Above the gently rolling hills and plateaus of northern Tanzania rises the snowy peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, its slopes and glaciers shimmering above the rising clouds. At 5896 meters, Mt. Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest mountain and one of the continent’s most magnificent sights. It has three main volcanic peaks: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. The name itself, “Kilimanjaro,” remains a mystery, wreathed in clouds as is the mountain. Its possible meanings include Mountain of Light, Mountain of Greatness or Mountain of Caravans. Not even the local people, the Wachagga, have a name for the snowy peak that stands imperious, overseer of the continent, the summit of Africa, except for Kippo, or Kibo. Yet Kilimanjaro, by whatever name she may be known, serves as a metaphor for the compelling beauty of East Africa. When you see her you will understand why. The mountain is located near the town of Moshi and is a protected area. It is carefully regulated for climbers to enjoy without leaving a trace of their presence.
The mountain’s ecosystems are as strikingly beautiful as they are varied and diverse. On the lowland slopes, much of the mountain is farmland, with coffee, banana, cassava, and maize crops grown for both subsistence and sale. A few larger coffee farms still exist on the lower slopes, but much of the area outside the national park has been subdivided into small plots. Inside the park, the lower altitudes of Mt. Kilimanjaro are covered in thick lowland forest which gives way to alpine meadows as the air begins to thin. Near the peak, the landscape is harsh and barren, with rocks and ice the predominant features above a breathtaking view.
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highlight of most visitors’ experiences in Tanzania. Few mountains can claim the grandeur, the breathtaking views of Amboseli National Park in Kenya, the Rift Valley, and the Masaai Steppe, that belong to Kilimanjaro. Hiking on the ‘rooftop of Africa’—the highest point on the continent—is the adventure of a lifetime, especially when, if the climb is paced well, everyone from seasoned trekkers to first-time enthusiasts can scale the snowy peak. For more information, see the ‘Mountain Climbing‘ section of this website under ‘Things to Do: Kilimanjaro.’
Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s most accessible high summits, a beacon for visitors from around the world. Most climbers reach the crater rim with little more than a walking stick, proper clothing and determination. And those who reach Uhuru Point, the actual summit, or Gillman’s Point on the lip of the crater, will have earned their climbing certificates. And their memories.
But there is so much more to Kilimanjaro than just the summit. The ascent of the slopes is a virtual climatic world tour, from the tropics to the Arctic. Even before you cross the national park boundary (at the 2,700m contour), the cultivated lower slopes give way to lush mountain forest, inhabited by elusive elephant, leopard, buffalo, the endangered Abbot’s duiker, and other small antelope and primates. Higher still lies the moorland zone, where a cover of giant heather is studded with otherworldly giant lobelias. Above 4,000m, a surreal alpine desert supports little life other than a few hardy mosses and lichen. Finally, the last vestigial vegetation gives way to a winter wonderland of ice and snow–and the magnificent beauty of the roof of the continent.