Snow made 2018 a challenging year to climb to the top of Tanzania but facing the challenge as a family was unforgettable.
By Elizabeth Weingart
Getting inside a teenager’s head is a full-time job – and I’ve got four. Though all our kids are active, love to play sports, and be outside, if we suggest an afternoon hike in the nearby hills, the answer is “No way.” I literally twist arms to get one of my kids to take the dog out for a walk.
But when we throw out the idea of spending seven days of our summer vacation climbing Kilimanjaro – a hike that makes the Inca Trail look like a stroll in the park and one that only 40 percent of kids successfully complete? All four are all in.
We’d summited Kilimanjaro before kids. And we’d trekked the Inca Trail as a family. And though our 2018 ascent of Africa’s highest peak brought some of us to our knees – literally – we learned we are all at our best when facing a massive challenge. And overcoming one as big as Kili together is something we’ll never forget.
In hindsight, however, if we’d have known how hard the 2018 weather would make the trip, I’m not sure I’d have been in.
Up to Uhuru
My husband Rich and I had been to the top of Africa before kids and vowed to return someday. We knew it was not a trip for the faint of heart. But we’d traveled a lot as a family and felt our two high schoolers and two middle schoolers were old enough and plenty strong to make it to the top.
The six of us were excited and ready when we set out from our base in Moshi, Tanzania. We had six amazing days on the Lemosho Route, an eight-day path that offers great views and low crowds. Every day was 4-5 hours of challenging hiking but every day was unbelievably beautiful, crossing a variety of terrains on the way up. We would arrive at camp to tents already set up, snacks waiting, and a great evening of talking, card games, music, and fun. Not a screen to be seen.
But as we got higher, it became clear that the peak was still heavy with snow. The guides fessed up that there was far more snow on the ground than they’d seen in a long time. To make matters worse, everyone had packed gym shoes to trek in – except me. When we stopped on the side of the road to buy used boots, our boys’ feet were too big, which meant borrowing no-traction footwear from our porters when we really could have used crampons.
As with most summit ascents, we woke at midnight to begin our quest for the peak. From our camp at 15,200 feet, we would aim for the top, Uhuru Peak (19,300 feet), and then descend to camp at 10,100 feet – a total of 13-15 hours to hike nearly 12 miles.
Hiking for hours in the cold and dark, I began to feel the first inklings of altitude sickness in my head and stomach. The temperature dipped to -15 Celsius. The water in our Camelbacks was frozen in its tube. Silently I worried: I don’t remember it being this cold last time. And I don’t remember all this snow. Truly, we didn’t prep the kids for this – and we didn’t have gear for it, either.
The going was excruciating – a true test of wills. In the dark, our headlamp illuminated just a few feet in front. We kept thinking the first spot on the peak, Stella Point, was only ten minutes away. But the snowpack meant we were hiking much slower than usual. Not to mention, my kids’ feet were literally freezing in their shoes.
My mind raced. “I can’t believe we are doing this. Why the heck did we do this?” My head was banging and my nausea increased.
At 6:30am, we finally reached Stella Point. And as excited as we were, we knew we had to get moving because we had another hour to go to reach the top at Uhuru. That’s when I got the biggest headache of my life. It was so bad that I couldn’t even imagine surviving, descending and saying, “I’m so glad we climbed Kili.”
I arrived at Uhuru at 8:30am and celebrated by throwing up the entire contents of my stomach at the base of the summit sign. All the poor hikers who wanted a photo that day had to stand in my junk. We hugged, high-fived, and shoved chocolate, nuts and mango in our mouths before prepping to do seven-days’ worth of ascent in one day of descent.
After returning to sea level, the adventure continued. We spent a week on safari, spending time in the Serengeti for the wildebeest migration and seeing Ngorongoro crater. We followed that with some beach time on Zanzibar, soothing our aching feet in the white sand and crystal water. Our kids were happy to find vacationing European teens to hang out with, and they bonded over Tanzanian adventures and World Cup play.
Looking back, I am so glad we climbed Kili. Day-to-day at home, I know I am blessed with great kids. But watching the four of them persevere to overcome the daunting mental and physical challenges involved with climbing one of the world’s Seven Summits, we could not have been prouder. They were truly at their best on Kilimanjaro. We all were.
The Good Stuff
The Lemosho Route Every day on the mountain was amazing and so much fun – except the final ascent from 4am-12noon on the seventh day! It was incredibly beautiful from every angle on every day. I wasn’t expecting that because the last time my husband and I trekked it, we took the five-day Marangu route, which wasn’t nearly as pretty. The Lemosho route basically hikes around the mountain as you ascend so we had the crater in our sights nearly the entire time.
Camp Time Getting to camp after a long day of hiking was so fun. Our guides always had our tents set up and a snack waiting for us. We played cards, listened to music, read and talked. It was truly a great family time; everyone was so happy.
Serengeti Safari After the mountain, we did a six-day safari with Shah Tours and followed the wildebeest migration for one of the days. We spent one day at Lake Manyara, two days in the Serengeti, two days in Ngorongoro crater and one day at Tarangire. The parks were all fantastic aside from Tarangire, which we all felt was our least favorite. We chose a mid-range trip (as opposed to budget or luxury) and were so happy. Everything was so nice that we kept asking ourselves, “If this is mid-range, what does luxury look like?”
Every lodge we stayed at was spectacular. We stayed right on the Serengeti during our time there – so close to the wildlife that we needed an escort with a machine if we wanted to leave our lodge. I woke up one night to a loud sound and it was a zebra eating right outside our window! In fact, Bill and Chelsea Clinton had actually just been to one of the lodges we stayed at! We were all excited about that 🙂
Zanzibar R&R To wrap up our Tanzanian adventure, we traveled to Zanzibar. We stayed on the west coast in Pongwe at Marafiki Bungalows. The island was gorgeous. Stone Town has old cobblestone streets and cool restaurants. We visited the former Slave Market and the fish market. We also loved the spice tour. It was so interesting to see the origin of so many different spices, including vanilla and cinnamon. The beaches and snorkeling spots were amazing. And there were a lot of other tourists from all over the world for us to hang out with – a nice change after two weeks of solid family time. I definitely recommend Zanzibar as a great way to wrap up a perfect Tanzanian trip.
The Not So Good
Altitude Sickness Given our experience with high altitude trekking, we were ready for altitude sickness but were still surprised at how it hit us. It would be good to check with a travel doctor to have as much ammunition to fight it as possible. Diamox and steroids can help prevent a poor experience.
No Showers Teenagers don’t love being without shampoo for too long. A can of dry shampoo plus a month of hair “training” to go without daily washes helped ease the discomfort.
Good to Know
Tanzania-based Tour Company I did [so much] research to find a reputable company that operates locally in Tanzania. From what I read, there are only a dozen or so local companies doing safaris so anyone that books tours from outside the country uses the same outfitters and just adds a surcharge. But it wasn’t easy finding the local operators. We used Shah Tours for both the Kilimanjaro trek and the safari and LOVED them. I basically told them what we were looking for: An 8-day Lemosho route for Kilimanjaro and a 6-day mid-range wildebeest migration safari. I gave them my budget and they accommodated all our requests. They did a fantastic job from top to bottom.
Luggage & Logistics Connecting the trek and safari was easy because both journeys left from the Kilimanjaro International Airport in Moshi. We kept coming and going from the same hotel in Moshi so we left our bags there and filled them with the gear that we didn’t need for that particular segment of the trip. This plan crumbled for Zanzibar. Our return flight to the U.S. left at 6am, which meant we had to find a different place nearer to the airport to store our gear so that we didn’t have to lug everything out to the island. When we returned from our trip to Zanzibar at 10pm, we were only able sleep a few hours before our 24-hour journey home.
Elizabeth Weingart – May 2019
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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