The highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peak is usually veiled by clouds, but on clear days the summit is one of the most arresting sights in Africa. This is because Kilimanjaro is the largest free-standing mountain in the world, rising from the surrounding plains for more than five vertical kilometers. Kilimanjaro, or Kili to those in the know, is a must-see on the East African safari circuit: combine it with Tanzania’s Arusha National Park or, since the mountain lies on the Kenyan border, take classic photos of elephants ambling in front of Kili from Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
The prospect of climbing Kilimanjaro is nearly irresistible to outdoorsy travellers to Tanzania. The best months to scale the mountain are January, February and September. July and August are also fine, but somewhat colder. The climb requires no special training or equipment, though time must be taken to acclimatise to prevent altitude sickness, which can cause pounding headaches. That said, climbing Kili is no stroll; it’s a seriously tough hike and usually takes five days or more. You should be fit and prepared – both mentally, physically and monetarily. There are many routes to the top, which vary in terms of strenuousness, climbing time, physical beauty and wildlife abundance.
One of the things that makes the climb so appealing is the fact that Kilimanjaro has five vegetation zones, which range from the rural and cultivated lower slopes through the montane forest zone, the mid-altitude heath and moorland, and the alpine zone which contains almost only lichen, to the summit, which is bare of almost all plant life. Climbers walk through all of these habitats on their way to the top.
According to legend, the first person to ascend Kilimanjaro was King Menelik 1, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The first Europeans to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro were Dr Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller. Today, more than 20,000 people a year attempt the climb, and efforts are being made to stop the erosion on the most popular routes.
Kilimanjaro is a relatively young mountain, formed by volcanic activity about a million years ago. It is actually made up of three peaks: Shira Peak (3,962m high, which collapsed about half a million years ago), Mawenzi Peak (5,149m high) and Uhuru Peak (5,985m high). The volcanic part – also the highest and steepest part – of Kilimanjaro is called Mount Kibo. Shira’s caldera was filled with lava after Kibo erupted violently about 360,000 years ago, forming the current Shira plateau.
Although Kibo is now dormant, scientists estimated in 2003 that molten magma is present only 400m below the summit crater, and local legends tell of volcanic activity as recently as 170 years ago. Although no new activity is expected in the near future, several collapses and landslides have occurred on the slopes of Mount Kibo and there are fears that Kibo volcano might collapse, triggering a huge eruption.