Climbing Mt. Meru (1 of 2) – Tanzania

"I don’t know if I like this," remarked Neil, my hiking partner. "I’ve never liked exposed heights. I don’t know if I can make it."

I sympathized with him. While our surroundings were awe-inspiring, they inspired a lot of fear as well. To our left, the soft black volcanic sand sloped away at an almost 45° angle until, many hundreds of metres below, it plummeted over a completely vertical cliff-face. To our right, the same steep open sand slope extended down to the tree line far, far below us. We were walking along a knife-edge ridge, as screaming winds threatened to blow us off our path down to the forest.

We – Neil and I, and our National Park guide Michael – were most of the way up Mt. Meru, the little-known, but second-highest peak in Tanzania. It is, of course, overshadowed in the consciousness of tourists by its neighbour Kilimanjaro, 80 kilometres to the east and the highest mountain in Africa.

However, although it’s much less popular than Kilimanjaro, Meru has some distinct advantages over the higher mountain. For a start, Meru is much cheaper to climb.

Kilimanjaro is difficult to climb for under US$400, while Meru can be done for about US$170. The climb up Meru is more scenic and spectacular, and you are much less likely to suffer altitude sickness on 4,667-metre-high Mt. Meru than on 5,895 m Kilimanjaro. In fact, Meru makes an ideal high-altitude acclimatization warm-up climb before tackling Kili.

Meru is a spectacular volcano. Once upon a very long time ago, it rose higher than Kilimanjaro; I’ve also heard this said about Mt. Kenya and the Ngorongoro Crater, so you may want to take this assertion with a grain of salt. However tall it once was, it certainly erupted sideways, rather like Mt. St. Helens, a few million years ago, leaving the northern, southern and western slopes intact, but obliterating the eastern slope of the volcanic cone. From above, Meru is now shaped like a horseshoe opening east, with a new tiny cinder cone forming in the bottom of the devastated crater, and huge cliffs extending up the crater walls almost to the summit. The crater floor and the lower slopes are densely forested, but the upper slopes are barren expanses of black volcanic ash and occasional massive boulders of lava.

Meru is just outside Arusha, the staging post for safaris to the Serengeti, yet despite this proximity – only 23 km by road – it is annoyingly difficult to get to the base of the mountain.

Various safari outfits offer a price of US$50 each way to hire a 4-wheel-drive for the trip; Arusha city taxis will offer as little as US$20, but their decrepit vehicles are unlikely to make it over the rough road. Neil and I took the local bus to the turnoff from the main road, and then waited several hours for a lift with an overloaded Land Rover full of local villagers returning from Arusha market. It was cheaper but agonizingly slow; having your own transport is infinitely better.

There is only one route officially open to the top, although unscrupulous safari touts in Arusha will offer illegal sorties directly up the western slope. Neil and I were nearly taken in by one of these offers, but prudently backed out at the last minute.

Assuming that you are proceeding legitimately, the only choice is whether to hurry to the first hut, Miriakamba, steeply but directly up the northern crater rim, or to detour more gently and scenically across the crater floor along a 4WD track. (Those with their own vehicles and little time could drive along the track almost to the first hut.) There seems little point in climbing directly to Miriakamba, since the Park Service’s guides, whose services are mandatory, refuse to climb to the summit and back in less than three days and two nights.

Charging up to Miriakamba would just result in more time spent sitting at the hut, at the expense of bypassing some lovely scenery. The direct route can be better used for descending. My sister Audie (who once worked in Serengeti National Park) claims that the two-night minimum rule is her fault. She and a guide once charged from the base of the mountain to the summit and back again, in under 24 hours. Neither of them were in any shape to walk anywhere for several days after that, and the National Park Service got very annoyed at losing the services of a guide for that period, and insisted that guides take a more leisurely pace in the future.

The first day’s walk, about six leisurely hours up into the relatively flat crater floor, is very pleasant. A huge fig tree forms a natural arch over the path that is large enough to accommodate a Land Rover. There is a stream for bathing and lunching beside, and later on, during the final climb up the crater wall to Miriakamba, there is a spectacular view across to forests and a high waterfall on the opposite (southern) inside rim of the crater. The dense forest is full of vervet monkeys and butterflies and, it is rumoured, leopards.

Near the hut, the track passes the remnants of old logging huts and sawmills from the colonial era, and the open grasslands left behind by their operations. Inside the spacious hut we filled up on a basic meal of soup and glutinous pasta, then went outside and admired the gorgeous canopy of stars overhead. We philosophized for while, then turned in for a somewhat restless, altitude-affected sleep, full of strange dreams and nocturnal bathroom breaks.

The climb from Miriakamba hut, at 2,500 metres, to Saddle hut, at 3,600 metres, is short, but steep and frequently muddy. In late June, when we were climbing, Meru was perpetually cloud-bound below 3,500 metres, and this second stage was through the clouds, making for a very wet, sweaty and physically demanding climb. Both Neil and I lost our footing a few times, slithering down the path on our backpacks for several metres before coming to rest against the trunk of a tree.

Just after bursting through the top of the clouds to hot, dry sunshine, some Spanish hikers passed us on the way down, the only climbers to have reached the summit that morning. Behind us by a couple of hours were two German women, the only others climbing on our schedule. A group of British hikers, whom we met on the last day, were the only other people we met on the mountain; in comparison to Kilimanjaro, Mt. Meru is practically deserted.

We reached Saddle hut around 11:30. We made lunch, dried our clothing – which had been soaked by our passage through the clouds – and considered our options. The traditional schedule dictates a pre-dawn start, to get to the summit for sunrise. On the other hand, we felt fairly fresh, it was still early and the summit, clearly visible from the hut, was bathed in sunlight – and there was no guarantee of clear weather the next morning. As well, I hate hiking in the middle of the night. In the end, we elected to climb to the top that afternoon.