Do you know the old song Nine to Five from the old movie of the same name? “Working nine to five, what a way to make a living…”. Well, the picture you see above is a close up of a number of porters making their living, slowly crawling up Barranco Wall, at approximately 4000 m (13,123 ft) altitude, carrying bulky loads of 30 pounds/15 kg (or more). Their way to make a living makes “nine to five” sound like paradise. Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most fascinating places I have visited. Its striking beauty is undeniable. Paradoxically, so are its rough, seriously inhospitable conditions. So one of the most admirable things I saw during my seven-day visit, was the pride, physical strength, positive attitude, perseverance and work ethics of the porters, cooks and guides that make up the crews who will support each climbing team throughout its stay on the mountain.
The chance to work as a porter and, after much more experience, training, and gaining foreign language skills, a cook or a guide, is treasured in the communities around Kilimanjaro, where jobs are not easy to come by. According to National Geographic, porters are usually paid from three to six dollars per day, a wage that is significantly supplemented by tips. During the climbing season, young men (women porters are very rare) gather outside the gates of the park, hoping for an opportunity.
For those who have already been scheduled for a trip, the day starts with assembling inside the park, at the beginning of the trail, where load is distributed and packed. My group consisted of three climbers. We had a crew of eleven porters, one cook, one assistant cook, one guide and one assistant guide. So, a 5 to 3 ratio. The government of Tanzania estimates that every year some 25,000 to 30,000 people attempt to reach Kilimanjaro’s highest point, Uhuru Peak. Are you doing the maths?
Yes, that would mean between 125,000 to 150,000 support jobs on the mountain alone.
Once the crew and responsibilities are defined, the routine is established. Each day, guides will stay with climbers while porters and cooks will go in front and set up camp so that shelter and food are ready when climbers arrive. The next morning, the crew will be up early to take down tents, boil water, make breakfast and pack lunches for the trail. Forget nine to five. They are the first ones to get up and the last ones to go to bed no matter how many hours go by in between. I bet you love your job by now…
The Kilimanjaro National Park authorities as well as many Kilimanjaro tour operators have established a number of policies to ensure working in Kilimanjaro is safe. Appropriate clothing, shoes and gear are required and there are limits to the load porters are supposed to carry. Still, people die in the mountain, particularly more inexperienced porters, hypothermia being the most common cause of death. I am happy to report that everyone who started our trek finished it safely.
On the last day, a brief celebration of a successful climb and a job done well, and with profound dedication.
Resources to plan your own Kilimanjaro trek
Many have written accounts of their Kilimanjaro ascents with day by day reports that can be really useful if you are planning your own trip. One of my favorites is David McDowell’s detailed narrative of his trip on the Lemosho route. All I will say is yes, it was very difficult, yes, you do need to be physically fit no matter what they tell you, and yes, it was worth it. To know more about gear, preparation and a day-by-day itinerary for the Machame Route, please see my earlier posts: Guide, Gear and Guts: Getting Ready for Mount Kilimanjaro and Kilimanjaro through the Machame Route: The Plan. If you are looking for a local guide, Amanyisye Naiman, the lead guide to my group was really outstanding. You can contact him through e-mail: email@example.com. For more photos of Kilimanjaro, go to Sights from Kilimanjaro. If you are interested in the gorgeous exotic vegetation of Kilimanjaro, you may enjoy Flowers of Kilimanjaro. I thank my guides, cooks and porters for a remarkable experience. May Kilimanjaro keep you all safe in its mighty arms!