Kilimanjaro. The name itself is a mystery wreathed in clouds. It might mean Mountain of Light, Mountain of Greatness or Mountain of Caravans. Or it might not.
The local people, the Wachagga, don’t even have a name for the whole massif, only Kipoo (now known as Kibo) for the familiar snowy peak that stands imperious, overseer of the continent, the summit of Africa.
Kilimanjaro, by any name, is a metaphor for the compelling beauty of East Africa. When you see it, you understand why.
Not only is this the highest peak on the African continent; it is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, rising in breathtaking isolation from the surrounding coastal scrubland – elevation around 900 metres – to an imperious 5,895 metres (19,336 feet).
Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s most accessible high summits, a beacon for visitors from around the world. Most climbers reach the crater rim with little more than a walking stick, proper clothing and determination.
And those who reach Uhuru Point, the actual summit, or Gillman’s Point on the lip of the crater, will have earned their climbing certificates.
And their memories.
But there is so much more to Kili than her summit. The ascent of the slopes is a virtual climatic world tour, from the tropics to the Arctic.
Even before you cross the national park boundary (at the 2,700m contour), the cultivated footslopes give way to lush montane forest, inhabited by elusive elephant, leopard, buffalo, the endangered Abbot’s duiker, and other small antelope and primates.
Higher still lies the moorland zone, where a cover of giant heather is studded with otherworldly giant lobelias.
Above 4,000m, a surreal alpine desert supports little life other than a few hardy mosses and lichen. Then, finally, the last vestigial vegetation gives way to a winter wonderland of ice and snow – and the magnificent beauty of the roof of the continent.
About Kilimanjaro National Park
Size: 1668 sq km 641 sq miles).
Location: Northern Tanzania, near the town of Moshi.
128 km (80 miles) from Arusha.
About one hour’s drive from Kilimanjaro airport.
What to do
Six usual trekking routes to the summit and other more-demanding mountaineering routes.
Day or overnight hikes on the Shira plateau. Nature trails on the lower reaches.
Visit the beautiful Chala crater lake on the mountain’s southeastern slopes.
When to go
Clearest and warmest conditions from December to February, but also dry (and colder) from July-September.
Huts and campsites on the mountain.
Several hotels and campsites outside the park in the village of Marangu and town of Moshi.
Kilimanjaro is composed of three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, the highest at 5,895 m (19,341 ft); Mawenzi at 5,149 m (16,893 ft); and Shira, the shortest at 3,962 m (13,000 ft). Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim.
Kilimanjaro is a large stratovolcano. Of its three peaks, Mawenzi and Shira are extinct, while Kibo, the highest, is dormant and could erupt again. The last major eruption has been dated to between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.
Although dormant, Kibo has gas-emitting fumaroles in its crater. Several collapses and landslides have occurred on Kibo in the past, one creating the area known as the Western Breach.
There are seven official trekking routes by which to ascend and descend Mount Kilimanjaro: Lemosho, Machame, Marangu, Mweka, Rongai, Shira, and Umbwe. Of all the routes, Machame is considered the most scenic, albeit steeper, route.
It can be done in six or seven days. The Rongai is the easiest and least scenic of all camping routes. The Marangu is also relatively easy, but this route tends to be very busy, the ascent and descent routes are the same, and accommodation is in shared huts with all other climbers.
People who wish to trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro are advised to undertake appropriate research and ensure that they are both properly equipped and physically capable.
Though the climb is technically not as challenging as when climbing the high peaks of the Himalayas or Andes, the high elevation, low temperature, and occasional high winds make this a difficult and dangerous trek.
Acclimatisation is essential, and even the most experienced trekkers suffer some degree of altitude sickness. Kilimanjaro summit is well above the altitude at which high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema can occur.
All trekkers will suffer considerable discomfort, typically shortage of breath, hypothermia, and headaches.