This snow-capped peak near the equator in Africa is one of the world’s Seven Summits climbing challenges
Kilimanjaro changed the way people thought of Africa. The first European missionary to see a snow-capped mountain this close to the equator in Africa was regarded as crazy and sent home in 1848. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcanic mountain in Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania. It’s the highest peak in Africa and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. For more than a century people have been climbing it, the first successful attempt by German geologist Hans Meyer in 1889. Today there are seven trekking routes on Kilimanjaro – six up to the summit and one, called Mweka, which everyone uses for the descent.
A dormant volcano that rises to 4,566m some 50 km west of Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru is Africa’s fifth-highest massif, and the three-day hike to its summit could be viewed either as a budget alternative to Kilimanjaro or a tempting aperitif for hikers who want to acclimatise to high altitude conditions. Protected within Arusha National Park, Meru supports a similar sequence of altitudinal vegetation zones to Kilimanjaro, but wildlife is far more prolific and the likes of elephant, buffalo and giraffe are seen quite regularly by hikers. The trails are also far less crowded than the more popular routes up Kilimanjaro, there’s less risk of altitude-related health issues, and the spectacular scenery includes views across to snow-capped Kilimanjaro. For those who aren’t ken on an overnight hike, it is also possible to undertake day walk into Meru’s partially-collapsed caldera and stand below the spectacular 1,500m-high cliff that forms its western wall.
Kinukamori and Kilasia Waterfalls
Measuring about 15m and 30m high respectively, these two pretty waterfalls can easily be visited on foot from the small town of Marangu, which forms a popular overnight stop prior to climbing Kilimanjaro. In addition to offering a good opportunity to acclimatise to medium-altitude hiking, the waterfalls are enclosed by forests that harbour a wealth of birds as well as troops of blue monkey and black-and-white colobus. The pool at the base of Kilasia Waterfall is said to be safe for swimming.
One of northern Tanzania’s most underrated scenic gems, Chala lies nestled within one of the subsidiary volcanic cones that stud the eastern foothills of Kilimanjaro. Invisible until you stand on the crater rim, the near-circular lake has a diameter of 3km and its translucent turquoise water is hemmed in by towering cliffs draped in tropical vegetation. A very steep footpath leads down to the shore, which teems with birdlife, but swimming is inadvisable due to the presence of crocodiles (one of which killed a British volunteer in 2002).
Amboseli National Park
A highlight of Kenya’s safari circuit, the 392km2 Amboseli National Park lies at the northern base of Kilimanjaro and, clouds permitting, it offers perhaps the finest views of the iconic mountain, as well as the opportunity to photograph elephants, giraffes and other wildlife below its snow-capped peak. Amboseli is well-known for its outsized tuskers, subject of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, which was established in 1975 and retains exhaustive records of most births, deaths and relationships within an extended community of around 50 families whose range centres on the national park. Other wildlife includes lion, cheetah, hippo and large numbers of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle. Two permanent swamps, fed by subterranean streams that rise on Kilimanjaro, support a wealth of aquatic birds, including long-toed lapwing, great white pelican and grey crowned-crane.
Credit: Offbeat Mara Camp
The wedge of Tanzania land that divides the northwest base of Kilimanjaro from Amboseli National Park comprises several blocks of Maasai community land that recently amalgamated as the Enduimet Wildlife Management Area. Generally referred to as West Kilimanjaro, this 1,800km² tract of dry savanna is one of the Tanzania’s most underpublicised and exclusive safari destinations, serviced as it is by a mere two small upmarket tented camps. A major attraction is the in-your-face views of Kilimanjaro, but it also offers good wildlife viewing – wildebeest, zebra, eland, impala, Grant’s gazelle, hartebeest, the remarkable stretch-necked gerenuk, low densities of cheetah and lion. The resident elephant population is dominated by lone bulls, except over June and July, when large matriarchal herds cross through en route between Amboseli and the forests of Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro is not primarily a wildlife destination, but the national park supports four different vegetation zones, each with its own distinct flora and fauna that are determined by the altitude.
Montane Forest Zone
The most biodiverse vegetation zone is the lush evergreen rainforest that dominates from altitudes of 1,800m up to 3,000m. This is the wettest part of the mountain, with the southern slopes receiving up to 2,000mm of rain annually, and it looks and feels like the archetypal tropical jungle – hot, humid, coloured in infinite shades of green, and alive with bird song. More than 1,200 vascular plant species have been recorded in these forests, many of them endemic to this one mountain.
Common forest trees include the towering East African camphorwood Ocotea usambarensis, Yellowwood Podocarpus latifolius and various wild figs Ficus spp as well as the wild olive Olea africana, macaranga Macaranga kilimandscharica and at higher altitudes fragrant Hagenia Hagenia abyssinica draped atmospherically in old-man’s beard lichens, and African pencil-cedar Juniperus procera. Seasonal flowers include the stunning tuba-shaped red-and-yellow Impatiens kilimanjari and various violets and epiphytic orchids. Another feature of the higher forest zone are large stands of towering bamboo forest.
The most frequently seen forest mammals are monkeys. Troops of black-and-white colobus leap acrobatically between the trees, long white tails in tow, while a habituated troop of the lovely blue monkey frequents some of the overnight huts. Buffalo and elephant are present but seldom seen, though you might well notice their fresh spoor on the forest trails. Predators such as leopard and serval are even more elusive, but you might catch a glimpse of the beautifully marked bushbuck or one of three recorded species of duiker. The largest of these, the elusive Abbott’s duiker, is an Endangered species now regarded to be endemic to a quintet of montane forests in eastern Tanzania due to environmental loss and poaching elsewhere in its natural range. After dark, the night air is frequently shattered by the banshee wail of the otherwise unobtrusive tree hyrax.
The forest birdlife is sensational. You’re almost certain to see silvery-cheeked hornbill, a massive and rather comical bird that reveals its presence with a raucous nasal call and heavy wingbeats. There’s also the stellar Hartlaub’s turaco, a green and purple bird with deep red underwings, the vociferous but elusive emerald cuckoo, and a host of colourful robin-chats, drab but cheerful greenbuls, and nectar-loving sunbirds.
Other wildlife includes plentiful butterflies (including at least four endemic species), the hulking foot-long Jackson’s three-horned chameleon and slightly smaller Kilimanjaro two-horned chameleon, and numerous small but colourful tree frogs.
Semi-Alpine Moorland Zone
The dominant vegetation zone between the 3,000m and 4,000m contours is a heath-like cover studded with abundant wild flowers, including the exquisite yellow-flowered alpine sugarbush Protea kilimandscharica and alpine red-hot poker Kniphofia thomsonii. Though less biodiverse than the forest zone, the pastel-shaded moorland has an ethereal beauty all its own, particularly in the morning when it often swathed in mist. This zone notable for the presence of two most distinctive plants: the giant lobelia Lobelia deckenii, which grows to 3m high and is capped by a massive whorled rosette, and the giant groundsel Dendrosenecio kilimanjari, which grows up to 5m high and is capped by a spike of yellow flowers.
Aside from small rodents such as the ubiquitous four-striped grass mouse, mammal densities are low on the moorland zone. But look out for the endearing rock hyrax, and for the pairs of klipspringer that sometimes stand sentinel on rocky outcrops. Birdlife is limited to a few species adapted to high altitude environments. The star among these is undoubtedly the scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird, a beautiful iridescent green bird often seen feeding on proteas and red-hot pokers, but it is run a close second by spectacular but scarce lammergeyer (bearded vulture). Other birds of the moorland zone include Augur buzzard, Mountain buzzard, Alpine swift, Alpine chat and Streaky seedeater.
Classified as a semi-desert on account if its low rainfall, the alpine zone – roughly between 4,000m and 5,000m – also experience dramatic daily temperature contrasts. Plant life is restricted to around 55 hardy species of grass, lichen and moss. The common eland – Africa’s largest antelope – occasionally strays up into this zone, and elephants have been recorded upon occasion, but essentially there is no wildlife up this high.
Above the 5,000m contour, rainfall is practically non-existent, and permanent life forms are restricted to a few masochistic lichens. As for large wildlife, a pack of African wild dog was observed here in 1962, and a frozen leopard was discovered in 1926, and – well, that’s about it.
Outside the Park
It is worth noting that the Tanzania/Kenya border region occupied by Kilimanjaro supports some of the world’s finest ‘Big Five’ reserves, including the world-famous Serengeti National Park and abutting Masai Mara National Reserve. Furthermore, two superb game-viewing destinations lie in the shadow of the great mountain itself. Kenya’s popular Amboseli National Park is where most of those iconic photographs of elephants crossing the dusty plain, or giraffes nibbling on an acacia, below the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro, were captured. Rather more obscure is Tanzania’s West Kilimanjaro, a wedge of dry savanna protected as a wildlife management area in collaboration with local Masai pastoralists, and notable not only for offering superb in-your-face views of Kilimanjaro, but also for its plentiful wildlife, which includes elephant, lion, cheetah and typical dry-country antelope.
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When is the best month to travel to Kilimanjaro National Park?
Best Time to Climb Kilimanjaro
As might be expected of an isolated massif of its immense magnitude, Kilimanjaro supports a microclimate – indeed, several different altitude- and rainfall-related microclimates – that bears little resemblance to conditions on the surrounding plains. Precipitation is largely associated with moist trade winds that blow inland from the Indian Ocean towards Kilimanjaro’s southeastern slopes, which tend to receive far more rain than their northern counterparts.
Broadly speaking, the slopes below 3,000m are warm, humid and well-watered, with an annual rainfall of up to 2,000mm supporting a classic equatorial swathe of lush montane rainforest. Between 3,000m and 4,000m, the climate is significantly dryer and cooler, while the higher reaches of the mountain receive very little rainfall, and effectively support an alpine desert characterised by extreme daily temperature shifts, often dripping below freezing at night before soaring to above 30°C in the heat of the day.
Above 5,000m, the mountain supports a permanent glacial ice cap. This covered around 20km² and buried the main caldera of Kibo when the mountain was first surveyed in the late 19th century, but now extend over less than 2km², largely as as a result of global warming, and at the present rate of retreat, it will most likely vanish entirely before 2060. Though it can be quite warm by day, temperatures might drop as low as -20°C on the summit, and the wind chill factor makes it feel even colder.
Because Kilimanjaro lies so close to the equator, there isn’t a great deal of monthly variation in average minimum and maximum temperatures, so this shouldn’t be a big factor in your timing. By contrast, rainfall on Kilimanjaro is highly seasonal, and it is definitely worth aiming to climb during one of the dry seasons (January to March/June to October) and avoiding the long rains that fall over of April to May. The dry season is not only more pleasant, but it improves your chance of summiting, as conditions are less tiring underfoot and hiking boots and other gear are less likely to be soaked.
Extreme weather conditions are a likelihood at all times of year, especially at higher altitudes, where subzero nocturnal temperatures are often exacerbated by wind. But January is usually a good month to climb Kilimanjaro in climatic terms. It is quite dry and relatively cool, which reduces the impact of humidity on the lower slope and improves the likelihood of extensive snow on the peaks. There is a slight risk of late rains extending into the first week or two of January, and this fortnight is also an extension of the secondary peak season associated with Christmas and New Year, so it can be relatively busy. The second half of January is quieter.
February is an optimum month for climbing Kilimanjaro. Tourist volumes are lower than during the main hiking season of August to September, and the weather is quite dry and relatively cool, which improves the likelihood of extensive snow on the peaks. That said, it gets extremely cold at higher altitudes throughout the year, and hikers should be prepared for subzero temperatures and high winds.
Early March, like February, is a great time to climb Kilimanjaro the weather is quite dry, relatively cool, and very quiet. Nocturnal temperatures drop below freezing at higher altitudes, as is the case all year though, and the risk of rain increases as the month progresses.
April is by far the wettest month on Kilimanjaro and should be avoided at all costs. If that isn’t possible, use the Rongai Route on the dryer northern slopes. Whichever route you use, extreme weather – temperatures way below freezing and high winds – is likely at higher altitudes.
May is very wet and although rainfall is lower than April, the ground may be waterlogged and forest trails will still be very slippery. Climbing Kilimanjaro is best avoided in May, though it does have the advantage of being very uncrowded. If you do hike at this time of year, best to choose the Rongai Route, which ascends the dryer northern slopes. Even then, arctic temperatures exacerbated by wind are normal at night on the upper slopes.
Early June is the tail end of the wet season and even though rainfall is unlikely to be too high, post-rain conditions on Kilimanjaro may be slippery and waterlogged underfoot. It gets dryer towards the end of the month, which is usually a pretty good time to climb Kilimanjaro, before the main high season tourist influx. As is the case throughout the year, be prepared for extreme cold and possibly high winds at night in the alpine and arctic zones.
Although extreme weather conditions – subzero nocturnal temperatures and chill winds – are a likelihood at higher altitudes, July is a relatively dry and warm month, and a very good time to climb Kilimanjaro. It also marks the start of summer holidays in the northern hemisphere, and of the busiest tourist season. Avoid the crowds by using the less popular Shira, Rongai or Mweka Route.
As is the case at all times of year, it will be freezing cold at night in the alpine and arctic zones, but assuming climatic conditions are your main consideration, August is probably the driest and warmest month, and ideal for climbing Kilimanjaro. However, as summer holidays in the northern hemisphere are in full flow, it is also usually one of the two busiest months. The Shira, Rongai or Mweka Routes will be less crowded than Marangu or Machame.
Dry and relatively warm weather can be expected, making September ideal for climbing Kilimanjaro in climatic terms, though extreme cold and possibly high winds are normal in the alpine and arctic zones. September coincides with summer holidays in Europe and North America, so the mountain tends to be very busy. Avoid the Marangu or Machame Routes in preference for the quieter Shira, Rongai or Mweka Routes.
Subzero nocturnal temperatures are normal throughout the year at higher altitudes, often exacerbated by wind. Nevertheless, October is a very good month to climb, with relatively dry and warm weather, and it is generally less busy than August or September. The short rains may start to kick in towards the end of the month, but after four months of dry weather, this shouldn’t be a major concern.
November is a wet month, even by Kilimanjaro’s soggy standards, so it isn’t an optimum time for climbing. As is the case throughout the year, ground temperatures drop below freezing at night at higher altitudes, but November is colder and windier than average. Avoid if possible.
December tends to be wet and very cold. Expect slippery trails at lower altitudes and, as you approach the summit, subzero temperatures and howling winds at night. Towards the end of the month, the mountain experiences a secondary high season associated with the Christmas and New Year holidays. Best avoided.
The biggest costs associated with a Kilimanjaro climb are the high park fees and support costs. There is no way around these, but it will help keep things affordable to form or join a group of like-minded hikers, rather that travelling solo or as couple, and to stick to the very busy Marangu Route, which is the only one with mountain huts at every overnight stop, and poses fewer logistical complications than other routes. If you shop around, you will find that there is some variability in prices quoted by different operators, but beware of false economy, and don’t expect to get what you don’t pay for. Choosing a cheaper operators will generally mean you get lower standards of guiding, poorer food and inferior camping and other equipment, all of which reduces the likelihood of a successful summit.
High park fees and logistical costs mean there is no such thing as a cheap Kilimanjaro climb. The best way to keep down costs is to form or join a group of four or more like-minded hikers, and to stick to the Marangu Route, which is more popular and busy than the other options, but also less logistically complicated. Even so, a Kilimanjaro climb is likely to seem pretty expensive by my standards. Worthy of consideration as a more budget-friendly alternative, nearby Mount Meru, protected within Arusha National Park, is Africa’s fifth-highest massif, and the three-day hike to its 4,566m summit is not only far cheaper bit it is also far less crowded, offers superior wildlife-viewing, comes with a lower risk of altitude-related sickness, and includes spectacular view to snow-capped Kilimanjaro.
Luxury is a relative term when applied to a Kilimanjaro climb. Overnight options boil down to hunkering down in a sleeping bag in a hiking tent or a basic mountain hut, and if you want to summit the great mountain, there is no escaping the steep uphill hikes, nor the cold on the upper slopes, nor the likely affects of altitude. In one sense, the most luxurious way to climb the mountain is to stick to the popular Marangu Route, which is much busier than other routes, but allows you to stay overnight in the relatively comfort of mountain huts with washing facilities and bottled drinks for sale.
However, if you are looking for exclusivity rather than luxury per se, then far better to splash out and arrange to hike on of the lesser known routes. Depending on how much time and money you want to dedicate to the exercise, these range from the Machame and Rongai Route, both ideally undertaken over six days, to the slightly longer Lemosho and Shira Route, to the wonderfully scenic and remote Northern Circuit, a new route that can be undertaken over 9-11 days, depending on whether you opt to overnight in the stunning Kibo Crater. It is also worth researching the amenities offered by different operators – high quality food and equipment, experienced English-speaking guides and access to private ablution tents with pump-flush toilets all come at a price, but help enhance not only the comfort of a climb but also the likelihood of reaching the summit.
It would be something of a stretch to characterize a Kilimanjaro climb as a romantic holiday. It is a tough hike in challenging climatic conditions, and opportunities for romance will be limited. That said, Kilimanjaro is very popular with and well-suited to adventurous couples where both partners are reasonably fit and enjoy active outdoor experiences. A Kilimanjaro climb will work out more cheaply per person for a couple than it would for a solo traveler, and most people would regard the companionship as a boon. It is important, however, that couples who are not well matched in terms of fitness, pace or stamina agree in advance whether the stronger partner will stick with the slower one, or each will do their own thing, in which case you need make sure two guides are on board.
A romantic alternative to climbing Kilimanjaro is to spend a couple of nights near the base of the majestic mountain soaking up the view. Soaring 5km above the plains below, Kilimanjaro’s distinctive silhouette and snow-capped peak rank as of the most iconic sights on the African continent, bearing in mind that the upper slopes are usually swathed in a blanket of cloud that most often clears at dusk and dawn. There are plenty of good hotels dotted around the southern foothills in Tanzania, but a more attractive option – ensuring you have plenty to keep you occupied even when the clouds are unyielding – is to stay at a safari lodge in one of two superb conservation areas that lie in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. The better known of these is Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, which supports some the continent’s most impressively tusked and most habituated elephants. Its Tanzanian counterpart is West Kilimanjaro, an exclusive wildlife management area where traditional Maasai pastoral communities still live alongside an abundance of wildlife.
The main advantages of a solo Kilimanjaro climb are that you have total control over your route and walking pace, and that there is no risk of having to abort a summit because a fellow hiker succumbs to altitude sickness or wants to turn back. Disadvantages are that the price per person will be relatively high, since many of the logistical costs of putting together a Kilimanjaro climb are not significantly dependent on the size of the party. Bearing in mind that many guides and porters speak limited English, it might also be a rather lonely few days.
A qualified yes. The qualification being that a Kilimanjaro climb is both physically and mentally demanding, and the experience is likely to be enjoyed only by reasonably fit and determined individuals who are genuinely motivated to reach Africa’s tallest summit. If all members of a family or party of friends fit that description, a group hike should go well, and it will have several advantages in terms of keeping down the cost per person, and the varied company on offer. As with couples, it is important that groups hiking together are either well matched in terms of pace and stamina, or else agree in advance whether stronger hikers will stick back with the weaker ones, or they will split into slower and faster groups.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is an activity suited to relatively fit and adventurous travellers. The round trip takes five to 11 days, depending on which route is used, and it involves long days hiking on steep footpaths at high altitude, and sleeping in subzero conditions under canvas or in simple mountain huts. Solo travellers, couples, families and groups of friends all regularly tackle the ascent of Kilimanjaro, and the cost per person tends to become significantly cheaper as the group size increases.
Credit: Machame Camp
While climbing Kilimanjaro is not what most people would regard as a romantic destination, nor is it suited to inactive travellers, the view of the great mountain’s magnificent snow-capped peak from one of the exclusive bush camps set below its base in Amboseli National Park (Kenya) or West Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) is truly stirring.
Not only is Kilimanjaro the highest peak in Africa, reaching an elevation of 5,895m (19,340ft) above sea level, but it is also the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, a long-dormant volcano that towers almost 5km (3 mi) above the hot and dusty ash-strewn plains from which it rises. Viewed from the base, Kilimanjaro’s distinctive silhouette is one of Africa’s most breathtaking scenic highlights, right up there with Victoria Falls, and the snow cap that illuminates the jagged glacial peaks is all the more remarkable for lying a mere 400km south of the equator,
Kilimanjaro is highly attractive to hikers for being the highest mountain anywhere in the world that can be ascended by ordinary tourists without specialised mountaineering experience or equipment – an accomplishment that requires a fair level of fitness, some determination, at least five days, and reasonably deep wallets. For most hikers, summiting snow-covered Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the continent, is a true bucket list dream, and the main objective of the hike. But the ascent is also very scenic, and it climbs through a diverse series of vegetation zones notable for their rich flora and fauna.
Summiting Kilimanjaro, for most who accomplish it, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But dedicated hikers are frequently drawn back to Kilimanjaro again and again, not least because there are a great many ascent and descent routes from which to choose, and each one of them offers a very different scenic perspective on the majestic mountain.
The world’s tallest individual mountain and literal highpoint of the African continent, 5,895m-high Mount Kilimanjaro straddles the border of Kenya and Tanzania. For those who just want to admire the view of its snow-capped summit, this can be done from either country, with Kenya’s Amboseli National Park being perhaps the most popular option thanks to its prolific plains wildlife. For hikers and climbers, however, the goal is invariably Tanzania, where the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro lie within a 756km² Kilimanjaro National Park gazetted in 1977 to protect all land above the 2,700m contour.
A relative infant in geological terms, Kilimanjaro comprises three distinct volcanic cones whose formation is linked to the same tectonic process responsible for the creation of the more westerly Great Rift Valley. The oldest cone Shira formed some 2.5 million years ago, but the taller peaks of Mawenzi and Kibo both came into being less than one million years ago. Mawenzi, like Shira, is now listed as extinct. By contrast, Kibo – which incorporates the 5,895m Uhuru Peak – is regarded to be dormant, though it probably hasn’t experienced serious volcanic activity in the last 100,000 years, despite the presence of several fumaroles in the crater. In addition, at least 250 parasitic cones can be found on the mountain’s flanks, the most famous being the one that hosts the gorgeous Chala Crater Lake on the eastern footslopes.
The fertile, well-watered lower slopes of Kilimanjaro are home to the Chagga, an agriculturist people whose ancestors arrived in the region mediaeval times.The Maasai of the surrounding plains knew Kilimanjaro as Ol Doinyo Naibor (White Mountain), and believed it to be protected by evil spirits that froze anybody who tried to ascend it. Despite several ambiguous allusion to a Kilimanjaro-like mountain in ancient texts, from Ptolemy’s Geography to a 12th-century account of a Chinese trader, Kilimanjaro remained unknown to the outside world until the mid-19th century. The first European to see Kilimanjaro was the German missionary Johan Rebmann, who published a description of it in 1849, only to be derided by European experts sceptical about the presence of snow so close to the Equator. Its existence was confirmed independently by the geologist Baron von der Decken in 1861.
Oral tradition suggests that no local had successfully climbed Kilimanjaro – or at least returned to tell the tale – before Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller first summited in 1889. Indeed, one theory has it that the mountain’s name derives from a Chagga phrase meaning ‘Impossible Journey’, the response made by a bemused local farmer to Rebmann’s query about walking to the peak. More likely perhaps the name Kilimanjaro was bequeathed on the mountain by Swahili-speaking traders from the coast – kilima is the Swahili word for hill, while ‘njaro’ might derive from the Chagga word for a trade caravan, or a Maasai word meaning water, or the name of a Swahili demon of cold.
Several different routes can be used to ascend and descend Mount Kilimanjaro. All have their advantages and disadvantages, and the best choice for any given individual depends largely on their priorities. Consider, for instance, whether your sole priority is to summit the roof of Africa, or is it equally important to maximise wildlife viewing potential and opportunities for scenic photography? Are you looking to keep costs to a minimum by using the shortest and most popular ascent route (five days and four nights), or are you willing to splash out on a slower and more gradual ascent route, thereby reducing the risk of altitude-sickness or exposure-related issues? Would you prefer to stay in the relatively comfortable huts that service the most popular route, or are you willing to sleep under canvas (a potentially chilly prospect at higher altitudes) in order to get away from the crowds? Whatever your requirements, the following notes will help isolate the route that best meets them.
Starting at the Marangu Gate near the small town of the same name, this is by far the most popular route up Kilimanjaro. Advantages are that it is significantly cheaper than other more obscure routes, less arduous than most, and has the best rescue facilities. Marangu is also the only route where you can sleep in proper huts throughout, with the added bonus of bathing facilities and bottled drinks for sale. Unsurprisingly, the Marangu Route is to some extent a victim of its popularity – trampled by a greater volume of tourists than all other routes combined, it can feel pretty overcrowded, especially in peak seasons (late July to early October and mid-December to mid-January).
The ascent and descent of Marangu usually takes five days and four nights. Hikers spend the first night at Mandara Hut?(set at 2,700m in the forest zone, and frequented by blue monkeys) and the second at Horombo Hut?(situated at 3,720m in a valley studded with giant lobelia and groundsel). The third night starts at Kibo Hut (4,703m), from where it is customary to start the final ascent before 1am in order to reach Gillman’s Point at sunrise, then continue along the rim of Kibo Caldera to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa, before returning to Horombo Hut for the fourth and final night. This is a demanding itinerary and the risk of altitude-related illness is greatly reduced by adding a full day and additional night at Horombo Hut before climbing into the alpine zone.
Requiring at least six days and renowned for its spectacular scenery, Machame is the second most popular route up Kilimanjaro. A few short sections are slightly tougher than anything along the Marangu Route, but overall the ascent is gentler and it allows for a longer period for acclimatisation prior to summiting. There used to be mountain huts along the Machame Route, but these are now in ruins, so camping is the only option. The first night is spent at Machame Hut, which stands at an altitude of 2,890m on the cusp of the forest and moorland zones. The second might is spent in the moorland at Shira Hut (3,840m), where it is possible to sleep in a cave. The most usual options for the third and fourth nights are Barranco Campsite (3,950m) and Barafu Hut (4,600m), then a midnight start is required to reach Stella Point on the Kibo rim at sunrise.
Credit: Machame Camp
The fastest ascent route to the summit of Kilimanjaro starts at Mweka Wildlife College and involves two steep day hikes to spend the first night at Mweka Hut (3,100m) and second at Barafu Hut (4,600m), neither of which is actually habitable, so you will need to camp. In theory, you could summit at Stella Point on the third morning and could be back at the base of the mountain on the afternoon of the forth day. However, this option is viable only for supremely fit hikers with sufficient experience to know they don’t require much acclimatisation. In practise, it is most often used as a quick descent route by people who ascended along the the Machame or Shira route.
Connecting the village of Umbwe to Barranco Campsite (3,950m), this is possibly the most scenic official route up Kilimanjaro, but also the steepest, and the most dangerous, since it involves one short stretch of genuine rock climbing. It is occasionally used as a descent route, but many operators prefer not to take the risk.
Credit Travel Rural
This most gradual of the ascent routes up Kilimanjaro starts at Shira Gate (3,590m) on the western flank and is ideally covered over six, seven or eight days. It crosses the scenic Shira Plateau, a tract of open Afro-alpine moorland that is studded with volcanic rock sculptures and which often hosts large mammals such as eland, elephant and buffalo. A disadvantage of this route is that it omits hiking through the forest zone (which might be no bad thing in the rainy season) but it also means you spend far longer above the 3,500m contour before starting to summit. It also tends to be very uncrowded, at last until it converges with the Machame Route prior to summiting at Stella Point. It is normal to descend through the forest zone following the Mweka Route.
This relatively new and very beautiful six- to eight-day route starts in the west and runs roughly parallel to and south of the Shira Route before converging with it on the second day. The main advantage over Shira is that it starts at a significantly lower altitude, which means you get to hike through the forest zone, and are less likely to experience altitude-related issues on the first day or two.
The newest, most remote and longest route on Kilimanjaro, the Northern Circuit is a thrilling variation on the Shira and Lemosho Routes that starts in the west then does a three-quarter circuit around the northern slopes of Kibo before summiting from the east on the penultimate day. The circuit requires at least nine days, and can be extended to 10 or 11 days by adding a night camping within Kibo Crater, the ultimate high-altitude Kili experience. Because the ascent is so gradual, allowing a full week before you tackle Uhuru Peak, it offers the best possible chance of summiting successfully, as well as exploring several off-the-beaten-track parts of the northern slopes covered on no other route. The long duration and logistics of arranging an extended hike to more remote areas also means it is the most expensive option.
The only ascent route to approach Kilimanjaro from the north, Rongai is widely regarded to be the route of preference during the rainy seasons (late March to early June and November to December) since it is sheltered from the rain-bearing southeasterlies that drench the southern slopes. It is worth considering at other times of year, too, since it is reasonably gradual, offers some lovely views over the Tsavo Plains, and offers a better chance of encountering large wildlife than other routes. Five-, six- and seven-day variations are offered, all tend to be very uncrowded until they converging with the Marangu Route at Kibo Hut.
Three climatic factors must be considered when packing for a Kilimanjaro climb. Most people expect it to be very cold at night, and it is also important to bear in mind it might be very wet and drizzly at lower altitudes, while the tropical sun can be very fierce at high altitudes.
Bring plenty of warm clothes, including at least one windproof and waterproof jacket, plenty of layers to wear underneath it, insulated vests and undergarments, hiking trousers, two pair of waterproof gloves (one heavy and one lightweight), a balaclava or beanie, one change of inner socks and thick hiking socks per day, a scarf or neck gaiter, and a wide hat that offers good protection from the sun. Hiking boots should be 100% waterproof and ideally have good ankle support and be properly worn in. Carry a second pair of lighter waterproof shoes for the evenings.
Luggage and Bedding
It is customary for operators to allocate one porter to every client to carry up to 15kg of gear. This is ideally carried in a large, solid waterproof duffel bag or rucksack to protect clothing and other items from getting wet. Porters usually hike separately from their clients, so you also need a waterproof day pack to carry all items you might need access to during the course of a day’s hiking. All reputable hiking companies will supply tents as required, and arrange porters to carry them, but you will need to check in advance whether sleeping bags and ground-mats are supplied, or you must bring your own. If the latter, you emphatically need a four-season sleeping bag designed for temperatures of -20°C, and should also bring a high quality ground mat.
Essentials include high UV sunglasses to protect your eyes from the tropical sun and and a head torch to use around camp at night. Light sleepers might like to carry earplugs. A pair of adjustable trekking pole will not only reduce the risk of slipping and injuring yourself, but it also reduces the impact on your knees during steep descents. Bring a waterproof bladder or water bottles with a total capacity of 2 litres to carry with you during the day, bearing in mind that disposable water bottles are quite rightly banned on Kilimanjaro. Binoculars are often essential for identifying birds and getting a close look at other wildlife, but they do add to the weight. Bring twice as many batteries as you need, as they tend to lose charge quickly in freezing conditions.
Dedicated photographers carrying serious wildlife lenses for a safari leg of a visit to Tanzania will find little use for them on Kilimanjaro (a 28-70 zoom or similar should suffice for most situations on the mountain). And they will either need to carry surplus camera gear themselves, or entrust it to a porter, in both cases with some risk of it getting wet or receiving rough treatment. The better option is to leave excess camera gear locked up somewhere safely for the duration of the hike.
A good medical kit is essential. It should include pain killers (for instance paracetamol), an anti-inflammatory such as Ibuprofen, more plasters than you could possibly need (a few foot blisters are de rigueur on a Kili hike), high factor sunblock, a chapstick for your lips, and plenty of wet wipes. Acetazolamide can be prescribed to reduce the risk of altitude-related problems.
Food and Snacks
It is customary for meals to be included in a Kilimanjaro tour, but these should be supplemented by a stash of light and portable energy-rich snacks. These might include energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, biscuits, glucose powder and the like. These items are sometimes available at the huts on the Marangu Route, but at vastly inflated prices.
The ascent of Kilimanjaro should only be attempted by reasonably fit people, and inexperienced hikers might consider embarking on a training schedule to improve the chances of a successful climb. This needn’t be too arduous. Running and cycling will improve your aerobic fitness, and weightlifting might help build core strength, but the best like-for-like training for a Kili climb is hiking, ideally in hilly terrain and/or at altitude. Aim to build up to the point where you can comfortably hike for four to five hours with a light pack on your back. And do use these training hikes as an opportunity to break in the hiking boots you intend to wear on Kilimanjaro, and to get used to the day pack you plan to carry.
The main health risks on Kilimanjaro are related to altitude and to a lesser extent exposure, exacerbated by exhaustion. Uhuru Peak stands at a higher altitude than the base camps on Mount Everest, but the ascent involves a very rapid transition from below 1,000m to above 5,000m, and some people – particularly those who normally reside close to sea level – will have difficulty acclimatising in the space of a few days. Indeed, almost everybody who attempts the climb experiences some altitude-related symptoms, which range from shortness of breath, headaches and sleeplessness to nausea and swollen the hands or feet. If these symptoms become severe, or the sufferer starts coughing up saliva or blood, or displaying loss of a coordination, or experiences disorientation or hallucinations, the potentially fatal conditions called pulmonary or cerebral oedemas are indicated. Experienced guides will recognise these conditions, the only (and usually highly effective) remedy for which is immediate descent.
The risk of altitude-related illness is greatly reduced by extra acclimatisation – that is, allowing an additional day or two for the ascent – and by walking at a relaxed, steady pace. Many people feel a loss of appetite at high altitude but it is vital to eat properly, concentrating on easily digested foodstuffs, especially carbohydrates and fruit. Drink at least three litres of water daily. A drug called Acetazolamide can be prescribed to help prevent or reduce symptoms of altitude-sickness.
Prolonged exposure to the cold and wet conditions often experienced on Kilimanjaro can result in hypothermia, which occurs when the body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F) and usually results in uncontrollable shivering before progressing to more severe symptoms if neglected. Hypothermia can be avoided by carrying plenty of warm, waterproof clothing designed for sub-zero conditions, and by dressing in layers so you can regulate your body temperature and sweat by removing or adding clothes as required. Severe hypothermia can be fatal, so if you experience heavy shivering, you should change into warm dry clothes and huddle up in a sleeping bag until the symptoms dissipate.
A rescue fee is paid by all climbers upon entering the national park, but the rescue team only focuses on the Marangu Route. Its services must be arranged in advance for other routes.