Tanzania’s second-highest mountain Mount Meru is often referred to as the little brother of Mount Kilimanjaro and treaded as an acclimatization trip before hiking up the big brother. Although Mt Meru with its 4,566 AMSL (AMSL - above mean sea level) is considerably lower than Mt Kilimanjaro with 5,895 AMSL the hike up Mt Meru is regarded as much more challenging and not to be underestimated.
The hike takes up four days in total and especially the third day is extremely demanding compared to the first days of easy trekking through the jungle. You should aim to reach the summit of Mt Meru at sunrise to witness the sun bathing Mt Kilimanjaro in gentle hues of red, orange and pink. This will be an unforgettable memory – we promise!
Day 1: Momella gate to Miriakamba Hut
The first day starts early with the tour agency picking you up at your hotel. You have packed your bags or back packs ideally the evening before, separating your stuff in two bags in order to leave one behind at the agency and the second one to bring with you to the mountain. If you have an additional small back pack to carry the daily necessities such as water, rain jacket, insect repellant even better, as the back pack with your other belongings will be carried by a porter and you will have no access to it during the day. You will meet your team consisting of a guide, a cook, a deputy-guide and a porter at the Momella Gate. As there are bison roaming the area you will need to be escorted by a ranger carrying a rifle who will be with you until the second base camp. The park assigned us, a group of 10 hikers, one ranger and we started to hike together. At the beginning we were confused as why we hired a guide in the first place. However the guide will be of use on the summit day as the ranger is not required to climb the last part as there is no danger from wildlife at those elevations.
You will start hiking at the Momella Gate, which is the entrance to the national park, at 1,500 AMSL. There are two options of either going down the northern circuit which is the steeper but shorter route or the southern circuit which is the easier and longer router. Most tours do the long one up and the short one down which is also what we have done. The southern circuit is around 10 km long with an ascent of 1,000 m and estimated time of five to six hours. On the way you will encounter an enormous Fig Tree Arch, a parasitic wild fig that originally grew around two other trees, eventually strangling them. The journey continuous through an impressive jungle which easily could have served as a backdrop for a Jurassic Park movie.
Day 2: Miriakamba Hut to Saddle Hut
After a good night’s rest and a proper local breakfast (our cook outperformed himself every day) you will start your journey to the second base camp at Saddle Hut. The trip will be another 4 km with another 1,000 m ascent and estimated time of 3 to 5 hours. The Saddle Hut is an exact copy of the previously visited Miriakamba Hut.
From here it is advisable to visit the Little Meru (3,820 AMSL) to train for the big summit. Following the rule “Climb high and sleep low” which helps battling altitude sickness Little Meru is a great destination for acclimatization prior to tackling the Mt Meru summit: Also the views are breathtaking. It takes you 45 minutes from the camp to reach Little Meru which gives you impressive views of Mt Meru itself, the horseshoe crater, the top of the Ash Cone and the cliffs of the crater’s wall. Take some tea with you and watch the sunset bathing Kili into lights of orange and pink as the light fades.
Day 3 Saddle Hut to Meru Summit and down again to Miriakamba Hut
The third day is by far the most challenging one during the whole journey. We woke up at 1 o’clock in the morning after a rather restless and short night break. After a light breakfast with lots of sugar (but not too fat as we don’t need a sensitive stomach when climbing to further heights) you will equip yourself with your headlight, walking sticks, your warm clothes including cloves and a hat, the rain and wind repellant layers as well as water and some snacks for the journey and head out to into the night. As you are walking through the deadly silent pitch dark night trusting your light beam from the headlight and the moon it is hard not to feel like one of the great adventurers being really close to discover an old treasure up on your way to the mountain. Up until now we were travelling all together but after reaching the Rhino Point (3,814 ASML) our big group separated into small teams each of those began hiking in their own speed.
Our guide was insisting on going polepole (Swahili for slowly slowly) to assist in acclimatization to the altitude and making little to no breaks. His strategy was to keep us moving at all times also if only at low speed. This strategy started to grew anxious on us as it seemed that we were making little to no progress. Without orientation in the cold dark night it seemed that we are not moving any closer to the summit but keeping falling more and more behind all the other groups. Several times he assured us that we will definitely reach the top of Mt Meru in time for the sunrise and there is no point in going faster as we will just freeze on the summit when waiting. Although every time we thought we are about to start climbing the last part of the mountain it turned out to be just another of the endless steep spikes on the way to the final big spike being the summit. It was a really difficult climb which is definitely no to be underestimated. Being out there in the dark with absolutely no orientation you really need to rely on your guide and do exactly as he is instructing you. Luckily there was no rain during this night as it would have been extra difficult with all the rocks being wet and slippery. Some of the passages of the way needed to be climbed on all fours and dare to jump into the darkness on several occasions.
Not only the route is physically demanding but also the cold and the altitude will give you a very hard time. Your body needs already a lot of energy to move up the rocks, but also keep the temperature up and additionally take care of oxygen reaching all your organs. If you want to have a more or less enjoyable time we recommend you to prepare for this trip well in advance by improving your endurance as well as bringing adequate gear to keep you warm. Also this will not keep you safe from getting altitude sickness as this has absolutely and unfairly nothing to do with your overall fitness, but it will surely help you to not experience this trip as a total disaster.
Finally after almost not ending 5 hours and additional 1,000 m steep ascent we started to climb the final passage to the summit. The summit plateau is very small and there is only space for not more than ten people. We pulled ourselves up just in time to see the first rays of sunshine coming up from behind the Mt Kilimanjaro which was lying there like a big animal resting in the twilight. What an achievement! Standing there it became absolutely clear to us that all of the hardships during the last hours where so absolutely worth it!
When standing on top of the mountain the way back sounds like the easiest thing to do. Your mind forgets that in reality you are only half way through and you need to climb back all the way you came up down again.
The way down was actually not easier than up. We stopped several times to take a break and pictures from the impressive views, the crater which looks exactly like a landscape on the moon and the Ash Cone where we needed to walk down the narrow edge for almost one hour (luckily we did not see that the edge was SO NARROW during the night). When reaching the Miriakamba Hut after another five hours (somehow the way down was not shorter that the way up) it was eleven o’clock in the morning and we went to sleep for another two hours, which was really needed. After a lunch break we packed again and started our way down to the Miriakamba Hut. At this point in time the process of walking was at all not enjoyable.
Day 4 Miriakamba Hut to Momella gate
The fourth and final day was an easy walk in the jungle again. We took the northern circuit and went by a beautiful waterfall as well as some giraffes sun bathing.
When you reach the Momella gate it will be time to say goodbye to your team and the point of tipping will arrive. This is how we where advice to tip (and also did):
Guide – 15 USD per day Assistant Guide – 12 USD per day Cook – 12 USD per day Porter – 9 USD per day
Ranger – 30 USD per group (we split it accordingly with the other groups as we where sharing one ranger)
We advice to check the tips before leaving as they might change over the course of the years.
How to book?
For the trek up to Mt Meru summit you will need a guide. Although some sites (e.g. Lonely Planet) suggest that you can do the trek alone after paying your national park fee and the fee for a ranger. Aiming to do the trip by yourself would mean that you need to bring all your stuff incl. sleeping bag as well as food and water for 4 days yourself. However porters can be hired independently at the Momella Gate. Since everyone is trekking up to the Saddle Hut together with one assigned ranger you don’t need a guide for this part. If you attempt the hike up to the summit in the night you would however need someone guiding you for this part as there are no visible paths or signs leading up the way. Alternatively you can do the summit hike during sunrise so you will be at least able to see where you are stepping.
Easiest and safest way however is to book a tour with a tour company either online from your home country or by paying some of the local tour agencies in Arusha a visit. Since prices where skyrocketing when we first researched the tour from Germany, we decided to simply go to Arusha and hang out there for a couple of days to book a tour from there. We recommend to pay the Tanzania Tourist Board in Arusha a visit (Boma Road close to the clock tower) where you can get detailed and independent information on the tour operators in the area. Following the recommendation of the agent from the Tourist Board we booked our tour with one of the operators nearby, a local African owned agency (https://www.angosetravel.com/) which we can highly recommend. The 4 day tour including the guide, cook, deputy guide and one porter, park fees, the fee for the ranger, accommodation incl. sleeping bags for three nights, food for 4 days for you and your team, transfer to and from the camp sums up to approximately 1,000 USD per person.
What to bring?
The most important item on this quest are the shoes. Don’t even think about going up there in sneakers. You need proper walking boots, ideally already broke in on previous trips. Good technical shoes are a deal-breaker when it comes to hiking, trekking and hillwalking. If a walking boot doesn't fit, it's sure to cause pain and frustration and trust us, there will be several factors causing pain and frustration on this trip and you don’t want the shoes to be and additional factor.
With regard to clothing you need almost everything from light summer clothes for the lower altitudes up to winter gear for the high altitudes as the temperature drops below zero on the summit. Make sure to wrap your things incl. the sleeping bag into waterproof bags at it rains a lot there. As you will hike the last passage during the night and rain can surprise you anytime you will need proper gear like gloves, hat, a warm water and wind repelling jacket and trousers combined with a warm first layer like ski undies. Also walking sticks, a one liter water bottle for the day as well as a head light come handy but those devices can be also borrowed at the tour agencies. A dealmaker for us was kinesiology tape, an elastic therapeutic tape, which we applied on the area below the knees as the joints are extremely strained especially when going downhill.
How to battle altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness or sometimes also called “mountain sickness” is a group of symptoms that can strike if you walk or climb to a higher elevation too quickly. As the pressure of the air that surrounds us drops as altitude increases and less oxygen becomes available our body needs time to adjust to the change in pressure.
There are three kinds of altitude sickness:
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is the mildest form and it’s very common. The symptoms can feel like a hangover – short breath, dizziness, headache, muscle aches, nausea, problems with sleep, loss of appetite.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) is a buildup of fluid in the lungs that can be very dangerous and even life threatening.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) is the most severe form of altitude sickness and happens when there’s fluid in the brain. It’s life threatening and you need to seek medical attention right away.
Symptoms usually come on within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation and then get better within a day or two as the body adjusts. In a more moderate case of altitude sickness the symptoms might feel more intense and not improve with over-the-counter medications. Instead of feeling better as time goes on, people start to feel worse. Anyone can develop altitude sickness, no matter how fit, young, or healthy they are – even Olympic athletes can get it. In fact, being physically active at a high elevation makes you more likely to get it.
The height of Mt. Meru is already really challenging although not life threatening. Every single member of our group of ten and even the guides experienced symptoms of altitude sickness during the trip, varying from mild courses with a bit of nausea up to more severe cases featuring acute headaches lasting for several days and vomiting. The best way to prevent altitude sickness is through acclimatization. That means you let your body slowly get used to the changes in air pressure as you travel to higher elevations. A good method is the “Climb high and sleep low” rule: If you have to climb over 300 m in a day, make sure you come back down to a lower altitude to sleep.
Drink 2-3 liters of water every day and make sure about 70% of your calories are coming from carbs. Don’t use tobacco, alcohol, or other medications, such as sleeping pills. However ibuprofen has been proven to be a good treatment against altitude sickness so we recommend you stock up on ibu before leaving on the trip. Studies shown that starting to take ibuprofen six hours before climbing to high elevations and then taking it every 6 hours while climbing may help prevent altitude sickness. If you encounter nausea and loss of appetite on the last stage of the trip an energy bar or jelly as used by long distance runners or cyclers may come in handy as they are light, neutral in taste and at the same time providing the needed level of sugar going directly into the blood system.
At all times when climbing Mt Meru make sure you are monitoring your condition and wellbeing and if you start to feel unsafe and experience acute symptoms make sure the guides escort you down or even bring you back to Arusha to seek medical help.