..."it is easy to forget about Covid for a week."
During a largely forgettable year, some decided to make it memorable despite the additional challenges they faced. Here is how they fared, and why it might be a surprisingly good time to make that Kilimanjaro dream come true.
If you've climbed Kilimanjaro during high season, you know it's busy, it can be crowded, even noisy. If you arrive late to camp, no matter how hard your team works to secure the ideal spot on the mountainside, they may not have a great location for you.
Climbing under Covid-19
The title of this piece is taken from a comment from Sianna S., who summitted the mountain seven years after I did. Here's what she had to say about her journey.
“2020. A year of restrictions, cancellations and postponements. But if you are thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro, this is not the moment to hesitate! For now, due to the lack of many tourists, it is the time where you can fully enjoy the remoteness and tranquility of the mountain.” Said Sianna S, who recently climbed with Just Kilimanjaro. She went on to explain that she and her 57 year old father saw that “after many months without any tours, you could feel the whole crew was highly motivated and so happy to be back on the mountain. I can definitely recommend trekking up Kilimanjaro as a safe holiday alternative far from many people, where it is easy to forget about Covid for a week.”
Okay. Let's talk about this, particularly if you've put your plans on hold this year.
While it might be very tempting for armchair Covid quarterbacks to shame folks who have taken the plunge to put this climb on their agenda during a year when so many of us are grounded, let's please take a moment to consider.
First, the airlines are doing everything they can to ensure safe passage, perhaps more so right now than they ever have. In addition, many airlines have made cancelling or changing plans free of charge, which given what these two women had to say, is hugely helpful:
“We had some challenges with flights due to Covid 19, but, fortunately, we were able to make it! From day one our company had our best interests in mind and cared for us every step of the way. The crew wore masks, kept social distance, and sanitized regularly to keep us feeling safe”, said Julie S, who climbed Kili with Pristine Trails, joined by her daughter to celebrate her 56th birthday.
The airlines want you to fly. That said, they have made sweeping changes not just to how they sweep the plane's surfaces for germs, but the expensive and dunning costs of sometimes inevitable last-minute plan shifts are gone. GONE. That could be hundreds of dollars in fees saved, all to make sure you get where you need to go. That said, if you do choose to book, always leave a few extra days' grace just in case.
Tanzania opened its borders on June 1st 2020 and welcomed tourists back into the country. In May, the Ministry of Tourism established its National Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for tourism-related companies. The Kilimanjaro National Park also defined their Handling Procedures of Tourists during the Outbreak of COVID-19. Furthermore, the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) and their Partner companies created a special SOP committee and outlined additional criteria for the Covid safety and education of the mountain crew. The KPAP Partner companies were provided with handouts, in Swahili (the predominant language of Tanzania), on mask application, proper handwashing, Covid education and protection. Due to its commitment to safety, KPAP added these SOPs to its regular monitoring activities of the Partner companies’ treatment standards towards their crew.
Here’s what one of the Partner companies had to say:
“To combat the pandemic, we implemented all of the requirements set out by the government to safeguard the health of every client. We also worked very hard with KPAP to develop new standard operating procedures to protect our Kilimanjaro crews. This gave our management team the confidence to continue with our climbing operations instead of shutting down.
Our clients were welcome to come on their scheduled trips or, if they wanted to postpone, they could do so with no penalty. We offered total flexibility. As a result, we conducted group climbs with just a few people, sometimes at a financial loss or breakeven. But we felt it was crucial to keep the staff working to provide income during these difficult times.” Tumaini Anatoly – Peak Planet Operations Manager
Training all year and bummed because your butt is on the couch? Maybe you don't have to be.
A number of people turned this time of low tourist turnout into an opportunity to enjoy the mountain without the usual crowds:
“Our team was professional and prepared for every situation. We made it to the summit! But we also left with friendships and memories that run deeper than just trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro. These memories include people, relationships, laughter, and sincere heartfelt kindness and warmth between human beings during a time when COVID says you cannot do this”, explained Ben B. when speaking about his climb with Summit Expeditions & Nomadic Experiences.
Six of the climbers who contributed to the article are parent/child duos, which is a very special opportunity. Not only did these people get a chance to bond, but the porters and guides are immensely grateful for the work. The some twenty thousand porters, whose livelihoods support up to one hundred extended family members each, count on the income from these climbs.
This past climbing season, May to November, most porters didn't get regular work. With volunteer efforts, generous donations and collaboration with the Partner companies, KPAP launched a series of efforts to provide interim support for the porter community. That said, here's what one climber revealed about what his adventure taught him about the local community:
“I’m writing this in October 2020, deep into the corona virus pandemic. Traveling is severely restricted and for the most part, very few people have summited the mountain in the past 6 months.
Climbing Kilimanjaro sustains the local community. I don’t think I fully appreciated this point before I was there. There are tons of people that rely on this as their main source of income - the chefs, porters, guides, trekking agencies and all of the local hotels, restaurants, food producers, merchants etc. The people were so grateful, not only to be able to return to the work that they love but also to be able to have their industry and livelihood supported financially.” wrote Kallum L on his travel blog, after having climbed with 360 Expeditions.
Ultimately, if you really want to immerse yourself in one of the finest adventures to be had, it's hard to beat Kilimanjaro. Not only are the companies completely dedicated to getting you to the base of the mountain safely and securely, they are also dedicated to having you get as close to the top and back down not only in one piece but with the peace that can only be had when you can get away from the world's insanity for a while. To that:
“In the most interesting and memorable year of our lives, an October 2020 visit to Tanzania and climb of Kilimanjaro provided an incredible escape, both in our heart and minds. Our porters and staff were as caring for our well-being as we were for theirs. It will be hard to not think of the year 2020 as a forgettable one for sure, wrote Jon and Nyla V. about their climb with Duma Explorer.
If you're energized by these folks' stories, please consider climbing Kilimanjaro with a KPAP Partner company. Please see:
They are dedicated to the safety and welfare of the porter community. As you can see from the above, when the porters are healthy, safe and happy, so will you be. The immense joy of standing under the famed sign is triple-underscored by the folks who helped get you there: well-fed, well-protected, and in excellent company.
Interested? Please consider reviewing this before you make your plans:
With airlines taking extra precautions, the climbing companies eager to do the right thing by you and by their crews, this is one place where you might well be safer than many others. The windswept breathtaking slopes of this great mountain are incredibly quiet these days. Which is why, as someone who knows what it's like to feel almost alone on this amazing journey, as Sianna S. says above:
this is not the moment to hesitate!
See you at the top.