The moniker “the roof of Africa” cannot be more befitting for Mt. Kilimanjaro. It boasts a snow-capped peak and rises majestically (at 19,336 ft) from farmed woodlands through rich tropical rainforest, into lush greeneries and moorlands. Your stride will only be interrupted by meandering elands, monkeys, buffalos, and leopards. Geography dominates with several ascents and descents, rock walls, sheer cliffs, graceful valleys, and prominent plateaus. Stunning views alternate with desolate terrains, only to be awed again by spiraling peaks, crater rims, and the icy cliffs to the summit.
Kilimanjaro in a Nutshell
Mt. Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcanic mountain, is also one of Africa’s highest volcanoes with three existing cones: Shira, Kibo, and Mawenzi. It is found in Tanzania’s most visited parkland, the Kilimanjaro National Park, which opened in 1977. With proper acclimatization, appropriate garments, climbing gear and strong determination, you can get to the summit successfully and safely.
Best Time to Visit
The dry season from June to October and from late December to early March, offers the best window when weather conditions are at its safest to climb Kilimanjaro. It must be noted that the best weather conditions must also be matched with your best physical and mental fitness. Mt. Kilimanjaro exacts endurance and you must be equal to the challenge.
Although Mt. Kilimanjaro is open for climbing all year round, be wary of erratic weather patterns on the mountain. The trails up the summit are usually covered in snow and are slippery and wet. Aside from the rain and bitter cold, you may also experience a spatter of lovely sunshine on your face. During the climb up the summit, you will be exposed to five different climatic zones. With proper planning and the right clothes and climbing gear, there should be no reason at all to fail.
The first zone, up to elevation 5,900-feet, is the bush land. At this level, precipitation varies but builds up to the top close to the rainforest. The immediate zone, from 5,900-feet to 9,200-feet, is the rainforest and has the highest amount of rainfall and extreme humidity. Called the highbred zone, from elevation of 9,200-feet to 13,100-feet, precipitation starts to drop at this level as do temperatures.
At the altitude of 13,100-feet to 16,400-feet, the alpine desert is much drier with weather that is normally clear and warm during daytime but temperatures can abruptly drop to below freezing at night. The summit is an arctic zone at 16,400-feet. With sun ablaze in the daytime and sub-zero temperatures at night, this arid and desolately inhospitable surrounding catches little or no rainfall at all. At this barren icy cap, the oxygen is very thin compared to the condition at lower elevations.
Things to Do
The climb to the continent’s highest elevation is serious adventure. But it doesn’t mean that Kilimanjaro doesn’t have a lot of fun and interesting things to do on the side. Take pleasure in the following activities, which are sure to leave a beautiful, lasting impression of Kilimanjaro.
1) Meet the Indigenous Peoples Living in Kilimanjaro
The base of the mountain is home to indigenous people who till the land, plant crops and vegetables. They have a culture that bids you to explore and learn.
2) Join Day Hikes to Shira Plateau
Sit in quietude on the plateau while the landscapes turn wild and opposing. The west is a calm farmland plain, while the east is strewn all-over with peaks and spires.
3) Visit Chala Crater Lake
Wax romantic and chill out in this caldera lake.
4) Join Safaris to Acclimatize before the Big Climb
Safaris can take you to the moorland or heath laid with shrubs and heathers instead of tall trees. These are zones bedecked with lush flora and fauna, and big game animals. At times, you can spot the blue monkey and the white Colobus monkey.
5) Conquer the Summit
The massive plateaus, precipitous cliffs, and jutting spires and towers will never take the place of the summit. When you’re ready, the summit looms. Conquer what you went to Tanzania and all the trouble for.
There are six established routes to Mt. Kilimanjaro, each offering different attractions. Some routes are so beautiful, they are attractions themselves. Choose a route that will not be too difficult for you to climb, enable you to acclimatize, and allow you the sights you wish to see. The acclimatization is needed to help your body adjust to altitude and harsh environmental change, and give you a better chance to reach the summit. It is also an opportunity to see all the attractions at the lower elevations. The six official routes take off from these entries: Machame, Marangu, Rongai, Lemosho, Umbwe, Shira and Mweka (available for descent only). The Marangu and Rongai routes are recommended especially for first-time climbers.
It is important that you do your trek with a licensed operator. Plan your trek to take 6 to 8 days. Park entry fee is USD100 per day. Tour packages will cost from USD1,280 to USD5,000 including all fees, food, transport, camping equipment and guides. The following are points of interest along the trek.
1) Maasai and Chagga tribes
The lower slopes of the mountain are the villages of two of the main tribes of Tanzania. You can join a nature hike or cultural tourism activities where you will get to enjoy grand panoramas of valleys, ridges, lakes and springs with the imposing view of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. Amidst this setting are the villages of the Maasai and Chagga. Taste their traditional food, dance to their indigenous rhythm, and observe them at work on their farms or engaging in their arts and crafts.
The tours cost around USD300 per person and this usually includes transportation, fees to the village, food and guide. Accommodations in the villages can be arranged at an additional fee of USD50.
Location: Northern side of Mt. Kilimanjaro
2) Lake Chala
Accessible from Moshi town, Lake Chala is a romantic little place to have a cool swim. The caldera lake has a chilly and exciting appeal. There is a campsite with facilities for cooking and barbecue. It is a great and quiet place for an overnight camp. The entrance fee is USD3.50.
Location: Moshi, Tanzania (Eastern side of Mt. Kilimanjaro)
3) Kinukamori Waterfalls
There is a Chagga legend about Kinukamori Waterfalls and the grotesque volcanic rocks. It’s a dreadful tale of a woman dying at the bottom of the falls when a leopard jumps at her. Both the leopard and the woman supposedly die and turn to big misshapen rocks. The view is breathtaking and the water is crystal-clear. All around the huge mountain are majestic waterfalls: the Makoa, Mongioni, Manambe, Masare, Rau, Materuni and Uru waterfalls. Tours cost from USD30 to USD150 per person, depending on how many persons are participating. Bigger groups will have cheaper tour fee per person.
Location: Moshi, Tanzania
4) Lemosho Glades
The Lemosho route is the least used and it also teems with big game animals. For a double adventure, take the Lemosho Glades for wildlife observation and longer acclimatization before taking the full height of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Some of the resident herds include buffalos and elephants which prefer Lemosho’s unspoiled bush land. The Barranco Wall and the Karranga Valley are added points of interest on this route.
Location: Hai, Tanzania
5) Machame Route
Dubbed as “the most beautiful route” to the roof of Africa, the Machame Route offers a scenic and slightly adventurous trek. This route will take 6 days at the minimum to be fully appreciated. It starts with a steep hike along a ridge. A descent to a river gorge adds a challenging break from the all-uphill hike, the scenery then changes to a gentle moorland.
The approach to the Shira Plateau is a rewarding spectacle. Hiking across the plateau is a series of enjoyable sights of vertical drop and wide rolling valleys. The sights along this route include the Barranco Valley, the Stella Point before reaching the snowy Uhuru Peak. Descend to the Mweka Camp through heath land and rainforest. An 8-day trek via this route will cost around USD2,180, covering all expenses.
6) Shira Plateau
The Shira Plateau affords outstanding views of the Great Rift Valley, Mt. Meru and Longido. The plateau is a great place to spend the night for acclimatization. You can see the moor land where elands, buffaloes, gazelles, elephants, the elusive leopards and nocturnal animals can be observed. The other side of the plateau serves as a stunning viewing platform for the peaks called the Needle and the Cathedral.
Location: along the Lemosho route
7) Barranco Wall and Karranga Valley
Scramble vertically uphill the great Barranco Wall. The rock wall actually looks more intimidating than it really is. Enjoy the vast unbelievable scene before you lose that hard-earned altitude again to a descent to the Karranga Valley where you can camp. The tribal people have a wise word about this; they say “climb high and sleep low.” It’s a key for acclimatizing correctly.
8) Kikelewa Cave to Mawnzi Tarn
Take the Rongai route through the moorlands. Stunning views of Kibo and the icy crater rim will bring you to Kikelewa Cave at 11,000 ft. Walk through moorlands and giant senecios to the campsite and take a rest before another ascent to the Mawnzi Tarn, a jagged and towering peak at 14,200 ft.
9) Gilman’s Point
After acclimatizing at Kibo Camp, climb to the crater rim and Gilman’s Point at 18,700-feet just after midnight to meet the sun as it rises at Mawenzi. Gilman’s Point is 641-feet short of Uhuru Point. Some turn around at this point, as climbing this far is already a superhuman feat.
10) Uhuru Point
The hardest part of the trek is usually the last mile. Although it is not even a mile, the Uhuru Point is not for every Mt. Kilimanjaro climber. From Gilman Point, it is another 3-hour climb close to the icy cliffs. The poignant view of snow against the black volcanic sand is not something you’d easily forget.
Where to Eat
You’d be eating in the camps on most of your Kilimanjaro adventure. The porters are great cooks, too, but you have to make sure about this when negotiating with your tour operator. The food is usually included in the cost you pay, but it would be wise for you to bring along food that are light on your backpack but high on energy. While on the base, specifically Moshi, there are food joints where you can eat before your gastronomic experience turns simpler. Some are listed hereunder.
1) Union Café
Order freshly roasted coffee, spinach and feta crepes, and milkshakes. It will be days till you ever taste any of those again. Prices range from USD2 to USD5.
Address: Rengua St., Moshi
2) Kili Java
Get your fill of doughnuts, sandwiches, coffee, and halal food. Price ranges from USD3 to USD5.
Address: Nakumatt Building, Shop 4, Station Road, Moshi
3) Salzburger Cafe
Fancy looking at waiters wearing faux leopard vests; and while you’re at it, order Chicken Mambo Yote. Price ranges from USD2.50 to USD4.
Address: Kenyatta Street, Moshi
4) Indotaliano Restaurant
Located opposite Buffalo Hotel, this restaurant serves Indian and Italian cuisines. Try their vegetable dishes. Price starts from USD2.50.
Address: New Street, Moshi
5) Tanzania Coffee Lounge
This is where you eat and get an internet connection. Bagels or waffles go great with cappuccino or milkshakes. Price starts from USD0.60.
Address: Chagga Street, Moshi
Where to Stay
Before and after the climb, you’d have a chance to stretch to full-sized beds in comfortable hotels. Between those, however, you’d have to expect sleeping in huts or tents. Had it not been prohibited recently, there used to be a third option: cave-sleeping. As park regulations would have it, you won’t have that once-in-a-lifetime chance to sleep with the bats. Listed hereunder are pre- and post-climb lodgings at either Moshi or Arusha.
1) Meru Wellness Retreat
This place provides mild transition and offers guesthouses for you to spend a few nights before the climb. The rate includes meals and ranges from USD12 to USD50.
Address: Arusha, Tanzania
2) Arusha Backpackers
This is a decent option for budget climbers taking off from Arusha. It has a branch in Moshi, the Kilimanjaro Backpackers. The cost for both places ranges from USD10 to USD24.
Address: Arusha, Tanzania (and Moshi)
3) Kilimanjaro Crane Hotel
This is a 3-star hotel with comfortable rooms. Fans, nets and television are provided to ensure comfort. Amenities include a garden, restaurant, rooftop terrace with a bar, and a shop. Room rate starts at USD19 per night.
Address: Near Old Moshi Road, Moshi
4) Sal Salinero
Get really comfortable, maybe after the climb, and book at Sal Salinero. Rooms are air-conditioned, with mini-bars and coffeemakers, cable televisions, and full-featured bathrooms. There is an outdoor pool for relaxing and a laundry facility to clean up your luggage content. Price starts from USD97 per night.
Address: Lema Road, Moshi
5) Karibu Hostel
If you want to keep your adventure purely Tanzanian from start to finish, get the comfort but keep the mystical ambiance in this hostel. It provides dorm-type rooms and double rooms in a typical Tanzanian abode. There is a wide garden lined with trees. The huge terrace allows for moon and stargazing just before you call it a day. Rate starts at USD13 per person.
It is a frequent mistake among climbers to race to the top of a mountain. Don’t ever make that mistake in Mt. Kilimanjaro. The roof of Africa could well stand mighty proud as one of the world’s Seven Summits, but its base is a wellspring of natural beauty and life. Linger on the base longer. Every view merits a pause. Acclimatize and enjoy what it has to offer and have a better chance of surviving and conquering the summit.