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.