Climbing Mt. Meru

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Climbing Mt. Meru
Arusha National Park, Tanzania
By Graydon Hazenberg

“I don’t know if I like this,” remarked Neil, my hiking partner. “I’ve never liked exposed heights. I don’t know if I can make it.” I sympathized with him. While our surroundings were awe-inspiring, they inspired a lot of fear as well. To our left, the soft black volcanic sand sloped away at an almost 45° angle until, many hundreds of metres below, it plummeted over a completely vertical cliff-face. To our right, the same steep open sand slope extended down to the tree line far, far below us. We were walking along a knife-edge ridge, as screaming winds threatened to blow us off our path down to the forest.

We – Neil and I, and our National Park guide Michael – were most of the way up Mt. Meru, the little-known, but second-highest peak in Tanzania. It is, of course, overshadowed in the consciousness of tourists by its neighbour Kilimanjaro, 80 kilometres to the east and the highest mountain in Africa.

However, although it’s much less popular than Kilimanjaro, Meru has some distinct advantages over the higher mountain. For a start, Meru is much cheaper to climb.

Kilimanjaro is difficult to climb for under US$400, while Meru can be done for about US$170. The climb up Meru is more scenic and spectacular, and you are much less likely to suffer altitude sickness on 4,667-metre-high Mt. Meru than on 5,895 m Kilimanjaro. In fact, Meru makes an ideal high-altitude acclimatization warm-up climb before tackling Kili.

Meru is a spectacular volcano. Once upon a very long time ago, it rose higher than Kilimanjaro; I’ve also heard this said about Mt. Kenya and the Ngorongoro Crater, so you may want to take this assertion with a grain of salt. However tall it once was, it certainly erupted sideways, rather like Mt. St. Helens, a few million years ago, leaving the northern, southern and western slopes intact, but obliterating the eastern slope of the volcanic cone. From above, Meru is now shaped like a horseshoe opening east, with a new tiny cinder cone forming in the bottom of the devastated crater, and huge cliffs extending up the crater walls almost to the summit. The crater floor and the lower slopes are densely forested, but the upper slopes are barren expanses of black volcanic ash and occasional massive boulders of lava.

Meru is just outside Arusha, the staging post for safaris to the Serengeti, yet despite this proximity – only 23 km by road – it is annoyingly difficult to get to the base of the mountain.

Various safari outfits offer a price of US$50 each way to hire a 4-wheel-drive for the trip; Arusha city taxis will offer as little as US$20, but their decrepit vehicles are unlikely to make it over the rough road. Neil and I took the local bus to the turnoff from the main road, and then waited several hours for a lift with an overloaded Land Rover full of local villagers returning from Arusha market. It was cheaper but agonizingly slow; having your own transport is infinitely better.

There is only one route officially open to the top, although unscrupulous safari touts in Arusha will offer illegal sorties directly up the western slope. Neil and I were nearly taken in by one of these offers, but prudently backed out at the last minute.

Assuming that you are proceeding legitimately, the only choice is whether to hurry to the first hut, Miriakamba, steeply but directly up the northern crater rim, or to detour more gently and scenically across the crater floor along a 4WD track. (Those with their own vehicles and little time could drive along the track almost to the first hut.) There seems little point in climbing directly to Miriakamba, since the Park Service’s guides, whose services are mandatory, refuse to climb to the summit and back in less than three days and two nights.

Charging up to Miriakamba would just result in more time spent sitting at the hut, at the expense of bypassing some lovely scenery. The direct route can be better used for descending. My sister Audie (who once worked in Serengeti National Park) claims that the two-night minimum rule is her fault. She and a guide once charged from the base of the mountain to the summit and back again, in under 24 hours. Neither of them were in any shape to walk anywhere for several days after that, and the National Park Service got very annoyed at losing the services of a guide for that period, and insisted that guides take a more leisurely pace in the future.

The first day’s walk, about six leisurely hours up into the relatively flat crater floor, is very pleasant. A huge fig tree forms a natural arch over the path that is large enough to accommodate a Land Rover. There is a stream for bathing and lunching beside, and later on, during the final climb up the crater wall to Miriakamba, there is a spectacular view across to forests and a high waterfall on the opposite (southern) inside rim of the crater. The dense forest is full of vervet monkeys and butterflies and, it is rumoured, leopards.

Near the hut, the track passes the remnants of old logging huts and sawmills from the colonial era, and the open grasslands left behind by their operations. Inside the spacious hut we filled up on a basic meal of soup and glutinous pasta, then went outside and admired the gorgeous canopy of stars overhead. We philosophized for while, then turned in for a somewhat restless, altitude-affected sleep, full of strange dreams and nocturnal bathroom breaks.

The climb from Miriakamba hut, at 2,500 metres, to Saddle hut, at 3,600 metres, is short, but steep and frequently muddy. In late June, when we were climbing, Meru was perpetually cloud-bound below 3,500 metres, and this second stage was through the clouds, making for a very wet, sweaty and physically demanding climb. Both Neil and I lost our footing a few times, slithering down the path on our backpacks for several metres before coming to rest against the trunk of a tree.

Just after bursting through the top of the clouds to hot, dry sunshine, some Spanish hikers passed us on the way down, the only climbers to have reached the summit that morning. Behind us by a couple of hours were two German women, the only others climbing on our schedule. A group of British hikers, whom we met on the last day, were the only other people we met on the mountain; in comparison to Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru is practically deserted.

We reached Saddle hut around 11:30. We made lunch, dried our clothing – which had been soaked by our passage through the clouds – and considered our options. The traditional schedule dictates a pre-dawn start, to get to the summit for sunrise. On the other hand, we felt fairly fresh, it was still early and the summit, clearly visible from the hut, was bathed in sunlight – and there was no guarantee of clear weather the next morning. As well, I hate hiking in the middle of the night. In the end, we elected to climb to the top that afternoon.

From Saddle hut onwards, the forest was far less dense and lush, as we were above the usual cloud line. Forty minutes of hard climbing brought us to the edge of the tree line, near Rhinoceros Point.

This curious name arises from the discovery at this spot – some 3,800 metres above sea level – of the skeleton of what must have been a disoriented or highly eccentric rhino. Rhinos are not usually keen mountaineers.

From here, the path ran along the steep, spectacular knife-edge ridge on which, quite soon, Neil briefly lost his nerve.

Our first view down into the crater from Rhino Point was breathtaking. The summit, atop hundreds of metres of sheer grey cliffs, loomed vastly high above the crater floor far beneath us. On the western edge of the crater floor, huddled against the massive cliffs, was the tiny-looking new ash cone that has built up, very slowly, after the massive eruption that tore Meru apart long ago. Puffs of steam showed that the new cone was still active, although it seemed to produce far more steam than lava. To the east, the only feature rising above the sea of clouds that covered the earth, was the distant but still enormous square white peak of Kilimanjaro. We paused for photos and to don more clothing (it was colder, and very windy above the treeline) and then set off again.

The walking was less treacherous than it appeared. The volcanic ash, which has the consistency of sand, showed no tendency to slide, and it stopped us quickly if we strayed off the path. Progress was slower than we had expected, though, as at above 4,000 metres the effects of the thin air set in.

The fierce winds sweeping up the inside of the crater, over the knife-edge and down the outer slope of the volcano, created plumes of white cloud at the crater rim, a wind-tunnel-like effect that I tried unsuccessfully to capture on film. We paused frequently for breath, and the summit seemed not to get any closer, although we were making our way steadily counterclockwise around the crater rim.

At one point we asked Michael how long it would take to reach the top, and he told us that we still had two hours to go. We scoffed, but as our progress slowed and we started panting more and more heavily, it was indeed an hour and 40 minutes before we stumbled up the last, boulder-strewn, hundred metres, to reach the iron cross at the summit.

We all snapped trophy photos – even Michael. Although he climbs the mountain at least once a week, he had only recently acquired a camera, and this was his first roll of film. Kilimanjaro was the backdrop, with the ash cone, impossibly far below, sneaking into the bottom edge of the photos. We felt on top of the world, since even mighty Kilimanjaro appeared lower than we were.

Our exultation was short-lived: it was really cold, with gale-force winds, and we still had to descend to Summit hut. We ran and slid as quickly as we could, although Neil’s vertigo slowed him down, but it was still quite dark by the time we hit Rhino Point. We cursed and blundered our way through the forest by the light of two flashlights with failing batteries. We got back to Saddle hut to find the German women and their guide anxiously awaiting our return. We had scarcely finished supper before we were asleep.

I briefly contemplated getting up with the Germans to climb to Rhino Point for the sunrise, but when I awoke I was too exhausted to walk anywhere. I did stagger out of bed in time to watch a spectacular sunrise directly over the cloud-enshrouded summit of Kilimanjaro, luckily visible from the porch of the hut.

The descent was rapid and easy, except for more dramatic slipping and sliding in the mud while passing back through the cloud layer. Using the direct route down from Miriakamba hut, we were down amidst the herds of giraffe, zebra and buffalo at the base of the mountain by one o’clock.

The animals are the reason why hikers need a game warden, armed with a rifle, as a guide; buffalo are aggressive, territorial animals, and it would be bad publicity to have tourists run over and gored on the way back to the park gate. Mt. Meru lies within Arusha National Park, and safari companies offer lots of game-watching safaris through the plains at the base of Meru. After another sardine-can ride to the main road and a local bus ride, we were back in Arusha by sundown, in time for a celebratory mixed grill at the New Safari Hotel.

In an odd postscript, my sister Audie returned to climb Meru a second time, this time with my father. Michael, who was their guide, took one look at my sister’s mop of blonde curls, and promptly produced the photo of he and Neil and I at the summit six months earlier. Said Audie, “Scary! Do we look that much alike?” Apparently we do.

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