A hike up Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain, ascends through five breathtaking habitat types packed with interesting flora and fauna.
There’s no question Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro is an icon. Africa’s highest peak at 19,341 feet draws serious, seven-summits mountaineers. But thanks to its relatively forgiving topography, Kilimanjaro is a dream destination for all sorts of folks hoping to achieve something extraordinary. Hikers embarking on the five- to nine-day trek up and down the world’s tallest freestanding mountain will find the view everchanging. The landscape morphs with altitude, as does the specially adapted flora and fauna.
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No matter which of the routes you choose to climb Kilimanjaro, you’ll pass through the mountain’s five distinct vegetation zones, demarcated by altitude. First is the bushlands—villages, farms, and grasslands below 6,000 feet. Soon, bushlands give way to rainforests where giant tree ferns mingle with colossal trees up to an altitude of 9,200 feet.
In the rainforests, brilliant blooms stand out against a slew of green foliage. This African blood lily or fireball lily is especially striking. Red is also the color of the Kilimanjaro impatiens, a beautiful, cornucopia-shaped flower that grows nowhere else on earth.
On Kilimanjaro, your best chance to see mammals is in the forests. Handsome blue monkeys, like this one, prowl through the trees. Wailing cries and rustling leaves reveal troops of their flashier cousins, black-and-white colobus monkeys, feeding high in the canopy. Elephant, buffalo, bush pig, small antelope, and leopards ghost through the forest, rarely seen by hikers.
As you climb higher, rainforest gives way to semi-alpine heath around 9,200 feet. In the transition zone, “old-man’s beard,” a tree moss that thrives in misty conditions, drips from giant heather trees, providing a background fit for a fairytale.
The semi-alpine heathlands stretch from 9,200 to 13,100 feet. These often misty and boggy areas feature plants with special adaptations that let them withstand frequent freezing temperatures. One example is the giant lobelia, growing amidst erica shrubs. The lobelia holds reservoirs of water between its leaves that prevent the inner core from freezing.
In the heathlands, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you’re in Africa. Besides the lobelias and ericas, misty bogs support tussock grass and purple-blooming Kilimanjaro thistle. Elsewhere in Kilimanjaro’s heathland, giant groundsel trees are a conspicuous feature. These unusual plants retain their dead, withered foliage for years to insulate their stem and have evolved gigantism to survive freezing temperatures. They’d be right at home in a Dr. Seuss story.
Above 13,100 feet, with the summit tantalizing close, you’ll reach the alpine desert. At this high elevation, plants are stunted and hardy, built to withstand punishing temperature swings, powerful solar radiation, relentless wind, and little moisture.
The rocky, lunar-like slopes in the alpine desert aren’t entirely devoid of life. Resilient and papery everlasting flowers take root in the poor soils. Few animals can survive higher elevations, but ravens and the rare bearded vulture sometimes brave frigid winds for a visit. From this path, the Northern Circuit, on a clear day, you’ll see far across the Kenyan border into Amboseli National Park in the plains below, a savanna haven for wildlife.
Buffalo and eland occasionally trek high into the alpine desert, seeking minerals from the rocks. This unfortunate buffalo, practically mummified in the desert conditions, was found in a nearby cave. He came to lick salt off the rock walls and got stuck between boulders. In death, the buffalo’s carcass supports life—a mouse built a nest inside. In 1926, explorers discovered a frozen leopard near Kilimanjaro’s summit, later immortalized in Ernest Hemmingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
In the thin air from 16,000 feet to the summit of Kibo Peak at 19,341 feet, you’re climbing through Kilimanjaro’s arctic zone. Although a few hardy lichens persist, glittering glaciers and gravelly scree slopes, often topped with fresh snow, replace Kilimanjaro’s unique vegetation. If you dream of standing amid Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, go sooner rather than later. Scientists predict they could be gone entirely by 2040.