Rising majestically from the grassy plains of East Africa is the continent’s highest mountain and one of the largest extinct volcanoes in the world. The snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro stands proud against a vivid turquoise sky.
Just 200 miles (320km) south of the equator is a place where the snow never melts and ice sheets hold fast all year round. That place is the summit of Kilimanjaro, at 19,340ft (5895m) the highest point in Africa. Its very name, Swahili for ‘mountain that glistens’, derives from the fact that, although its foot lies in the tropics, the climate at its head resembles a Siberian winter.
Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania, very near the Kenyan border, in East Africa. Its sheer bulk – it is 60 miles (100km) long and 47 miles (75km) across – is all the more impressive because the mountain stands alone, without a range of adjoining peaks to detract from its splendor. It was formed two million years ago when a period of volcanic activity resulted in continuous streams of lava rising from the Earth’s core.
As the lava from one eruption cooled and solidified, it was overlain by a fresh stream when renewed turbulence ripped the Earth apart. As a consequence, Kilimanjaro today comprises three separate summits, which correspond to three periods of upheaval: Kibo is the central, highest cone, flanked by Mawenzi to the east and Shira to the west. This is not the complete story of Kilimanjaro’s birth, however. Once the volcanic activity had ceased, the forces of erosion began to play their part in shaping the mountain.
The lowest of the peaks, Shira, resulted from the initial eruption that gave rise to the original summit. The collapse and subsequent erosion of that summit formed a plateau that now stands 13,000ft (3962m) above sea level. From a distance, Mawenzi appears to be little more than a lump on the side of Kibo; in fact, it is a precipitous, jagged rock crest, some 16,900ft (5149m) high.
A flat saddle 7 miles (11km) long links Mawenzi to Kibo, the youngest of the peaks. Kibo’s dome is a crater 1½ miles (2.5km) across and 984ft (299m) deep. Within its rim is a smaller crater containing an ash pit that still exudes sulphurous gases. Kibo is the only one of the three above the snow line: an ice field tops its northern rim and extends into the crater while another hangs from its south-western face. This ice sheet reaches down to around 15,000ft (4500m), making it the most extensive glacier in Africa.
The early morning sunlight illuminates the eastern side of Kilimanjaro’s main crater rim and the mighty ice cliffs in the foreground. In all of Africa, only Mount Kenya and Mount Rwenzori have similar snow fields.
Kilimanjaro’s height and isolation in relation to its surroundings mean that the mountain exerts a powerful influence over its own weather systems. As easterly winds from the Indian Ocean reach Kilimanjaro, they are forced upwards by its sheer bulk. Whether they release their moisture as rain or snow depends on how high they are deflected (most of the snow that blankets the summit falls not from overhead clouds but from clouds sucked up from farther down the slopes). As a result, and in contrast to the savanna grassland of the surrounding plains, Kilimanjaro boasts several vegetation zones.
The lowest slopes have been cleared for cultivation. The dense tropical rain forest, which begins at around 6500ft (2000m), shelters perhaps the greatest variety of creatures: tall trees house many forest birds; and dense ground-cover plants protect small animals from large predators. At around 11,500ft (3500m) the vegetation is typical of moorland, dominated by heathers and mosses, while just below the snow line the flora becomes more alpine. Large animals, such as buffalo, and leopards on their trail, are often sighted on the snow line, where they are unlikely to survive for long.
Kilimanjaro draws thousands of visitors every year. The wildlife of the savanna is a major tourist attraction. Families of warthog and rhinoceros and herds of elephant, wildebeest, gazelle, impala and giraffe roam these plains, and Africa’s major predators, namely lions, leopards, and cheetahs, are found here. Smaller predators, such as the jackal, hyena, bat-eared fox and mongoose, and some species of vulture also inhabit this region.
The tropical rainforest is mainly characterized by camphor, cedar, and red stinkwood trees, which can grow to 100ft (30m) and more. Trees here are often covered with orchids, parasitic creepers and beard lichens. The forest supports a variety of wildlife, such as elephants, black rhinoceroses, leopards, giant forest hogs, mountain gorillas, colobus and monkeys, jackals, nocturnal suni, and varieties of small antelope. Birds include flycatchers, robin-chats and small hornbills.
Moorland vegetation includes mosses and tussocks of sedge, particularly in the wetter valleys. Many herbaceous plants grow in areas of open moorland, including white-flowered saxifrage and giant gladioli. Wild dogs are found in some areas, and in this region leopards prey on rats, hyraxes and duikers.
One of the best known was the American writer Ernest Hemingway, who wrote his short story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ after a trip in 1938. His description of the mountain is an eloquent summary: ‘As wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white in the sun.’