Since its official opening in 1977, Mount Kilimanjaro National Park has become one of Tanzania’s most visited parks. Unlike the other northern parks, this isn’t for the wildlife, although it’s there. Rather, coming here is all about gazing in awe at a mountain on the equator capped with snow, and to climb to the top of Africa. At the heart of the park is the 5896m Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and one of the continent’s most magnificent sights. It’s also one of the highest volcanoes and the highest freestanding mountain in the world, rising from cultivated farmlands on the lower levels, through lush rainforest to alpine meadows, and finally across a barren lunar landscape to the twin summits of Kibo and Mawenzi. (Kilimanjaro’s third volcanic cone, Shira, is on the mountain’s western side.) The lower rainforest is home to many animals, including buffaloes, elephants, leopards and monkeys, and elands are occasionally seen in the saddle area between Kibo and Mawenzi.
A trek up Kili lures around 25,000 trekkers each year, in part because it’s possible to walk to the summit without ropes or technical climbing experience. But don’t be fooled by the number of people who climb Mount Kilimanjaro – this is a serious undertaking. While many thousands of trekkers reach Uhuru Peak without major difficulty, many more don’t make it because they suffer altitude sickness or simply aren’t in good enough shape. And, every year some trekkers and porters die on the mountain. Come prepared with appropriate footwear and clothing, and most importantly, allow yourself enough time. If you’re interested in reaching the top, seriously consider adding at least one extra day onto the ‘standard’ climb itineraries: accepted medical advice is to increase sleeping altitude by only 300m per day once above 3000m – which is about one-third of the daily altitude gains above 3000m on the standard Kili climb-routes offered by most operators.
When to Climb
Mount Kilimanjaro can be climbed at any time of year, though weather patterns are notoriously erratic and difficult to predict. Overall, the best time for climbing the mountain is in the dry season, from late June to October, and from late December to February or early March, just after the short rains and before the long rains. During November and March/April, it’s more likely that paths through the forest will be slippery, and that routes up to the summit, especially the Western Breach, will be covered by snow. That said, you can also have a streak of beautiful, sunny days during these times.
Climbing Conditions & Equipment
Don’t underestimate the weather on Kilimanjaro. Conditions on the mountain are frequently very cold and wet, and you’ll need a full range of waterproof cold-weather clothing and gear, including a goodquality sleeping bag. It’s also worth carrying some additional sturdy water bottles. No matter what the time of year, waterproof everything, especially your sleeping bag, as things rarely dry on the mountain. It’s often possible to rent sleeping bags and gear from trekking operators. For the Marangu Route, you can also rent gear from the Kilimanjaro Guides Cooperative Society stand just inside Marangu gate, or from a small no-name shop just before the gate. However, especially at the budget level, quality and availability can’t be counted on, and it’s best to bring your own. Apart from a small shop at Marangu gate selling a limited range of chocolate bars and tinned items, there are no shops inside the park. You can buy beer and soft drinks at high prices at huts on the Marangu Route.
Kilimanjaro can only be climbed with a licensed guide and we recommend organising your climb through a tour company. No-frills four-night, five-day treks up the Marangu Route start at about US$1300, including park fees, and no-frills six-day budget treks on the Machame Route start at around US$1600. Prices start at about US$1300 on the Rongai Route, and about US$1700 for a seven-day trek on the Shira Plateau Route. For other routes, their starting points are further from Moshi and transport costs can be significant, so clarify whether they’re included in the price. A proposed hike in government taxes may soon send prices even higher.
Most of the better companies provide dining tents, decent-to-good cuisine and various other extras to both make the experience more enjoyable and maximise your chances of getting to the top. If you choose a really cheap trip you risk having inadequate meals, mediocre guides, few comforts, and problems with hut bookings and park fees. Also remember that an environmentally responsible trek usually costs more. Whatever you pay for your trek, remember that the following park fees are not negotiable andshould be part of any quote from your trekking operator:
National Park entry: US$70 per adult per day
Huts/Camping: US$60/50 per person per night
Rescue: US$20 per person per trip
Other costs will vary depending on the company, which should handle food, tents (if required), guides and porters, and transport to/from the trailhead, but not tips.
Most guides and porters receive only minimal wages from the trekking companies and depend on tips as their major source of income. As a guideline, plan on tipping about 10% of the total amount you’ve paid for the trek, divided up among the guides and porters. Common tips for satisfactory service are from about US$10 to US$15 per group per day for the guide, US$8 to US$10 per group per day for the cook and US$5 to US$10 per group per day for each porter.
Guides & Porters
Guides, and at least one porter (for the guide), are obligatory and are provided by your trekking company. You can carry your own gear on the Marangu Route, although porters are generally used, but one or two porters per trekker are essential on all other routes.
All guides must be registered with the national park authorities. If in doubt, check that your guide’s permit is up to date. On Kili, the guide’s job is to show you the way and that’s it. Only the best guides, working for reputable companies, will be able to tell you about wildlife, flowers or other features on the mountain. Porters will carry bags weighing up to 15kg (not including their own food and clothing, which they strap to the outside of your bag), and your bags will be weighed before you set off.
There are six main trekking routes to the summit. Trekkers on all but the Marangu Route must use tents. Officially a limit of 60 climbers per route per day is in effect on Kilimanjaro. It’s not always enforced, except on the Marangu Route, which is self-limiting because of maximum hut capacities. When this limit is enforced, expect the advance time necessary for booking a climb to increase, with less flexibility for last-minute arrangements.
Marangu Route- A trek on this route is typically sold as a four-night, five-day return package, although at least one extra night is highly recommended to help acclimatization, especially if you’ve just flown in to Tanzania or arrived from the lowlands.
Machame Route- This increasingly popular route has a gradual ascent, including a spectacular day contouring the southern slopes before approaching the summit via the top section of the Mweka Route.
Umbwe Route- Much steeper, with a more direct way to the summit, Umbwe is very enjoyable if you can resist the temptation to gain altitude too quickly. Although the route is direct, the top, very steep section up the Western Breach is often covered in ice or snow, which makes it impassable or extremely dangerous. Many trekkers who attempt it without proper acclimatization are forced to turn back. An indication of its seriousness is that until fairly recently, the Western Breach was considered a technical mountaineering route. Only consider this route if you’re experienced and properly equipped, and travelling with a reputable operator. Reliable operators will suggest an extra night for acclimatisation.
Rongai Route- Growing in popularity, this route starts near the Kenyan border and goes up the northern side of the mountain.
Shira Plateau Route- Also called the Londorosi Route, this attractive route is somewhat longer than the others, but good for acclimatization if you start trekking from Londorosi gate (rather than driving all the way to the Shira Track trailhead), or if you take an extra day at Shira Hut.
Mweka Route- For descent only, and often used as part of the Machame, Umbwe and (sometimes) Marangu routes.
West Kilimanjaro is often overlooked in the rush to climb Mt Kilimanjaro or visit the northern safari parks. That’s a real shame, because it encompasses the Maasai lands running north of Sanya Juu village up to the Kenyan border, and is a region of savannah bush lands and impressive wildlife populations – this is an important dispersal area for lions from southern Kenya, while it’s also part of an elephant corridor linking Kenya’s Amboseli National Park with Mount Kilimanjaro National Park. Other draws include opportunities for walks, cultural activities and horse riding.