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Ten More Things You Need To Know About Kilimanjaro

First Ascent of Kilimanjaro

Hans MeyerThe occupation of sub-Saharan Africa by the old-world European powers had been underway for some time by the time the general rush for territory began in the late 19th century. The first arrivals were the Portuguese who rounded the Cape in 1488 and gradually brought the coast regions of the continent into European record. It was not however until the large-scale occupation of the hinterland of the Congo River by the Belgian Crown in 1876 that other major European powers were prompted to devise a system of rules for the occupation of Africa. This was achieved at a summit of European leaders later known as the Berlin Conference of 1884/5

In the wake of the consequent seizure of vast tracts of African territory a surge of detailed exploration followed. This sought to map the continent and to lay to rest many of the geographic conundrums that had absorbed cartographers and theorists for centuries. Among these, of course, where Africa’s great mountains, and something of rush to achieve the summit of Kilimanjaro followed. This pitted some of the great contemporary names in exploration and colonial administration with academics and intellectuals of such august halls of learning as the Royal Geographic Society. It was fitting, however, that in the end, since it was Germany that held imperial title to the territory surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro, that a German should be the first to mount the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, and to confirm for the world exactly what lay at the top.

It was on October 5 1889 that German Geology professor Hans Meyer, Marangu Army Scout Yoanas Kinyala Lauwo and Austrian mountaineer Ludwig Purtscheller trudged to the top of the ‘…weather-beaten lava summit with three ringing cheers, and in virtue of my right as its first discoverer christened this hitherto unknown – the loftiest spot in Africa and the German Empire – Kaiser Wilhelm’s Peak.’

The achievement was less one of epic mountaineering than a triumph of logistics. With the forest clad flanks of Kilimanjaro unbroken by coffee shops and taverns, and the vast plains in either direction interrupted only by lakes or ocean, it was a matter of laying the foundation of a successful summit by use of supplementary camps and the careful portage of supplies. Kilimanjaro was then as it remains now a modest challenge in pure mountaineering terms, but in 19th century Africa it was an heroic journey into the interior, chronicled in Meyer’s book Across East African Glaciers, a must read for any genuine mountain enthusiast.

The Basic Geology of Kilimanjaro

What Hans Meyer discovered at the top of Kilimanjaro was what is nowadays known as the Reusch Crater; the last surviving relic of an ancient volcano that itself emerged as part of the formation of the Great Rift Valley. Also Meyer was able to plot the positions of the famous glaciers that even then had begun to recede. Kilimanjaro is an extraordinary structure, a free standing mountain that is part of no range, but linked in origin to nearby Mount Meru, the craters within the Ngorongoro complex, and of course Mount Kenya, Mount Rwenzori and the vast network of lakes that filled the cracks in between.

Three volcanoes, the summits of which are Kibo and Mawenzi and Shira, make up Mount Kilimanjaro. Shira is the oldest and the most decayed of the three. Its gradual collapse created the huge caldera that is the principal feature of the mountain summit. Mawenzi was the second peak to rise out of the massif, while the last sustained eruption was that of Kibo which, after regular and sustained activity over hundreds of thousands of years, pressed the summit skyward more or less to the level that exists today.

The mountain is peppered by a number of smaller parasitic cones that add somewhat to the geologic nature of the mountain. Overall however it is the distinctive black obsidian rock from the cataclysmic birth of Kibo that blankets much of the mountains in the modern age and lends it so much of its current character. The most recent volcanic activity occurred a little over 200 years ago and resulted in the formation of The Ash Pit within the Reusch Crater itself.

The Holy Grail of all Kilimanjaro climbers is Uhuru Peak that is the highest point of Kibo, and the highest point of the mountain. Uhuru is one of those all encompassing terms that in direct translation means simply ‘Freedom’, but more generally can be compared perhaps to the revolutionary cry of ‘Liberty, Equality & Brotherhood’ that was the harbinger of the French Revolution. It is a call to action, and Uhuru Peak celebrates Tanzanian independence from Britain in 1961. It stands at 19 340ft tall and is the highest point in Africa.

Flora & Fauna of Kilimanjaro

Giant GroundselKilimanjaro is an area of unique ecological interest. This is due mainly to its significant altitude variants and its situation more or less adjacent to the equator. This gives the mountain an ecological character that, although perhaps not immediately apparent to a lay habitué of East African Mountains, is unique. On the surface the distinct altitudinal vegetation zones are easy to identify, and these include from base upwards: plateau, semi arid scrub, cultivated and well watered slopes, thick cloud forest, open moorland, alpine desert and moss and lichen rock fields.

There are those who have devoted a lifetime study to the flora of Kilimanjaro, and even then have only scratched the surface. Diversity is the key word, and in certain species, such as the cloud forest orchids, these can experience relatively rapid evolution causing some merging of species and some confusion as to what is a species, a sub-species or merely a localised variation on an established theme.

The main floral features of Kilimanjaro are the Giant Lobelia, or Lobelia deckenii, a curious plant with an otherworldly structure and occasional gigantism thanks to high rainfall and intense tropical solar radiation. Another is the Tree Grounsel, or Senico Kilimanjari, a local variation of a common mountain plant seen on both Mount Kenya and Rwenzori. Another feature of the ecology is a selection of Protea varieties that again are a standard African highland floral species. These most commonly form part of the Cape Fynbos family. It is in fact a commercial species in many parts of Africa. The crisp, dry textured daisies that proliferate in many forms beyond the forest belt are the ubiquitous everlasting daisies, a perennial favourite in and pot pourri, and again a species common to most tropical highland regions of Africa.

A type of diminutive wild cedar of the Widdringtonia variety grows in what is known as heather fields of Kilimanjaro, and although not a heather in strict terms it certainly does give the slopes a temperate highland feel.

Animal and birdlife in the lower forests compete in every respect with the flora for sheer diversity. What can mostly be seen and heard are the larger primates consisting of the piebald Colobus Monkeys, Blue Monkeys and of course the ubiquitous baboons. Forest elephants, giraffe and buffalo are all rare and secretive forest dwellers, but a chance encounter now and again is distinctly possible along certain routes.

Known disparagingly as a sky rat the white-collared raven is a very common sight. Sometimes a single pair will track a climbing party for an entire trip in the hope of bounty, and they have on occasions been known to advance their fortunes by raiding unattended camps. They are the safe-crackers of the local animal kingdom, and can unzip a backpack and locate a bag of noodles or candy with uncanny skill. They also mate for life and a single specimen will either be a juvenile or an adult that has lost its mate.

Look out for hornbills, a variety of raptors and a staggering diversity of smaller forest species. On higher ground the presence of life grows increasingly sparse, until eventually even the ravens peel of and leave you to your own devices as you ascend the kill-zone.


Kilimanjaro has a micro climate thanks its sheer bulk. Rainfall, as can be seen by the gigantism and the dense cloud forest vegetation, is frequent and voluminous. In common with the surrounding countryside the mountain experiences a period of short and long rains. At certain times of the year the joke goes that the short rains are in the morning and the long rains in the afternoon.

The March to May season, or the long rains, occur as moisture laden winds saturate the leading slopes as they ply inland from the coast. A northeast monsoon also occurs between November and February and brings what is known as the short rains. Again it is the leading slopes that receive the lion’s share, meaning that during both of these seasons the southeast facing and northeast facing slopes are the wettest.

In between dry minds blow and the best chance exists of a rainless ascent.

Rain, however, can be a fact of life at any time, and in keeping with mountain weather the world over, can never be predicted and certainly never taken for granted.

Altitude and Other Health Issues

latrineAltitude sickness can range from mild symptoms to an evacuation condition that if ignored can lead to death. It is rare to embark on a climb to an altitude such as that of Kilimanjaro’s summit without experience at least some effects of altitude. Unwilling as can be expected to publicise the number of fatalities that annually occur on the mountain, the Kilimanjaro national Park Authority (KINAPA) are reticent to reveal statistics. However fatalities do occur, and a good number of these can be traced to Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.

The basic principal of AMS is the body’s inability to cope with a decrease in outside pressure. Some are more prone to this than others, but rarely is anyone immune. In essence the lack of outside pressure results in increased effort to fill the lungs, resulting in oxygen starvation. AMS does not strictly occur as a consequence of diminished oxygen in the atmosphere. Oxygen levels remain largely standard up to an altitude of about 10 miles.

At high altitude AMS can transmute into high altitude pulmonary or cerebral edema that is the accumulation of fluid either in the lungs or on the brain. Headache, nausea, dizziness and fatigue are all the symptoms of this, and an immediate drop in altitude is necessary if these symptoms are severe.

Many operators carry with them a pressure bag that is an inflatable body bag that mimics an increase in atmospheric pressure. However prevention is the best cure, and the adaptability of the body will almost always allow for a successful ascent if a slow and methodical process of adjustment is adopted.

The brand name drug Diamox is the current panacea and prophylactic for those anxious to avoid symptoms of altitude. Diamox stimulate breathing allowing for a greater flow of oxygen to the body.

Coughs and colds are common in the rare atmospheres as the body’s reserves diminish with high physical output, so vitamins and dietary supplements are always a good idea.

Blisters occur with depressing frequency no matter how tough your feet are. Never leave home without a moleskin, or the tough-guy variant of duct tape.

For oldies setting off to climb Kilimanjaro, or any mountain for that matter, an anti-inflammatory for joint pain is essential. Multi-vitamins to keep away minor infections are also advisable, and feet and ankle care should always be a priority.

Kilimanjaro Conservation Issues

protea-kilimandscharicaWith the sheer volume of people who attempt this climb on an annual basis litter is potentially a massive problem on Kilimanjaro. No one should insist on the portage of bottled water because with the best of intentions plastic bottles will end up drifting far and wide on the wind.

Litter in general is a severe problem, and the relative unsophistication of the porters and at times the guides too tends to cause them to pay little attention to this problem. It is everybody’s business to look out for litter, even if it is not of your own origin. A good mountain user will pick up and stash litter wherever he/she sees it.

If you specifically request it a portable lavatory can be portaged up by most outfitters for your convenience. The latrine arrangements at most camps are basic, and at times extremely basic, so for those of a modest or squeamish disposition this might be something worth requesting. If you go in the field make sure you dig a hole and bury your waste and the paper. The sight of soiled paper strung like prayer flags between strands of cedar is never conductive to the spiritual transportation of climbing a mountain.

Never remove plant or animal material, never pick flowers and never light fires.

The Name

KilimanjaroThe origins of the name Kilimanjaro are lost in time and what theories exist are largely the products of speculation. The most compelling version of many is that the name derived from two words, Kilima, which is a Swahili (a coastal lingua franca disseminated inland by Arabised coastal Africans engaged in trade) word meaning hill or mountain, and Njaro which very loosely in the local KiChagga tongue could mean whiteness, suggesting the rather lyrical and by no means inappropriate name Mountain of Whiteness.

It is a fact however that local natives during the period when these matters began to receive the attentions of linguists and anthropologists had no defining name for the mountain, and instead made reference only to its constituent parts. Kibo, or Kipoo in KiChagga means simply ‘spotted’ and refers to the rock that can be seen standing out against the snow on this peak. Mawenzi, or KiMawenzi means ‘having a broken top’, and certainly that describes Mawenzi today. Shira refers simply to a sub-group, or an area under that sub-group, itself under the general KiChagga linguistic group.

The People of Kilimanjaro

The people of the surrounding area of Kilimanjaro are of the Chagga language group, a Bantu derivative people who are believed to have made their home under the shadow of the mountain some 400 years ago. While in the days of Hans Meyer they were reasonably powerful and widespread in the region, in recent years with the rise of urbanization and urban migration it is inevitable that their influence is being rapidly diluted.

Mount Meru

Also a volcanic cone, Mount Meru is overshadowed by Kilimanjaro, but is by any standards a mammoth mountain in its own right. It obviously enjoys limited attention thanks to its even bigger cousin. At 14 980ft it is some 5000ft lower than Kilimanjaro, but still has a snowcap, and still achieves a respectable altitude. Many climbers attack Mount Meru first and then go on to tackle Kilimanjaro. It is an active volcano with relatively recent activity, and is the centerpiece of the Arusha National Park. Most outfitters who offer a Kilimanjaro package will make arrangements for a summit of Meru. The mountain is situated some 70km west of Kilimanjaro.

After Climb Safaris

ngorongoro-buffaloKilimanjaro is situated in a wider region of tremendous natural and geographic diversity. Within easy reach of the adjacent towns of Moshi and Arusha lie the two ‘A’ list wildlife conservancies of Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park. Added to this are the smaller wildlife parks of Manyara National Park, associated with Lake Manyara, Tarangire National Park, Arusha National Park and Lake Eyasi. These are all rewarding safari areas which in combination make for an absolutely superb safari.

For the amateur and professional anthropologist Olduvai Gorge, the site of excavations that revealed mankind’s earliest ancestors, can be explored on foot or through a small but well-appointed museum. There are besides this a handful of private game reserves in the region, and a significant number of scenic luxury game lodges, tented camps and associated hotels.

Expect to feel a bit of a pain in your pocket book if you sign up for a Tanzania Safari – Tanzania is one of the priciest safari destinations in Africa – but with all this going for it, and with the consequent burden of conservation, it is hardly surprising that the wildlife management authorities in the country rack up a premium.