“Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” – Ernst Hemingway
Like the leopard in Hemingway’s story, I too could not pinpoint exactly why I wanted to climb Kilimanjaro in the beginning. Of course, the panoramic view from the top and the inexplicable rapture of simply being there made it all worthwhile. However, it soon became clear that it was the wondrous journey to the summit, rather than the summit itself, which changes one’s life forever. The immersion in Kilimanjaro’s natural wonders makes the journey worth far more than the destination.
Regardless of which route you take, you will cross at least four distinct climatic zones on your way to the top. The Chagga (natives) plantations in the foothills, the songs of the hundreds of bird species in the dense forest, the red and golden paintings of heathers and flowers in the Alpine region and finally the arctic desert on the summit – Kilimanjaro is home to every condition of life you can imagine!
If you’re a nature junkie like me, climbing Africa’s Natural Laboratory will be nothing short of a fairy tale – with all its magic, challenges and climax. In this post, I hope to give you an idea of what you can expect on your way to the summit of Kilimanjaro at different times of the year.
Tropical Rainforest (800 – 2800m)
The gates of every route fall in the montane forests of Kilimanjaro. These rich forests are gushing with massive trees and thick bushes on either side of a well-kept hiking trail. Bush Babies, Badgers, Antelopes, Monkeys, Elephants and Giraffes are some of the mammals in the jungle. However, they are elusive so if you manage to photograph them, you’ll be one of the lucky ones to do so! You may even spot one of the many species of birds in the forest.
Whether you spot rare wildlife or not, I can assure you that simply standing in the midst of this forest will touch you deeply. You’ll want to stay at one of the many camps there depending on which route you’re taking – Machame Gate, Londorossi Park Gate, Mandara Hut, Simba Camp.
Weather: During the wet seasons (March-June and October-December), the cultivated region and the forest are humid and warm (~10 – 15 Degrees Celsius). June-August is the coldest period here.
Moorlands or Low-Alpine Region (2800 – 4000m)
You will know exactly where you enter the moorlands. From the lush green forest, you’ll enter a relatively vacant expanse of uncultivated land, teeming with heathers. In contrast to the dense forest, you will find sparse bushes, trees and plants here. Some of the campsites which fall in the moorlands and low alpine region are Mti Mkubwa, Horombo hut, Kikelea Caves, Machame, Shira and Barranco.
There are two great things about this region though – first, you will get a chance to see the secret life of wild flowers here, as there are so many alpine plants around. Second, after the humid and warm air in the forest, the air in these open moorlands is cool and fresh.
Weather: The Moorlands are colder and drier than the forest. At night the temperature touches zero in the colder months, especially July.
Alpine Desert (4000 – 5000m)
The transition from the Moorlands to the Alpine Desert is gradual and you will notice both plant and animal life becoming scantier in this region. You will discover the reason for this hostility to most life-forms first hand. The temperature in this region varies from a scorching 40 Degrees Celsius in the day, to below freezing in the night. Like most plants and animals, you will also find it hard to adapt to the thin air and fluctuating temperatures.
However, there is a worthy reward for the hardships you will face here. The golden, red and green sheets of lichens and moss look like intricate artwork. In addition, the lack of vegetation makes it possible to see the snowy peaks of Kibo, the jagged Mawenzi and even Mount Meru around you! Standing on solidified lava from over a million years ago, you will begin realizing the grandeur of standing on the roof of the Africa.
Depending on your route, Barafu, Mawenzi Tarn Hut, Kibo Hut, ‘The Saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo and Karanga Valley are some of the camps and landmarks you will find in this region. These will typically be the last pit-stops before the summit.
Weather: Regardless of which month it is, this region will feel like both extreme summer and winter in the same day. The sun is unbearable at times in the day and the cold will reach your bones at night! Make sure to use that sun-block and insulation here!
Glacial Zone (5000m +)
If you thought the Alpine Desert was inhospitable to life, you will find your greatest challenge in the Arctic Zone. As the name suggests, this region is an arctic desert of ancient rock, volcanic cones and glaciers. The oxygen will be so thin, that you may experience symptoms of Altitude Sickness here and the radiations from the sun are unfiltered and unbearable. There is hardly any life in this region and you will notice the fragility of life in your own fragile condition. However, you’ll forget all about it as you set your gaze upon the ephemeral view from Uhuru peak.
After an arduous last stretch, the view from the top is a sight for sore eyes. It is the ideal balm for your aching muscles, which will be burning by this time. Trust me, you have never seen anything like the view of the Tanzanian wilderness from the roof of Africa. THIS WILL CHANGE YOU!
“The experience of climbing Kilimanjaro affected me so powerfully that, for a long time afterward, if I caught myself saying, “I’m not a person who likes to do that activity, eat that food, listen to that music,” I would automatically go out and do what I imagined I didn’t like. Generally I found I was wrong about myself – I liked what I thought I wouldn’t like. And even if I didn’t like the particular experience, I learned I liked having new experiences” – Michael Crichton
Weather: The temperature oscillates between extreme sunshine and cold in this region throughout the year. You will not spend much time in this frigid region, so your decision about which season to go in should be based on weather in the lower regions of the climb.
Seasons on Mt. Kilimanjaro
|January – March||Great Time to Climb
Dry and Warm with mild showers and scanty snowfall
|March – June||Dangerous Time to Climb
Rainy Season and Slippery Mountain Slopes
|June – July||Climbing Season Restarts
Monsoons End, Dry Air and Cold Temperatures at night
|July – October||Busiest Climbing Season
Dry Air, Mild Showers, Colder Temperatures and Swarms of Climbers.
|October – December||Dangerous Time to Climb
Onset of Second Monsoon. Unstable weather, thunderstorms and snowfalls. Unadvisable to climb, but preferred by some adrenaline junkies!
January – March is the best time to climb Kilimanjaro, as it balances out the best of each region. The forest receives light showers, but the ascent remains dry for the most part. July – October is another such season, but Kilimanjaro is teeming with tourists at this time.