The Umbwe Route is widely regarded as the hardest trail, a tough vertical slog through the jungle, in places using the tree roots as makeshift rungs on a ladder. Having reached the Southern Circular Route, trekkers can continue north-west to tackle Kibo from the west and the difficult Arrow Glacier Route; or you can follow the Southern Circular Route east round to Barafu and approach the summit from there. The entire walk up and down takes a minimum of five days whether going via the Barafu Campsite (a walk of 27.71km in total) or via the Western Breach/Arrow Glacier (a total distance of 24.35km). Either is entirely too rapid, so take six minimum.

UMBWE-ROUTE

HOW DIFFICULT IS IT?

Despite its reputation as the toughest trek, the Umbwe Route is still a non-technical climb. Taxing, but not technical. All you need are an iron will and calves of steel; this is truly a trek to test your mettle.

The difficulty is that it’s so damn relentlessly uphill. Indeed, looking back on the first couple of days we can think of very few places where you actually descend, the longest being the five minutes or so at the end of the second stage when you walk down to the Barranco Campsite.

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF THIS TRAIL?

As far as rewards go, while your calves and thighs will curse the day God paired them with somebody who would want to undertake such a climb, your heart and lungs will be thankful for the workout. Your eyes, too, will be grateful you chose Umbwe as they feast upon the scenery, particularly on the second morning as you leave the forest and find yourself walking on a narrow ridge between spindly heathers. The gobsmacking views on either side of the trail here are amongst the most dramatic the mountain has to offer, save for those on the summit itself. Your ears, too, will be glad that they’re stuck to the side of your head rather than anyone else’s for they’ll enjoy the break, this being the quietest trail of them all – at least until the second day when you find yourself joining the hordes at Barranco Camp, the busiest on the mountain.

ARE THERE ALTERNATIVE TRAILS ON THIS PATH?

When trekkers on the Umbwe Route arrive at Barranco, they have a choice: east and round to Barafu Campsite to access the summit via Stella Point; or, if you hanker after the quieter, more dramatic option, you could have joined the path up to Lava Tower to continue to the summit via the Western Breach. The latter option is the connoisseurs’ choice, no doubt, though it is also an extremely risky strategy unless you have taken at least one – and preferably two – acclimatization days en route to the Arrow Glacier Hut. Otherwise, the trip from Moshi up to Arrow Glacier Hut, an increase in altitude of almost 4000m, will have taken you just three days, which is far too rapid.

The saner alternative is to head from Barranco to Barafu Campsites. So that’s Umbwe: dramatic views, blessed solitude and some terrific, invigorating walking – and all without the clutter and chatter of other trekkers. Those who know the mountain consider it Kili’s best-kept secret. And it’s hard to argue with that.

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THE UMBWE ROUTE ITINERARY

Umbwe Route mapDespite a reputation as the most difficult climb, Umbwe is still just a trek, with no actual climbing involved. That said, it is steep, and in places you’ll be holding on to tree routes as you haul yourself up the slope.

Nevertheless, the rewards in terms of scenery and solitude are more than ample.  Note that the following itinerary is for just five days – which we advise against. So please do build an extra day into the itinerary  to help you acclimatize properly and give you the greatest chance of reaching the summit of Africa’s greatest mountain. Most tour companies will arrange to stop at Karanga Campsite at the end of Day 3 (see below).

The following itinerary assumes you are heading via Barafu Huts and Stella Point to the summit, though this is one of the routes where you can climb to the Crater Rim via the Western Breach and Arrow Glacier.

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DAY 1: UMBWE GATE TO UMBWE CAVE CAMPSITE

Distance: 9.91km; Altitude Gained: 1293m

As the closest gate to Moshi, getting to the start of the Umbwe trail is uncomplicated. With the Umbwe Route one of the quietest on the mountain, too, it follows that you should be one of the first people to begin your trek on the mountain that day.

Umbwe Gate to Umbwe Cave

Wallowing in the splendid tranquility of this route, most people nevertheless find the first day quite taxing as they march up Kilimanjaro’s southern slopes under the humid forest canopy. Thankfully, there are plenty of features to distract you from your labours, including colobus and blue monkeys as well as impatiens Kilimanjarii, the striking red flower that many consider to be the most beautiful on the mountain.

Umbwe Day 1

Joining a ridge, you eventually arrive at your campsite for the first night, the wonderful Umbwe Cave Campsite (2944m), buried deep in the forest. As with every night on the trek, you will arrive to find your tent already erected and a snack awaiting, with dinner served in the early evening.

DAY 2: UMBWE CAVE CAMPSITE TO BARRANCO HUTS

Distance: 5.26km; Altitude Gained: 1042m

Umbwe Cave to Barranco Huts

There are a couple of surprises awaiting you on this second day. The first is the fact that your guide and myself will already be setting a deliberately slow pace in order to help you acclimatize. The second is that, whilst your campsite last night seemed to be in the heart of the deep, dark forest, it’s not long on this second day before the forest starts thinning out and you enter into the heath and moorland zone, with fantastic views down to the valleys on both sides.

Umbwe day 2

Some of Kilimanjaro’s most famous plants, including the weird senecios and lobelias, now decorate the trail as we continue our climb, with gorgeous views all around including, for the first time, the Kibo summit itself.

Continuing up the southern slopes, you may find it surprising that the path, for virtually the first time on the entire trek, actually drops for a few minutes as it winds its way round to the Barranco Campsite (3986m) – many people’s favourite on the entire mountain.

DAY 3: BARRANCO CAMP TO BARAFU HUTS VIA KARANGA VALLEY

Distance: 8.5km; Altitude Gained: 676m

Barranco Huts to Barafu Huts

Today is a short day of only three hours or so, built in to make sure you are fully rested and relaxed in order to prepare you for the extra long day tomorrow. Nevertheless, the start of today is a bit of a shock as you are immediately confronted by the Barranco Wall. Taking over an hour to climb, you may need to use your hands on occasions to haul yourself up the rocks but please don’t be over-concerned – this is not mountaineering, the wall is not dangerous (I’ve never heard of anyone falling off it), and nor have I ever heard of anyone failing to complete it.

Umbwe day 3

At the summit of the wall the path drifts and meanders gently to the Karanga Valley, a gorgeous little place where malachite sunbirds flit from flower to flower. If we were on a seven-day trek we would find our campsite lies at the top of the other side of the valley, a stiff but short climb up from the Karanga stream. Both lunch and dinner will be served at this campsite. But for a six-day climb we still have another three hours or so to go as we traverse the southern side of Kibo, walking through a spectacular lunar landscape bereft of life on our way to Barafu Camp (4662m), on the south-eastern shoulder of Kibo.

Here we will rest, take lunch and dinner, and try to get some sleep before the rigours of the night ahead….

NIGHT 3/DAY 4: BARAFU CAMP TO SUMMIT AND DESCENT TO MWEKA HUTS/CAMPSITE

Distance: 4.86km to Uhuru Peak; then 11.5km descent to Mweka Camp Altitude Gained: 1233m to Uhuru Peak, then a descent of 2789m.

Barafu Huts to Uhuru Peak

Arising at around midnight, we begin our slow march up to Stella Point (5745m) on the edge of the Kibo crater. It’s a steep, slow, cold march and a test of your endurance – this is where you’ll earn your Kilimanjaro certificate. Nevertheless, providing you have avoided altitude sickness and have acclimatized well, there is no reason why you shouldn’t make it up to Stella Point. This we reach, all being well, at around 5am, though it can be much later depending on your condition.

Umbwe day 4

From Stella Point it is a mere 45 minutes further on, past glaciers and snowfields and with views over the Kibo Crater, to Uhuru Peak – at 5895m the highest point in Africa! Here, if we’re on time, we can watch the sun rise over the African continent, take photos – and take a breather too!

Uhuru Peak to Mweka Huts

After a rest at the top, we continue back down to Barafu Camp – a walk that is considerably quicker than it was on the way up! At Barafu we take breakfast and relax for an hour, before continuing our march down the mountain, this time on the Mweka Trail. Today’s walk takes us back down through the alpine desert, heath and moorland zones until we once more enter the forest zone via Millennium Camp (3827m).

A picture of Kilimanjaro's snow-topped Kibo summit, taken from near Millennium Camp on the Mweka descent route.

There, amongst the trees, we find the Mweka Campsite (3106m), our final stop on the trek. We should arrive there at about 4pm – and you have been walking for around 16 hours, less breaks! Exhausting but, if you made it to the top, you’ll think it was worth it!

Day 5: MWEKA CAMP TO MWEKA GATE

Distance: 9.1km; Altitude Lost: 1473m

Mweka Huts to Mweka Gate

It’s just a couple of hours further now from the campsite to Mweka Gate (c1633m), where those who made it to the summit or Stella Point will collect their certificates. A car will be waiting to take you back to your hotel, and a land of warm showers and cold beers. Your trek is at an end.

Umbwe day 5

UMBWE ROUTE GPS

For a file of GPS waypoints for all our routes, please click on the following link GPS Waypoints. This will take you to the relevant page on the website of Trailblazer Publications, who publish the Kilimanjaro guide. The file is in .gpx format, so you can download it straight onto your GPS.

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