Kilima Njaro by Bike

Climbing to the highest peak in Africa is a must-do on an adventurer’s bucket list. Seeing the snow-capped mountain in the middle of the Tanzanian savannah is a pretty curious site and draws thousands of hikers from all around the world every year. Kilimanjaro is one of the 7 Summits in the world (highest mountains on each of the 7 continents) and seen as one of the easiest mountains to climb. Statistics challenge this believe however less than half of all climbers reach the very top. The route can take anything from 5-9 days; the longer the trip the more likely it becomes to summit as the body has more time to adjust to higher altitude and decreasing oxygen levels. The highest point is the Uhuru Peak at 5,895 meter above sea level and is classified as an extreme altitude mountain trek.

What draw me to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro was the pure desire for a new adventure. I passed Kilimanjaro a few years earlier on my way from Cairo to Cape Town and had made a mental note to return one day. I started conceptualising this idea over the following two years. Not sure whether it was even possible to cycle up, I began to chat to various people and at some point, was put in touch with Emmanuel Motta (Ema) from Origin Trails. I was told that he is a local mountain guide and enthusiastic mountain biker. Once I started chatting to Ema things started to snowball and the idea quickly became a reality. I was standing at the foothills of Kilimanjaro with my mountain bike only 2 ½ years after my last trip to Tanzania.

I had ridden the Ethiopian Highlands in about 3,200 meter altitude before. Going to 5,895 meter was definitely a new benchmark, and I was itching to find out how far I can push myself up into altitude, what it felt like and how my body would respond. I strictly wanted to get my bike to the peak with my own hands and no help from porters or guides.

My planning for the trip was minimal. I am very active all year-round and did not do any specific altitude or cycle training. I wanted to keep things simple and only packed what I really needed including clothes for very hot (40+ C) and extremely cold temperatures (-15 C). Everything had to be functional to be able to ride in it. Simple food and tent were provided.

I was playing with the idea to take my trail bike but choose a lightweight xc option to improve the odds in getting my bike with my own hands to the top. I fitted flat pedals and rode with hiking boots.

Ema had picked the Rongai Route as a gentle ascent to allow for enough acclimatization time. It was important to take the first section to 3000 meters slowly although it was tempting to go fast as the first signs of altitude only really kick in at about 2500-3000 meters (differs from person to person).  The Rongai route, located on the north slopes near the Kenyan border, is very scenic and less crowded with hikers. There are no cycling routes on Kilimanjaro and strictly no cyclist is permitted to ride any of the hiking trails. Only portage is permitted. We were prepared to hike our bikes for 2 days to Horombo Hut to 3700 meters. From here we planned to ride as much as possible to the peak over the following 2-3 days.

I arrived a few days before the start of the trip in Moshi, the small city located near the foothills of Kilimanjaro, to adjust to the tropical climate.  Moshi is located at about 800 meters altitude and used as base for Kilimanjaro trips and safari tours. Arriving from Cape Town sea level I was far from prepared for altitude. I used the extra time on my hands to ride around Mt Meru and along the slopes of Kilimanjaro to adjust to the altitude a bit.

The morning came when we were shuttled to Marangu Gate to get our permits. Bad luck hit us when we were told that cyclists are no longer allowed on the Rongai hiking route. Even portage was not an option. The only way for cyclist was the emergency route to the top and back down. I immediately thought that is great news as we now allowed to cycle from the start. In true African style, it took hours until we were issued our permits and once, we had finalised route changes we decided to stay one more night in Moshi and rather start the cycle early in the morning the following day.

Day 1. We left Moshi after breakfast and rode consistent without rushing towards the border post of the Kilimanjaro National Park (1800 meter altitude). We rode through Chagga territory, the indigenous tribes that is home on the Southern Slobs of Kilimanjaro, for the first few hours. Ema himself a Chagga chatted to the friendly farmers and school children. Kids smiled and ran along. There was a sense of calmness around those villagers. Everyone had something to do and went after their day-to-day routine without rushing. The temperatures were pleasant at around 30 degrees. We rode on through the thick forest along the jeep tracks slowly gaining altitude until we found a good spot for the night. Ema’s team had arrived just before us and pitched the tents and served us a great camp dish with veggies and meat. We were able to ride all the way to 2700 meter altitude in about 7 hours, although the last 200 meters or so become increasingly difficult due to the steep gradient of the road. I got a sense that this will be a pretty tough ride to the top. I had a bit of a headache and could feel the first altitude symptoms.

Day 2. I was excited to get going, had a quick breakfast and hit the road. We had arrived in the dark the previous night and hadn’t seen the route ahead. Todays’ route ahead was short with only 6.7 km, but the elevation gain was around 1000m. Even at sea level this would be a solid effort to get up – riding this in around 3000m is impossible. Also keeping in mind that we should reach 3700 slowly and at a chilled paced to give our body enough time to adjust. We saw ourselves pushing our bikes most of the route to keep the heartrate down and effort levels as low as possible. From around 2800 m the scenery had changed to moorland and I saw a bit of resemblance with Cederberg or the mountains around the Kogelberg nature reserve just outside of Cape Town. As we made our way up slowly, one step at a time reminding ourselves to stop every now and then to chill and enjoy the views. It took us in total with some brief stops around 2 ½ hours to get to Horomobo Hut at 3700m.

We arrived and had lunch. Albeit the rather short walk I felt exhausted and retired for about 60 minutes. Waking up I was surprised by the well-known signs of altitude sickness. I had headaches, felt nausea and my oxygen levels had dropped below 60 percent. It should have been closer to 70 percent at that height. It was at about this time that we started checking the oxygen percentage in our blood more frequently through a little device that clips on the index finger. It gives the tour guides an indication of a person’s condition and whether he is in a life-threatening situation. Oxygen levels below 50% are considered danger and should be brought down to lower altitude to avoid any risk.

I felt pretty shit. The rest of the day was spent chewing on cucumbers and dry toast. It was a very frustrating situation as there is absolutely nothing, I could do to improve altitude sickness other than dropping to lower altitude. With my head pulsing and a heart rate up my neck I sat in my tent and started meditating. I could calm my mind and found eventually some restful sleep.

Day 3. Thankfully we had a acclimatization day scheduled for the next day. We began our hike after breakfast until we reached around 4200 meters altitude and then returned to Horombo Hut. It’s a common way to adjust the body to the altitude before advancing to higher levels. In the afternoon, my appetite returned, headaches were gone, and my oxygen levels had stabilised to above 70 percent. Dinner never tasted so good, including a vegetable soup, followed by chicken with baked bananas. After Ema and I discussed the plan for the next day we retired to our tents.

Day 4. Excited for the new adventure day ahead, we rose at about 7am and left camp after a nourishing breakfast with coffee, porridge, fruits, eggs and toast. The plan was to arrive at Kibo Hut the base camp before the summit in around 5 hours. The path up to Horombo Hut had been a wide service gravel road, further on up to Kibo Hut (4700 meter altitude), the path would change to a narrow rocky trail. We walked at a slow pace climbing one small step after the other with our bikes on our shoulders and conscious to keep effort levels low. After the previous day’s experience with altitude sickness I was extra cautious to stress my body as little as possible. Ema had mentioned the night before that we would ride down the route we are hiking up and so I kept myself entertained looking at line choices through the rocky sections.

At about 4500 m we reached the saddle and the landscape changed to alpine desert. We could see the famous snow-capped peak for most of the hike in the distance, but only slowly did we get closer. We managed to ride a bit as the gradient was very gentle at this point and wide open hard compact ground made for almost a highway. The walk/ride became increasingly difficult with my heart rate peaking rapidly with the smallest amount of effort. Just before Kibo, we were slowly walking along the plateau with the base camp in close sight at about 2 km distance, it took us another 45 minutes to reach it. It was an absolute mind game, not being able to push any faster other than one slow short step after the other. Stopping after 30 steps to catch the breath, gather more energy and keep on walking. Once we reached Kibo the sun started to set, and the temperatures quickly plummeted to zero. Still heated up from the walk I went to the tent to change and put my base layer, fleece and thick winter jacket on. There was another hour to dinner and had a short nap. I woke myself up from shivering, I was so cold that I quickly layered up further. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t warm up much until the next morning.

I sat at dinner shivering and barely able to control my body from shaking. I drank one hot water mug after the other. But it wouldn’t help. By that point I started to get dizzy and the headaches had returned. We took my oxygen levels. The reading showed 47 percent. If it wouldn’t improve was not allowed to summit at night. I went to bed with 2 hot water bottles, wrapped up like a Michelin Man. I fell in and out of sleep the following hours. Sleep apnea is a common altitude symptom which meant I would wake myself up due to the lack of inhalation. My heart rate was pounding in my head and the oxygen readings dropped further to 41 percent. A summit was definitely not possible for me. Ema told me afterwards that they had prepared everything to evacuate me to lower altitude if the situation required it. He checked in with me constantly throughout the night and I think we were both relieved when the sun started to rise and the longest night in my life was over.

Day 5. Barely able to stand on my feet I nipped on some coffee and dry toast. There was no way that I was not going to ride down this mountain. We got on our bikes and started the decent of a lifetime. The first few kilometers felt extremely fast and with my slow reaction time I was seriously challenged to stay on the bike. We decanted back into the saddle which looked like a wide-open dry desert. It was hard to gauge speed as there was nothing moving passed us. Strava proofed afterwards that we hit up to 60km/h on the first few kilometers. We left the saddle behind and maneuvered our way along the rocky descent. I tried to remember the lines I had studied the day before. I had an absolute blast. Back at Horombo Hut my appetite returned, and the headache subsided. Unbelievable what drama I went through just a few hours earlier. After a quick bite to eat we continued our journey with smoking brakes. We soon reached the coffee and banana plantations which we had passed a couple of days before and were welcomed warmly by the forest villagers.

Our moving time from Kibo to the ranger checkpoint at the border of the national park was just over 2 hours. That is an altitude drop of about 3000 meters. The temperatures had risen from zero to 38 degree and the further down we dropped humility increased. We changed from our winter gear to shorts and t-shirt and finished our nonstop descent of 3900 meters in just under 3 hours. We took another 2 hours to get back to Moshi.

It took me a few days to recover and shake off the dramatic night at Kibo Hut. I don’t easily get frightened. But when your basic human needs are challenged and breathing becomes difficult with your heartbeat relentlessly pulsing up in your head, it puts life in perspective. Being reminded of our mortality and how dependent we are on nature to function in our full capacity.

I loved every minute of the trip. Ema allowed me to dive into the local culture deeply, introduced me to local music and foods, and took me on exploration rides along the foothills of Kilimanjaro. This made the trip a lot more authentic. The unforeseen challenges added that extra spice for an unforgettable adventure story. Life is a journey and a colourful collection of experiences. Maybe one day I will be back to reach for the clouds again and widen my collection.

Tip: It was certainly not ideal that we had to take the steep emergency route up to Horombo. I would recommend for any adventure cyclist to wait until a more rider friendly path is open to allow for better acclimatization. Alternatively, hike up and have your bike carried to the top by porters. Kilimanjaro is known to be one of the most expensive mountains in the world to climb. The basic entry along is around $900 plus cycle licence, compulsory porters and guides. Do bring sufficient time to get to the top. The success rate of summiting is much higher if the ascent is spread over 7-9 days. Speak to Emmanual Motta from Origin Trails in Tanzania if you like to do a similar trip. info@origintrails.co.tz

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