The name Kilimanjaro is a mystery and is thought to mean “Mountain of Light” or “Mountain of Greatness”. No one is quite sure, but what is not under dispute is that Mount Kilimanjaro at 5895 metres (19,336 feet) is the highest peak on the African continent and tallest freestanding mountain on earth: undoubtedly one of the continent’s most magnificent sights rising up in splendid isolation from the plains below. Crowned with an everlasting snow-cap, this majestic mountain can be found inside the Kilimanjaro National Park with its slopes and glaciers towering high above the clouds. The mountain ecosystems are as strikingly beautiful as they are diverse. On the lowland slopes, much of the mountain has been converted to farmland with coffee, banana, cassava and maize crops grown for subsistence and cash-crop purposes. 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 agricultural plots. Once inside the park, thick lowland forest covers the lower slopes giving way to alpine meadows once the air begins to thin. Near the peak, the landscape becomes harsh and barren with rocks and ice the predominant features as you approach the snowy summit of Africa atop Kibo peak. The volcanic summit stands imperious: overseer of the continent and the magnificent African landscape far below.
Few mountains can claim the grandeur and the scintillating views over the Great Rift Valley and Amboseli National Park in neighbouring Kenya that belongs to Kilimanjaro. Hiking to the ‘roof of Africa’ – the highest point on the African continent – is for many people the adventure of a lifetime and the highlight of their entire Tanzania experience, especially because the routes are non-technical and accessible to almost any reasonably fit and healthy person. Everyone from seasoned trekkers to first-time hiking enthusiasts can successfully tackle and scale the snowy summit provided they climb slowly, acclimatize properly and are adequately equipped for the wind and biting cold.
Around 50,000 intrepid travellers climb Kilimanjaro every year. There are no accurate figures on how many of those climbers actually successfully reach the summit, but an overall success rate of around 75% is realistic (despite the fact that almost every climbing company claims 97% of their clients reach the top!). While Kilimanjaro is relatively straightforward to climb that does not meant it should be underestimated and there are usually around six or seven deaths each year. In order to climb Kilimanjaro you need to be at least ten years old, while the oldest summiteer to date conquered the mountain at the ripe old age of 88 years!
A typical trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro takes between six and eight days with five days being the legal minimum. It is well worth adding an extra couple of trekking days to acclimatize adequately and to appreciate the views and scenery; your climbing experience will be so much more enjoyable for it. Kilimanjaro can be climbed via six ‘official’ routes as well as a number of combinations and permutations of those routes. The six trails (running anti-clockwise, beginning with the north-western most trail) are: the seldom-used Shira Route, forested Lemosho Route, Machame Route, Umbwe Route, Marangu Route, and the Rongai (or Loitokitok) Route that approaches Kili from the north-east. For those aspiring mountaineers whose sole purpose of climbing Kilimanjaro is to get to the summit, the Lemosho, Machame and Rongai routes are statistically the best bets. On the other hand, those wanting to dodge the crowds should look at Lemosho and Umbwe routes (ignoring alternative or ‘unofficial’ routes). While for a standard, no-frills and more affordable climb, the Machame, Marangu and Umbwe routes will be your best bet. And if you don’t want to stay in tents, then Marangu is the only option with its basic huts.