Previous Post: Heading To Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Region
Google “Meru” and you come up with a number of destinations. There is the Meru of Hindu and Buddhist myth; it is believed to be the very axis of the world in the same way, for example, that Jerusalem is in Judaeo-Christian cosmology.
There is also a Meru in the Indian Himalayas. Jimmy Chin’s astonishing documentary captured an epic climb up its Shark’s Fin face in a film you just have to see!
The Mount Meru I climbed this January is neither of those!
It is the one in East Africa which apparently gets its name from a Bantu ethnic group living in the area. It is, next to Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Tanzania. For visitors to this east African nation, there are lots of good reasons to include it in their list of “to do” activities.
- It is the focal point of Arusha National Park and easily reached from Arusha, the main town in the Kilimanjaro region.
- The trek to the summit is definitely worthwhile and actually more challenging than the walk up Kilimanjaro.
- The trek serves as an excellent warm-up for a later visit to Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak.
- The trek attracts far fewer people than its famous big brother.
- Wildlife sightings are common on the plains and in the rain forest on the mountain’s lower slopes
I had landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport a couple of days before and headed from Moshi to the park with my Popote crew.
In the Toyota Land Cruiser were my guide Ken, two porters – Fella and George – and Wolfgang, the cook. We would later add a third porter to the team. A total of five locals to look after – well, me! A party of one! I had paid $1100.U.S. for the four-day package, which included airport pick-up and drop-off, a room at Moshi’s Parkview Inn the night before and after the hike, as well as all the taxes and fees involved with entering the park with a trekking crew.
Unlike my later Kilimanjaro visit, which involved seven nights of sleeping in a tent, each day of the Meru trek ends at a hut complex. Each of the 20 or so rooms had beds for four but there were so few of us that we all got our own private room.
The trek can be done over a three or four-day period. While both options involve starting off for the summit at midnight or 1 a.m. at the start of Day 3, the big difference is that the three-day option has you do the 1200 meters up to the summit and then descend 3000 meters all the way to the park gate in one massive day. Much better to add an extra day and sleep at the Miriakamba Hut at the end of your summit day and finish off the walk the next morning!
I took a photo of the signboard outlining park fees; it brought home the extent to which fees and taxes make up the final cost of a Tanzanian volcano climb or safari.
I had paid Popote Africa Adventure $1100. for my four-day trek, a very competitive price from an excellent local Moshi agency given that I was a party of one. Subtract the $455. in government fees and taxes and that leaves Popote with $645.
- Conservation fee (entrance fee) – $45. US x 4 days = $180.
- Hut fee – $30.US x 3 nights = $90. US
- Guide/Ranger Service Fee – $15. x 4 days = $60.
- Mt. Meru per group fee – $15.
- Rescue Fee – $20.
- Porter/Guide fees 3,500 TZS x 4 person per day X four days = 56000 TZS = $24. US
- VAT on all the above – 18% x $385. = $70.
- Total fees and taxes =$455. US
From the $645. it has to pay for my two nights accommodation in Moshi, transport to and from the airport and the park as well as vehicle entry frees, and the wages for the guide and porters, and the food. I’m left wondering about their profit margin!
See the Ultimate Kilimanjaro website for a look at a competing agency’s offering. What it bills as a private 1-person climb of Meru is priced at U.S. $1869. It is certainly easier to see a nice profit on the basis of these numbers!
The ride from Moshi to the trailhead at Momella Gate took about 3 hours. Once there, the crew got things ready in the parking lot while I waited with a couple of other trekkers at the starting point for a few more people to form a trekking group. A park ranger – complete with his rifle in case of possible troubles with animals – is assigned to each group. At noon we had six people – two Austrians, a Spaniard, two Danes, and me – and we were ready to go.
Day One: From Momella Gate (1500 m) To Miriakamba Hut (2500 m)
The map below illustrates the usual Day 1 route; it essentially follows the jeep track all the way to the Miriakamba Huts. Only park vehicles are allowed to make the trip right to the hut; other visitors must stop near the final stretch where the track turns north towards Miriakamba.
Our route varied somewhat from the above, perhaps to take us away from the jeep track and what little traffic there was on it. (Two jeeps passed us during the hour or so we walked up the road.) The afternoon hike took less than three hours and much of it was in the shade, thanks to the montane forest we walked through, especially after we left the jeep track and took what the ranger said was a new off-the-road route. It would appear that part of our route was along the side of the stream indicated on the first map.
Missing in the image below is a Toyota Land Cruiser driving through the gap to indicate how large the arch actually is!
Before we left the jeep track I did get a profile shot of the Meru crater ridge. That is the high point of the ridge (4566 m) in the middle of the image; the bump on the right-hand side is Little Meru (3820 m).
I also got my first photo of a giraffe though I would never have even noticed him had the park ranger not pointed him out! On Day 4 on our way back to Momella Gate by another route, I would see much more and get some better shots.
In the image below the ranger’s rifle is visible on the right. During a brief rest stop in a shady spot, I asked him if he had ever had to kill an animal while escorting visitors through the forest up the mountain. “No” was the reply. He had only fired warning shots to scare off the overly curious creature.
The hut complex at Miriakamba is made up of a couple of trekker huts with perhaps fifty beds in two huts. There is also a hut for the on-site park official(s), a guides’/porters’ hut, a couple of kitchen/cooking huts, and a large dining hut. While we had walked up as a group, once we got there the three different cook teams set about to prepare dinner for their client(s).
Above the dining hut is a viewing platform with a nice perspective on the crater rim that is the objective of the hike. The gathering of guides there with their cell phones in hand also made clear that it had the best signal reception!
Day 2 – Miriakamba Huts (2500) To Saddle Hut (3500)
I’m not sure why but I took very few photos on our morning walk up to Saddle Hut (3500 m). We set off at 8 a.m. and arrived around noon. the initial stretch included some clear views of Kilimanjaro, some eighty kilometers to the east. And thanks to the ranger’s keen eye, we did see a deer or two. On Day 1 we had gained about 1000 meters in altitude; this day would add another 1000 of ascent on a trail with lots of switchbacks. The satellite image below shows our walk up to 3300 meters when we took a short break. I turned off my Polar GPS watch to conserve battery life – and forgot to put it back on when we continued!
We got to the Saddle Hut complex around noon and, after a hot lunch prepared by our respective cook teams, had a brief siesta. then, as an acclimatization exercise, we set off for a mid-afternoon walk up to the summit of Little Meru.
It is about 300 meters higher than the hut we would be sleeping in. It was the climbers’ adage – “Climb high; sleep low” – in action! When we got to the top, we lounged around in the afternoon sun for perhaps a half-hour, enjoying the views. We could see the trail we would be walking up to Rhino Point shortly after midnight on the east side of the crater.
It was definitely colder and windier at the Saddle Hut than it had been down at Miriakamba the night before; I was glad to have the right clothing and my sleeping bag rated to -10ºC to keep warm as I rested up for the midnight alarm signal. By 1 a.m. my guide Ken and I would be getting ready to move.
Day 3 – From The Saddle Huts To Meru Peak and Back To Miriakamba
No pics from Day 3 until sunrise on the summit! We had our headlamps on as we walked across the Saddle to the trail that took us up to Rhino Point over a 45-minute period. I had a pair of fleece long johns under my trekking pants; on my upper body, I had a couple of layers underneath my insulated and windproof jacket.
It took us about five hours to reach the summit, still referred to as Socialist Peak in most trip accounts. From Rhino Point we lost a few meters in altitude and then continued our way on a rougher “path” through the lava boulders. There was even a section which included four or five lengths of steel cable bolted to the rock face but I would only see them on our return after sunrise – we had not made use of them in our scramble along the west side of the crater rim.
My first attempt at getting a photo on the summit was a failure; my camera battery read “exhausted” thanks to the cold! Luckily I had another camera in my bag – and amazingly its battery was okay.
Since the summit of Meru is about 1300 meters less high than Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro, in terms of possible acclimatization issues it could be considered an easier climb. However, Meru itself makes demands on the body as far as adapting to thinning air – in the span of forty-eight hours you ascend 3100 meters from the Momella Gate trailhead!
The actual path to the top of Meru from Saddle Hut is rougher and more of a technical scramble than the fairly easy walk to the top of Kili’s crater rim at Stella Point and the ensuing walk to Uhuru Peak.
In the end, the Meru hike was an excellent hike on its own and it also made the Kilimanjaro ascent that much less a big deal. When people mention that their walk to the top of Kilimanjaro is the most difficult thing they have ever done, they must be referring to the six hours and 1200 meters of elevation gain from Barafu Camp to Stella Point; the rest of the seven or eight-day trek is literally a moderate walk in the park at ever-increasing altitude.
From Meru Peak we got a great view of the Ash cone, the caldera within the larger caldera, the entire eastern half which blew away a long time ago, leaving the western half for trekkers to walk along to the high point. Also visible now was where we had started off from in the dark – the Saddle Hut. And behind it Little Meru where we had sat in the afternoon sun the day before.
It took less than half the time to return to Saddle Hut; by 9:30 or so everyone was back. In years past the four-day trek package was set up so that clients would spend the rest of the day at Saddle Hut and sleep there a second night. A recent change means that now the target hut for night #3 is Miriakamba, another 1000 meters down and admittedly warmer and more sheltered from the wind.
We would have a quick rest – maybe an hour – and then lunch before we got back on the trail to Miriakamba. By then the Austrian couple had already left; they had an even longer walk – they were going down to Momella Gate and a ride out of the park that very afternoon!
We got to Miriakamba in the early afternoon; the walk down had been relatively easy after all the “ups” of the two previous days. Shortly after we arrived, a party of some 15 German trekkers and their guides and porters arrived; they were going up to Saddle Hut the next morning.
Day Four: From Miriakamba To Momella Gate
Day 4 is really a half-day; we covered the 6.5 kilometers from Miriakamba Hut to Momella Gate in about three hours of leisurely walking, dropping about 900 meters along the way.
By mid-afternoon, we (the porters and guide) were either back in Moshi or dropped off along the way. I didn’t know it when we started off in the morning but we would be treated to a mini-wildlife viewing before the trek ended!
As we got closer to the endpoint of our trek, the terrain opened up somewhat and we walked through a number of meadows perfect for grazing animals. Just before we crossed Meru Plain near the end, we went down a side trail to see Tululusia Falls.
The giraffes were an unexpected bonus! The first thing I actually noticed was a group of visitors standing and watching them but it didn’t take long for the camera to be pointed int the right direction.
A quick look back at where we had come from this morning – the clouds had moved in and Little Meru and the main crater rim were hidden from view. But in front of us was a herd of perhaps thirty buffalo, most lying down with some seemingly standing guard. The animal is apparently quite unpredictable in behaviour and best not aggravated!
Strolling among the buffalo and sometimes sitting on their backs were the cattle egrets living out their symbiotic relationship with the usually grumpy buffalo!
The trek would end with my guide had referred to as a “farewell ceremony” at the Momella Gate. It was my introduction to the compulsory tipping that is a part of every tourist activity in Tanzania and, I’m sure, elsewhere in East Africa. On the assumption that Popote was paying its staff fairly – that is, U.S. $10 a day for three porters, $15. for a cook, and $20. for the guide, I calculated a 15% “tip on those wages in TZ shillings. I would later learn that I was being unbelievably stingy.
The tipping issue was the one negative aspect of my time in Tanzania . I would get to relive it, this time with the other people in the group I was with on my Kilimanjaro trek and then on a two-day safari.
All in all, my four-day Mount Meru trek proved to be an excellent start to my three weeks in Tanzania. I felt great at the end of it and looked forward to Part 2 – the eight-day trek across the western and southern slopes of Kilimanjaro and culminating in another midnight start for a summit that stood 1300 meters higher than Meru’s.
But first I would relax for a couple of days in Moshi and get to explore the town of 200,000. It was Monday afternoon when we returned from Mount Meru. I was scheduled to leave for Kilimanjaro on Wednesday. When I found out that I was the only Popote client scheduled to leave on that day and that another group of four was leaving the day after, I decided to postpone my departure for a day so I could join them. It was the right decision!