Kilimanjaro: Facts About Africa's Highest Peak

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet (5,895 meters), but it isn't a mountain in a traditional sense. It is a giant stratovolcano that began forming about a million years ago and is composed of many layers of hardened volcanic ash, lava, pumice and tephra — fragmental material that is the fallout from a volcanic eruption.

One of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on the seven continents), Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania in east Africa. (Image credit: Graeme Shannon shutterstock)

A number of theories exist about the meaning and origin of the name. One theory is that the name is a mix of the Swahili word Kilima, meaning "mountain," and the KiChagga word Njaro, loosely translated as "whiteness." Another is that Kilimanjaro is the European pronunciation of a KiChagga phrase meaning "we failed to climb it."

One of the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on the seven continents), Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania in east Africa. Kilimanjaro lies within the 292-square-mile (756 square kilometers) Kilimanjaro National Park. Kilimanjaro rises from its base approximately 16,732 feet (5,100 meters) from the plains near the Tanzanian municipality of Moshi, making it the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

There are three volcanic cones that make up Kilimanjaro: Kibo is the summit; Mawenzi at 16,893 feet (5,149 meters); and Shira at 13,000 feet (3,962 meters). Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo's crater rim. Uhuru, Swahili for "Freedom," was named in 1961 when Tanganyika gained its independence . Tanganyika later joined with the islands of Zanzibar to form Tanzania.

While the other two volcanic formations are extinct — meaning that they are highly unlikely to erupt again — Kibo (the highest peak) is merely dormant, so there is the possibility that it could erupt. Estimates have the last major eruption dated to 360,000 years ago, but volcanic activity was recorded just 200 years ago.

While Kibo is dormant, gas is emitted into the crater, causing several collapses and landslides, with the most extensive ones creating the area known as the Western Breach.

While the name Kilimanjaro has its origins in the KiChagga word for "white," it is becoming increasingly less so. While it still covered with ice caps and glaciers at higher levels, global warming is quickly changing the climate and scientists expect the famed snows of Kilimanjaro to disappear sometime between 2022 and 2033.

Climbing Kilimanjaro

About 30,000 people climb Kilimanjaro each year and about three-quarters of those reach the summit. It is a relatively safe climb, and most climbers who fail to summit experience altitude-related issues or harsh weather near the peak. Temperatures at the peak can be 0 degrees F (minus 18 C), and if the winds are blowing, the wind chills reach dangerous levels.

The climb can be done any time of year but the rainy winter season make the summer and early fall a popular time to climb.

Kilimanjaro has five climbing routes to the summit: Marangu Route; Machame Route; Rongai Route; Lemosho Route; and Mweka Route. The popular Machame and Lemosho routes are scenic, while the busy Marangu is the easiest until the difficult final ascent to the rim of the crater.

In 1861, the German officer Baron Carl Claus von der Decken and British geologist Richard Thornton  made a first attempt to climb Kibo, but had to turn back at 8,200 feet (2,500 meters).

Von der Decken tried a second time the following year, and with Otto Kersten got as far as 14,000 feet (4,280 meters).

In 1887, during his first attempt to climb Kilimanjaro, German geology professor Hans Meyer reached the base of Kibo, but was not properly equipped to handle the deep snow and ice and retreated.

On Oct. 5, 1889,  Meyer, Marangu scout Yoanas Kinyala Lauwo and Austrian Ludwig Purtscheller were the first team to reach the summit. They were the first to confirm that Kibo has a crater, which was filled with ice at the time.

Honey badgers and bushbabies

Kilimanjaro encompasses a wide variety of ecosystems, including tropical jungle, savannah, and desert to montane forests, subalpine plants, and the alpine zone above timberline.

Kilimanjaro has a large variety of forest types that harbor 1,200 vascular plant species. Montane Ocotea forests occur on the wet southern slope. Cassipourea and Juniperus forests grow on the dry northern slope. Subalpine Erica forests at 13,451 feet (4,100 meters) represent the highest elevation cloud forests in Africa.

Another feature of the forests of Kilimanjaro is the lack of a bamboo zone, which occurs on all other tall mountains in East Africa with a similarly high rainfall. Because there is no bamboo zone there is a limited supply of food for animals.

However, there are a number of species that thrive in the area. Blue monkeys, which are not actually blue but grey or black with a white throat, gather in the forest zone on the Rongai Route. Olive baboons, civets, leopards, mongooses and bush pigs, which have a distinctive white stripe running along its back from head to tail, are abundant.

There are honey badgers and aardvarks, but visitors rarely get to see these nocturnal creatures. Noisy bushbabies, which are also nocturnal creatures, can be more easily heard more than seen. There are also small-spotted genets with distinctive black-and-white tails, and the loud tree hydraxes that are similar to chipmunks.

— Kim Ann Zimmermann


Live Science Contributor

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a contributor to Live Science and sister site, writing mainly evergreen reference articles that provide background on myriad scientific topics, from astronauts to climate, and from culture to medicine. Her work can also be found in Business News Daily and KM World. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University) in New Jersey.