The best and worst campsites on Kilimanjaro

By our reckoning there are around 25official campsites on Africa’s highest mountain, as well as several unofficial ones that are still used regularly by tour operators but which have yet to receive official sanction from the park authorities, KINAPA.

Admittedly, the locations of the campsites on Kilimanjaro are usually chosen for practical reasons: because they are near a water source, for example, or because they just happen to be a convenient day’s walk from the previous campsite. But we like to think that many locations were selected, at least in part, on their aesthetic qualities too.

Here, then, are our own personal top five campsites on Kilimanjaro:

Mawenzi Tarn Campsite, End of Day 3, Rongai Route (with Mawenzi diversion).

There are several reasons why we like this place so much. It’s quiet, for one thing: the Rongai Route is not one of the more popular trails, and even those who do take it don’t always visit Mawenzi Tarn, preferring instead for the more direct route up to  Third Cave.

It’s quite pretty, too, with the campsite lying adjacent to the Tarn itself – which, admittedly, is little more than an ambitious puddle – while behind them both loom the jagged slopes and peaks of Kili’s second summit, Mawenzi.

Traditionally those who stay at Mawenzi Tarn Camp arrive early, too, having walked only 2.3 miles/3.75km from the previous campsite, Kikelelwa. But it’s still a fairly arduous climb, as you ascend the slopes of Mawenzi, so you arrive at Mawenzi Tarn feeling both tired and relieved to have finished the stage. But, refreshed and relaxed after lunch, it’s usual for trekkers to take an ‘acclimatisation walk’ in the afternoon, and the campsite offers plenty of possibilities for exploration, whether round Mawenzi itself or, just a few minutes away, to a viewpoint with per haps the best view on the whole of Kili, westwards down across the barren Saddle to the main Kibo summit.

2) Mandara Huts, End of Day 1, Marangu Route.

Bit of a controversial choice, perhaps, for few people actually camp here at all. Instead, walkers on the Marangu Route sleep in the dormitories that have been built here.

But it’s not the accommodation that leads us to rate this campsite so highly, but the nature that surrounds it. For, situated at the upper reaches of the forest, the Mandara Huts lives cheek-by-jowl to a troop of blue monkeys that have made the trees their home for many years now. There’s also a semi-tame colobus monkey that occasionally drops in, and tree hyraxes also scuttle across the roofs of the huts in the night.

Add to this the fact that the Maundi Crater is nearby – home to a wealth of wild flowers, some of which can’t be found easily, if at all, on the slopes of Kili – and you have a really pleasant destination at the end of your first day on the trail.

3)  Umbwe Cave, End of Day 1, Umbwe Route. 

This is another campsite which scores highly with us, mainly because of its solitude. Those fortunate souls who managed to ignore the warnings from other, less knowledgeable operators (one wonders how many of these agents and operators have actually taken the Umbwe Route themselves? Not many, I’d wager, given the ignorance and misinformation that surrounds this trail) and have actually tackled the Umbwe Route will know just how peaceful and beautiful this trail is. And spending a night in the forest with no other trekking parties around is a rare treat on Kilimanjaro; indeed, this is the only campsite where your chances of doing so are greater than 50:50.

But it’s not just the solitude that’s so appealing. The situation, perched on a ridge with a small stream running below, is gorgeous. And because it is so quiet, so of course the camp is less despoiled than most others too; in fact, though there is a toilet block at Umbwe Cave, it can feel like you’ve just made camp among the trees rather than at an official, designated campsite.

With one of the best day’s walking on the mountain to follow the next day, the Umbwe Cave Campsite really is a place to savour.

4) Shira 1, End of Day 2, Lemosho/Alternative Route.

We thought we’d give this place a spot on our list even though it’s not the most attractive of campsites, nor one with particularly good facilities.

Indeed, the main attraction of Shira 1 occurs not at the campsite itself, but a few minutes before it when, having spent the entire day on the Lemosho Route (or Alternative Lemosho Route) climbing up the western slopes of Kilimanjaro, you finally get to see your ultimate destination, the magnificent, snowy Kibo summit, straight ahead of you for the first time. Manage, eventually, to tear your gaze away from it, and set your sights a little lower, and you’ll see, nestled in the hollow below the Shira Ridge that you’re currently standing on) the colourful canvas roofs of the Shira 1 Campsite.

5) School Huts, end of days 3, 4, 5 or 6, Rongai Route and Alternative Lemosho Route.

Yes it’s cold up here, and quite bleak, and there’s not much to do up here. But the big advantage with School Huts, situated on the lower slopes of Kibo , is that it’s not Barafu (see below) – and for that reason alone it deserves both credit – and our undying gratitude. For while both act as a basecamp from which to launch an assault on the summit, School Huts has the advantage of being much quieter and with better views out across the Saddle towards Mawenzi.

So while you may be feeling dreadful when you arrive here – you are, after all, at 4717m/15,476ft now, so altitude sickness may well be having an effect – you can thank your lucky stars that at least you’re not at Barafu.

And our least favourite?

Given the above, you may be unsurprised to discover that our least favourite campsite is Barafu. When you’re descending from the summit the camp actually seems quite appealing; it is, after all, the first place where you can first take a proper rest after walking through the night. But as you get closer and closer to Barafu, the sheer vastness of the place takes your breath away. It actually takes about ten minutes just to walk through it these days.

It’s also ramshackle, disorganised, chilly, noisy and chaotic; less campsite for tourists, more refugee camp. It’s even spawned its own ugly sibling, Kosovo Camp, which some companies advertise as being somehow superior, but which is essentially just Barafu without proper facilities.

With the call of Mweka Camp echoing from the valley below, it’s a rare person who, having got the summit, spends more than an hour or two here. Just long enough to chat smugly to those who’ve yet to get to the top….

So what’s your choice?

As I write this, I can hear the cry from many Kili trekkers who disagree with my selection.

“Where’s the Crater Camp?” I hear them cry (though this is actually one of my least favourite campsites, and I’ll write about why I think this in the next post).

What about the Barranco Camp and its magnificent backdrop of the Barranco/Breakfast Wall? (And, well, it’s hard to argue that its setting is quite magnificent. Unfortunately, the over-crowding, and the robberies that occur from people’s tents here more than anywhere else on the mountain, mean that this place currently holds a position nearer the bottom of the pile rather than the top.

And I haven’t even mentioned the terrible maintenance of the facilities the last time I visited, with toilet doors off their hinges and the floor of one entire toilet block awash with urine, faecal matter and other bodily secretions that no hiking boot should ever have to sully its sole, and indeed soul, with.) 

Nevertheless, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my list, and if you think there’s another campsite deserves a mention on the list.