the long way down
If the way up was tough, the descent from Kilimanjaro proved to be pure torture. We did not linger long at the summit. D took some pictures and called his dad. He tried to phone S’s parents too, but by then his brain was too numb with the cold to dial the numbers properly. Knowing full well that we had a long day of hiking ahead of us, we raced down the mountain, arriving at base camp a little after 8am. Having just spent eight hours climbing in lieu of sleeping, it was hard to resist our tent, which beckoned with the seductive warmth of our sleeping bags. But resist we did. Without changing, we packed our gear, had breakfast, and hit the trail again around 9:30.
Whereas the Machame route up the mountain was scenic, the Mweka route one takes to descend is anything but. The first part of the trail resembled a rock cemetery, where all the broken pieces of shale, boulders, and other miscellaneous rocks that didn’t make the cut to be part of the big mountain had come to rest. An hour and a half through this desolate landscape brought us to High Camp (3,790m/12,434ft).
The scenery improved as we descended further, but we would have gladly traded all the exquisite flora in the world to be back on the gradual path that led down from Barafu to High Camp. From High Camp to Mweka Camp (3100m/10,170ft) was a painful hour and a half descent on a trail composed mostly of big rocks and small boulders that were cut into steps that seemed to have been made with giants in mind. They were killer on the knees, especially since we were trying not to slip on the wet rocks, and we needed a rest at Mweka Camp before making the final push to the Mweka Gate (1,800m/5,905ft).
Having followed the same route on her way down Kili the previous summer, S recalled a forest path leading down from Mweka Camp to the park entrance gate, which would be easier on the knees than the rocky one we had just left behind. It was, unfortunately, nothing of the sort. The rocks were replaced by roots and branches, but the trail continued to comprise a sort of steep, natural staircase of behemoth proportions. It would have been quite a pretty hike, as the path wound its way through rainforest teeming with playful monkeys, if we had not been on the trail for over 12 hours. The path seemed interminable. Worse still, we were hiking through a rainforest during the short rains season at the rainiest time of the day. Naturally, it poured. It was the worst rain we had on the whole trek and by the time it let up half an hour later we did not have a shred of dry clothing on us.
Eventually, we reached the bottom of the rainforest trail, which gave onto a road that was to lead us out to the Mweka Gate. When S had hiked it last year, the road was all dirt/mud. Since then it had been “improved” by the haphazard dumping of large quantities of boulders and rocks of assorted sizes on what used to be the muddiest bits. True, the road was no longer muddy, but it was also next to impossible to walk or drive on. By this time, our knees were swollen with pain and each step downhill was more laborious than the previous one. When we finally arrived at our hotel and had a chance to change out of our wet clothes, D discovered that his right knee was close to twice its normal size.
Once back at our hotel, D contemplated passing out. Instead, we washed up, iced our knees, and went out for Indian food to celebrate Thanksgiving. We ordered a couple of Kilimanjaro brand beers to go along with our meal and contemplated what we had just accomplished. After hiking for fifteen hours, we had walked roughly 32km (20mi). From the top of Kilimanjaro to the Mweka Gate, we experienced a net elevation loss of 4,100m (13,451ft). Nearly lost in all that mind-boggling math was the fact that we greeted the sunrise atop the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.