Mount Kilimanjaro is the crown of Tanzania. Rising abruptly from the open plains, capped by snow and frequently fringed by clouds, it is one of Africa’s classic images. At 19,344 feet above sea-level, it is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest walkable summit in the world. The diameter of its base is an incredible 40 miles.
Now voted one of the top three ‘Natural Wonders of Africa’, Kilimanjaro is a dormant, but not extinct volcano. Ominous rumbles can sometimes be heard – and gases emerge from the fumeholes in the crater. Although just three degrees south of the Equator, the peaks of both Kibo and Mawenzi have permanent caps of snow and ice.
During their time on the mountain, climbers pass from a tropical to arctic environment in just a few days. The various trails first pass through lush rainforests before reaching heather and open moorland where giant lobelia and huge, cactus-like groundsel grow. Above this moorland is the almost lunar landscape of an alpine desert which stretches between the two peaks of Kibo, the flat-topped dome at the centre, and Mawenzi, a group of jagged points and pinnacles on the eastern side. Inhospitable as this ‘moonscape’ may seem, animals such as herds of eland thrive there.
The highest point on Kibo, and indeed the whole of Kilimanjaro, is Uhuru Peak, with its spectacular hanging glaciers and stupendous views of the African plains some 20,000 feet below. Also on Kibo is the slightly lower peak of Gillman’s Point. These are the goals for most trekkers. The peaks of Mawenzi are for mountaineers only. With the help of porters and a guide, it is possible to walk all the way to the summit without specialised mountaineering equipment – or experience – and Kilimanjaro can be conquered by any reasonably fit person. There are several different routes including Marangu, the easiest climb and therefore the most popular, Machame, Shira, Umbwe and Rongai.
The total climb normally takes five to six days and involves four or five overnight stays in comfortable mountain huts. Fees, payable in US dollars, include the cost of both park entrance and accommodation for climbers, guides and porters but not food and equipment. Many thousands of trekkers reach Gillman’s Point or Uhuru Peak successfully each year without any real difficulty.
To avoid altitude sickness and failure, it is important to acclimatise by ascending slowly and steadily. It is best to plan a stay at a Moshi or Marangu hotel – climbing straight after the drive from Arusha is not a good idea.
Kilimanjaro can be climbed at any time of the year but the best time is considered to be from August to October and January to March. It is wet in the rainforest during the rains in April, May, June and November. December through to February are the warmest months.