especially in the morning, and there are supposedly other animals as well. The lodge was founded in the 1950’s when the John Wayne movie Hatari was filmed. Not only did they film the movie there, the original lodge was simply the housing that was built for the actors and workers. Once the filming was over they turned it into a lodge. I haven’t seen the movie but rumor has it someone in Dar owns it. We’re going to see if we can’t check it out.
We didn’t really have that early of a start and it turned out to even be a slower start than we had anticipated. Everything was slow at the park entrance as we waited for this person and that, paid for this thing and that, etc. It wasn’t a big deal since we only had about 4-5 hours of hiking to do. The main concern was the fact that during the rainy season the area experiences consistent rains. We were concerned about getting caught in them making for mor precarious hiking. Shortly after 10am we finally hit the trail with our armed guide Tino and our three porters. The porters actually took off on a different trail than we did and we didn’t see them until we arrived at the first hut. We had cloud cover for the start which was a good thing. We saw lots of game including buffalos, bushbucks, warthogs, colobus monkeys (the kind with long black and white hair), baboons and more giraffes.
Joey had gotten sick the night before he wasn’t in good shape for the first day. I felt sorry for the guy but he was a good sport and didn’t complain the whole way. We kept a slow but consistent pace. With the exception of a couple of short stretches, we were rain free most of the hike. But as we were arriving at our first hut we had a nice little downpour to dampen our things for the evening.
After we settled into the hut, we filtered some water, fired up the stove and proceeded to have the first of many cups of cocoa. We still didn’t have a view of Kili but we had a nice one of our own peak. I was joking that we’d eventually end up spending too much time looking at Kilimanjaro, that we might make our own mountain jealous and subject us to her wrath. How prophetic it turned out to be.
On day two Joey didn’t seem to be getting any better. We had been wondering if it weren’t food poisoning but this long into his sickness we were now thinking it was something else – hoping it wasn’t something that would get much worse as we got further from help. Nonetheless, he seemed ok enough to head out and off we went. The trail stayed consistently steep but in pretty good condition. We took it fairly slow and took occasional breaks, each time checking on Joey’s status. Less than an hour into the day’s hike, Priya glanced behind her and caught the first glimpse of the famous Kilimanjaro.
After nearly a year in Tanzania and flying over the top of the damn thing four times, I had never seen it before. Now, here it was in all its glory. It really did exist. I have to say, it’s pretty majestic looking. At just under 20,000 ft., a mile or so taller than any mountain in the lower 48 US states, Kili is a big ass mountain – even from our vantage point about 30 miles away. It was the first of many amazing views to come.
As we arrived at Saddle Hut we noticed a decent crowd. We’d seen almost no one on the trail up to that point so it was a bit surprising. That’s one of the benefits of the rainy season climb. Here however, a couple of groups had just descended from the summit and were working their way down. It was promising. We figured if they could pull if off, we could.
We settled in to our routine of filtering water and eating. Since we’d had a decent start that morning, we had more time this afternoon to relax, read and so forth. This is the luxury of the 2 ½ day ascent. If you were ambitious you could get to Saddle Hut in a day, summit and descend the next. It’d be tough but very doable. This way was much more comfortable and given Joey’s condition, it was all we could do anyway.
We had rain off and on that afternoon and evening. It was quite chilly and we hunkered around our stove and hot wine. We met with Tino before going to bed and he warned us that if it’s raining at our 2am departure, it’s off. No questions. The trail is precarious and rain at our altitude would mean snow and ice above. The sky cleared up just before we went to bed so I was feeling optimistic.
My optimism was unfounded. Around midnight the rain began to pound on the metal roof of the hut. Our fate was certain. We would not tag Meru’s summit.
Some time during the night Jenn spoke with Tino and he suggested that if it clears up, we head out to Rhino Point for sunrise. It’s sort of a humble trek to get to the second best spot on the second highest mountain but off we went around 6am. Joey was still ill and this time he opted out. It took us about an hour and we arrived on what is actually a high point on the rim of the crater. From here we would have followed the rim around, slightly down, and up all the way to the summit. It looked tempting and doable but it was not allowed. It would have put us on the rim during the afternoon, something that is against the rules of the mountain due to lightning strikes and torrential afternoon rains that would make the going too dangerous.
As it was, the view was stunning and we were happy. Being so far above the clouds offered incredible views 360 degrees around us. The view of Mt. Kilimanjaro was amazing (above). Our view of the Meru summit was pretty impressive (almost straight above me in the photo below) as well as the cone in the Meru crater. We savored the moment for a while and then descended back to the hut.
With the energy we did not expend climbing to the summit, we later did an afternoon guideless hike to what is called Little Meru. The weather was beautiful and we stayed there for quite some time. We had time to kill given that we didn’t climb the big one and we were spending a second night at Saddle Hut.
The next morning before heading down, Joey was feeling better so he and Jen did an early climb of Rhino point given that he’d missed it the day before. Priya, on the other hand, came down with a serious migraine. I won’t go into details but suffice to say she was a mess. I wasn’t sure how we were going to get her off the mountain. It lasted for a couple of hours beginning around 5am. Amazingly she pulled out of it and was even packed and ready to head down by 9am. Tough as nails. She and Joey demonstrated some pretty solid fortitude.
The hike down took longer than expected. Our quads and feet took a beating largely due to the steepness of the mountain. We had some fun animal sightings and finished the hike with a cool walk across a meadow loaded with giraffes, buffalos and warthogs.
We arrived at the lodge dirty and tired. Fortunately the outdoor brick fireplaces that heat the water for the huts were fired up and we were able to take warm showers on arrival. We relaxed for a couple of hours, had dinner and went to bed.
In the morning Mr. Driver escorted us back to the Arusha bus station. Conversation was just about as lively as our frigid arrival. Our drive took us a short way through Arusha National Park and we were once again treated to lots of giraffes, some disinterested in getting out of our way. There was also a nice meadow of buffalos and zebras just before leaving the park.