The Shira Plateau Route

(5-7 days ascent only; total including descent: 6-8 or 9 days)

IntroductionWhat’s the Shira Plateau? Lemosho and Shira PLateau routes: which one’s best? Which one am I on? The Shira Plateau itinerary

INTRODUCTION

The Shira Plateau Route is the original trail across the plateau; the Lemosho Route didn’t arrive until several years later. However, the Shira Route is seldom used these days, at least not by walkers. Instead, it has been converted into a 4WD track for emergency vehicles travelling to and from the Shira 2 Campsite, in the heart of the plateau.

LEMOSHO-ROUTE

Those few walkers who are booked on the Shira Plateau trail often begin their trek above the forest. Indeed, this is one of its big disadvantages – for the forest on that western side is, I think, the best on the entire mountain. So missing out on it seems plain daft.

Having crossed the plateau and reached the foot of Kibo at Lava Tower, you then have two choices: the longer and easier Barafu Route that takes you round the southern side of Kibo; or the Western Breach Route via Arrow Glacier and the Crater Camp (for our description of Kilimanjaro’s Western Breach route to the summit). As such, the walk could last as many as eight days if taking the Barafu Route and extra overnight stops on the plateau and in the Karanga Valley are taken – if not, seven days is more likely.

WHAT’S THE SHIRA PLATEAU??

The Shira Plateau, which stretches out for around 13km to the west of the snowy Kibo summit, is actually a caldera, ie a collapsed volcanic crater. When you are walking on the plateau, you are walking on the remains of the first of Kilimanjaro’s three volcanoes to expire, around 500,000 years ago. It was then filled by the lava and debris from the later Kibo eruption.

The plateau has a reputation for its fauna, largely thanks to its proximity to Amboseli National Park in Kenya from where herds of elephant, eland, buffalo, and big cats such as the lion have been known to wander. Indeed, when I was researching for the first couple of editions of the Kilimanjaro guidebook, back in the early 2000s,  I had to be accompanied by an armed ranger (for which they had to pay) on this route in case of any encounters with predators. That said, you will be very, very lucky to see any evidence of wildlife existing on the plateau, save for the odd hoofprint or two and the occasional sun-dried lumps of scat and spoor

So while the proximity of Africa’s finest wild beasts adds a certain frisson of excitement to the walk, don’t choose either of these trails purely on the strength of their reputation for spotting game: it’s an awful long way to come just to see some desiccated elephant dung.

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LEMOSHO OR SHIRA PLATEAU – WHICH ONE’S BEST? 

Though the two routes are similar after the first couple of days, there is no doubt in my mind that the Lemosho Route is superior. It is the first day or so, when you are walking through the forests on Kilimanjaro’s western slopes, that is the main reason why this trail has overtaken the old Shira Plateau Route as the main path attacking Kilimanjaro from the west. With the latter you usually take a car all the way up to the plateau, thereby missing out not only on some fine forest, which you experience only through a car window, but also on some useful acclimatisation.

And although the walk up to the plateau on the Lemosho Route is an exhausting one, the benefits of trekking rather than driving up may manifest themselves later on as you saunter up Kibo with scarcely a headache, while littering the trail around you are the weeping, retching bodies of the AMS-sufferers who took the car up to the Shira Plateau.

What’s more, because Lemosho is a more southerly route, so it allows side trips to the minor peaks of Kilimanjaro’s third summit, the Shira Ridge. In particular, the Shira Cathedral, on the southern side of the plateau, has become a very popular excursion on the third day of the trek. Again, such a side trip is useful for acclimatization purposes and no extra days need to be taken to do this either.

That said, there is one major company that still advertises treks on this route (though even then they diverge significantly from the standard Shira trail) – and maintain that it has many advantages over the standard Lemosho Route.  But my advice nevertheless remains the same: if you have the choice, always choose Lemosho over the Shira Plateau Route. 

WHICH ROUTE AM I ON?

The first thing to know about these two routes is that it is not uncommon for the Lemosho Route to be referred to as the Shira Plateau Route, particularly by foreign agencies keen to promote the fact that you’ll be walking across the Shira Plateau. This, of course, is confusing so you should ask your agency to indicate exactly which of the two paths you’ll be taking.

Another way to check is to see where your first night’s accommodation will be. If it’s the Big Tree Campsite – or Mti Mkubwa in the local language – where you’ll be staying, then it’s actually the Lemosho Route that you’ll be following, regardless of what your trekking agency calls it.

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* The best information for trek preparations
* Fully fledged KPAP partners
* Strong ethical policy towards the environment

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THE SHIRA PLATEAU ROUTE ITINERARY

DAY 1: MORUM BARRIER TO SHIRA 1 OR SIMBA CAVE

Distance: 3.75km to Shira 1, 6.5km to Simba Cave
Altitude Gained: 99m to Shira 1, 215m to Simba Cave

Morum Barrier to Shira 1

The trek begins in the far north-western corner of the Shirt Plateau by what looks like an old concrete gatepost – the remnants of the old Morum Barrier (3405m).  It’s a lonely place: the landscape windswept, the flora dry and scrubby, the fauna virtually non-existent.  You’ll be spending the next couple of days on this plateau. Occasionally, groups turning up late are forced to camp here though if everything has gone smoothly thus far it’s more usual to walk to one of the campsites on the plateau, with Shira 1 or Simba Cave Campsite being the only realistic choices. Shira 1 (3504m) is reached via a narrow trail that heads south from the information boards. The trail crosses several streams but the whole walk takes only 70 minutes or so; from Shira 1 you then continue along the Lemosho Route to Shira 2 (possibly via the Cathedral) and Lava Tower; or your trekking company may have opted to head towards Moir Huts and possibly continue from there round the Northern Circuit.

Those who instead opted to stay at Simba Cave Campsite (3640m) – reached by walking along the road for an hour – have essentially the same options. The campsite, adorned with several weatherbeaten old wooden toilets as well as the cave, marks the main junction between the road and the Lemosho Route.

For details of your walk from either of these two campsites, please see Day 3 of the Lemosho Route itinerary >>

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