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Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Tecumseh, Canada
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Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Hi Everyone,

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.

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Canberra, Australia
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1. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Thank you so much for the detailed report! BE are on my short list also. You have helped me to make my final decision.

I will be climbing with them in June 2013.

Just a quick question. Do they have a tipping ceremony, or were you required to give the tips to the guide?

Also, how many people did you have supporting the group in total?

Thanks :o)

Tecumseh, Canada
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2. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Glad it was helpful! I'm not normally big on writing reviews, but when a company exceeds my expectations, I like to give them credit!

Regarding tipping - we actually talked to our guide Safi about it on day 6. He provided everyone's names, which we put on envelopes with their tip money inside. We heard that other porters not from your group can try and jump in to get a little extra money, so having everyone's names eliminated that possibility.

After the climb, when everyone had eaten at the buffet they had prepared, we got everyone's attention, and called them all up 1 by 1 to receive their well deserved tips. This gave us a chance to shake their hand and thank them personally (Safi helped us out here too pronouncing names). Safi had also provided us the names in a specific order, relating to their seniority, so they were presented in that order. Not so much a formal 'ceremony', but definitely something more then just handing them out.

I believe in total we had ~34 people, guides included. A lot for 6 of us. I'd recommend bringing 25% more tip money then you think you need - we almost ran short, but one person in our group had over prepared and covered for the rest of us.

Hope it all goes well!

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3. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Hi Jonathan, thanks for the review of you trip with BE! My wife and I are planning a trip in Aug/Sept '13 and BE was the first company that provided a quote/information! They seem much cheaper than other tour operators (i.e. Team Kilimanjaro) and was wondering IYO was the service / quality of food / equipment or overall experience affected by this lower price? They are IMEC and KPAP accredited so I assume they pay fairly?! As we only plan on climbing Kili once in our life we want to do it properly and I hope you can reassure us that BE will do their best for us and not cut corners?! Regards...

Tecumseh, Canada
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4. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Hi Luke,

We had exactly the same reservations about the company - hard to know if going with the cheapest is going to mean the cheapest service, and that's something you DON'T want when you're climbing up to 5.8km.

Obviously we didn't try the services with any other tour companies, but I can't imagine any other tour company doing much of a better job. While at Camp 4, I did have a brief chat with somebody from a different tour company (don't know the name), but he was impressed with our set-up compared to his (specifically our dinning and bathroom tents). From some other blogs and what not I've read, BE seemed to be on the better end of the companies based on our experience.

The equipment we rented or used from them (rented gators, balaclava's, and one in our group rented walking polls) was in good condition, although it obviously had been used. We were happy with the quality, especially for the prices we paid. Don't expect to get a brand new set of equipment, but don't worry about it either.

Food was also great - as I mentioned in my review, some people did have some upset stomachs, but I attribute this more to eating in a different country then the quality of food. Ie, everything was always cooked properly. We were always impressed with how much food they provided us, how it tasted, and the variety. They have a menu on their website, and I would say the variety of food there is definitely accurate. Quantities were honestly almost too much - we felt bad leaving as much food un-eaten as we did most nights, but the leftovers always went to our porters and guides.

Service was likewise better then we expected - once they knew who was staying together in tents, they'd put our trekking bags in our tents for us before we even arrived at camp. All the porters were almost overly generous - if they ever saw us carrying something, they were quick to try and jump in to help us out. We were waited on for all our meals (literally - we had someone who was our waiter). Our guides were also great - friendly, informative, and very skilful. The camp was extremely well managed - to the point where they sent porters ahead of us each day to secure the best camp sites for us (for example, we stayed at Kosovo camp the day before summit, in order to cut some time off our summit attempt). They also had somebody guarding the camp site at night - we never felt like it was needed, but still comforting. They truly were great.

We didn't get a chance to talk to them about how well they're compensated compared to other groups. Going with a KPAP accredited company was a must for us, so we assumed they were following those guidlines. The owner of the company himself used to be a guide (he's also super friendly, if a bit shy), so i like to think he'd treat them along the guidelines, and we have no reason to believe he didn't.

I really would not worry about BE cutting any corners on you - our experience was quite the opposite. Please feel free to add to my review (or make your own) if you do decide to go with them - obviously everyone's experience will be different, although we hope yours is as good as ours was!

Edited: 02 February 2013, 22:32
Canberra, Australia
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5. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Thanks Jonathan. I must admit - I am pretty shocked at hearing there were 34 staff members for six people! I was honestly only expecting 10. Why are there so many?

Do you recommend hiring gear, or buying it in advance? Did they tell you ahead of time how many staff members there would be? Also - what currency did you tip in?

I have committed to the climb for June 16th (a full moon week). I would love to hear from anyone else planning on doing the climb then :o)

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6. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Jonathan,

Thanks for taking the time to answer my queries. From what you have said there seems to be very little to worry about!? Although the Porters are not fully employed by the Tour Operator, it seems they are well treated!

We were also looking at Climb Kili, Team Kili and Private Expeditions and these all come out approx the same price! Maybe these all have more overheads than BE, thus their higher price!?

Once again thanks for your review and honest opinions. Luke.

Tecumseh, Canada
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7. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Regarding the porters...

Honestly, not really sure why we had so many, although I will say everyone seemed to have a job (ie, we didn't feel overstaffed). People obviously carried our trekking bags, tents, sleeping mats, etc., but there were also people who had to carry our dinning tent, tables, chairs, cooking tent, tents for the other porters, water....it all adds up pretty quick! Everyone who was there was always carrying something during the day, then seemed to have a second job in the evening (guard, waiter, camp manager, etc.). It was all very well organized.

Also worth noting that we had been told we would have less porters (we asked the question before we left). Not sure why that number changed, but I think part of it may be down to the language barrier. While we group anyone not our guides as 'porter's', there was a definite hierarchy, with different titles for people. So, when we asked how many 'porters' we were going to have, they told us only the people under the title of 'porters.'. Bottom line is bring some extra tipping money just in case! Speaking of - we tipped in American cash. We also took the time to get more recent bills - I think 2004 or later. If you ask at the bank they can usually accommodate this (We're from Canada and they still did).

As for the gear - we ended up buying most of the 'big ticket' items - jackets, sleeping bags, trekking boots, etc. I think it's really down to personal preference on this one, but we bought anything we thought we'd use again, or we wanted to wear in before hand (ie, trekking boots - which make great winter boots btw). Highly recommend North Face stuff (they have 2 sales/year.....find out when they are, we saved tons of money). Also, REI in the states or MEC in Canada were super useful in terms of advice and equipment. SportCheck also has there 'Atmosphere' section, which was nice as it was closer then all the other stores, and they had more sales (and were also knowledgeable).

Luke - really think the price difference is down to exactly what you said - more overhead. I believe BE is associated with any tour company in NA or Europe, which probably saves them a lot of money. Either way - seems like good bang for you buck to me!

Jon

Edited: 10 February 2013, 03:57
Arusha, Dar es...
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8. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

wahoo! wonderful i appreciate on it, one day i will join you, but can you upload more snaps so that every one get known how mountain look like.

Edited: 25 July 2013, 01:22
Tecumseh, Canada
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9. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Hi Makungu,

If you're looking for pictures, I actually made a collection of youtube videos of our trip - link to the playlist is below. Gives a good idea of the overall trek, broken down by days....just ignore the crappy film and commentary!

www.youtube.com/watch…

Jon

Canberra, Australia
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10. Re: Big Expeditions Kilimanjaro Review

Hi All,

So I ended up doing my trek with Big Expeditions - and I was very happy.

There were some initial communication glitches over email, but I persevered and it was worth it. After spending 6 weeks in Africa, I came to learn that email lags are common due to the very unreliable internet connectivity. So give anyone you are trying to contact in Africa some leeway there.

Unfortunately, I did not make it to the top. I got close to Stella Point before getting very sick, my guide said it was safest to turn around. I will be back to do it again, and I will use Big Expeditions.

My guide (Hosea) and the porters were beautiful people. They seemed to genuinely care about my experience. I did my best to get to know them, and I am grateful that I did. Despite not getting to the top it was a wonderful experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

I recommend the Machame trek, it is so beautiful and FUN!! The Baranco wall was a hoot... some people found it a little scary, but I love heights!!

Advice:

- If you can, get a portable/camping air mattress. The ground is HARD and does impact your sleep

- Pack as light as you possibly can. Make it easier for the porters, they are amazing

- Tip well, your team will be among of the hardest working people you will ever meet

- Don't underestimate the cold on summit night, Pack merino wool socks and glove inserts etc

- Pack some protein bars

- Eat... even though you don't want to. Same goes for drinking

- Check your iron levels before doing this. If they are low - fix this before you leave.Iron oxygenates the blood. Altitude sickness is related to oxygen levels