This post is a review of the tour company that we used for our Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing expedition. If you missed the post of the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro, you can read it here.
In terms of planning, our honeymoon was probably the least-planned trip that we ever took. When we took off from JFK, all we had was our round trip airfare, our Kenyan visas, and a hotel reservation for the first two nights. We did a fair amount of research beforehand and had an idea of what might happen, but we decided to do the actual bookings when we were actually in the town.
Booking ahead and online is possible, but difficult and expensive. For one thing, much of the information and potential companies are not readily available online. Many tour companies are simply not online or don’t appear when you do an online search (poor SEO?). We were amazed when we arrived in Moshi for Mt. Kilimanjaro just how many tour companies there were and we had heard of very few of them.
The other difficulty with booking from overseas is that getting a hold of them is not easy. Internet (and electricity) is often down. They don’t promptly respond to email, or even answer them at all (even the big, well-known, and expensive companies). Calling them doesn’t always work because 1) the phone number might not listed, 2) the number is wrong (happens more often than you think should happen to a company whose livelihood depends on customers finding them), 3) if you can call them, but they don’t pick up, you may not be able to leave a message, and 4) if you are able to leave a message, they probably won’t call you back. Establishing communication isn’t easy.
We tried a few times to call or email to get info, but after not hearing anything from anyone and learning from travel forums that we could get the best prices by booking in person at the tour company, we decided to book our trip in Moshi. Unlike Machu Picchu, where you have to book at least six months in advance, it appeared as if just showing up wouldn’t be a problem.
The availability of Mt. Kilimanjaro trips is plentiful. There truly is no problem with showing up in Moshi the day before you want to leave and booking a trip when you arrive. When our shuttle finally arrived in Moshi (after an all day travel), we were immediately accosted by hustlers who swarmed around us and besieged us with questions of whether we had booked a trip to Kili yet, or if we wanted to go on a safari. The entire time we were in Moshi (and Arusha), men, who probably worked on commission, came running up to us, “Hello, my friend! Do you need a hotel? Climb Mount Kili? You need a safari?” The word no means nothing to them. Even telling them that we were leaving wasn’t enough to dissuade them. They wanted to take us to a store to buy souvenirs. Our first afternoon in Moshi was the only time we were actually willing to talk to any of the hustlers (before we knew any better).
We didn’t think we would be able to book that day because we arrived on a Sunday and most things were closed. However, a few companies were open and the hustler walked us to our hotel, then waited for us as we showered and cleaned up to escort us to different tour companies. After talking to a few, comparing prices, and doing a little additional online research, we decided to go with MJ Safaris & Adventures. Ben liked MJ Safaris because MJ had the best price and good online reviews and I’m always happy to support a local business
Here’s something you need to know about these tour companies in Tanzania and that took us a while to figure out. Almost all of the “tour companies” are actually travel agencies. Very few actually are the direct company that you’re dealing with. If you look at their websites and how they present themselves and the info they give you, they ALWAYS present as they are the company who will be taking you on the trip. In reality, they’re a travel agent, and you’re actually going with some other company that they booked you with. And the fact that they’re actually a travel agent isn’t caught by most tourist because if you read the online reviews, the tourists believe that they went with that company.
Instead you’re actually with another company. I suppose I should really review the actual tour company that took us, but 1) I don’t know which company it was because again, we didn’t realize that MJ Safaris was a travel agency until after our trip was over and 2) MJ Safaris still has some responsibility because MJ was the one who chose and booked the company we went with.
Things that We were Gravely Unhappy About
The Missing Sleeping Bags
Whenever we go camping, there are certain items that we know we have to have, such as tents and sleeping bags. I can survive being short a pair of socks or clean underwear, but I can’t survive not having a sleeping bag in cold weather. Just like Machu Picchu, we wanted to rent camping gear and thick down coats for when we summit. MJ assured us that this was not a problem and that he had everything for us and they were included in the price. The next morning after he picked us up, we went back to his office to pay and then pick up our gear. In the supply closet, we picked out our down coats and then asked about sleeping bags. MJ said the tents and the sleeping bags were already packed and in the van. All good.
After our first day of hiking, we arrived at our campsite with our tent all set up. We crawled inside and found everything there, except for our sleeping bags. I thought that the porter carrying the bags hadn’t arrived yet. We asked the assistant guide, Oz, if our bags would arrive later. He nodded yes and said the bags are comings. Fine.
We eat dinner. Still no sleeping bags. Worried, we asked the head guide, Emmanuel, where our sleeping bags were. He was dumbfounded. Emmanuel told us that if we didn’t have sleeping bags that we should have told him when we were in town. We told him that MJ told us that they had already packed our sleeping bags. Then there was a five minute back and forth where Emmanuel basically blamed us for not having sleeping bags and he told us that tough luck, we had to sleep with no sleeping bags. We argued no, and that it was THEIR problem that we had no bags. Eventually Emmanuel decided that we would borrow a sleeping bag from one of the porters (I feel bad for the porter, but I’m assuming that the porters did something to share) for that night. Since we were still at somewhat low altitude, the night was still warm. Sharing the bag for one night on a warm night wasn’t bad, but this wouldn’t do on the other colder nights. The next morning Ben forcefully made sure that sleeping bags would arrive at the second camp site.
So on the second night, we got our sleeping bags. They delivered one warm 4-season sleeping bag and one light 2-season sleeping bag. The warm one was perfect and that was the one we both needed. The light one by itself is too cold for when we were up in the higher altitude, but I offered to take the lighter one and wore all my thermals and coats inside the sleeping bag to keep warm. I took the lighter bag because wearing all those clothes to go sleep didn’t bother me, whereas Ben would have been uncomfortable. I was warm every night, but they still should have sent two warm 4-season bags AT THE BEGINNING.
Pole-pole (polay-polay) was the theme and the bane of this trekking experience. Pole-pole is Swahili for slow. The thought is that going slowly would increase the likelihood of a successful summit because you would acclimatize better and not get altitude sickness (aka mountain sickness as they call it). Yes, it’s true that going slowly results in better acclimation, but this is in reference to traveling no more than 1000 ft per day. It’s not about the speed of traveling that distance.
The guides insisted that we hike super slowly and made sure we crawled by forcing us to hike behind them. We were understanding the first day because they didn’t know us, but we assured them that we had done high altitude hiking before and that both of us were in good shape and health. They didn’t care.
The whole concept of going slowly so that you don’t overexert yourself is great, but going slowly is RELATIVE to your own level of fitness. What is slow for a fit person is different for what is slow for an unfit person. We had to hike so slowly that we were on the trail far longer than we needed to be, which was more exhausting than it would have been otherwise.
The Attitude and Lack of Professionalism of the Guides
The concept of pole-pole was taken to a whole new level when they forced us to take unwanted breaks because *they* needed a cigarette break. Seriously. They made us stop because they needed to smoke.
Emmanuel tried to blame us for not having sleeping bags. No, MJ told us that the bags were packed and told them to pack bags for us. Emmanuel didn’t understand that thought that MJ meant the sleep pads, so he had packed only those. Then Ben had to fight with him to make them bring sleeping bags on the second night.
Oz, the assistant guide, didn’t speak enough English for his position. Not everyone needs to speak English. Our porters certainly didn’t, but their jobs don’t require them to interact with us on a regular basis. However, as a guide, you’re job is to interact with the clients. We frequently had misunderstandings because Oz’s English skills were on the poor side. We think this is the reason why Oz told us on the first day that our bags were coming because when we asked, he had no idea what we were asking about, so he just said something to make us happy.
During the hikes, our guides told us very little about the geology, nature, history, etc, of Mount Kilimanjaro. While we were on Machu Picchu, Cesar gave us hours and hours of lectures about the Inca, the archeology, the history, the flora and fauna, and just about everything else. We learned so much. Here, pretty much nothing. We had two babysitters who spoke in Swahili to each other. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s required that you have a guide with you, I’d tell you to skip having a guide.
They gave bad advice. We were horribly overdressed and too warm for summitting. Ben got heatstroke from being overdressed. I asked if I should bring my hiking poles and Oz assured me that I didn’t need it going up. The one time that I REALLY needed the poles, I didn’t have them. Having the poles would have immensely useful for getting traction on the slippery scree.
When we finally summitted Mount Kilimanjaro, they hurried us off the mountain instead of letting us enjoy our accomplishment. They were cold and wanted off. I get it that they’ve been there a million times, but this was our only trip up Mount Kilimanjaro. They cared nothing about letting us enjoy our experience.
Going down was difficult for the both of us and this was the one time we wanted to go pole-pole like they wanted. They were complete @sses and set a blistering pace downhill. I fell several times trying to keep up.
They were swarmy. On the last day, they spent the entire time being far more cordial and considerate than on the other days because they wanted good tips. Emmanuel apologized about the sleeping bags (seriously, a week later!) and said it was nothing more than a simple misunderstanding that did not hurt us. I had to bite my tongue from retorting that his idea of fixing his mistake was that we sleep with nothing.
If we were in Latin America, we would characterize the men and the culture as being one of machismo. There’s definitely an element of misogyny. I never got asked anything. Only Ben’s opinion mattered (when they bothered to think our opinions mattered). I was pretty much ignored the entire time.
The Case of the Missing Porter
At Machame Gate, Emmanuel told us that we might have to get a couple more porters if there’s too much weight. Each porter is only allowed to carry 15 kg. That’s fine. We had a crew of 8 (a guide, a chef, an assistant chef, and 5 chaskis/porters) at Machu Picchu and for that trip we had a chemical toilet as well, which we didn’t have this time around.
While on the hike we asked Emmanual, how big our crew was. “Fourteen,” he said. “You mean, it’s 14 total, including us two, right?” we clarified. Nope. Fourteen people in the crew. For two people, we had 2 guides, a chef, a waiter (someone who was responsible for serving us, waking us up in the morning, getting water for us, basically he took care of us), and 10 freaking porters.
Ben and I were completely flabbergasted. At Machu Picchu we had far fewer people and we were carry more stuff because of the chemical toilet. We had LESS stuff and somehow ended up with WAY more porters. We couldn’t believe it. We spent all week trying to figure out exactly how many people we had. We asked other groups. The large groups had no idea how many porters they had. The single hikers (where they were only hiker, a truly private trip) all had 5 people (guide, chef, and 3 porters). It made no sense that if there were two of us that the number of porters would suddenly triple than if there were only one of us. We asked other couples who were on private tours and they also had ridiculous number of porters like us. We were befuddled.
We counted the number of porters that were around our camp. We never counted more than 9 people, but at a camp site, people are always coming and going. We counted the number of tents at our sites and wondered where all the porters were sleeping because their three tents were large enough to house 14 people. Emmanuel said that the other porters stayed at a communal tent farther away from our tent site.
Every morning they forced us to leave the camp site before they broke it, so we couldn’t see exactly how many porters showed up to carry our stuff.
We were incredibly suspicious, so we told Emmanuel that we were going to give tips back at Moshi. Emmanuel told us that was fine except some of the porters weren’t going back to town with us because they lived near the national park, so we needed to give their tips before we left the park. We said that was fine and that we wanted to meet them and hand over the tips personally (we didn’t trust Emmanuel to give it to them). We met five porters and gave them their tips. Then we spent the entire next day wondering if they really were our porters if they rounded up porters from other groups to claim that they were with us in exchange for a small cut of the tip.
At Moshi, once again we asked Emmanuel to list all the people so that we could get them their tips. Emmanuel told us that it was him, Oz, chef, the waiter, and four porters. FOUR porters? At the beginning of the trip we had 10 porters supposedly. We had already paid the tips for five porters at Mount Kili, so we were supposed to tip five more porters. But now there’s only four porters? We didn’t ask questions in our delirious joy in unexpectedly having one fewer porter to tip.
The next day when Ben and I were talking to another travel agent, Pius, he told us that the guides were lying to us. He dryly said that there was no more than 9 people in our crew. He said it was common for the guides and porters to lie about the total number of people so that tourists would leave more tip and then that extra money would be divvied among them. And that sometimes unscrupulous tour companies expect the guides to kickback some of the tip back to them in return for hiring them.
What’s Good about MJ Safaris
I guess I should be grateful that we both came down alive.
The quality of the equipment (when we had them) and clothes were fine. I have no complaints.
The price we paid ($1100 per person, which included a complimentary night at a hotel and camping gear and clothes) was a very competitive price.
Other Commentaries about Our Climbing Experience
When we signed onto this trip, we were told that we were joining a Canadian couple. Ben and I were amenable to having another couple for company on the trip. We thought it would be fun to have other people to talk to and hang out with. In the morning when at the office, we were told that the couple would meet us at Machame Gate because they were coming from another location. At the Gate, we were told that they were coming later because they got a late start and that we were waiting for them. Then when finally we started hiking, we were told that they would meet us at the camp site and that we should start hiking. After an hour, we realized that what they told us made no sense because both of the guides were with us. How on earth would the Canadian couple meet us if both of our guides with us? So we asked again about the Canadian couple. The guides looked confused and asked us, “What Canadian Couple?”
As weird as this sounds, disappearing Canadian couples was a common story with other hikers. We weren’t the only ones who were told that we were going to be joining a Canadian couple. Other hikers were told that they were joining a Canadian couple only to find out that the Canadian couple mysteriously never shows up.
At the end of the trip, we figured that we’re all told that we’re joining a group because most hikers want to be in a group rather than having a private trip. In reality, none of us are with other people. Because there are no limits with the number of people out on the trail, there’s no incentive to have larger groups of hikers. They would rather have several private groups with one or two hikers than have a fewer but larger groups because more porters and guides are hired with private groups than with larger groups. With Tanzania’s chronic unemployment problem (around 10%, which was US’s unemployment rate at the height of the recession), Ben reasons that there’s motivation to “create work.”
Unlike in Peru, where Ben and I gained weight despite hiking for several hours each day, we both lost weight. The quality of the meals was all right. Nothing was horrible, but nothing was really tasty as well. We ate because we had to, but nothing whetted our appetite. The meals were very repetitive. Ungali, a red wheat porridge, for every breakfast. Dinner was always started with soup, which despite being different every night (squash, cucumber, carrot, etc) all tasted the same because they were made with the same creamy chicken soup base. We ate pasta with a weird tomato sauce (thinner, runnier, and sweeter than what we have in the US) with vegetables for three nights. We had fish one night. Another night we had beef stew with rice that was the best meal we had from them.
For half of the days, we had a hot lunch, which was very similar to dinner. On other days, we were given the ubiquitious mzungu (Swahili for white foreigner) lunch box to eat. A typical lunch box contains a fruit juice (usually mango), a banana, one piece of fried chicken, hard boiled egg, a samosa, a butter sandwich, and either a corn muffin, or a piece of cake, or a small package of cookies/biscuits.
The lunch box we had on the first day in retrospect, was a rather large lunch box because we got an apple, another samosa, and yogurt. Ben and I never figured out Tanzania’s obsession with butter sandwiches. The bread was always a cheap white sandwich bread (like Wonder bread, something I haven’t had for a long, long time) and the filling was some strange amalgamation of butter and a vegetable. One time it was grated carrots. Another time it was thinly julienned red and orange peppers. Another time Ben and I stared at it in horror and fascination because we couldn’t figure out what it was. And another thing, when I say butter, I really mean margarine. The sandwich was about as tasty as you imagine that it is. Ben never ate the sandwiches and I ate the carrot one once because I was really hungry.
The more expensive tour companies provide a hot lunch for all of the days. Ben and I quibble over the quality of those meals. I think they also provide better quality meals because I saw the hot lunch of one of those groups on the first day and it looked really good. Ben thinks the quality of the food for all of the tour companies is the same. It’s hard to say. While no hiker was unhappy with the meals, no one was raving over the meals like in Machu Picchu.
On the last day, because we were with a budget company, we didn’t get lunch. The more expensive companies did provide lunches for their hikers. We were all corralled together while our guides took care of paperwork (making sure no mzungu was left behind) and shuttles arrived. We all sat around and chatted about our experience. A guy asked me where my lunch was and I said I didn’t have any. He felt bad, so he began offering me his lunch. He offered me something, but I didn’t want it. Instead shamelessly I said I wanted his chocolate, which he quickly handed over. Ben was mortified by my behavior and slinked off pretending that he didn’t know me. The guy and his boyfriend offered me more food from their lunch boxes, so I looked over and picked out what I wanted to eat. After I got a nice little stash of food, I went over to go find Ben who had found himself a triathlete to talk to. I will admit, sometimes I’m completely shameless.
As much as we complained about our guides, the one thing that was good about them was that they didn’t care if we talked to other hikers. Some guides really hate it when their hikers talk to other people. We heard stories about how guides would try to separate their hikers from other groups or give strict orders not to talk to other hikers. After some discussion we reasoned it was because the guides didn’t want us to talk and compare how much we paid for our climbs (prices vary, not only between groups but also within a group. One person could have paid $3000 while another person in the same group could have only paid $1500) and tipping.
While climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a once in a lifetime experience and we have no regrets doing it, we were not wholly satisfied with our tour company. I don’t recommend booking with MJ Safaris. Ben thinks that that if we went with another company that we would still not have had a better experience, unless we went with a high-end luxury tour company. I argued that perhaps the other company would remember to bring our sleeping bags and that alone would be a big improvement. Based on talking to many other hikers, we all had similar dis-satisfactory experience with the guides. Not to say all of the guides sucked. We longingly looked after at the two guides who allowed their hikers to hike much faster than us, but many of the guides were pushy about setting on overly conservative pace without regard to their hikers’ abilities.
If you’ve always wanted to climb Mount Kili, you should definitely do it. But based on our experience, neither Ben nor I would say that this is something everyone *must* do. Having done both Machu Picchu & Mount Kili, we both prefer Machu Picchu and consider the entire experience of hiking the Inca Trail to be superior to Mt. Kili. The only place where Mt Kili competes with MP was at the summit with the incredible glaciers. The summit was surreal and otherworldly.