Has Kilimanjaro’s most popular route become too popular?

For over a decade now the Machame Route has been Kilimanjaro’s most popular trail. According to the most recent figures given to us by KINAPA, 20,339 trekkers used the Machame Route in their attempt to reach the summit in one year. That figure represents a massive 43% of the total number of trekkers on Kili that year. In other words, it’s getting to the point where the Machame Route sees as many trekkers on it in one year as all the other routes combined. 

It’s not difficult to see why the trail is so popular. For one thing, it’s cheaper than a lot of other routes. Machame Gate, the start of the trail, is closer to the main Arusha-Moshi highway compared to the starting points of other trails such as Rongai or Lemosho, so transport costs are less. It’s also a route that can be fairly comfortably completed in six days, and given that shorter climbs are cheaper, so Machame Routes are often less expensive than other, more protracted climbs that last seven days or more.

Then there’s its high success rate. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, there’s something about the route’s altitude profile that means that comparatively more people reach the top on this route than on that other popular six-day route, Marangu.

Then, of course, there’s its beauty. Beginning on the south-western side of the mountain, the path passes through some of the mountain’s finest features, including the cloud forest of Kili’s southern slopes, the dry and dusty Shira Plateau and the delightful groundsel-clad Barranco Campsite. Furthermore, you have a choice of ascent routes to the summit with thrill-seekers opting for the daunting Western Breach Route, while the majority head for the lengthy, long-winded climb up the Barafu Trail, with Rebmann Glacier edging into your field of vision on your left as dawn breaks behind Mawenzi on your right. Furthermore, unlike the Marangu Route, on Machame you don’t use the same path to descend but instead you come down via the Mweka Route, a steep but pretty trail encompassing inhospitably dry mountain desert and lush lowland forest in a matter of a few hours.

So what’s the problem?

But it has to be said that, in the last few years, the Machame Route has started to become a victim of its own success. Often at busy times of the year, a walk on this path can feel like you’re just joining one long queue of people marching to the summit. This is particularly true on the day leading to Barafu Campsite, where the views of the path ahead are extensive – and so you’ll be able to see just how many people are sharing the route with you, as a seemingly endless line of tourists and porters snakes off towards the horizon. It also means that at the famous Barranco Wall (aka the Breakfast Wall) – an hour-long section of the trail where you actually have to do a bit of scrambling – you may have to wait for ten minutes or more as those ahead of you struggle to haul their carcasses over the rocks.

Indications that the mountain’s infrastructure is also struggling to cope with the numbers on Machame are also evident. The last time I climbed on the trail the toilets at the campsites were in a parlous state. This is particularly true at Barranco Campsite where one of the toilet doors was missing and two others were hanging off their hinges. This meant that those using the facilities would have to prop the door up and pray that nobody else would come along while they were squatting – which, of course, being such a busy campsite, was often a prayer that wasn’t answered.

The sheer number of people on the trail also inevitably led to a rise in the amount of litter on the trail. The authorities do their best to clean up the mountain, but when you have so many tourists on one route, not to mention all their porters, guides and other crew members, an increase in the amount of rubbish they leave behind is inevitable, and some of it – such as the disgusting blobs of used toilet roll behind every large boulder that sits beside the path – is difficult to clean up.

So while we aren’t saying that people taking the Machame Route in high season will have their trek ruined, it is also true to say that these people aren’t exactly seeing the mountain at its best, and aren’t getting the best possible experience. When you climb almost any mountain, one of the things you’re hoping for is a chance to have a bit of a ‘wilderness experience’ –  the opportunity to  see and experience the unique alpine flora and fauna and take some time away from an urban environment and ‘get back to nature’. On the Machame Route, in high season at least, that ambition can be severely compromised.

So what can you do about it?

There are a couple of obvious remedies. Firstly, of course, you can choose a different, less popular routes. In a previous post we sang the praises of the Umbwe Route and suggested that, by taking an ‘acclimatisation day’ at Barranco Camp, you can pretty much match the altitude profile (and thus, hopefully, have just as good a chance of getting to the summit) at Machame. (True, after a couple of days the Umbwe and Machame routes share the same path; but at least for the first two days up to Barranco Campsite you’ll be able to appreciate the loneliness and tranquillity that only Umbwe can provide.)  And as the start of the Umbwe Route is even closer to the Moshi-Arusha Road, there’s no reason why it should be any more expensive either. The Rongai Route, too, is another short route with a fine success rate but far fewer crowds – though you may have to pay a couple of hundred dollars more to go on this path.

Another way to avoid the crowds on Machame is, of course, to avoid the high season. September, in particular, is always a very busy month, though January, February, July and August are not far behind. We have always recommended March and October for a Kili climb (visit our Best time to climb page for more information), as these months (usually) still have good weather, but see far fewer people.

But, of course, for many of you, you may have already booked your trek, and you booked the Machame Route for it, and happen to be going in high season too. In which case, maybe try asking your guide if you can get up a little earlier than the other groups at your campsite each day. This will hopefully mean you can set off on the trail a little earlier too – and thus avoid the worst of the crowds on the trail at least (and you get to choose the best location at the next campsite too).  Hiring a private toilet for your trek may also be a good idea at this time, so you have an alternative to the public toilets, should these once again be in a terrible state when you visit.

In Conclusion

It needs to be emphasised that any climb on Kilimanjaro is worth it – and just because the Machame Route can be blighted by crowds at certain times of year doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy yourself on the trail. We still think you’ll have fun. But at certain times of year Machame is a little too busy, which can have a negative impact on your experience. At these times we suggest possibly opting for an alternative trail, or, if that’s impossible, adopting some of the tactics outlined in the previous paragraph in order to guarantee that your trek is as good as it possibly could be.