“Why did I sign up for this?” I think to myself for probably the hundredth time as I put one foot in front of the other, hiking up steep switchback after switchback in the roasting Tanzanian sun. On the first day of a two-week adventure in Tanzania and Zambia with my brother, I am hiking up Mt. Meru, a 4500m mountain in the north of the country.
We started our hike a couple hours ago at lunchtime, so the heat of the midday sun is beating down on our little group as the gentle incline of the path suddenly turns into a steep, concrete uphill. There are six of us: my brother and I, a couple from the States, our guide, and an armed ranger.
Mt. Meru is located about 70km west of the famous Mt Kilimanjaro and is a bit more than 1000m shorter. Because of that, the hike to the summit of Meru can be done in 3 days, as opposed to the longer time needed to acclimatize to Kilimanjaro.
One benefit to Mt. Meru’s shorter summit is the lack of other people hiking up the mountain; as there is only one route up, we have the whole hike to ourselves. Fewer people also means more risks of encounters with buffaloes or elephants, which is why an armed ranger from Arusha National Park is accompanying us.
Our hike up to the summit is divided in 3 sections—the first day is a 4- to 5-hour hike to the first base camp, the Miriakamba Hut at 2514m. It’s a mostly forested walk, and the highlight is near the end of the hike when the trees part and there are views of Arusha National Park, its lakes, and Kilimanjaro in the distance. Another great aspect of the Meru hike is the roofed accommodation, some small huts with bunk beds and cooking facilities. We spend the night there, stretching our sore muscles and preparing ourselves for another day of the same.
The second day is a steep, brutal hike for 3 to 4 hours, finishing at Saddle Hut for a late lunch at 3570m elevation. About halfway through the day’s hike, we get our first real glimpses of the Mt. Meru crater and the cliffs below the summit, where we’ll hopefully be in about 12 hours from now.
Mt. Meru itself is a steep, dormant volcano that lost the majority of its bulk over 7000 years ago during a summit collapse, which created the spectacular crater and horseshoe rim that we see today. Below the summit, the cliffs of the inner wall of the crater rise over 1500m, making an impressive sight. Inside the crater, there is a smaller peak named the Ash Cone, created by volcanic explosions, that adds to the splendour of the view.
At Saddle Hut camp, we have a short nap, then head up to the summit of Little Meru, a smaller peak of the mountain at 3820m. This is to prepare us for our final push to the summit later by acclimatizing our bodies to a higher altitude. From the peak, we can see the sun setting behind Meru, casting shadows inside the crater and making the snows on Kilimanjaro glint in the distance. We head back down to Saddle Hut for an early dinner and bedtime. Our alarms are set for midnight when we begin the push to the summit.
It turns out I barely sleep anyway because I’m so nervous about what’s ahead and oversleeping my alarm. At midnight, we get dressed in a lot of layers, because it’s quite cold and windy outside and we’ll be hiking completely exposed along the crater rim.
Then, at around 1:00 a.m., we strap on our headlamps and take off in the darkness. We separate quickly from the other group, as we no longer need to stay together with the ranger and the couple, who are slower hikers. It’s completely dark, with no moon out, though the sky is clear of clouds and the night sky is filled with stars. I’m still getting used to all the strange constellations I can see in this part of the world; it’s disorienting and exciting.
We trek on and on, and I’m feeling the altitude. Our goal is to reach the summit before sunrise, because the last hour’s push is on the back side of Meru and we would miss sunrise completely. Every step is a challenge, and we occasionally have to grab on to some chains as we slither along one rock face or another. I’m happy it’s dark and I don’t have to see why the chains are necessary. Although the summit hike is just under another 1000m of elevation, the altitude is making every step feel like a victory.
The ground is rocky, with big, unsteady lava rocks and no sign of vegetation. As we slowly make our way around the crater rim, I can’t even look around me at the lightening sky. I’m just focusing on one step in front of the other. Left foot, right foot. Slip on some loose rocks, start again. Water and snacks, even though it’s the last thing I want. Take the hoodie off, then put it back on when the next wind gust hits. Take ten steps, then rest for ten seconds before the next ten steps. I’m on autopilot, so I’m relieved when I finally hear the guide say, “it’s a straight climb to the top.” At this point, the way up is so steep I’m climbing with my hands as well, scrambling over massive boulders and pushing myself towards a rocky summit that feels forever out of reach.
Finally, I hear my brother call out, “it’s here, you’re just a few steps away!” I look up and see him grinning down at me, the exhaustion temporarily forgotten. I scramble up the last few steps and collapse at the summit, catching my breath. The summit is tiny, because it’s really just a pile of rocks that’s higher than the other boulders around it. There’s a wooden sign that says CONGRATULATION.
In the distance, the sky is on fire, as the sun is just below the horizon. I sit on a rock and I’m not ashamed to admit I sob a little. I’m exhausted, and I’ve just done the most difficult hike of my life. I’m so proud of us. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that we’re together so far from home, on the summit of a volcano, with a carpet of clouds below us and the sun coming up right beside Mt. Kilimanjaro in the east.
We take some time at the summit, which we have all to ourselves. After a snack and the sunrise show, it’s time to start the descent. We have to hike all the way back down to the first night’s hut, Miriakamba, and a lot of the descent is loose rock on a steep incline. It takes us a long time just to get back to Saddle Hut because we’re now able to see the views of the National Park on one side and the Meru crater and Ash Cone on the other. It’s breathtaking, not least because we’re walking a thin ridgeline between two steep drop-offs.
We make it back to Miriakamba without any incidents, and it’s time for a big dinner and a long night’s sleep. The last day is easier, with the last 1000m descent, though our knees and calves are definitely feeling it. We are rewarded though, because this time we cross some herds of zebra and buffalo, a surreal experience. Looking back at Meru, it’s hard to believe I was at the summit a day ago. It seems so remote and impossible. But it isn’t, because now I know I can push myself to those limits, and my body can handle it. I feel tired and exhausted, but those aches will fade and afterwards I’ll still have my pride in knowing I hiked up the rim of a volcano to the summit of the 5th highest mountain in Africa.