We’ve heard from dozens of Thomson trekkers what a fantastic guide James is, how he helped them make it to the summit, and how they can’t imagine having done it without him. But how did he rise to the position of Head Guide (a coveted job in Tanzania)? We sat down for a chat with James to learn about his life on Kili.

Where are you from originally?

My parents are from the southern part of Tanzania. We’re of the Makonde tribe, who are known as the best craftsmen in the world [James might be biased, but the Makonde have been renowned for their artwork for decades, in particular their intricate and beautiful wood carvings].

When I was young, they migrated to Kenya, which is where I spent most of my school years. Eventually, we returned to Tanzania and settled in Moshi, which is close to Kilimanjaro.

Is that where your family lives today?


It is. My wife has a small business raising chickens and selling their meat and eggs, and we have a four-year-old son named Freddie.

Freddie is very proud of my work on Kilimanjaro, and we often tell stories and sing songs about the mountain together. His favorite part is when I return from a trip; he knows I’ll always bring him a little surprise. It’s always in the top zipper of my backpack, and when I return, he loves to open it up and see what I brought, usually something like chocolate, a small toy, or a football.

How did you start out on Kili?

I started out as a porter, and after about three months on the mountain, started working for Thomson Safaris. I worked as a porter, then worked my way up to being a waiter.  After about four years, Thomson Safaris offered me the chance to start training to become an assistant, and eventually a head guide. All in all I’ve been working with Thomson Safaris for eight years now.


Thomson Safaris guide James Upanga on his way up KilimanjaroJames on his way up Kilimanjaro.
Photo: Amy Czarnecki

What made you want to work on Kili in the first place?

I’ve always loved meeting different people and learning more about their cultures. It’s fascinating to me. In school, I learned about tourism, and I decided that this would be a way for me to pursue my passion for traveling and learning about the world. Working on Kilimanjaro is like traveling every single day; I get to visit these places through the stories people tell me.

What’s the most amazing sight you’ve seen on the mountain?

When I started, I was a summit porter. Most porters don’t go all the way to the summit with clients; they may carry things to the last camp, or not even go that far. I did. On my very first trek, I remember seeing the glaciers, and how huge they were. They’re much smaller now; even over just the last few years, I’ve noticed a big difference.

Is that your favorite memory of the mountain, the glaciers as they once were?

Actually, my favorite memory comes from just a few months ago. I was working as the assistant guide on a trek, when the head guide was forced to descend early due to a family emergency. There were still several days left, and I had to step up and become the lead guide, bringing the group safely to the summit and back again.

Afterwards, the group was very impressed, and many of them praised my guiding skills. I was so proud in that moment.


Thomson Safaris guide James takes guests up kilimanjaroJames guiding trekkers to the summit.
Photo: Amy Czarnecki

Do you ever miss being a porter?

[Laughs] Well, conditions on the mountain now are much better than when I started, so I suppose it wouldn’t be a bad life. But I’m very much looking forward to working as a Head Guide next season. My family, everyone is so excited for me. And so am I!