Good news first—reaching the top of Africa is relatively easy. You will have porters carrying all your stuff (except your daypack, but you could even pay a small extra fee to have that carried as well), setting up your tent, fetching and boiling water, even carrying and cleaning a portable toilet. You will have a cook and waiter serving you breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. You will have a lead guide and at least one assistant guide to lead you up the mountain, watch out for any AMS symptoms and take care of you in case of any emergencies. You may have people bring you hot water to wash your face in the morning and evening. I’ve even read about hikers literally being carried up to the top by their guides because they couldn’t have made it on their own. I don’t think this is good practice, neither on the part of the hiker (doesn’t it feel like cheating?) nor on the part of the guide (wouldn’t it be better to send their client down the mountain as quickly as possible if they can’t handle it anymore?), but it seems to happen nevertheless. The point being, hiking Kilimanjaro is not comparable to real trekking where you actually have to carry all your stuff and take care of yourself.
Here comes the bad news—selecting a tour operator is the most difficult of all tasks (or at least it had been until we’ve created KiliGATE for you). We are spoilt with choice, and that very choice turns into a nightmare. No two operators seem to agree on the best approach in terms of route, number of acclimatization days, equipment, safety procedures and so forth. To make matters worse, you will find positive and negative reviews for almost every operator. Unfortunately, many comments on forums such as TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet or SummitPost are misleading or written by fake accounts. Travelers have complained about significant pressure from certain operators to write good reviews, as well as bribery to have their bad reviews upgraded or removed. In a nutshell—transparency is poor, and the information you will read on different websites couldn’t be any more contradictory. Obviously, at least half of the information must be marketing gimmicks or outright lies. Whom to trust?
You have two choices: The easy option would be to simply follow someone else’s recommendation or any first operator that appears reasonable. Never mind that they may be biased or simply good at marketing but nothing else. Obviously, this means taking a risk. The second option would be safer and more likely to lead you to your dream vacation, but it has a significant drawback that may not make it feasible: spending an unreasonable amount of time and effort to research your options to death. I expect the majority of hikers have a healthy survival instinct and eventually end up with option one. Not me. Of course my perfectionist character had to know it all and be one hundred percent sure. This is a big trip, right? I had read too many negative reviews of what can go wrong with bad operators to “take it easy”. So I embarked on a herculean task that would keep me busy over many weeks, obsessed to find my single best option.
In summary, after everything I learnt, I would recommend the following process to select an operator:
If you opt for a common route or would like to organize your private tour, I suggest you start with the current partners of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) listed by the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC) to solicit their offers and/or check for matching group tour offers. You can now find most of KPAP’s local partners and many of their tours offered already directly at KiliGATE.
Only locally registered companies are permitted to guide in the Kilimanjaro National Park, meaning all international tour operators by default subcontract with a local outfitter. Contracting directly with a local operator will cut out the additional international agency margin.
If you wish to join a group tour on a less common route (like the Northern Circuit in my case), your choice may be limited to larger international agencies that contract with local outfitters. Again, make sure that your preferred company is listed by IMEC amongst their current agent partner companies, meaning that their local outfitters are approved by KPAP. We have already added some agencies on KiliGATE, and will be adding many more soon.
Compare offers not only by price but make sure you clearly understand what your preferred operator offers in terms of:
- Experience and composition of their mountain crew, especially your specific guide(s);
- Quality of equipment, including the make of their tents and rental sleeping bags as well as usage practices;
- Nutrition and variety of food;
- Group sizes, notably the ratio of hikers versus guides;
- Specific itinerary;
- Fair porter treatment (if in doubt, email KPAP at email@example.com). You can reset assured that all companies advertising tours on KiliGATE offer ethical climbs as we partner with KPAP to verify their porter treatment practices.
Only when taking all these factors into consideration, you will be in a position to make an educated assessment and select the operator most suitable to your preferences and needs.
You will find a lot more detailed and hopefully helpful information about each of these factors in Kilimanjaro Uncovered. I truly hope that my findings will make your lives easier. To read more:
Specific operator recommendations
I personally hiked with Ultimate Kilimanjaro and can highly recommend them. Their service quality was excellent all the way from my first inquiry through to my return back home. Our guides were the best I could ever have hoped for, and our entire group was blown away by their performance and had nothing but positive feedback about them.
Having said that, you won’t be limited for choice of great operators, all of whom you will find listed amongst the KPAP Partners for Responsible Travel, and many of whom you will already find at KiliGATE.
Operator comparison and booking platform
In order to make it easier for you to compare different operators and tour offers, we have spent considerable time and effort to create an online booking platform for you. We are excited to announce that KiliGATE is already live, and that we can claim to be the #1 Kilimanjaro tour booking platform for ethical climbs and responsible tours. From now onwards, you can easily compare different operators and tours, and book your Kilimanjaro climbs directly at KiliGATE.