If portering is the first step on the career ladder, then it is the guides of Kilimanjaro who stand proudly on the top rung. Ornithologist, zoologist, botanist, geologist, tracker, astronomer, chef, butler, manager, doctor, linguist and teacher, a good guide will be all of these professions rolled into one.
With luck, over the course of the trek they’ll also become your friend.
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The metamorphosis from porter to guide is a lengthy process. Pretty much all of them start off by serving their apprenticeship lugging luggage as a porter.
A few lucky and ambitious ones then receive promotion to be an assistant guide. These gentlemen are amongst the hardest working people on the mountain. They are still, essentially, a porter, and they still have to carry their fair share of equipment. But they have to perform many of the duties of a fully fledged guide, including, most painfully of all, escorting trekkers on that final, excruciating push to the summit.
Their reward for all this effort is a slightly higher wage than a porter. What’s more, they also get a commensurately greater proportion of the tips. And, perhaps most importantly, they know that they have taken that first crucial step towards becoming a guide. Remain on this trajectory, and one day they’ll be able to wallow in the privileges that seniority brings.
Top guide Simon Kaaya and Henry at Uhuru Peak, November 2012
How to become a Kilimanjaro guide
Standing between them and a guide license is an intensive training course conducted by the park authorities. This mainly involves a 2-3 week tour of the mountain, during which they cover every designated route up and down Kilimanjaro.
On this course they are also taught the essentials of being a guide. Subjects include the fauna and flora of Kili and how to take care of the mountain environment. They also learn how to spot the symptoms of altitude sickness in trekkers; just as importantly, they are also taught what to do about it.
Training complete, they receive their licences and are then free to look for work. A few of the better guides are snapped up by the top agencies and work exclusively for them. But the majority are freelance and have to actively seek work in what is already an over-supplied market. As a result, guides’ wages are not that stratospheric considering the work they do and the time and effort they’ve put in to qualifying. That is to say, they get about Ts72,000-115,000 for a six-day trip.