Is the Machame Route too popular?
Has Kilimanjaro’s busiest route become too busy?
For over a decade now the Machame trail has been Kilimanjaro’s most popular trail. According to the latest figures given to us by KINAPA, 20,339 trekkers used Machame in in one year. That figure represents a massive 43% of the total number of trekkers on Kili that year. In other words, the Machame Route now sees almost as many trekkers each year as all the other routes combined. So is the Machame Route too popular?
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 than other routes, so transport costs are less. It’s also a route that can be fairly comfortably completed in six days, and a shorter route is a cheaper route.Which is why it’s less expensive than Lemosho, for example, which typically takes 8 days.
A beautiful route that also has a high success rate
Then there’s its high success rate. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, there’s something about Machame’s altitude profile that allows people to acclimatise better. This means that comparatively more people get to the top on Machame 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. These include the cloud forest of Kili’s southern slopes, and the dry and dusty Shira Plateau. There’s also the delightful groundsel-clad Barranco Campsite.
Furthermore, you have a choice of ascent routes to the summit. Thrill-seekers tend to opt for the daunting Western Breach Route. But for most of us, the lengthy, long-winded climb up the Barafu Trail is excitement enough. It’s a beautiful way to the summit, with Rebmann Glacier edging into your field of vision on your left as dawn breaks behind Mawenzi on your right.
Furthermore, on the Marangu Route you use the same path to descend that you took coming up. But on Machame you descend via the Mweka Route. It’s a steep but pretty trail encompassing inhospitably dry mountain desert and lush lowland forest in just a few hours.
So what’s the problem with an overcrowded Machame Route?
But we must admit that, for several years now, Machame has become a victim of its own success. In the high season, the path becomes one long queue of people marching to the summit. This is particularly true on the day leading to Barafu Campsite. On this day the views of the path ahead are extensive. As a result, you’ll be able to see just how many people are sharing the route with you.
And what you’ll see is a seemingly endless line of tourists and porters snakes off towards the horizon.
It also means that queues form at the famous Barranco Wall (aka the Breakfast Wall). This an hour-long section of the trail where you actually have to do a bit of scrambling. But now those who start late in the day may have to wait for ten minutes or more as those ahead of you struggle to haul their carcasses over the rocks.
With the crowds comes the litter and the damage
The mountain’s infrastructure is also struggling to cope with the numbers on Machame. 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 Trail 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. True, you may have to pay a couple of hundred dollars more to go on this path. But most people will think it’s worth it to avoid overcrowded Machame.
If you’re worried Machame is too busy, then avoid climbing when everyone else does
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. What’s more, you booked the Machame Route for that trek. Even worse, you happen to be going in high season too! But don’t despair, for there are still tricks you can try to avoid the crowds. Maybe try asking your guide if you can set off a little earlier than the other parties each day. This should mean you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds on the trail at least . Plus you also 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. That way, you’ll have an alternative to the public toilets, should these once again be in a terrible state when you visit.
So is the Machame Route overcrowded?
It needs to be emphasised that any climb on Kilimanjaro is worth it. But yes, it is true that Machame is too busy at certain times of year. Indeed, at Kili Experts we often advise our climbers to look at another route , at least in the peak season. But doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy yourself on the trail. We still think you’ll have fun. And besides, this article was written before COVID was a thing. Since the worldwide pandemic, no route is too busy! So if you’re reading this when COVID restrictions are still in place, and you’re free to head to Tanzania, then you should be fine and you’ll have a relatively empty trail. So even if you’re booked on the Machame Route in peak season, don’t worry.
But if you’re worried that Machame is too busy, and this will have a negative impact on your experience, there are solutions. Possibly opt for an alternative trail? Or if that’s impossible, adopt some of the tactics outlined above. That way, you’ll ensure that your trek is as good as it possibly could be.