Snow-capped and shrouded by clouds, the local Chagga people called it ‘Kilema Kyaro’ meaning ‘that which cannot be conquered’ or ‘that which makes a journey impossible.’ Simply put, it means ‘an impossible journey’. But this is thought to have been derived as a consequence, rather than precedence. Mt Kilimanjaro remained relatively unknown to the outside world until 1848 when Johann Rebmann, a missionary from Gerlingen in Germany saw it while crossing the plains of Tsavo. Today, it is the dream of every adventurer to conquer its summit and stand on the ‘Roof of Africa’.
Mt Kilimanjaro stands on an otherwise featureless part of the East African plateau, on the Tanzanian side of the Kenya border just south of the Equator, side by side with the second highest mountain in Tanzania, Mt sMeru. Both mountains are extinct volcanoes, with Kilimanjaro actually being the agglomeration of three distinct volcanoes, whose violent creation is geologically associated with creating the Great Rift Valley to the West.
These two great mountains create a microclimate around themselves and the rain shadow created to their South and East supplies the beautiful and superbly fertile land in which the towns of Moshi and Arusha are situated, full of banana groves and coffee plantations. The Mount Kilimanjaro National Park and Forest Reserve occupy the whole of Mount Kilimanjaro and its surrounding montane forest.
Five popular routes
There are five popular routes to the top — Marangu, Shira, Mweka, Umbwe and Machame. The most popular route is the Marangu Route, which starts at the Marangu Gate at 6000 ft. and has huts and facilities along the way. The other routes are more scenic with stunning views of the glaciers, and more challenging for the advanced trekker.
Regardless of the route taken, the views are magnificent and the flora and fauna of the different life zones are fascinating. Rain forests give way to moorlands and alpine meadows until these; too, give way to an alpine desert where lichens cling thinly to rocks. The landscape, though desolate, is hauntingly beautiful as you walk among the clouds.
The mountain consists of three volcanoes: Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo. Shira became extinct and collapsed leaving a series of rocky ridges on the Shira plateau. Mawenzi is dormant and its jagged peaks require a technical climb. Uhuru Peak, (5895m.) is Kibo’s highest peak but one is still considered to have “conquered” the mountain by reaching Gillman’s Point at 5685m.
Mt Kilimanjaro has five major zones and the activity within each of these is controlled by the five factors of altitude, rainfall, temperature, flora and fauna. Each zone occupies an area nearly 1000m in altitude and is subject to a corresponding decrease in rainfall, temperature and life from the forest upwards.
The lower slopes of the mountain at Marangu are heavily cultivated in particular those to the south, which receive plenty of rainfall. The cultivated belt contains many smallholdings (shambas) where bananas and various vegetables are grown. There are also several coffee major plantations.
Elsewhere, lower rainfall coupled with the porosity of the lava soils makes conditions less suitable for cultivation. The forest belt, which completely encircles the mountain and extends from about 1800m to 2900m, provides the best conditions for plant life. It serves as the water provider for all the lower slopes with up to 96 per cent of all the water on the mountain originating from this zone and then percolating down through the porous lava rock to emerge as springs.
Mt Kilimanjaro, which has attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world, continues to offer an identity and position Tanzania as a leading tourist destination in the East African region.