Mount Kilimanjaro has five different types of terrain that you'll encounter while trying to reach the summit.
Cultivated Farmlands: Around the outskirts of Moshi near the base of the mountain are endless subsistence plantations of maize and banana. Small villages line the routes up to the various starting points on Kilimanjaro, and small children play in the fields.
Forests: The forest zone spreads around the base of the mountain; it's hot, humid, and generally wet. Starting at about 1,798 meters (5,900 feet)—there's cultivated farmland below this—the forest reaches up to 2,800 meters (9,186 feet) and is home to a myriad of small creatures and primates, including the black-and-white colobus monkey. Tall trees reach for the sunlight, their feet firmly anchored into a maze of roots on which cling mosses and brightly colored flowers including the rare and exotic impatiens kilimanjari flower, unique to this mountain. Lichens hang in sheets and small birds dart to and fro.
Shrubland or Heath Zone: At the edge of the forest zone, the vegetation suddenly changes to shrubland that's full of flowers, shrubs like the 6-meter- (20-feet-) high erica arborea, and daisy bushes that grow as big as pompoms. This zone extends up to about 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) where the landscape turns into alpine desert.
Alpine Desert: As the shrubs of the heath zone diminish in size, one enters the alpine desert, full of gnarled volcanic lava rock. Small burrows shelter the hyrax and field mice that eke out a living in this desert moonscape. Large white-naped ravens scavenge among the sand and stone.
Glaciers and Summit: As the desert rises to 5,000 meters (16,404 feet), the summit of the mountain looms above, her flanks covered in ashen scree. Massive age-old glaciers, hanging as though suspended in time, are slowly receding as the planet warms. Here among these towering blocks of ice at 5,895 meters (19,340 feet), is Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano on the roof of Africa, is one of the closest points in the world to the sun (Chimborazo in the Andes is the closest). It's also the highest peak on the continent and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. So great is her global attraction that approximately 12,000 people from around the world attempt to reach her mighty summit each year.
Rising to an incredible height of 5,895 meters (19,336 feet) above sea level, Mt. Kilimanjaro is a continental icon. She towers over the surrounding Amboseli plains and covers an area of about 750 square km (290 square miles). On a clear day, she can be seen from 150 km (93 miles) away. Thousands attempt to reach Kilimanjaro's highest peak, but only about 64% will officially make the summit, known as Uhuru Peak. Many reach the lower Stella Point at 5,745 meters (18,848 feet) or Gilmans' Point, at 5,681 meters (18,638 feet), which earns them a certificate from the Kilimanjaro Parks Authority.
The origin of the name Kilimanjaro has varying interpretations. Some say it means "Mountain of Greatness," while others believe it to mean "Mountain of Caravans." There's a word in Swahili, kilima, which means "top of the hill." An additional claim is that it comes from the word kilemakyaro, which, in the Chagga language, means "impossible journey." Whatever the meaning, the visual image of Kilimanjaro is of a majestic peak.
Kilimanjaro is one of the few high peaks in the world that can be climbed without any technical gear. Most climbers head up her flanks with the aid of trekking poles, while others abandon their poles for a camera and a zoom lens. However, don't be fooled by the absence of technical gear. Oxygen levels near the summit decrease to about 60% of levels at the coast. A simple act of rolling up a sleeping bag can wear you out. Walking and ascending slowly will help your body adapt to these diminished oxygen levels. About 12,000 thrill seekers arrive on the mountain each year, each accompanied by an entourage of four to six people that include porters, guides, and a cook.
Most treks head out from Moshi, a bustling town at the mountain's base whose streets are lined with tourist stalls, tailors, banks, and restaurants. Here you'll find registered guides and accredited trekking companies that will arrange your climb. We like Nomadic Adventure (www.nomadicadventures.co.za) because they offer great personal service, have climbed the mountain many times themselves, and get involved in the big Kilimanjaro Cleanup, a project that hauls thousands of pounds of waste off the mountain each year.
There are eight routes to the summit: Marangu, Rongai, Shira, Lemosho, Machame, Umbwe, and the Northern Circuit—all have long drop toilets.
1 Marangu is the shortest (it takes a minimum of five days) and thus the most popular route, with accommodations in huts equipped with bunk beds, public dining areas, and flush toilets. Some even have solar-heated showers. The other routes, which take at least six days to trek, require camping.
2 Rongai (or Loitokitok) is the quietest as it heads out close to the Kenyan border, a far distance from Moshi. Along with Marangu, Rongai is classified as an easier route.
3 Shira, 4 Lemosho, and 5 Machame are steep and difficult, but also more scenic as they head through the distinct geographical zones: forest, shrub land, alpine desert, and snowfields.
6 Umbwe is the steepest, but also the most direct ascent to the summit.
7 Mweka can only be used as a descending route from the western side.
The Northern Circuit takes eight or nine days through wilderness and there's little foot traffic. It's also the only route to cross the Northern face.
Elsewhere in Tanzania
- Arusha National Park
- Dar es Salaam
- Gombe Stream and Mahale Mountains National Parks
- Lake Manyara National Park
- Ngorongoro Crater
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