Mount Kilimanjaro, the name itself is a mystery wreathed in clouds. It might mean Mountain of Light, Mountain of Greatness or Mountain of Caravans. Or it might not. The local people, the Wachagga, don’t even have a name for the whole massif, only Kipoo (now known as Kibo) for the familiar snowy peak that stands imperious, overseer of the continent, the summit of Africa.
By any name, mount Kilimanjaro is a metaphor for the compelling beauty of East Africa. When you see it, you understand why. Not only is this the highest peak on the African continent; it is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, rising in breathtaking isolation from the surrounding coastal scrubland – elevation around 900 metres – to an imperious 5,895 metres (19,336 feet).
Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s most accessible high summits, one of top notch holiday destinations that is 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.
Mount Kilimanjaro – The Summit of Africa
Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the highest ‘walkable’ mountain in the world. The trek to the summit is magnificent and spectacular 5 to 9 night undertaking, to rank amongst the greatest outdoor challenges on the planet.
But there is so much more to Kili than her 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 footslopes give way to lush montane 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. Then, 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.
Ascending Mount Kilimanjaro
There are six ascent trails on mount Kilimanjaro leading up to the foot of Kibo peak. These are (running anti-clockwise, beginning with the westernmost trail): the little-used Shira Route, the Lemosho Route, Machame Route, Umbwe Route, Marangu Routeand, running from the north, the Rongai (aka Loitokitok) Route. Each of these six routes eventually meet with a path circling the foot of the Kibo cone, a path known as either theNorthern Circuit or the Southern Circuit depending on which side of the mountain you are. (It is possible and very worthwhile to walk right around Kibo on this path, though this needs to be arranged beforehand with your agency, takes a long time, and permission from KINAPA – the mount Kilimanjaro National Parks Authority – may need to be sought before embarking on such an expedition.)
Three trails then lead up from this circular path to Kibo’s crater rim: the Western Breach Route (also known as the Arrow Glacier Route), Barafu Route, and the nameless third path which runs up from Kibo Huts to Gillman’s Point, and which we shall call the Kibo Huts Route. Which of these you will take to the summit depends largely upon which of the six paths you took to get this far: the Shira, Lemosho, Machame and Umbwe routes can use either the difficult Arrow Glacier Route or the easier (but longer) Barafu Route. The Marangu and Rongai trails use the Kibo Hut Route. You can deviate from this rule and design your own combination of trails to take you to the mount Kilimanjaro summit, but it will require special permission from KINAPA and the agencies will charge a lot more to organize such a trek.
A brief description of each of the six main trails can be found here:
The Marangu route – The Marangu Route is the oldest and traditionally the most popular mount Kilimanjaro trail, and the one that comes closest (though not very) to the trail Hans Meyer took in making the first successful assault on the summit. It is the only trail where camping is not necessary, indeed not allowed, with trekkers sleeping indormitory huts along the way. From the Kibo Huts, trekkers climb up to the summit via Gillman’s Point.
In terms of duration, the Marangu Route is one of the shorter trails, taking just five days. Many people, however, opt to take an extra day to acclimatize at Horombo Huts, using that day to visit the Mawenzi Huts Campsite at 4538m. From a safety point of view this is entirely sensible and aesthetically such a plan cannot be argued with either, for the views from Mawenzi across the Saddle to Kibo truly take the breath away; assuming, that is, that you have some left to be taken away after all that climbing.
The Machame route – The Machame Route now vies with the Marangu Route as the most popular trail. Machame is also the regarded by many guides as the most enjoyable, though it is longer and, according to most, more arduous. Despite this, the success rate on the Machame Route is higher than on the Marangu Route, possibly because the Machame is a day longer at six days and five nights (assuming you take the Barafu Route to the summit) which gives trekkers more time to acclimatize. An extra acclimatization day can – and usually is – taken in theKaranga Valley. The Machame Route also gives you the option of taking the Western Breach / Arrow Glacier Route to the mount Kilimanjaro summit.
The Machame Route via Barafu traditionally lasts for six days and five nights, though it is becoming more common for trekkers to opt for an extra night during the ascent, usually in the Karanga Valley. Not only does the extra day aid acclimatization, but this also reduces from almost six to three the number of hours walked on the day that precedes the exhausting midnight ascent to the summit, thereby allowing trekkers more time to recover their faculties, relax and prepare themselves for the final push to the top.
The Rongai Route – This is the only trail to approach Kibo from the north. Indeed, the original trail began right against the Kenyan border, though recently the trail shifted eastwards and now starts at the Tanzanian town of Loitokitok, after which the new trail has been named (though everybody still refers to it as the Rongai Route). For the final push to the mount Kilimanjaro summit, trekkers on this trail take the Kibo Hut Route, joining it either at the huts themselves or at the 5000m mark just below Hans Meyer Cave.
Again the trek can be completed in five days and four nights, though trekkers usually take a detour to the campsite beneath Mawenzi peak, adding an extra day.
The Umbwe Route – The Umbwe Route is widely regarded as the hardest mount Kilimanjaro trail, a tough vertical slog through the jungle, in places using the tree roots as makeshift rungs on a ladder. Having reached theSouthern Circular Route, trekkers can continue north-west to tackle Kibo from the west and the difficult Arrow Glacier Route; or you can follow the Southern Circular Route east round to Barafu and approach the summit from there. The entire walk up and down takes a minimum of five days if going via the Barafu Campsite (though this is entirely too rapid; take six minimum, with a day at Karanga Valley); or five minimum (six is again better) if going via the Western Breach/Arrow Glacier, with more days if sleeping in the crater.
How difficult is the Umbwe route? Despite its reputation as the toughest trek, the Umbwe Route is still a non-technical climb. Taxing, but not technical. All you need are an iron will and calves of steel; this is truly a trek to test your mettle. The difficulty is that it’s so damn relentlessly uphill. Indeed, looking back on the first couple of days we can think of very few places where you actually descend, the longest being the five minutes or so at the end of the second stage when you walk down to the Barranco Campsite.
The Shira Plateau and Lemosho Routes – Both the Shira Plateau and Lemosho trails involve a crossing of the expansive Shira Plateau which stretches out for around 13km to the west of Kibo. This plateau is actually a caldera, a collapsed volcanic crater: when you are walking on the plateau, you are walking on the remains of the first of mount Kilimanjaro’s three volcanoes to expire, around 500,000 years ago; it was then filled by the lava and debris from the later Kibo eruption.
The plateau has a reputation for its fauna, largely thanks to its proximity to Amboseli National Park in Kenya from where herds of elephant, eland, buffalo, and big cats such as the lion have been known to wander. Indeed, not so many years ago trekkers on these routes had to be accompanied by an armed ranger (for which they had to pay) to protect them against encounters with predators. That said, you will be very, very lucky to see any evidence of wildlife existing on the plateau, save for the odd hoofprint or two and the occasional sun-dried lumps of scat and spoor.
So while the proximity of Africa’s finest wild beasts adds a certain frisson of excitement to the walk, don’t choose either of these trails purely on the strength of their reputation for spotting game: it’s an awful long way to come just to see some dessicated elephant shit.
Descending Kilimanjaro – the designated descents
In an attempt to control the number of people walking on each trail, and thus limit the amount of soil erosion on some of the more popular routes, KINAPA introduced regulations regarding the descent routes and which ones you are allowed to take. In general, the main rule is as follows: those ascending Kilimanjaro from the south or south-west (ie by taking the Machame, Umbwe, Lemosho or Shira routes) must take as their descent route the Mweka trail; whereas if you have climbed the mountain from the south-east or north (ie on the Marangu or Rongai/Loitokitok trails) you must descend by theMarangu Route. Those trekkers who wish to deviate from these rules should first seek permission from KINAPA.
About mount Kilimanjaro National Park
Size: 1668 sq km 641 sq miles).
Location: Northern Tanzania, near the town of Moshi.
128 km (80 miles) from Arusha.
About one hour’s drive from Kilimanjaro airport.
What to do
Six usual trekking routes to the summit and other more-demanding mountaineering routes.
Day or overnight hikes on the Shira plateau. Nature trails on the lower reaches.
Visit the beautiful Chala crater lake on the mount Kilimanjaro’s southeastern slopes.
When to go climb mount Kilimanjaro
Clearest and warmest conditions from December to February, but also dry (and colder) from July-September.
The cost of climbing mount Kilimanjaro
The most significant cost of your holiday in Tanzania is the cost of the mount Kilimanjaro trek itself. Set aside US$1100-plus for the absolute cheapest trek, more if you plan on ascending by an unusual route (or on the Rongai and Lemosho Routes which usually involve greater transport costs to get to), want to take more than the absolute minimum of five days, or insist on walking without other trekkers. Once on the mountain, however, you won’t need to pay for anything else throughout the trek, except for the occasional chocolate bar or beer which you can buy at the ranger’s huts on the way (though don’t forget tipping!!!).
Away from mount Kilimanjaro and the other national parks, by far the most expensive place in Tanzania is Zanzibar. Elsewhere, you’ll find transport, food and accommodation, the big three day-to-day expenses of the traveller’s life, are pretty cheap in Tanzania and particularly in Moshi and Arusha:
Accommodation in Tanzania
Basic tourist accommodation in Tanzania starts at around £5/US$7.50. You can get cheaper, non-tourist accommodation, though this is often both sleazy and unhygienic and should only be considered as a last resort. We have not reviewed these cheap hotels individually in the book, but we do give some indication of where they can be found in the introduction to the accommodation sections in the city chapters. At the other end of the spectrum, there are hotel rooms and luxury safari camps going for anything up to US$2000 per night in the high season.
Food in Tanzania
Food in Tanzania can be dirt cheap if you stick to street sellers plying their wares at all hours of the day – though dirt is often what you get on the food itself too, with hygiene standards not always of the highest. Still, even in a clean and decent budget restaurant the bill should still start at only £2.50-3.50/US$4-5.50.
Public transport in Tanzania
Public transport is cheap in Tanzania, though it could be said you get what you pay for: dilapidated buses, potholed roads, inadequate seating and narcoleptic drivers do not a pleasant journey make, but this is the reality of public transport, Tanzanian-style. Then again, at around £1/US$1.50 per hour for local buses and dalla-dallas (the local minibuses), it seems churlish to complain. That said, given the appalling number of accidents on Tanzanian roads (they say that after malaria and AIDS, road accidents are the biggest killer in the country), if your budget can stretch to it do consider spending it on transport: extra safety and comfort are available on the luxury buses, and at only a slightly higher price.
Fancy trekking up the world’s most beautiful mountain? Fancy hiking through four seasons in a week, from steamy forest to snowy summit? Fancy welcoming in the new day from the highest point in Africa? If these are some of the things going through your mind, then think of taking a challenge of climbing mount Kilimanjaro!
Visit the African destinations category to learn more about other tourism opportunities available in Africa!