Since its official opening in 1977, Mt 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 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
HIKING IN TANZANIA
In a country crowned by the tallest free-standing volcano in the world and almost bisected by chains of ancient mountain ranges, hiking takes on a high profile. Stunning scenery and rugged terrain combine with a fascinating cultural backdrop to create several challenging and adventurous routes. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Part hike, part slog and part high-altitude trek, the journey to the peak of this iconic mountain — the world’s tallest free-standing volcano — lures thousands of trekkers each year . Beginning amid lush stands of banana on Kilimanjaro’s heavily cultivated lower slopes, the climb continues up through dense, dripping rainforest to alpine meadows and crosses a barren lunar landscape to the twin summits of Kibo and Mawenzi. The final stage — the ascent up a steep, slippery scree slope — typically begins around midnight, culminating with sunrise views from the summit over the plains far below. Kilimanjaro’s cold, wet conditions and its altitude (5896m) make trekking here a serious undertaking. To aid acclimatisation, plan on at least a seven day round trip for a summit attempt, and budget at least $1200.
Often lost in the shadow of nearby Mount Kilimanjaro, 4566m-high Meru — Tanzania’s second-highest peak – also offers a highly scenic trek to the top. The ascent route starts in grassland and lush forest on the mountain’s lower slopes, rising up through picturesque glades and finishing with a dramatic and exhilarating walk along the knife edge of volcanic Meru’s crater rim. Meru is smaller than Kilimanjaro, and a trek can be done comfortably in four days, three nights. However, do not underestimate the mountain: its steepness, sheer drop-offs on the final ascent and the effects of altitude make it an almost equally challenging climb. Mount Meru is part of Arusha National Park, and all climbers must be accompanied by a park ranger.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Although most famed for its wildlife-filled centrepiece, Ngorongoro Crater, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) in Tanzania’s north is a wonderful destination in its own right, with rugged, scenic trekking and terrain varying from steep escarpments and grassy ridges to dense forests and volcanic peaks. There are no set routes, which makes for many possibilities. These include an overnight hike taking in the grassy summit and shallow crater of Olmoti peak and the breathtakingly beautiful crater lake of Empakaai; a day-hike up Makarot peak (3130m), complete with grasslands and wide views; and, a five-day walk from the northern edge of Ngorongoro Crater via lake-filled Empakaai Crater to the summit of the still-active Ol Doinyo Lengai, just outside the NCA’s boundaries. There is no infrastructure, and for overnight hikes most people use donkeys or vehicle support to carry water and supplies.
Rushing waterfalls, steep slopes, 10 species of primates and a wealth of unique bird and plant species are the highlights of hiking in the seldom-visited Udzungwa Mountains, located about a six hour’s drive southwest of Dar es Salaam. Infrastructure is rudimentary (you will need to bring your own tent and supplies), and the trail network is limited. But the night-time symphony of forest insects, the burbling of streams and views down over the Kilombero plains make up for the hassle. Despite relatively easy access (the main park gate is just 60km south of the highway along a decent road), the Udzungwas remain very much off the beaten path, and hikers will often have trails to themselves.
All of these climbs and hikes can be done year round, with the dry season (late June to October, and late December to early March) generally the most favourable times. During the long rains from March to May, many areas of the country become extremely muddy, and hiking during this time is not recommended.