Tanzania: trekking on Mount Meru

by Jon Bigg

Soaring above Tanzania's Massai Steppe, Mount Meru is reputed to be a more exhilarating climb than nearby Kilimanjaro. We tackled the challenge of trekking to its snow dusted summit.

The view as we flew over the Kenyan border was to die for: on our left, Kilimanjaro jutted majestically above its cloud skirt, whilst looking the other way gave us our first mesmerising view of Mount Meru’s cavernous caldera and knife-edge summit ridge. Months of anticipation turned to a buzz of excitement as our eyes wandered to its summit.

Meru is a spectacularly beautiful, classic volcanic cone that geologists believe was once bigger than Kilimanjaro. It lost much of its bulk about 8000 years ago in a sideways eruption that obliterated its eastern slopes. Left behind is a horse-shoe ridge, harbouring a slowly growing ash cone.

The well watered and fertile lower slopes support a forest habitat that is home to a diverse collection of wildlife: buffalo, giraffe, vervet and colobus monkeys, warthogs and zebra are all common, not to mention nearly 400 bird species!  At least one herd of elephants inhabits the park too and, although they are rarely sighted, there was plenty of evidence along the trail that they had passed by a few hours before us!

THE TREK

From Momella gate to the summit is just 19 km but there is over 3000m of ascent so you should spread the climb over 2½ days and allow another 1½ days to descend.

DAY 1 – (10 km, 1000m ascent)

The lower slopes offer a deceptively relaxing start to the trek as the route follows a gentle gradient through lush woods and grassland with an abundance of wildlife.  But by mid afternoon, having ascended to a dizzy height of 2514m, we were feeling the altitude and delighted when the bunkhouses appeared unexpectedly through the trees.

The Miriakamba huts are crowded together on a level perch just outside the caldera and provide comfortable although basic accommodation.  But the majestic beauty of the surroundings is unsparing compensation for the absence of life’s luxuries. Ahead, the mighty crater wall rises above the ash cone to Socialist Peak, the mountain’s highest point. Behind, the forested slopes drop steeply towards the distant savannah far below.

This is where, on our way down, we would stand shoulder to shoulder with a wild giraffe. It wandered past unhurriedly grazing on leaves from the tree tops that rise level with a veranda behind the canteen. But there were many hours of hard climbing to face before that enchanting sight could be enjoyed.

DAY 2– (4 km, 1050m ascent)

Shortly before dawn, while Miriakamba was still in shadow, the day’s first golden shafts of sunlight spread a warm glow over the breathtaking summit cliffs. We were woken by the sound of ravens’ claws on tin roofs and coaxed out of bed by the gentle aroma of dew, coffee and breakfast.  Having slept well, we were eager to push on.

Climbing higher takes you to cooler temperatures and striking changes in the landscape and flora. The vivid green forest gives way first to bushland peppered with red-hot poker flowers and then moorland before you finally reach the alpine desert zone close to the summit.

Our long, hard slog through ever thinner air eventually brought us to Saddle Hut (3500m) by mid afternoon. From here you may continue to the summit of Little Meru (3801m), barely half an hour away, or simply relax before your summit assault the next morning.

DAY 3 – (5km, 1000m ascent then 9km, 2050m descent)

The final summit push began at 1:30 AM after just a couple of hours sleep but seeing dawn from Socialist Peak is a reward for which it is worth being torn from the warm comfort of a sleeping bag in the middle of the night. A head-torch is definitely recommended; bring a couple of warm layers for the chilly, pre-dawn temperatures too!
Rhino Point, the first milestone, is arguably as good a place as the summit to watch the sunrise.

Understandably, this is where many turn back – you need grit and determination to battle oxygen deprivation in the dark after just a couple of hours sleep. From here, the trail also becomes more challenging with some rocky scrambles to negotiate and precipitous drops encroaching upon the path. 

However, this final, narrow ridge is reputed to be one of the most dramatic and exhilarating sections of trekking anywhere in East Africa!  On our left, mist swirled around the ash cone beneath the sheer cliffs of the inner wall.  Meanwhile, the sloping outer wall of the crater dropped steeply away to our right and the snow capped peak of Kilimanjaro could be seen in the distance.

Shrugging off our exhaustion, we continued past Cobra Point, scrambling doggedly over rocky outcrops, grinding our way up slopes of soft, black volcanic sand, and balancing fearlessly along narrow ledges, edging ever closer until the summit flag came into view.  Silhouetted against the vivid blue sky it looked deceptively close through the crisp, cold, early morning air.  We gasped our way up the final tumble of rocks to the top of Africa’s third highest mountain!

We were euphoric!  Standing on the top of Mount Meru was easy... but the climb there was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The sense of achievement was indescribable – it was undoubtedly one of the most thrilling moments in my life and I often wish I was still up there panting for oxygen in the crisp, clear air!

We exchanged congratulations, peered down the vertical wall of the crater, took photos and signed the summit book.  Then our gaze drifted to Kilimanjaro, which stood 70 kilometres away, jutting through its skirt of cloud. Even as the summit of Meru lay conquered beneath our feet, ambitions were stirring... before the year is out several of us hope to look down on Meru from the top of Africa’s highest peak.

DESCENT

From the summit, we made a quick descent to Saddle Hut for lunch before continuing back to Miriakamba, where we spent the night and mingled with climbers on their way up.  On day 4, we retraced our steps to the start, but took a detour to a spectacular 50 foot waterfall just before Momella gate.  It is the ultimate power shower and the perfect way to clean up after four sweaty days on the mountain!

Moshi – before or after the trek

Before tackling Meru it’s a good idea to spend a little time acclimatising in Moshi, which is itself around 900 metres above sea level.  We spent two nights at the simple but charming Bristol Cottages; the breakfast was excellent, the staff friendly, the rates reasonable and the location is close enough but not too close to the centre of town.

If vibrant town centres aren’t your thing, you’ll find tranquillity and excellent food at El Rancho, a delightful though misleadingly named Indian restaurant.  If it’s a clear day, go there a little before sunset, in time to stroll up the hill, past the International School, for an unforgettable view of Kilimanjaro.

If you haven’t experienced Africa before, or even if you have, make time for a cultural show at the dubiously named Golden Shower Restaurant.  Participate in energetic tribal dances, learn about local traditions, relax to the mesmerising sound of drums, and watch acrobats twist themselves into impossible positions.

There is a small market in Moshi and a scattering of curio shops.  Don’t worry about trying to find them; eager sellers will find you and entice you there, but don’t feel you have to buy anything!  When you’ve tired of souvenir shopping, there are few better places for a cool beer than the charming bar hidden up a back-street behind the Kindoroko Hotel; it’s supposed to be for residents only, but the barman was more than happy to serve us.

Best of all, visit Marangu waterfalls.  The falls are beautiful and jumping off the top into the cool water below is exhilarating.  It’s also well worth the walk to a larger rock pool in a shady gully a little further upstream.

Getting there

Kilimanjaro international airport is halfway between Moshi and Arusha. It is served by KLM, Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways and Northwest, providing connections to Europe, Asia and the Americas. Precision Air also provides connections to Kilimanjaro from many regional airports.

Kilimanjaro international airport is halfway between Moshi and Arusha. It is served by KLM, Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways and Northwest, providing connections to Europe, Asia and the Americas. Precision Air also provides connections to Kilimanjaro from many regional airports.

 
A year after first climbing Mount Meru, Jon moved with his family to Tanzania.  He now lives on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and regularly treks on both Meru and Kilimanjaro.