Mount Meru (Tanzania)

In March 2015 I ticked off a bucket list item by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Even at the time, it was far from the most difficult mountain I had ever climbed – but it was meaningful for personal reasons. I had been told about how some people use Mount Meru for acclimatisation, but I used Tsepeng (3431m) in Lesotho for acclimatisation and thus decided that Meru wasn’t necessary.

I arrived in Moshi in 2015 to find it so smoggy that I couldn’t see Kilimanjaro or Meru. But at around 4000m in elevation on the stretch from Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp, I got my first good look at Meru. The easiest way to describe how it looked would be “big”!

In many ways Kilimanjaro isn’t the most interesting mountain around. The glaciers are beautiful, and the scale is really something – but the reason it attracts so many visitors every year is that it is the highest point in Africa. It is also notably the fourth most prominent mountain on earth. The thing with Kilimanjaro, though, is that once you are above 4000m, you are in an Alpine Desert. It isn’t pretty – its dusty and dead. There aren’t many particularly impressive cliffs, and the summit is a small high point on a massive plateau, meaning the views aren’t anything extra special.

I had only seen a silhouette of Meru on that 2015 trip, but the peak remained at the back of my mind.

In October 2021, realising I would be off for 4 weeks over Christmas, I decided to consider plans for that time. I wanted to head to Nepal, but soon realised that the hikes I wanted to do there would be too snowed up in mid winter and thus were not viable. After eliminating locations that were closed due to Covid travel restrictions, I reduced it to a list of SA, South East Asia or somewhere in Africa. Morocco seemed less than idea in mid winter, and with instability in Ethiopia – that wasn’t an option either.

So I started reading up on Mount Meru in Tanzania. At 4566m, it is the 10th highest mountain in Africa (7% prominence definition) and the 72nd most prominent mountain in Africa. The cliff between the crater and the summit also happens to be one of the largest cliffs in Africa – although I would later realise the quoted height is severely exaggerated. Nonetheless, there aren’t many 800m sheer cliffs on the planet, and it is plausible that this cliff is the highest cliff in Africa.

Around the same time, I mentioned this potential plan to a stranger on a Facebook hiking group. We began to chat, and ended up agreeing we would climb Meru together. I emailed my Kilimanjaro mountain guide – Dickson from Zara Tours (highly recommended, by the way) – and soon a plan had been put together.

Due to month end payments at work, I had to be at my computer on 31 December. I found myself at Jo’burg Airport at 10PM, and at 1AM I was on a flight to Nairobi – the first flight to leave SA for 2022. Watching the sunrise over Kilimanjaro from my east facing window seat was amazing (0% coincidence as to the seat I chose.

After a stale croissant and coffee at an exorbitant price in Nairobi Airport, I found myself on a small Precision Air flight heading to Kilimanjaro International Airport. I picked the Meru side of the plane this time, seeing as I wanted to have a good view of the mountain on the way in. It did not disappoint!

After landing in Tanzania, I went for my arrival rapid covid test, and was soon through passport control and customs. There waiting just outside the airport was Emma and her Tanzanian friend Tizo.

The weather was much clearer than the last time I had been in the area. The first time I saw Kilimanjaro from the ground in 2015 was long after my arrival. This time I could see both Kilimanjaro and Meru very clearly.

It was great to see Mawenzi again. The Tanzanian Government doesn’t recognise it as a mountain, but it is actually one of only four mountains (7% definition) in Africa higher than 5000m, after Kili, Kenya and Mount Stanley.

Mawenzi as seen from Moshi

Emma and I had been chatting online for over two months at this point, so it was great to finally meet. After Tizo dropped us at Springlands Hotel, the accommodation owned and run by Zara Tours, we checked into our rooms and had our briefing from Dickson.

We decided to take a walk through Moshi to get to a restaurant that the locals all seem to recommend. Naturally it makes no sense to eat food you can have at home when in a foreign country. We had ugali with kuku – basically a maize dish with chicken. I initially didn’t enjoy it, till I realised I needed to add salt. It is basically a thicker version of maize porridge. I would recommend it to tourists – it isn’t anything fancy, but it is good. I should actually try making it at home, I don’t think it would be hard to make.

The next morning we had our breakfast, and soon began the drive to Arusha National Park. Unlike Kili, there are actually animals to be seen in this park. We saw some zebra and giraffe (that reminds me of the old South African band called Zebra and Giraffe) on the way in. Being a South African, these are animals I have seen many times (zebra actually tastes really good), but still nice to see them.

As the hike is in a nature reserve, you are required to go with a ranger who carries a gun. I think this is more about job creation than it is about safety. Aside from a few buck, I didn’t see any animals. I see at least as many animals on my average Drakensberg hike.

Because we had to wait for the ranger, our start was delayed. The hike starts with a long road section.

The route eventually leaves the road and starts climbing. The lower sections are a beautiful rain-forest. As is usual of tropical hikes, after 10AM the peaks are covered in cloud, so we didn’t see the mountain, but the surroundings were pleasant enough.

Despite being nowhere near as popular as Kili, the trails are still very clear and easy to follow. The vegetation was lovely and green.

As we got higher in altitude, there was a fascinating basalt slab we hiked past. This was the steepest part of the day. In essence, day one is the approach – it just gets you near the mountain. Even with the mist and cloud, I could clearly see that day two would be considerably harder.

We reached Miriakamba Hut in good time.

It is a collection of small dorm rooms with 2 sets of bunk beds in each room. There is light in the rooms, run off solar, but no plug points. There is also a really nice watch-tower attached to the dining hall.

We got up early the next morning to watch the sunrise from the viewing tower. I’ve seen hundreds of mountain sunrises – they never get old.

The hut provides a great view of the famous cliff. It is a really impressive sight to see!

We set off up the ridge from the hut. Day two is shorter than day one, but includes more vertical. The views towards the main summit were exceptional – this had already sold me on the fact that Meru is a more worthwhile hike than Kili.

The vegetation provided cover from the sun on what was turning out to be a hot day.

The gradient was steeper than the day before, but nothing serious.

With Kilimanjaro visible in the distance, and Meru towering over us – I was happy to be in the mountains.

As we neared Saddle Hut, the vegetation got considerably less dense. It is often said that this is due to the altitude, but its actually due to water. The higher up a mountain you are, the less of a catchment area is found above and thus less plant-life can survive.

As we went past 3482m, I noted that we were now above Thabana Ntlenyana – the highest point in Southern Africa, Lesotho and the Drakensberg. Meru is actually the parent peak of Thabana Ntlenyana, not Kilimanjaro as commonly stated.

Saddle Hut is in a spectacular spot. It is in the saddle between Little Meru – the subsidiary summit used for acclimatisation – and the main summit. Little Meru is 3820m but only has 230m prominence, meaning it only has 6% prominence relative to height, not enough for it to count as a mountain summit.

After lunch we decided to head up Little Meru. Emma had a knee injury coming into the trip, and had climbed Kili a week earlier – so she had already decided not to go for the main summit, Little Meru was as high as she was going to go.

The hike up Little Meru was reasonably easy and straightforward, but the views were great.

We sat on the summit for a while. There was sporadic phone signal up there, which was handy. I even managed to get my daily Duolingo in, thus keeping my streak alive.

I could easily sit on a summit for hours, but eventually we had to head down. Tomorrow would be the big day.

Because I was faster than the average hiker, Dickson decided that we would leave last, around 1AM. The plan was to be on the summit just before sunrise. If you leave too early, its too cold and you end up starting down before it’s light. If you start too late, you end up missing the summit sunrise – timing these things is an art.

The route starts with a fairly steep ascent through the final vegetated section of the mountain. We made good pace through this section, which tops out above the altitude of the summit of Little Meru. We had passed some of the other groups already. This section ends with a rocky section that has a chain for support. Neither myself nor Dickson needed the chain as the basalt was grippy and the angle wasn’t steep – hands weren’t even necessary. One group did turn around here, though.

From there the route follows the edge of the crater rim. We took our first break on this section. Naturally I don’t have photos as it was still dark.

The final onslaught is a steep rocky section to gain the summit itself. We had been moving fairly fast, and had been comfortably in front of the other groups till this point. But fatigue started to take its toll, and we had to slow down a bit. A group did pass us near the top – but it isn’t a race by any means.

We got to the top about 10 minutes before sunrise. The view over the valley towards Kili was really beautiful. The summit is a small platform above the 800m cliff, it is far more dramatic than Kili’s summit. Actually one of the best summits I’ve stood on.

A testament to the abilities of the guides on this mountain is that every team that summitted was on top before the sun came over the horizon. We had all started at different times, but we all reached the top within a ten minute window.

It reminded me of my Kinabalu summit 3 years earlier – watching the moment the sun comes over the horizon on top of a 4000er. Not a moment I will soon forget!

While sitting on the summit, a walkie talkie was handed to me. Emma had managed to get the ranger back at Saddle Hut to connect with Dickson’s walkie talkie. It was great hearing her voice on top! That also meant she had to get out of her nice warm bed at sunrise – so I really appreciated the effort on her part!

The summit looks straight down into the crater of the volcano. It is a spectacular sight! The shadow of the mountain was also very impressive to see as it stretched to the horizon.

We spent a while on top, only one group remained on top when Dickson and myself began our descent. We saw some ice on the way down.

The views from the crater rim are really impressive. It is volcanic ash, not the easiest terrain around, but it is sufficiently solid to not be an issue. This is also a benefit of the early start – the ash partially freezes overnight, so it is much more solid in the early morning.

It was a beautiful clear day, so I took plenty of photos.

We didn’t really need to stop on the descent. We had quickly passed all the other groups and were making really good progress down the mountain. The other groups were doing the four day option, and would be spending another day on the mountain. We were doing the three day option, so today would be our last day. Urgency isn’t the right word – we were moving slowly enough that I was getting plenty of photos and enjoying the view. The views are well worth the effort!

On the way down, Dickson pointed out a mountain to me – Ol Doinyo Lengai. It is an active volcano that erupts natrocarbonatite lava – a very rare substance. It is said to be the coldest erupting lava on earth. I wasn’t able to get a good photo of it, but you could clearly see the white rock it is famous for.

We soon found ourselves back at the rocky chain section. Once again, we both walked over it without even needing our hands, never mind the chain. I see why it intimidates people, but it isn’t above a substantial drop, so even if you were to fall, you would likely only sustain minor injuries.

I kept stopping to look back at the mountain. It is such an impressive cliff! To be honest, in terms of scenery, Meru and Kilimanjaro aren’t in the same league. Meru is far more dramatic.

We arrived back at Saddle Hut at a reasonably early time. I had been hoping to leave reasonably early as we had a lot of distance to cover to get down. Emma’s knee wasn’t looking so good, though, so the ranger called the office to request a vehicle pick us up from Miriakamba Hut.

We had lunch at the hut before commencing our descent. We made good progress and were soon at Miriakamba Hut.

From there we climbed into a park vehicle and were driven back down to the start.

The Zara team dropped us in Arusha, where we met up with Tizo again. We went for supper at an Indian restaurant. The following day I would be catching the Arusha-Katesh bus in order to climb Mount Hanang the day after. Tizo arranged a taxi that would pick me up early in the morning and would arrange the ticket for me.

After supper I was dropped at the place I was staying for the night – a house for rent just outside Arusha – and Emma went back to her accommodation for the charity she was working with in Arusha.

My thoughts on Meru are as follows: the usual assessment that it is harder than Kili isn’t entirely valid, as it is a much shorter route. Kili summit day is also harder than Meru summit day – so even a direct comparison of the hardest parts doesn’t back that up. Meru does have more scrambling, but the hardest scrambling on Meru is no harder than Barranco wall on Kili. Nonetheless, if I was going to do one again, I would definitely go with Meru – it is the more worthwhile of the hikes.

As I concluded in 2015, I would definitely recommend Zara Tours for this hike, and Dickson is just as brilliant as I remember.

Will I be back to Arusha again, though? Probably not. There isn’t really anything else I want to do near there.

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