Climbing Kilimanjaro’s 'Little' Sister: Mount Meru

Reaching the Summit: Photo courtesy of Amani Chomolla
Reaching the Summit: Photo courtesy of Amani Chomolla
Shannon Thomson

Some call Mount Meru a ‘warm up to Mount Kilimanjaro,’ and many climb Mount Meru as a way of acclimatizing to altitude prior to climbing Kili. But in many ways, Mount Meru is its own deal, a very different mountain and experience, and the best part is seeing the sunrise over Kili from the top. Read below for the best tips on hiking up this beautiful mountain.

Mount Meru in all her Glory: Image Courtesy of Amani Chomolla

It needs to be said, first and foremost, that not all of those who climb Mount Meru can be considered athletes. The mountain is open to amateur hikers and athletes in equal measure. Anybody can tackle the mountain. And although for some it will be one the hardest things they have done in their lives, it will definitely be worth it.

Reaching the 4,565 meter summit of Mount Meru is made easier by the experienced guides and trekking companies which are available to take you up and down the mountain. Unlike Mount Kilimanjaro, being guided is not actually required, so if you want to go it alone, you definitely can. The only person you are required to hike with is an armed park ranger. However, if you like a little more support in your adventurous pursuits, choosing a guiding company is worth the added cost.

Most trekking companies offer you a package, which includes a cook, porters to haul your food, belongings, and water up the mountain, as well as a guide and your accommodation. All water on Meru has to be carried in and out, and after a long day of hiking, having someone cook your meals and heat up water for you to wash feels like a piece of heaven. Before you book, check if the company offers transport to and from the mountain, and if it covers entry fees into the park. Be aware that all accommodation on Meru is in cabins (two sets of bunk beds to a room), making it important to book early to ensure you have a space. Some companies also offer accommodation in Arusha, the nearest base town, before and after the hike.

Kili in the Distance: Image Courtesy of Amani Chomolla

Booking a Guided Trek

The following companies do a great job of taking care of their hikers and making sure they provide good service for your money:

Cost (in USD) – $: $500-$600 pp; $$: $600-$700pp; $$$: $700-$900pp; $$$$: $900+ pp

Bryson Heroes Tours ($)
Basecamp Tanzania ($$)
Zara Tours ($$$)
Trekili ($$$$)
FairTravel Tanzania ($$$$)

Be aware that most companies assume that hikers will tip their guides, porters and cooks. When you book, be sure to ask what the acceptable or average rates are for tips. Plan to have cash ready for the end of your hike so you can tip your team before you say goodbye to them. These people work hard, so consider tipping a part of the cost of your trip!

Climbing Up On Your Own

If you do decide to go solo, you’ll need to think about the following costs (you can check here for up-to-date prices):

Entry fees into the park: Non-residents are $45 per 12-hour period; Residents $22.50 per 12-hour period (over the age of 16). If you are a resident, ensure that you bring documentation or you will be charged as a non-resident.
Park ranger: $15 per day per group.
Accommodation: Marikamba Hut (2,500m) and Saddle Hut (3,550m) – $30 per person per night.
Transport to and from the mountain (60 kilometers from Kilimanjaro airport; 40-minute drive from Arusha).

Accommodation at Marikamba Huts: Image Courtesy of Amani Chomolla

Trekking Tips

If you are a seasoned hiker, much of the advice below will be old hat for you, but if you are an amateur and readying yourself for this adventure, the wisdom below should help you to get up and down the mountain feeling as comfortable as is possible.

Get good boots. Wear them around your house, to your office, to the store; wear them everywhere you can until they feel like a second skin. If you don’t do this, you risk blisters the size of old silver dollars, and poorly-fitted boots can take the enjoyment out of the hike as well as your toenails. Get good boots.
Pack some of your favorite treats, whatever you love, for the final ascent to the summit. This is the grittiest mental and physical work you will do on your way to the top, and you’ll do it in the middle of the night. You will be woken up at 12am and begin hiking in the midst of your bleary-eyed lack of sleep. You will stop for breaks on the way up and feel decidedly non-human and cold. You will be thankful that you have a protein bar, some trail mix or whatever you love at that moment.
This should probably be first, but train before you climb. You don’t need to be able to sprint around a track, but you do need to be able to walk for a very long time and you need to be able to do it uphill. So walk (in your boots, and with your treats if you like) for as long as you can. Walk up stairs, a lot of stairs. Your hip flexors will thank you when they are strong enough to heave your body over the rocks you will have to climb to reach the top.
Understand what a false summit is and anticipate the punched-in-the-gut feeling you will have when you reach one. A false summit is when you think that you see the top but then you come around a corner and you realize that in fact, you have quite a way to go. At 4:30am when you are tired and out of treats and your lungs and muscles are screaming, you come close to tears when you round a corner and realize that the summit you had your eye on is still a good 90 minutes up.
Think cold and pack your winter stuff with you. Have it with you for your final ascent (not with your porter). Most of the trekking companies rent gear, even if you are not climbing with them, so you can avoid hauling this bulky stuff if you are coming to Tanzania from overseas. Your body will be both exhausted and elated when you reach the summit at 6:30am after 6 hours of climbing. It is usually between 0ºC and -5ºC at the top, and this, in combination with your hungry and tired body, makes you cold quick.
Prepare yourself for the fact that you won’t be at the summit for long: 10 minutes at the most. But when you come up over that last rock and see the view out in front of you, the sun rising over Mount Kilimanjaro, that is what it’s all for, and it is truly beautiful.

Reaching the Summit: Image Courtesy of Amani Chomolla

When you get back down, drink a beer or a cold soda. You deserve it. After that, sink your feet into an ice bath to avoid swelling. Once you get back to where you are staying and have something delicious to eat, have a hot bath with Epsom salts, if you can, to reduce muscle pain and stiffness. If you can’t have a bath, use a warm towel soaked in Epsom salts and apply it to any stiff areas. You may just have climbed a mountain, but if you miss this important step, you won’t be able to walk from your bed to your chair for a few days.
Try to avoid the rainy season for your climb. You want to be as sure as you can that the view from the top will be clear and that you won’t be delayed on your final ascent due to weather. The region has its long rains between March and May, and short rains between November and December. January and February are hit-and-miss. Your safest bet is between June and October, but you might get a better deal if you’re willing to risk it in January or February.
Consider medication for altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is a strange beast and it’s very hard to predict who will be affected by it and who won’t. It is entirely unrelated to fitness, so consider getting a prescription for altitude sickness medication before your trip, just in case. You may be one of the lucky ones who is hardly affected by altitude, or you might struggle, so it’s better to be prepared. Be sure to do the optional Little Meru summit after you reach Saddle Hut to help you acclimatize for the summit. Saddle Hut is at 3,550 meters and Little Meru summit is 3,820 meters. You will go up and back in a couple of hours, which will help get you ready for the big push to the summit the next morning.

Sunrise at the Summit: Image Courtesy of Shannon Thomson

This guide is not intended for expert hikers, but for those who want to climb one of Africa’s highest mountains and one of Tanzania’s best. Rest assured that if you take into consideration some of the points above, you will make it to the top to see that beautiful sunrise for yourself. The whole hike can be done in 3 or 4 days, but take 4 if you can, and the cost is a fraction of Meru’s big sister, Kilimanjaro. Who knows? Maybe after you whet your appetite for these big mountain climbs, you’ll be itching to climb Kilimanjaro next.

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