My wife and I and some friends returned a few months ago from a climb up mount Kilimanjaro. While we were planning the trip, it was very difficult to determine which tour company to go with. I thought it would be useful to post about our experience with the company we ended up going with (Big Expeditions) in the hopes that it will be useful to some others who might be trying to determine if they'd like to book them. Given that I can't find them on TripAdvisor, I thought I'd post our experience in the forums.
The short answer: they were absolutely amazing, and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone who is thinking about making this incredible journey. For those interested in more details, keep reading:
When we first started looking at the trip, we came up with a short list of tour companies. Big Expeditions (BE) was one of the cheapest, which immediately made my wife and myself a bit nervous. Having never traveled to Africa, it's hard to know what you're getting. Their website had lots of fantastic testimonials, but we weren't sure if we could really trust them. They were recommended in a few books we had, so that gave us a bit of confidence. In the end, the group vote said we were going with BE, so we put down our deposit and off we went.
In general, they were very good communicating with us. While English isn't the first language of anyone there, their emails were well written enough that we didn't have any issues understanding them. They were also prompt answering any questions we had (including ones about cost of kit, what they were providing, our flight details, pick-ups, etc.). Overall, no issues with communications at all.
Upon arriving in Tanzania (on Air Ethiopia - not recommended, but that's a different story), the owner of BE (Nicholas), as well as a driver, were waiting for us at the airport. After a quick bathroom break they took our bags and loaded them into a Safari vehicle, and we were on our way. They were great at answering questions we had on the way to our hotel, and even took us on a little detour so we could see a local town.
The hotel they had booked for us also receives a thumbs up. Very friendly staff, gated (nice when staying in a foreign country for the first time), and clean. Some of our group even went for a quick swim in the pool. Each room was a good size, and well kept. The lobby was also nice, with a beautiful patio in the back where we had dinner the first night (the food was also good). The only 2 downsides were a) the night before our trek, a dog barked constantly, but I cant' really blame that on the hotel, and b) we didn't know we had to pre-heat the hot water for a shower, something that is fairly comment apparently in Africa. Overall, the hotel was better then we were expecting.
The night before the trip, Nicholas came back to meet us, and brought along the head guide (Safi) who would be taking us up the mountain. He was amazing. He brought a map, and showed us the route we were taking (7 day Machame), explaining each day to us in detail, and answering any and all questions we had. He also went through all our gear, checking to make sure we weren't missing anything, and that everything was of adequate quality. We were missing a few things, which we were able to rent for very cheap ($5 US/week for a balaclava, although prices may change). Safi's knowledge was very comforting, as was his encouragement and confidence in our success.
The next day we were picked up by BE, given a chance to fill up our water bottles for the first time, and headed off to start the climb. While I won't go through every day of the trek, I will describe a typical day.
Each morning we were awoken by our waiter (yes, we had our own waiter) with 'bed tea' - ie, warm tea and some biscuits to get your day started. After getting dressed, breakfast was served in our dining tent (complete with flowers!). Breakfast usually consisted of eggs, a meat, toast, fruit, snacks. Food was NEVER lacking - always more then we could eat. BE also provided us with a snack pack for the day, with a juice box, usually some crackers, bread, and other snacks. After packing our bags (day packs and trekking bags - trekking bags carried by our amazing porters), filling up our water (fresh water always available), we'd start our hiking for the day.
The pace was slow (intentionally), and Safi was always willing to make adjustments should we need to slow down, take a break (bathroom or otherwise), or even just take a few pictures.
It's hard to convey how comforting it was having Safi as a guide - his experience was incredible. He was amazing at anticipating traffic jams on the mountain, either routing us around or having us leave early or later to avoid most people. We truly felt like we were in the best hands possible.
After a few hours of hiking, we'd typically stop for a lunch break. Our porters would have already hiked past us, and re-set up our dinning tent so we'd have a place to eat lunch. Lunches were excellent as well - tea was always available, and the food was much better then we expected. Soup, pasta, meats, rice, potatoes - great stuff. They also would take the time to set up our bathroom tent for us, should any of us require it's use (side note: having a bathroom tent for our group of 6 was luxury on the mountain - it was kept clean, and was MILLIONS of times better then then public washrooms, and somebody hiked it all the way to our last camp. Incredible). Fresh water was again provided, as was water with which we could wash our hands (or even brush our teeth).
After picking up our day packs again, it was off for another few hours of hiking. Again, Safi (as well as our two assistant guides, Daniel and Roderick) were great at keeping us motivated throughout the day, as well as occasionally stopping to show us vegetation, or point out a feature of the mountain.
Upon reaching our next camp (usually mid afternoon), we were greeted by all our porters. And when I say greeted, I mean singing and dancing for us, with a tray of juice waiting as a congratulations for completing the day's trek. It was truly welcoming, especially coming from people who had just carried all this gear up the mountain for you!
We were usually then given a few hours to clean (with 2 bowls of fresh water and soap provided) and unpack a bit, and prepare for dinner. Dinner was again fantastic - much the same as lunch, with again, more food then we could ever eat. Seconds were always offered, and specific dietary concerns were addressed (one in our group was a vegetarian). The only bad thing i can say about the food is that a few of us did end up with some stomach issues - although it wasn't anything very serious. The food always appeared to be prepared properly, and this very well could just be down to eating food in a new country (always a bit of a risk).
After dinner we would have our group therapy session - Safi would join us, and ask us each individually how we found the day's trekking, how we were feeling, did we have any issues or comments, what medications did we take, and how much water we drank. In addition, each night he took our heart rate and blood oxygen saturation level. Everything was written down in a notebook so any issues could be monitored. Again, this really added to our sense of comfort, and issues were acted on promptly (for example, we all found we were wasting a lot of food from our day snack packs they were providing, and they were cut down accordingly the next day).
Finally, it was bed time (although it was usually only 8:30 or 9!). We were free to stay up as long as we wanted, but after a day of hiking, we were usually beat. The tents provided for sleeping were great - Mountain hardware branded tents, set up on tarps. We were each provided with 2 sleeping mats to sleep on, to help with the hard ground.
After 5 days of hiking, all 6 of our group successfully summited with the help of Safi, Daniel, and Roderick. On the summit push, they were again amazing - helping myself when I was suffering from nausea, carrying one of our groups bag when she was tired, and keeping up a slow stead pace for us all. Upon reaching Stella point, they had hot chocolate waiting for us, as final motivation for the last hike to the summit!
Upon the conclusion of our hike, we were again greeted by all our Porters at the bottom of the mountain, who gave us a wonderful welcome (with singing and dancing!), and danced us through the rest of the groups to a side area where a buffet (complete with beer!) was waiting for us. Suffice to say, we were the envy of everyone there. We ate our last delicious meal (with a cold beer) before signing in to officially complete our climb.
Post climb, the amazing service continued - before our flight, they picked us up, and drove us into Arusha so we should do some exploring and shopping. Safi even met up with us again and took us to a local market to buy some souvenirs. We were then dropped back off at the airport with lots of time to spare before our flight.
While my wife and I left with a few others from our group right after the hike, two of our friends continued on to do a safari with them. While I can't comment specifically on how that was, they had nothing but good things to say about them!
Overall, the experience with big expeditions was fantastic. We still find it hard to believe they were one of the cheapest tours we saw. We constantly felt spoiled, like the envy of many of the other groups on the mountain. Everyone, from the cook, waiter, guides and other porters, was extremely friend, overly helpful, and a joy to be around.
If you have any questions regarding our time with Big Expeditions, please feel free to send me a private message. I always find it hard to trust such glowing reviews of companies, but I can honestly say everything I've described here accurately reflects my feelings (And that of our groups) towards the company.