Climbing Mount Meru
Mount Meru, which overlooks the city of Arusha from the north, about 60km from Kilimanjaro, is used by many trekkers as a warm-up trek to Kilimanjaro. In other words, it acts as an hors d’oeuvre to the main course of Kili. And a perfect starter it is too: though smaller, it’s also quite similar in that to reach its volcanic summit you have first to climb through a number of vegetation zones before embarking on the final night-time march to the highest point on the crater rim and thus the summit itself. What’s more, at 4566m (14,980ft) it provides the trekker with the perfect opportunity to acclimatize to Kilimanjaro’s rarified atmosphere. In other words, the mountain offers a taste of the challenges that lie ahead on Kilimanjaro, whilst also whetting the appetite for the thrills and beauty of that mountain.
However, Meru is worth doing as much for the differences as for the similarities it shares with its neighbour. In particular, there’s the greater abundance of wildlife. Lying at the heart of Arusha National Park, a reserve that’s teeming with animals, it’s an odd trekker who doesn’t finish the trek with his or her camera filled with pictures of buffalo, giraffe, elephant, bushbuck, dik dik, suni, colobus, blue monkey and warthog. Luckier ones may also see leopard and hyaena, while twitchers will be more than content with the number of birds on offer, from the noisy Hartlaub’s turaco to the silver-cheeked hornbill and black-and-white bulbul.
If all this sounds like your idea of a perfect holiday – a safari-and-trek all rolled into one – then you’re probably right, though there is one point that needs to be emphasized: do not underestimate Meru. Though it may be more than a thousand metres lower than Kili, it’s still well above the height necessary to bring about altitude sickness and with almost everybody taking just over two days before reaching the summit, the risks are not small. There is also more night-time scrambling; it’s nothing serious, and you don’t need any climbing skills to complete it, but there is nevertheless more scrambling on this mountain than on Kilimanjaro.
So though Meru may not carry the cachet, prestige or the sheer scale of Kilimanjaro, it’s no pushover – and maybe it’s no coincidence that the first successful recorded ascent, though still in dispute (being credited to either Carl Uhlig in 1901 or Fritz Jaeger in 1904), occurred at least a dozen years after the conquest of Kilimanjaro. Meru remains an awfully big mountain – the 10th highest peak in Africa in fact – and as such it should be treated with respect.
There is only one main route up Meru. It begins at Momela Gate, around 15km from the main Ngongongare entrance to the park where you pay your park fees. Having paid up and driven those 15km, past the plain known as Little Serengeti (Serengeti Ndogo) because of its similarity to Tanzania’s most famous park, you arrive at Momela Gate (altitude 1597m; 5240ft) where you pick up your ranger and possibly hire your porters.
The route from Momela Gate to the summit is punctuated by two sets of accommodation huts: the first are the Miriakamba Huts (2503m, 8212ft), a day’s walk from Momela Gate; and the second are the Saddle Huts (3560m, 11,680ft), lying a short day’s walk from there. From the Saddle Huts it’s a further day’s walk – or rather, a night’s walk – to the summit. So there’s no camping on Meru – you all stay in the huts.
Trips up Meru are usually offered by the agencies in Arusha (the best place to organize such a trek) for either three or four days. Don’t be misled into thinking that if you book a four-day trek you are more likely to reach the summit because of the extra day’s acclimatization; that extra day is actually spent on the way down, not up. So, while we like to have the extra day to descend – it’s a bit too much of a rush otherwise to go from the summit to Momela Gate in one day and we’re always grateful to spend a second night at Miriakamba – if you’re on a tight budget you’ll save yourself a small fortune in park fees by taking a day less. These park fees tend to be a little cheaper than the equivalent charges on Kili and are as follows (all prices from July 2017):
Conservation fee (formerly known as Park Entrance fee): US$45 per day (US$22.50 per day for under 16s)
Hut fee: US$30 per night
Rescue fee: US$20 per trip
Guide/ranger fee: US$15 per day
Once again there is 18% VAT to pay on top of each of these fees.
Thus for a four-day/three-night trip you’re looking at a total figure of US$350 plus VAT in park fees alone. On top of this you’ll probably need to pay the equivalent porters/guide fees to enable them to enter and stay in the park. All these fees will be factored into the total amount the trekking agency charges for your trek so needn’t concern you too much here. But count on a Meru trek to start at about US$700 per person depending on the number of days you want to spend on the trek and how large your group is.
Incidentally, you may have noticed in the above examples that there are in fact two guides in the party: one supplied by the agency and one by the park (whom we have called a ranger/guide to avoid confusion). The ranger/guide supplied by the park is compulsory, for it is he who carries the gun that, should any of the local fauna take an unhealthy interest in your party, could come in very handy. However, these rangers in our experience are often better guides, with good English and a greater knowledge of the park, mainly because they spend most of their time in it. Indeed, on one of our treks we didn’t even see the guide who had been supplied by the trekking agency until we got to the Miriakamba Huts at the end of the first day!
A Mount Meru climb – further reading
You can read more about a trek up Mount Meru, including how to prepare, how to pack and book, in our Kilimanjaro guide book. In it you’ll also find a full route description and plenty of advice on getting the most from your Meru climb. Our company, Kilimanjaro Experts, also organises treks on Mount Meru. It really is a fantastic walk – don’t miss the chance to try it!