Thanks to a hardcore climbing movie released in 2015, an obscure peak in the Indian Himalaya, that few people have ever climbed and not many more will ever see, is now the most famous Mount Meru in the world. But for many years a far more accessible and attainable peak of the same name in northern Tanzania was much more widely known.
I first became aware of the Tanzanian Mount Meru in 2002, during my first ascent of Kilimanjaro by the Shira Route. It lay 60km away to the west, and was visible for almost the entire climb, appearing as a perfect triangle poking up through the blanket of cloud beneath us.
At 4566m, Mount Meru is the 9th highest mountain in Africa, and a perfect acclimatisation peak for Kilimanjaro. I promised myself that if I ever returned to Kilimanjaro, I would climb Meru as well.
It took another 14 years for the ambition to be realised, but last month I finally got round to it.
Like Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru is a volcano, albeit one in an advanced state of decay. Its summit ridge is the remaining half of what must once have been a substantial crater rim. The other half has long since collapsed or eroded, leaving sheer cliffs on the inside rim. Beneath these cliffs is the circular ash cone, that is surprisingly well preserved.
Another interesting feature of Mount Meru is that it lies entirely within a major wildlife reserve, Arusha National Park. This means that you must be escorted by a park ranger with a gun to protect you from dangerous wildlife, but it’s a good way of combining trekking and safari for those who are interested in both. We spent just three days on the mountain, much of it above the treeline, but in that short period we saw cape buffalo, giraffes, warthogs, baboons and blue monkeys in reasonable numbers.
We met our ranger, Baraka, at the Momela Gate, the starting point for hikes up Meru. He was a cheerful character who appeared to enjoy our company, and ended up coming all the way to the summit with us. On our first evening in Miriakamba Huts he spent half an hour telling us about all the times he’d been charged by wild animals during his career. These included elephants (twice), a lion and a buffalo. On two occasions shots in the air warned the animal off, while others turned out to be mock charges. Although Baraka escaped all of these encounters unscathed, I’m guessing his underwear needed replacing each time.
On the way up to Saddle Huts on the second day, there was recent evidence of buffaloes descending dirt banks onto the trail. I was glad of the reassurance of having Baraka with us, and had even more respect for him when he allowed me to pick up his gun and discover it weighed 4½kg. That’s more than an oxygen cylinder.
Our safari began just five minutes into the hike when we broke out into green meadows, and saw giraffes, buffaloes and warthogs grazing only a few metres away from us. For most of the first day we passed in and out of forest as we ascended the lower flanks of Meru from the park gate at 1500m to the Miriakamba Huts at 2500m. It was quite a wet day as we ascended through the clouds, but all that was to change as we climbed higher.
We reached Miriakamba Huts at 4pm on the first afternoon, after only about three hours of walking. It was a luxurious place to spend the night of a trek – a peaceful setting in a clearing in the forest. There were only about half a dozen of us staying there in a place that could probably accommodate 50 to 100 people. Edita and I ended up in a private room containing four bunk beds with mattresses. There were a number of coat hooks, and before long we had our wet things hanging up on hooks and ladders. There was a nice clean toilet block with wash basin, and a large dining room with a balcony.
The balcony came into its own the following day when the morning started off clear. Immediately above the huts, thick forest covered the mountainside, and we were looking up into a natural amphitheatre, the remaining half of a once-gigantic crater. On the far side steep cliffs rose up to the summit. A small conical hill rose just in front of them. This was the ash cone that we hoped to look down into from the top. The right-hand side of the amphitheatre dropped down to the huts and formed a convenient forested ridge, providing access to the higher reaches of the mountain.
So much for the view in front of us; the one behind was also pretty special, looking out over the plains of Africa. A band of cloud hovered over the plains, but high above it rose Kibo, the summit cone of Kilimanjaro, a dazzling island in the clouds. I was conscious that not many people get to see that view, and I felt blessed to stand there that morning.
The majority of the second day was a 1000m climb through the forest to a broad saddle at 3500m between Mount Meru’s main summit ridge and its sister peak, Little Meru. It was a sunny day, and we had frequent glimpses out of the forest to Kilimanjaro on the horizon behind us. Soon Little Meru came into view, a small grassy knoll rising above the trees. It looked like it would be a good viewpoint.
As we approached the saddle we climbed through a large area of forest that had been burned to the ground. Baraka told us the fire had been started deliberately by poachers trying to smoke out bees – utter devastation all for the sake of a little honey.
We reached Saddle Huts at 1pm. We found them almost as comfortable as Miriakamba Huts, and again there were only a few of us staying there. Where Miriakamba had been a cosy setting in the forest, Saddle Huts were a bit bleaker, above the treeline on an open section of grassland perched on the saddle.
Later that afternoon, after lunch and a short snooze in our bunks, Edita and I set off with our guide Joseph for a short hike up Little Meru. We took a well-maintained trail winding through grassy undergrowth. A little distance above the huts I looked back to see all the way up to the main summit, about 1100m above us. A small grassy mound, Rhino Point, rose immediately above Saddle Huts, but behind it we could see the rocky summit curving round, one half of a collapsed crater.
The view lasted for only a few minutes before the clouds drifted across. It took us about an hour to reach the 3820m summit of Little Meru, where we found a large sign among the greenery, and some comfy rocks to sit down on while we waited for the view to clear. Although we could see down to the green-roofed huts on the saddle 300m below us, Meru remained firmly in cloud.
In Meru the film, about the other Mount Meru in India, the mountain is the source of some near-fatal climbing accidents. The Tanzanian Mount Meru is only a trek, so nothing like that was ever likely to happen, but just to make things harder for ourselves, we decided to set off at 1.15am, ensuring we completed the entire climb in darkness (a decision I expressed my opinion about last week). In addition to this, the mountain gods decreed there would be a biblical dust storm on Mount Meru that day.
The first hour was straightforward enough, if a little dull as we trudged up an easy trail above the vegetation line to Rhino Point. Beyond Rhino Point we had to scramble back down 100m over rocks. Chains had been attached to the rocks to provide a handrail, but they hardly seemed necessary in the darkness.
The rest of the climb was monotonous. We ascended a dusty ridge until dawn came at 6am, but we could see nothing of our surroundings. For much of the ascent we kept to the right of the ridgeline. This proved a blessing, as it provided some shelter from the fierce easterly wind that gradually increased in intensity the higher we climbed. On the regular occasions we emerged onto the ridge we were struck by its full force, manifesting itself as a cloud of volcanic ash. In the darkness it felt like we were climbing into the teeth of a blizzard. We cowered in our hoods and kept our heads down until we dropped below the ridge again.
Occasionally we stopped for water, but it was too cold to remain still for long, so we had to keep moving. This meant that we were making better time than Baraka and Joseph had estimated. For the majority of the ascent I believed that we were certain to reach the summit before dawn, but we slowed down to counter this risk. At one point we even stopped to wait for daylight, but we gave up on this idea after only a few minutes when we started shivering.
Just short of the summit the lights of Arusha appeared far below us to the right. This was a bit of a shock. For three days we had been climbing through the wild forests of a national park, oblivious to the fact that Tanzania’s third largest city, with a population of nearly half a million people, lay directly beneath us on the other side of the mountain.
The ridge steepened up the final rocky pyramid, and we arrived on the summit at exactly six o’clock.
The view from the top of Mount Meru was unexpectedly impressive. Perhaps the most interesting feature was the ash cone, nearly a thousand metres below us. We were looking straight down at its circular hole disappearing into the earth. It’s currently dormant, but one day it will reawaken. We were standing on the remaining half of the outer crater, and could look back at the ridge we had ascended, curling back round as it dropped gently to the saddle where we began the night. Behind the saddle the gentle green of Little Meru was an attractive feature.
To the east Kilimanjaro took up practically the entire horizon, but it looked a benign mountain, wide and gentle. Its red outline marked the sun about to rise. When we first arrived, all the scene I’ve just described was painted grey, but as we waited on the summit for half an hour, our teeth chattering in the cold, we watched it light up in various shades of orange. Meanwhile as the sun rose, the shadow of Mount Meru was cast across the horizon to the west. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon of watching the shadow of the mountain I’m standing on countless times now, and it always thrills me. There on the very tip of the dark triangle I know there must be my own shadow too. It was cold up there, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable, but it’s these things I will remember.
For some reason the wind wasn’t as evident on the summit, but its full force pounded us again on the way down. In fact, it picked up to a ludicrous degree. Most of the time we kept to the left of the ridge, but when we broke out onto the crest, we were flayed by dust and fine pebbles, a dust storm of volcanic ash. I had to blink constantly to clear it from my eyes. There were times when I needed to stop still and wait with my eyes closed for a gust to pass. In other places when the wind was constant, the only way to make progress was to squint with one eye closed and a gloved hand up to my face. Some of the others stopped to put their sun glasses on, but I knew that would be little help in conditions like these. I have never experienced anything like it.
Eventually Joseph, Edita and I decided the best way was just to get down as quickly as possible. I started scree-running down the volcanic ash, and the others followed me. We caught up with Baraka, who also started running when he saw us approach, but towards the bottom he stopped and pointed behind us, to remind us where we were. We could see the sheer cliffs beneath Mount Meru’s summit, and the ash cone very close to our left.
I had to suffer one final discomfort when I stopped to film Edita scrambling up the chains to Rhino Point. I dropped my camera, and watched it slowly roll 20m over the tufted grass of a bank, then linger for a few seconds on the edge of a 20m cliff, before finally plunging over. Luckily Joseph was able to climb down the cliff and recover it. I was expecting the camera to be in 4566 pieces, but it was only badly dented. By a miracle it still worked, and it lasted for another seven days on Kilimanjaro.
Speaking of which, we enjoyed fantastic views of Africa’s highest mountain as we descended back to the Momela Gate that day. They filled us with anticipation for the greater climb ahead of us, which we were well acclimatised for now that we’d been up to 4566m already. More about that next week.
If you’re thinking of climbing Kilimanjaro, then I heartily recommend a three or four day hike up Mount Meru first. It’s something I won’t forget in a hurry. You can see my complete photo album of our climb on Flickr.
If you’re still wavering then here’s a short video of our ascent to tempt you further. Try not to think about the biblical dust storm that appears a few seconds from the end. That was just for our benefit; I’m sure the mountain gods will be kinder when you climb it.