Your crew: Kilimanjaro Porters

Porters are an incredible breed of men (and the ones who work on Kilimanjaro are nearly always male), and ones who never fail to draw admiration from the trekkers who hire them. Ranging in age from about 18 (the minimum legal age, though some look a good deal younger) to 40 (though occasionally way beyond this), porters are amongst the hardest workers on the mountain. To see them traipsing up the mountain, water in one hand, cooker in another, rucksack on the back and picnic table on the head, is staggering to behold. And though they are supposed to carry no more than 15kg, many, desperate for work in what is an over-supplied market, carry much, much more.

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Porters on the Rongai Route

And if that isn’t enough, while at the end of the day the average trekker spends his or her time at camp moaning about the hardships they are suffering – in between cramming down mouthfuls of popcorn while clasping a steaming hot cup of tea – these hardy individuals are putting up the tents, helping with the preparation of the food, fetching more water and generally making sure every trekker’s whim is, within reason, catered for.

Yet in spite of appearances to the contrary, porters are not indestructible. Though they rarely climb to the summit themselves, a few still expire each year on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. The most common cause of death, perhaps unsurprisingly given the ragged clothes many wear, is exposure. For this reason, if you see a porter dozing on the wayside and it’s getting a bit late, put aside your concerns about depriving him of some much needed shut-eye and wake him up: many are the tales of porters who have perished on Kilimanjaro because they took forty winks and then couldn’t find their way back to camp in the dark.

It’s this kind of horror story that has caused so much concern over recent years and led to the formation of organizations such as the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project.

How many porters do you need on Kilimanjaro?

The first question regarding porters on Kilimanjaro is: how many do you actually need? This issue won’t actually concern many people, for agencies typically work this out for you. Those looking to save every last shilling, however, often ask the agency to cut down on the number of porters.

But this is neither easy nor – given that the cost of a porter’s wages is usually less than the food bill – a particularly brilliant idea. Remember that even if you do carry your own rucksack, there is still all the food, cooking equipment, camping gear and so forth to lug up the mountainside. Then there is the guide’s rucksack too, for which he will expect you to hire a porter. What’s more, you’re also tempting the agency to overload each porter in order to reduce their total number – which is, of course, illegal.

So, in general, accept the agency’s recommendations as to the number of porters and make sure that they’re not overloaded.As a general rule, the larger the number of trekkers, the less porters per person required and, if you take the Marangu Route (where no tent is required), you can probably get away with about two per trekker, and often less if the group is large. On other routes, where tents are necessary, two to three porters per person is the norm. (Just for the record, and just in case taking porters up a mountain makes you feel a little less virile, you may like to know that the great Count Teleki (who attempted to climb the mountain in the nineteenth century) took no less than 65 of them up the mountain with him!)

How much should you pay porters on Kilimanjaro?

Porters and Meru

Porters climbing on the Machame Route with Mount Meru in the background

The porters’ wages on Kilimanjaro are paid by the agency you sign up with. All you need to worry about is how much to give them as a tip at the end of the trek. Given the privations they suffer over the course of an average trek and their often desultory wages, their efforts to extract as much money as possible from the over-privileged mzungu (Swahili for ‘white person’) is entirely forgivable.

One elaborate yet surprisingly common method is for the porters to pretend that there are more of them than there actually are; which, given the vast numbers of porters running around each campsite and the fact you don’t actually walk with them on the trail, is a lot easier to achieve than you may think. It’s a technique hinted at by John Reader in his excellent 1982 book:

I hired four porters for part of my excursion on Kilimanjaro. The fourth man’s name was Stephen, or so the other three told me. I never met Stephen himself. Our gear seemed to arrive at each campsite without his assistance and I am not aware that he ever spent a night with us. I was assured that he was engaged elsewhere on tasks essential to the success of my journey, but I occasionally wondered whether Stephen actually existed. I was particularly aggrieved when he failed to collect his pay in person at the end of the trip. The other guides collected it for him. They also collected his tip.

This sort of thing shouldn’t happen if you’re with a reputable company but it’s a good idea anyway to make sure you meet your team at the start of the trail before you set off. This will help to prevent this sort of scam, and it’s good manners too. While at the end, to ensure each porter gets his fair share, dish the tips out yourself – do not give them to your guide to hand them out on your behalf; see the KPAP link for why this is so.

Porters 3

Porters struggling up the slopes

Please note that however much money and equipment you lavish on them at the end, the porters’ reaction will always be the same. Simply put, porters are not above play-acting, in the same way that the sea is not above the clouds. On being given their gratuity all porters will grimace, sigh, tut, shake their head, roll their eyes in disgust and stare at the money in their hand with all the enthusiasm and gratitude of one who has just been handed a warm jar of the contents of the Barranco Camp toilets. A few of the more talented ones may even manage a few tears.

Nevertheless, providing you have paid a reasonable tip (and for guidance over what exactly is the correct amount, see the Tipping section), don’t fall for the melodramatics but simply thank them warmly for all their endeavours over the course of the trek. Once they realize your conscience remains unpricked it will all be handshakes and smiles and, having trousered the money, they’ll soon trot off happily enough.

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