Mount Kilimanjaro: The Roof of Africa

Dr. Watson E. Mills has traveled to all seven continents and has made 16 trips to the African continent, visiting more than 50 of its countries and lacking only Somalia and Libya.

I had been to Tanzania once, only briefly, years ago, but because of the terrible weather I was not able to see the famous, signature top of Mount Kilimanjaro. So later during my 15th visit to the African continent in September of 2013, I made another attempt. There are more than 11,000 air miles to be flown getting from Atlanta to Mount Kilimanjaro with a plane change in Europe.

My flight from Rome to Kilimanjaro was on Turkish Airlines via an Istanbul plane change. After enduring a six-hour layover in Istanbul, I finally arrived at the Kilimanjaro Airport around 3 a.m. two days after leaving Atlanta!

I had obtained my Tanzanian visa before leaving the USA. While the other poor, sleepy devils were lining up for the “visa on arrival” service, I walked right up to the immigration officer and was admitted into Tanzania in under 60 seconds. My luggage arrived quickly as well, and I exited the arrivals area to see my name–WATTSON MILLZ–held up by a man who carried my bags to his jeep and off we went. I was out of this small airport within 15 minutes of landing.

The first part of the drive to my accommodation was over a paved road and went fairly quickly considering the speed bumps, the roundabouts, the absence of white strips on either side of the road, and that the oncoming traffic failed to dim their headlights! Soon, the paved road gave way a very rough dirt track, and then further along it was so pot-holed that I had to hold on for dear life! These last nine miles took another 45 minutes.

I arrived at the Mount Kilimanjaro View Lodge at about 4:45am. Of course I arrived in total darkness, so I was only able to imagine the incredible sight of the mountain lurking near me in the dark. Three young baggage handlers met me with flashlights at the ready since the generator was not operating at this hour. These young men escorted me to my hut. Each hut at the Mount Kilimanjaro View Lodge is named for an animal, mine was called Leopard. The pathway to my hut included at least 75 rough-hewn steps and in my sleep-deprived state it is a miracle that I made it there with breaking my neck.

Mount Kilimanjaro

“The Kilimanjaro View Lodge,” a small, family-run accommodation consisting of a dozen rooms that are actually individual huts, touts itself as a small, “traditional” lodge where every guest experiences authentic African culture and food. Situated against a tropical rainforest high above the tourist town of Moshi (known as the “Gateway to Mount Kilimanjaro”), the lodge sits on a downward slope overlooking a wide, fertile valley. Directly across this valley from the lodge is Mount Kilimanjaro’s southern slope. This majestic mountain is the imperious, overseer of the continent, the summit of Africa. The view from the lodge is completely unimpeded.

“Mount Kilimanjaro” has become a metaphor for the compelling beauty of East Africa. It rises in breathtaking isolation from the surrounding plain. Rising nearly 20,000 feet, the mountain is the tallest on the African continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Some of the local people don’t even have a name for the whole mountain but only for the familiar snowy peak that stands atop its highest summit. The name “Kilimanjaro” is itself shrouded in mystery. Some say that the name means “Mountain of Light” or “Mountain of Greatness” or “Mountain of Caravans. One theory about the origin of the word “Kilimanjaro” is that it derives from a mix of the Swahili words “kilima,” (“mountain”) and “njaro” (“whiteness”).

The mountain is actually a giant stratovolcano that began forming about a million years ago. It is composed of many layers of hardened volcanic ash, lava, and pumice which are the fallout from past volcanic eruptions. The mountain has three volcanic cones, two are dormant, but the third, the highest, Kibo, could erupt at any time, although the most recent activity was about 200 years ago.

After a few hours of sleep, I awoke at first light and pulled open the curtain. The sky was clear and I had an unobstructed view. I stood utterly transfixed before this astounding sight. As the sun began to break through the mist and clouds, I saw the top of the mountain emerge from the darkness. Its snow-capped peaks were the first to reflect the sun’s rays. It was truly an experience of a lifetime. The snowy peaks glistened in the rays of early morning light as tiny contrails of smoke rose from its highest point. After an hour or so, this majestic view became obscured by clouds and smog as it does everyday in the early to mid morning. When this happens the locals say “Kili is sleeping.”

Although it lies close to the Equator (200 miles south), Mount Kilimanjaro looms over the plains of the Savannah. According to one legend, Queen Victoria of England gave her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the mountain as a birthday present. But in fact, Karl Peters, a German traveler in Africa and one of the founders of today’s Tanzania, persuaded the various chieftains to sign treaties in which they agreed to cede their territories to his Society for German Colonization.

There is so much more to “Kili” than her summit. The ascent of her slopes is a virtual climatic world tour, from the tropics to the Arctic. Even before you cross the national park boundary, the cultivated foot slopes give way to a lush forest, inhabited by elusive elephant, leopard, buffalo, antelope, and numerous smaller primates. Even higher, the last traces of vegetation give way to a winter wonderland of ice and snow and to the magnificent beauty of the roof of the continent. The nearby rainforests are lush and green.

On most days, usually by about 9 a.m., the mystery mountain is already shrouded in the clouds only to reappear, briefly, around sunset. So the next morning I was ready. Just before 6 a.m., I took up a position facing the mountain on a small platform built near my hut. It extended outward, over the slope, and provided a perfect view. As the sun began to rise, I saw the shape of the top of the mountain emerge from the darkness. Ever so slowly, its snow-capped peaks began to reflect the sun’s rays, dancing over its dazzling peaks, a vision that made chills run down my spine.

One day during lunch, I met two young men from Australia who planned to depart the next morning on their climb to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. They had a genuine knowledge of mountain climbing in general and of Mount Kilimanjaro in particular. They told me how, aided by its relatively easy ascent, Kilimanjaro has become a major destination for mountaineers and trekkers from all over the world. They told me of a wooden box that sits at the summit of the Kibo near the crater’s rim. In contains a book in which climbers record their thoughts upon reaching the top. Those privy to the book’s contents say that its pages, written in multiple languages, are filled not with the efforts required to reach the top, but rather with the wonder and beauty of almost every kind of ecological system discovered along the way: cultivated lands, rain forests, heaths, moorlands, alpine deserts, and an arctic summit. I told them that the closest I had ever come to “climbing” was a visit to the Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet (in a four-wheel drive vehicle!) several years ago. These youngsters pointed out that one of the more astonishing facts about this mountain is that Everest’s base camp is higher than Kilimanjaro. They said that a climber must invest, on average, between eight and 10 days to climb to Everest’s base camp, while it generally takes between five and nine days to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro.

The hut Mills stayed in on his trip.

They even had a book that I spent some time reading. I learned that the oldest person to reach Kilimanjaro’s summit was the 87-year-old Frenchman, Valtee Daniel, that the first verified climb took place in 1889, and that the fastest verified ascent occurred in 2001 when an Italian reached Uhuru Peak, the lowest of the three peaks, in 5 hours 39 minutes. Listening to these two and reading their materials, I imagined myself 50 years younger, ready to join in with them for tomorrow’s climb!

On another day I took a drive out into the Serengeti which is a famous geographical region in Africa near Mount Kilimanjaro. It is situated in northern Tanzania and extends into southwestern Kenya. The Kenyan portion of the Serengeti is referred to as Masai Mara (where the annual migration of two-million wildebeests occurs). On an earlier trip, my son and I stayed in a lodge along the Kenyan border with an unobstructed view of Kilimanjaro, but the clouds (and pollution) were against us and we never saw its famous peak. But, on this trip, over the course of many mornings and sunsets, I saw it! I witnessed the power and the majestic beauty of the roof of Africa.

Next time: Angkor Wat: The Largest Temple in the World”

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