It’s an unforgettable sight—the snowy plateau of Mount Kilimanjaro, rising above the Tanzanian plains, just south of Kenya. Named Oldoinyo Oibor, or “white mountain,” by the Masai tribesmen and Kilima Njaro, or “shining mountain,” in Swahili, it’s Africa’s highest mountain and one of the world’s largest free-standing peaks, a triple volcano thrusting out of equatorial jungle and moorland. As world-class peaks go, it’s a relatively easy climb—the lower slopes are downright gentle—but you don’t need to go all the way to the summit to get the Hemmingway-esque thrill of exploring Kilimanjaro.
Ascending, you pass through four radically different climate zones. First comes the lush, steamy Kilimanjaro Forest Reserve surrounding the base; then the grassy moorlands of the shouldering slopes; above 3,962m (13,000 ft.), the mountain suddenly becomes steeper and more barren, with rocky scree underfoot. Last of all, you hit glacial ice fields, dazzling in the reflected African sun. It’s not a technical climb, but it’s a strenuous steep hike, and the extreme altitude makes it physically challenging if your body hasn’t acclimated properly.
Enter at the Marangu Park Gate—you should already have obtained park permits and hut reservations (available through a licensed tour operator or local hotels in Moshi), but at the park gate you’ll hire a guide, and possibly a porter (you won’t be allowed on the mountain without a guide). Park fees are substantial, but they include hut accommodations on the mountain; guides and porters ask ridiculously low wages, hoping for generous tips on top. If you book with a tour operator (which I recommend), most of this, along with a cook to prepare all meals en route, will be included in your package.
It takes 5 to 7 days round-trip to reach the summit, staying in mountain huts all the way. If you’ve brought kids along or aren’t up to the full climb, you may be content to abbreviate this trek, going only partway up the well-traveled Marangu Trail. You’ll spend your first night on the mountain in the wooden A-frame huts at Mandara, a 3- to 4-hour 12km (71⁄2-mile) walk from the gate through misty, mossy rainforest. On your second day, hike across grassland to the gardenlike Maundi Crater; scramble up to the rim for panoramic views of the barren highlands towering above you. If you’re not gung-ho mountaineers, head back down from here, or go on to Hotombo Hut that night and Kibo Hut the third night before turning around. —HH
Tour: Destination Africa Tours, Pretoria, South Africa ( 27/12/333-7110; www.climbingkilimanjaro.com); Roy Safaris, Arusha, Tanzania ( 255/27/250-2115; www.roysafaris.com); and Tanzania Adventure, Arusha, Tanzania ( 255/73/297-5210; www.tanzania-adventure.com).
Kilimanjaro International, 56km (35 miles).