Written by Emma Boyle
Kilimanjaro’s colossal size may be intimidating, but it’s actually one of the world’s most accessible summits. Each year, more than 25,000 trekkers of all abilities flock to this East African massif to make their mark on its glacier-ringed peak.
Rising majestically above the East African plains, Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s greatest natural phenomenons. Attracting trekkers of all ages and from all walks of life keen to embark on an extreme boundary-pushing expedition, its familiar cone-shaped, snow-peaked summit is accessible to all since neither technical equipment nor mountaineering knowledge are required to reach it.
However, even though you can stroll up Kilimanjaro’s benign-looking summit assisted by little more than walking poles, it is important to remember that this is still a demanding and dangerous trek. Although thousands attempt the ascent every year, only a third reach the top, and serious (sometimes fatal) accidents can occur. Sleepless nights, exhaustion, extreme cold, and the constant nagging headaches and nausea attributed to altitude sickness push the body and mind to their absolute limit.
Rearing to a height of 5,895m above sea level, Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent and the tallest freestanding mountain on the globe. Splendid in its isolation, Kilimanjaro is also one of the world’s biggest volcanoes, and made up of three distinct cones. Products of cataclysmic eruptions along East Africa’s Great Rift Valley less than a million years ago, they include the collapsed Shira Peak (3,962m) to the west (famed today for its expansive windswept plateau and ridge) and the jagged weather-worn mountain of Mawenzi (5,149m) to the east. Both are extinct.
The third and most recent cone, Kibo (aptly meaning ‘snow’ in the local Chagga dialect) is the most notorious, being home to three concentric craters, a 130m-deep sulphurous steam-emitting Ash Pit and Uhuru Peak – every trekker’s ultimate goal. Situated between Shira and Mawenzi peaks, Kibo is fringed by sparkling glacier cathedrals clinging precipitously to its circuitous rim. Although classed as dormant, Kibo’s last activity was only 200 years ago.
Kilimanjaro nurtures up to six distinct climatic zones. A trek up its slopes is an experience of four seasons within four days as the temperature drops a degree for every 150m that you climb. At its base, cultivated farmlands give way to the root-ridden pathways of the steamy forest zone, slick with mud from the frequent rains. Towering trees adorned with lichen soon begin to shrink as paths ascend into a low alpine zone characterised by scrubby heather-flushed heathlands, which offer the first striking glimpses across the African savannah. Beyond lie misty moorlands dotted with giant tree groundsels and endemic cabbage-shaped lobelias, beloved of the long-tailed, metallic green Malachite Sunbirds.
As you ascend further, shrubs wither, colours fade, precipitation all but ceases, and temperatures plummet as the boulder-strewn, wind-whipped plateaus of the arid alpine desert rise desolately above a bubbling mattress of clouds. Above 5,000m, Kibo’s ice cap is otherworldly, and the summit features little more than black porous rocks, loose scree, sheer walls of ice, and blinding white snow, not to mention jaw-dropping views over Africa. It’s a startling, completely inhospitable environment; freezing temperatures, a scarcity of water, and low oxygen levels prohibit virtually anything from living.
Five official ascent routes take you up Kilimanjaro, along with one descent route (Mweka) and a two-way route (Marangu) where you sleep in shared timber huts. Routes vary in length and difficulty, boast varied views, and approach the mountain from different angles. Machame (49km) tackles the mountain from the southwest, and is pretty and popular, yet often crowded, whilst northern Rongai (65km) is thought to be the easiest and quietest. Few trekkers choose the eastern Umbwe Route (37km) as it is simply too steep. Even within the official routes, there are numerous diversions and combinations.
Weather permitting, summit attempts begin at midnight in order for you to reach the top by sunrise and make the long descent in daylight. Pathways lead up a seemingly endless series of boulder-strewn scree switchbacks, yet in the darkness of the early hours all that’s visible are the bobbing glow of head torches as you make your final, breathless push up the peak. Whether your ascent route joins the crater rim at Gillman’s Point (5,719m) or further along at Stella Point (5,752m), you’ll still need to muster a lot of energy and mental strength before you can even contemplate your knee-wobbling descent, and the hot showers and comfy beds that await. The gentle incline of Uhuru Peak (plus an infuriating number of false peaks) is still at least one gasp-ridden hour away.
Although the last day’s slog to the summit is incredibly demanding, those leading up to it are a lot more relaxed, as they offer pleasant wanders through Kilimanjaro’s spectacular, changeable landscapes. From the beginning of the trek, guides dictate an unhurried pace that would be far from exhausting if it wasn’t for the altitude, and hikes tend to last an average of six hours a day. Optional acclimatisation walks from camp are often incorporated into longer routes, and are designed to help get your lungs used to the thinner oxygen-starved air.
The best trekking operators take a lot of effort to ease your load at camp and make you feel as comfortable as possible. Porters – responsible for lugging heavy camping gear, cooking equipment, food, water supplies and even chemical loos from camp to camp – rush to relieve you of your daypack as soon as you arrive and escort you to your pre-erected tent. A bowl of ‘washy washy’ (hot water) is proffered twice a day (along with morning tea in bed), hot drinks are always available, and popcorn is served as an end-of-hike snack. With the prospect of long restful evenings, camp life simmers with communal activity as stories are shared, card games dealt, and dinners served beneath starlit skies.
Mount Kilimanjaro sits within its own 75,575 hectares of species-rich national park, which protects the entire terrain rising above the mountain’s tree line. Estimates put the number of floral species at more than 2,500, birds at 179, and mammals at 140, with the majority of wildlife to be found in the lower, forested zone. If huffing your way exhaustedly to Kilimanjaro’s summit doesn’t hold a great appeal yet its setting does, then a guided nature walk through this lushly forested reserve provides a very rewarding alternative.
You probably know a few Swahili words already from Disney’s The Lion King. Simba is the most literal character and the word means ‘lion’; Pumbaa (the warthog) translates as ‘foolish’ or ‘silly’, and the kindly and wise Rafiki is ‘friend’. His chant in the movie includes the words asante sana which means ‘thank you very much’.
By the numbers
Kilimanjaro’s ice fields have shrunk by 85% since 1912.
On December 26, 2004, ultra-runner Simon Mtuy of Tanzania broke the record for the fastest ascent and descent of Kilimanjaro with an eye-watering time of 8 hours and 27 minutes. nomadicexperience.com
Although Kilimanjaro’s last major eruption occurred an estimated 360,000 years ago, its most recent activity resulted in an inverted Ash Pit forming in Kibo’s Reusch Crater just two centuries ago.