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MOUNT MERU

Ain't nobody got time for Kilimanjaro

Story by Michael Nguyen February 24th 2015

What terrible, no good, way to end your trip than to hike the fifth highest peak in all of Africa. Let's throw in the fact that we were forcibly removed from the paradise that is Zanzibar and our awesome new G Adventures friends just a day before. Megan and I were stuck with each other once again.

We chose Mount Meru over the more popular hike up Kilimanjaro because we ran out of days to fit in a 7+ day Kili trek. In reality, I think we both were nervous going that high in altitude given how out-of-shape and clumsy we are.

Sure enough, Megan faceplanted three steps into our hike...

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This was a 4 day trek organized by Bryson Adventures. They also do guided treks of Kilimanjaro. After landing back in Arusha, we were met at the airport by our guide for the entire adventure, Festo. It would just be Megan and I, two German girls who were doctors and best friends traveling Africa together, and Festo as part of Team Bryson. However, we mostly trekked in packs with other groups along the path. There were also a lot of funny and surreal "travel" moments along the way (figuring out whether Festo was just our driver or our actual guide, Festo piling a bunch of porters into our van on the way to the National Park, etc.), but we should just skip to the start of the trail.

This trek appealed to my hipster sensibilities as it was significantly less trampled on than Kili, which can see a hundred people crowding the summit on a good day. Meru is often used as an acclimatization trek for Kilimanjaro. But really, the mountain probably gets a quarter of the visitors, which is a shame because it was an absolutely incredible environment with some really diverse scenery.

Only when we arrived to Arusha National Park, which Meru sits within, that we discovered that Meru is considered a harder trek than Kilimanjaro. If you trek Kili, you are simply walking uphill for a few days. Meru is not only a steeper walk, but involves some pretty intense scrambling and legit climbing over some boulders on summit day. Not for the feint of heart or lungs.

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Fig tree arch

The first attraction on the trek was this cut out fig tree. This was after maybe an two hours of hiking. I ate a packed lunch of a chicken wing and banana underneath its cutout, studying the buttress roots that weaved around this ancient tree. It felt like each root was a wrinkle that held a story.

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Along the trail - Day 1

Death march.

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Some major Lost World or Land that Time Forgot vibes as we approached the first campsite.

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The guy on the left, that's Frederick. He was the armed ranger that escorted us to the top of the mountain and back down. He was pretty much a badass. On the lower elevations, there's a lot of buffalo and elephants that could potentially kill us. So hiking Meru requires an armed ranger with your group at all times. Frederick was awesome at tracking the animals and telling us fun badass stories along the trail.

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Miriakamba Hut - 8,250 meters

Miriakamba hut actually has a truck path that the porters rode in to get up to camp first. They were already preparing meals and setting up camp and lounging around by the time we reached the campsite. This was the most well-equipped of the lodges.
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On top of the dining hall was this rooftop deck that had views across Arusha National Park and the first glimpse of Kilimanjaro. At every opportunity, I would run off to the roof with a cup of hot tea and reflect on how the hell I ended up here.

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My friend the raven. Not sure if he was a good omen or bad omen of things to come.

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day 2

I just remember there being lots of stairs. Lots and lots of stairs...

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Saddle Hut was the campsite for night 2. Facilities were far less glorious (squat toilets). The cold and wind were much harsher. But as the huts came into view, so did Kili.

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A makeshift water tower looking towards Kilimanjaro…my place of meditation for quite a few hours.

Little meru

An acclimatization hike before the summit the next day. Little Meru is the smaller peak in the saw-shaped Meru mountain.

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The summit trail in sight. For summit day, we will tightrope walk our away along the edge until we reached the highest point.

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Summit of Little Meru.

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Megan #creepshot

summit day

Well, it was more like Summit night. We were woken up at 2AM to begin our 4 hour hike to the summit for sunrise. Tired and disoriented, we made sure we were fully padded up against the wind and cold and just started following the trail of dim flashlights. I barely looked up for most of the hike, instead keeping my head down to see what little was in front of me.

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Rhino Point...Only halfway there. Just a quick and terrifying stop to rest. The wind could have blown me off the mountain. The breathing was already pretty labored. Somewhere a few hundred meters up, in my exhaustion, I dropped my only water bottle on the ground volcanic ash and now my only water source was covered in ash and gravel. Great. In a stupid decision that Megan still chides me for, I didn't have the heart to ask anyone else for their water the rest of the way, rather choosing to get dehydration and altitude sickness than be social at 4AM. Such an introvert.

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summit

Lots of rock scrambling in pitch darkness later...I pretty much crawled to the top, ill from altitude sickness. It's really a feat I even managed to snap off some of these pics. The sense of accomplish I thought I would get from making it up 14,000 feet was interrupted by insane dizziness and inability to breathe. This was probably around 6ish AM after 4 hours of uphill scrambling.

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But sunrise was spectacular, as promised.

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Heading down

I was ready to head back to camp. And the way down in broad daylight was even more terrifying and arduous than the way up. Little did we realize in the dark that we were walking along the cliff's edge with nothing below us almost the entire time. There was a stretch where we scrambled across a sheer cliff face whose incline felt like a solid 80 degrees vertical. And now we were doing it with seeing the long drop below. Definitely gets your heart rate up. I remembering really needing to pee and didn't want to do it off the side of the mountain with this wind and cold and precarious edges. And I think it was that determination to go back to the restroom that carried me down the summit, to be honest.

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There were plenty of guides to accompany us and down on summit day. Many of them we'd never really seen before because they were the porters carrying all our heavy bags up ahead of us and preparing our meals. It felt like it was one escort per person in our group. This was the poor guy assigned to watch me stumble-race down to camp. I only got his name once and have forgotten it since, but he was a quiet, confident guy who seemed like he was just along for a leisurely afternoon stroll, just occasionally pulling me up a large boulder. I followed his footsteps exactly in fear that stepping anywhere else would leave to death. I had no intention to stop anywhere for even a break to catch my breath (see dehydration, altitude sickness, and bathroom needs), but he would stop to ask me to take a photo of him every once in a while. I wish I had his contact info to send him my photos. I'm so glad he stopped me in those moments. These photos are some of my favorite from the trek.

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Every night after dinner, Festo would fill out a survey of our health. We'd stick our finger in a pulse recorder and see low our pulses got as we got higher and higher in elevation. Kind of eye-opening how much more work is involved for your organs to function as you get higher.

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A new path

From the minute we headed back to Saddle Hut, I was ready for it to be all over. So the thought of having to go all the way back down to the carport the same way we came back up seemed daunting. But down towards the bottom of the mountain, we took a different route. Rather than the old fig tree, Frederick led us through some bushes and happened upon a nice looking waterfall, where we stopped to rest for a bit. It was nice, but I was perturbed how far this detour might've taken us from a nice shower and comfortable bed.
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the final surprise

Clearing the forest at the base of the mountain, we exited out into this sprawling plain. And to our surprise, a huge herd of giraffe and buffalo were grazing only a few hundred feet away from us. While I knew there was wildlife throughout the national park, I was taken aback to have these animals pop up out of nowhere in front of us. And even though I had seen plenty of giraffes and buffalo up close back in the Serengeti, we were never on foot with them so close. It was that cherry on top of an truly incredible experience.

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We did it!

The German girls were way more athletic and active than we ever were, so it was no surprised they handled the trek easily. They actually ended up rooming with us after the trek, because their Serengeti plans had fallen through. We were sympathetic and offered our room for them to stay in while they figured out their next plan of attack. Despite getting so close with them, Megan nor I got their contact information and I'm a little heartbroken about it. But that's always the story with travel, really, and in no way diminishes the amazing bond and experience we went through. It's just one of life's reminders that friendships and relationships sometimes are fleeting and can come and go quickly, so savor every moment with a new or old friend.

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Arusha National Park, Arumeru, Arusha, Tanzania