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The Kilimanjaro Guide and Porter Fraternity: The Facts Behind The Scenes

Kilimanjaro Porters

The term eco-tourism tends to evoke images of enlightened travelers treading lightly and reverently among the surviving cathedrals of nature. Through the particulars of any given ecology they are guided by a local clone of Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin, who, with deep local insight, extol the intricacies and reveal the treasures buried far beyond the reach of the naked eye.

So it is, a lot of the time, and the clones take on many forms. Sometimes they are genuine children of the soil who are moved by the need to preserve their environment, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes it is patently clear that your local guide is as ignorant of the environment as you are, and is as indifferent to it’s long term sustainability as an urban capitalist calculating the gross margin on a cubic meter of hardwood. His interest is in the bottom line, in getting back to town as quickly as possible, and in the 25 percent tip that should as a rule accrue at the end of every expedition.

Sometimes this pisses people off. Sometimes they prefer not to acknowledge it, and sometimes they just accept it as a fact of life and get on with having a good time. The fact is, however, that the large number of peripheral bodies who seem to end up on every mountain party, no matter how you might try to keep numbers to a minimum, are an important part of the system, and this is why.


Eco-tourism is ultimately not about the tourist but about the guide and the porter. Destinations like Kilimanjaro – and the same is true for the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, and Mount Kenya in neighboring Kenya – are situated in highland regions with adjacent areas of tropical forest that support to a greater or lesser degree large indigenous populations.

Confronted by poverty, diminishing resources and limited opportunity, these people often have no choice but to sacrifice the long term sustainability of their environment for the sake of short term survival. This often takes the form of slash and burn agriculture, hillside cultivation, illegal logging, poaching, bush-meat and destructive land clearing. Such preoccupations as habitat loss, deforestation, climate change and diminished diversity have an intellectual flavor that carry a minimum of weight against an empty stomach.

To satisfy our desire to see the mountain and its associated ecology preserved for both our sake and theirs, it is vital to provide some sort of tangible, edible and disposable alternative to people for whom the forests and surroundings are their sole source of sustenance. Eco-tourism is the modern panacea for this, and it takes on many forms.

Regional Examples

One of the pioneering examples of sustainable eco-tourism was developed in Zimbabwe under the Communal Areas management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) program where areas of vital ecological importance, or areas under commercial hunting concessions, came under the dual management of commercial operators and community leaders. Through the latter a large share of the revenue generated by tourism is claimed on behalf of the community, and often this in the form of facilities such as schools, libraries and clinics.

So it has been in the case in South Africa. There corporate leases of large tracts of wilderness from local and tribal communities have allowed for the development of highly sophisticated private game reserves and game lodge safari structures. These have in recent years generated huge revenues for both parties, ensuring the long term sustainability of many a fragile natural environment.

The famed South African Wild Coast is another excellent example. Through sensitive and shrewd resource management local communities have fended off commercial property developers and tourism entrepreneurs, and maintained a very localized and village based tourist industry along the coast that ensures a large degree of community involvement and benefit.

The Case Of Kilimanjaro

In the case of Kilimanjaro this takes the form of an insistence on the part of the authorities in Tanzania that no unsupported access to the National Park be allowed, and that a legal requirement for entry be the hire and utilization of local guides and porters. While for many climbers there may be absolutely no necessity for this, the fact is that these people are part of the structure of the environment, the mountain belongs to them, and if they were to be excluded completely from the bounty of tourism they would simply seek other, more direct ways to benefit.

That is not to say that all guides and porters in Kilimanjaro are without vocation. The standard of guide training in Kilimanjaro is not particularly high and the net is thrown wide for maximum inclusion. However through exposure to the system a number of local guides have achieved a high level of proficiency and are both respected and sought after amongst local operators.

These are usually not men with any particular academic background, but what they may lack in technicality they more than make up for in instinct and anecdotal experience. If you go with one of the better operators chances are you will climb in the company of one of these men, and through their unique insights you will come away much more educated than you began. Perhaps not strictly speaking a Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin, these are nonetheless people who live in very close commerce with their environment, and who understand it uniquely.

A Word Of Warning

Be cautious, however, of the bottom feeders who borrow licenses, know less than they care, and will carry you up the mountain at as great a risk to themselves as to you. In this matter you get what you pay for. Corruption is a deeply embedded phenomenon in East Africa, and it is no less prevalent in tourism than in any other aspect of commerce in the region. It is easy sometimes to imagine that it is the nasty foreign operators who exploit the innocent local tribesmen, but this is very often not the case. It is local operators making use of local desperation that quite often results in the unpleasant scenes of inexperienced and ill equipped guides and porters battling the elements at high altitude.

Remember that you are in Africa, you are not in the Alps, the Cascades or the Southern Rockies, and standards are necessarily lower. It is vital to know your operator, and insist on acceptable standards. All of this you have to take into account if you are to complete the experience without taking away with you a confusing imbalance of anger and anxiety for the perceived and real exploitation and abuse of local people.

Kilimanjaro is a destination, but it is also a resource, and there are many people claiming their share of it. Those at the bottom of the heap are the porters and guides, and as in every other profession there are avenues for those with the relevant skills and dedication to climb the latter, just as there is an almost infinite amount of space for the chancers and ner-do-wells who in all aspects of society tend to make up the numbers.