The Shira Plateau Route
Shira Plateau Route statistics:
Duration: 4-6 days ascent only; total including descent: 5-7 or 8 days
Distance: 38.02km/23.75 miles ascent on regular route; 20.6km/12.75 miles descent; total walking 58.62km/36.5 miles)
- What’s the Shira Plateau?
- Lemosho and Shira Plateau routes: which one’s best?
- Which one am I on?
- The Shira Plateau itinerary
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.
Those few walkers who book 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:
a) The longer and easier Barafu Route takes you round the southern side of Kibo. Take this option and 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.
b) The Western Breach Route via Arrow Glacier and the Crater Camp (follow this link for our description of Kilimanjaro’s Western Breach route to the summit). The trek will probably last 6-7 days if using this trail.
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. That is to say, it’s a collapsed volcanic crater. So when you are walking on the plateau, you are actually walking on the remains of the first of Kilimanjaro’s three volcanoes to expire. This event happened around 500,000 years ago, after which it was 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 this park, herds of elephant, eland and buffalo have been known to wander up the mountain’s slopes. Indeed, while writing the first edition of the Kilimanjaro guide book, back in the early 2000s, I had to be accompanied by an armed ranger 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. True, you may see the odd hoof-print, and maybe even the occasional sun-dried lumps of poo. But as for seeing an actual animal, other than a monkey or mouse – well, that’s unlikely.
So while the proximity of Africa’s finest wild beasts adds a certain frisson of excitement to the walk, don’t choose it in the hope of seeing animals. Because it’s an awful long way to come just to see some desiccated elephant dung.
LEMOSHO OR SHIRA PLATEAU – WHICH ONE’S BEST?
Though the two routes are similar, there is no doubt in my mind that the Lemosho Route is superior. The only difference between the two occurs, of course, in the first two days. With Lemosho, you start your walk in the forest. With the Shira Plateau Route, however, you usually take a car all the way up to the plateau. As a result, you miss out on the finest forest on Kilimanjaro. Or, rather, you do see it – but only through a car window.
But it’s not just the experience you miss; you also miss out, perhaps, on some useful acclimatisation. So while the walk up to the plateau on the Lemosho Route may be an exhausting one, it’s worth it. Even if the benefits of trekking rather than driving up may become apparent only later on, as you saunter up Kibo with scarcely a headache, while littering the trail around you are the weeping, retching AMS-sufferers who took the car up to the Shira Plateau.
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). They also 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. This is particularly true of non-Tanzanian agencies, who are keen to promote the fact that you’ll be walking across the Shira Plateau. T
his, 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 on.
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
The trek begins in the far north-western corner of the Shirt Plateau by what looks like an old concrete gatepost. This post is a remnant of the old Morum Barrier (3405m). It feels lonely round here. The landscape is windswept, the flora dry and scrubby, the fauna virtually non-existent.
We’ll be spending the next couple of days on this plateau. Occasionally, groups turning up late are forced to camp here. But if everything has gone smoothly thus far it’s more usual to walk to one of the campsites on the plateau. Depending on what time we arrive, Shira 1 or Simba Cave Campsite are 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 we then continue along the Lemosho Route to Shira 2 (possibly via the Cathedral) and Lava Tower. Alternatively, we may have opted to head towards Moir Huts and, from there, round the Northern Circuit.
Those who, instead, stay at Simba Cave Campsite (3640m), reached by walking along the 4WD road, have essentially the same options. The campsite, adorned with several weather-beaten old wooden toilets, marks the main junction between the road and the Lemosho Route.
For details of our walk from either of these two campsites, please see Day 3 of the Lemosho Route itinerary >>