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Climbing with Coke: The Mt. Kilimanjaro 'Coca-Cola Route'

By:  Laura Randall Sep 12, 2013
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At Kilimanjaro

Stephen, Joe, and Paul Calardo after they hiked Mount Kilimanjaro.

To the Chagga people who live at the southern base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Marangu means “land of water.” But for the hikers who follow the Marangu trail to reach the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain, it is simply known as the Coca-Cola route.

The history of Kilimanjaro and Coca-Cola dates back more than a century when locals sold bottles of Coke and other drinks to hikers who took shelter in stationary sleeping huts along the trail on their way up the Tanzanian mountain.

“The Marangu Route, the oldest and traditionally the most popular trail on the mountain, was dubbed the Coca-Cola route because the local wardens and rangers stationed at the campsites along the way would supplement their income by selling bottles of Coke to thirsty trekkers,” explains Henry Stedman, author of Kilimanjaro: the Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain.

Marangu route

Paul's map showing Marangu and its nickname, the Coca-Cola Route.

As other trails were carved up the mountain, the moniker stuck as Marangu gained a reputation as the smoothest and easiest road to the summit.

“Marangu has a more gradual slope and can be climbed in fewer days than other trails,” says Brett Fischer, expedition coordinator at the Chicago-based Ultimate Kilimanjaro. But it’s more challenging than it actually appears on the surface because the shorter time frame makes it tougher for hikers to acclimate to the higher altitudes, Fischer notes.

An estimated 40 percent of all Kilimanjaro climbers take the Marangu route, but only about 30 percent actually reach the summit, he says.

Conquering New Heights

For one family from Cincinnati who climbed the 19,341-foot peak in July, the connection between Kilimanjaro and Coke ended up defining much of their long-planned quest to conquer the legendary mountain.

Stephen Calardo, 57, decided he wanted to scale Kilimanjaro more than a decade ago, when he saw the IMAX film, "Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa," and was dazzled by the scenery and intrigued by the fact that it involved more walking than actual climbing.

“I thought, ‘I could do that’,” the Cincinnati attorney said. After years of trying to coordinate busy schedules and the seasonal temperament of the region, he and two of his four sons, Paul and Joe, finally settled on a date and started intense research and preparation for their trip.

The Coca-Cola route seemed the way to go. The six-day expedition fit their busy work and school schedules back home. Plus, “it seemed smoother and easier than some of the more jagged, technical routes,” Calardo noted.

Coca-Cola came up frequently in articles and guidebooks about Kilimanjaro, Paul Calardo recalled. Even his map of the mountain noted that the Marangu was also known as the Coca-Cola route, he said.

"All the other routes are in Swahili. It was kind of funny,” said Paul, a salesperson for a video and post-production company in Covington, Ky.

Stephen, Paul, and Joe, then a freshman in college, practiced hiking with all their gear on trails around Ohio and climbed Pikes Peak in Colorado to get used to the high altitudes they would be subject to in Africa. On that trip, Paul was hit hard with vomiting, dizziness and confusion, but that made him all the more determined to successfully scale Kilimanjaro.

At Uhuru on Kilimanjaro

Paul Calardo at Uhuru Peak, Mount Kilimanjaro.

Mental Motivation

Once in Africa, “I put myself in a different place on the trail,” Paul said. “I told myself, ‘you’re not sick.’ I focused on other things that made me happy: what it would be like if I purchased a house, what my girlfriend was doing. It was a mental toughness.”

“At one point, I remember talking on the trail with the others and saying ‘How good would a Coke and a pizza be right now?” he recalled with a laugh.

It worked. On July 20, the Calardo men made it to the top.

“It’s billed as the easiest of the seven summits, but it's extremely challenging," Paul recalled. "People who had run marathons said it was the hardest thing they had ever done.”

Nothing prepared them for the unique beauty of the Tanzanian landscape and the spirit of its people.

They saw trees and rocks "straight out of Dr. Seuss," Stephen noted, and witnessed five climate zones, from tropical rainforest to subzero polar, in as many days. They were overcome by the kindness of the porters who carried their food and extra gear up the mountain and chanted "pole, pole" (po-lay, po-lay), which means go slowly in Swahili, to remind them there was no need to rush.

On the day they would reach the summit, the hikers had to rise in the pre-dawn hours in below-freezing temperatures, Paul recalled. The team of porters sang in Swahili to encourage them as they began their 16-hour ascent to the top.

"They were absolutely inspiring," he said. "I knew then that this was a life experience."

When they reached the Marangu gate at the end of their journey, Paul not only had conquered his altitude sickness to finish the hike, he had another one of his wishes granted.

“All we’re drinking is (purified) stream water, we’re eating porridge and potatoes and bread for every meal for six days. The second we came out of the gate, we saw the gift shop and immediately went in and bought a Coke," he said.

"And that was our celebratory toast. We cheered each other and I think the first words out of my mouth were this is the best drink I ever had.”