Mt Meru starts its steep rise from a circular base some 20km across at 2000m. At about 2500m some of the wall has broken away so the top half of the mountain is shaped like a giant horseshoe. The cliffs of the inner wall below the summit are more than 1500m high: among the tallest in Africa. Inside the crater, more recent volcanic eruptions have created a subsidiary peak called the Ash Cone that adds to the scenic splendour.
The Momella Route is the only route up Mt Meru. It starts at Momella gate on the eastern side of the mountain and goes to the summit along the northern arm of the horseshoe crater. The route can be done comfortably in four days (three nights). Trekkers aren’t allowed to begin after 3pm, which means that if you travel to the park by bus you’ll almost certainly have to camp and wait until the next day to start climbing.
While Meru is small compared with Kilimanjaro, don’t underestimate it: because of the steepness, many have found that Meru is almost as difficult a climb. And it’s still high enough to make the effects of altitude felt, so don’t try to rush up if you’re not properly acclimatized.
Stage 1: Momella Gate to Miriakamba Hut (10km, four to five hours, 1000m ascent) There are two routes, one long and one short, at the start of the climb. Most people prefer taking the mostly forested long route up and the short route down, so that’s how the trek is described here. And do watch out for buffaloes… From Momella gate, the road winds uphill for an hour to Fig Tree Arch, a parasitic wild fig that originally grew around two other trees, eventually strangling them. Now only the fig tree remains, with its distinctive arch large enough to drive a car through. After another hour the track crosses a large stream, just above Maio Falls and one hour further you’ll reach Kitoto Camp, with excellent views over the Momella Lakes and out to Kilimanjaro in the distance. It’s then one final hour to Miriakamba Hut (2514m). From Miriakamba you can walk to the Meru Crater floor (a two- to three-hour return trip) either in the afternoon of Stage 1 or during Stage 4 (there is time to do it on the morning of Stage 2, but this is a bad idea as it reduces your time for acclimitisation), but you need to let your guide know you want to do this before starting the climb. The path across the floor leads to Njeku Viewpoint on a high cliff overlooking a waterfall, with excellent views of the Ash Cone and the entire extent of the crater.
Stage 2: Miriakamba Hut to Saddle Hut (4km, three to five hours, 1250m ascent) From Miriakamba the path climbs steeply up through pleasant glades to reach Topela Mbogo (Buffalo Swamp) after 45 minutes and Mgongo Wa Tembo (Elephant Ridge) after another 30 minutes. From the top of Mgongo Wa Tembo there are great views down into the crater and up to the main cliffs below the summit. Continue through some open grassy clearings and over several stream beds (usually dry) to Saddle Hut (3570m). From Saddle Hut a side trip to the summit of Little Meru (3820m) takes about an hour and gives impressive views of Meru’s summit, the horseshoe crater, the top of the Ash Cone and the sheer cliffs of the crater’s inner wall. As the sun sets behind Meru, casting huge jagged shadows across the clouds, the snows on Kili turn orange and then pink as the light fades.
Stage 3: Saddle Hut to Meru Summit and return (5km, four to five hours, 816m ascent, plus 5km, two to three hours, 816m descent) This stage, along a very narrow ridge between the outer slopes of the mountain and the sheer cliffs of the inner crater, promises some of the most dramatic and exhilarating trekking anywhere in East Africa. During the rainy season, ice and snow can occur on this section of the route, so take care. If there’s no mist, the views from the summit are spectacular. If you’re looking forward to watching the sunrise behind Kilimanjaro, but you’re not keen on attempting this section in the dark, the views at dawn are just as impressive from Rhino Point (3814m), about an hour from Saddle Hut, as they are from the summit, perhaps even more so because you’ll also see the main cliffs of the crater’s inner wall being illuminated by the rising sun.
Stage 4: Saddle Hut to Momella Gate (5km, three to five hours, 2250m descent) From Saddle Hut, retrace the Stage 2 route to Miriakamba. From Miriakamba, the short path descends gradually down the ridge directly to Momella gate. It goes through forest some of the way, then open grassland, where giraffes and zebras are often seen.
Costs Trekking companies in both Arusha and Moshi organise treks on Mt Meru. Most charge from US$450 to US$750 for four days. That said, you can do things quite easily on your own for around US$380 for a four-day, three-night trek. You’ll also need to add in the costs of food (which you should get in Arusha, as there’s nowhere to stock up near the park), and of transport to and from the park.
The following are the minimum per-person costs:
Park entrance: US$45 per day
Hut fees: US$30 per day
Rescue fee: US$20 per trip
Guide fees: US$15 per day.
Park rangers receive a fixed monthly salary for their work, and get no additional payment from the park for guiding, which means that tips are much appreciated. It happens rarely, but rangers and porters here occasionally expect the big tips demanded by their Kilimanjaro counterparts. If this happens and you’re already on the trail, work out an arrangement to keep going, and then report them to headquarters when you get down the mountain.For a good guide who has completed the full trek with you, plan on a tip of about US$50 per group. Cook and porter tips should be around US$30 and US$20 respectively. Tip more with top-end companies.
Guides and porters
A ranger-guide is mandatory and can be arranged at Momella gate. Unlike on Kilimanjaro, guides on Meru are regular park rangers whose purpose is to assist (and protect) you in case you meet some of the park’s buffaloes or elephants, rather than to show you the way, although they do know the route. If there’s a shortage of rangers, which is often, you may end up in a larger group than you hoped for. Optional porters are also available at Momella gate. The charge is US$10 per porter per day and this is paid directly to them at the end of the trek. They come from one of the nearby villages and are not park employees so you’ll also need to pay their park entrance (Tsh1500 per day) and hut (Tsh2000 per night) fees at Momella gate before starting to trek. Porters will carry rucksacks weighing up to 20kg (excluding their own food and clothing).
There are two blocks of four-bed bunkhouses (‘huts’) spaced for a four-day trek. Especially during the July-August and December-January high seasons, they’re often full, so book ahead. It’s also a good idea to carry a tent (though if you camp, you’ll still need to pay hut fees). Each bunkhouse has a cooking and eating area; bring your own stove and fuel.