Kilimanjaro—The Roof of Africa
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN KENYA
A MERE 150 years ago, the interior of Africa remained largely uncharted. To the outside world, this great continent was unexplored and mysterious. Among the many stories that filtered out of East Africa, one seemed especially strange to Europeans. It was a report by German missionaries named Johannes Rebmann and Johann L. Krapf, who claimed that in 1848 they saw near the equator a mountain so lofty that its peak was white with snow.
The story that a snowcapped mountain existed in tropical Africa was met not only with doubt but also with derision. Yet, the accounts of a colossal mountain aroused the curiosity and interest of geographers and explorers, and they eventually confirmed the missionaries’ reports. There was indeed a snowcapped volcanic mountain in East Africa called Kilimanjaro. Some peoples understood that to mean “Mountain of Greatness.”
Today the great Kilimanjaro is famous for its stark beauty and impressive height. Few scenes are as picturesque and memorable as that of a herd of grazing elephants crossing the dry, dusty African plains with the imposing backdrop of snowcapped “Kili” looming majestically in the distance.
Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain on the African continent and numbers among the largest dormant volcanoes in the world. It is located in Tanzania, just south of the equator and next to the Kenyan border. Here the earth has expelled over five billion cubic yards [four billion cu m] of volcanic material, forming this mountain with its peaks in the clouds.
The mountain’s immense size is accentuated by its isolation. Standing alone and aloof, it rises from the arid Masai bush country, situated about 3,000 feet [900 m] above sea level, to a colossal 19,340 feet [5,895 m]! Little wonder that Kilimanjaro is sometimes described as the roof of Africa.
Kilimanjaro was also called “Mountain of Caravans,” for like a glowing white beacon, its great ice fields and glaciers could be viewed for hundreds of miles in any direction. In past centuries its snowy top often guided the caravans that made their way out of the wild interior of Africa, laden with cargoes of ivory, gold, and slaves.
Its Impressive Peaks
Kilimanjaro is made up of two volcanic summits. Kibo is the main volcanic peak; its beautiful symmetrical cone is capped with permanent ice and snow. To the east a second peak, named Mawenzi, soars to 17,564 feet [5,354 m] and is itself the second-highest mountaintop in Africa, after Kibo. In contrast with Kibo’s gentle, sloping sides, Mawenzi is a rugged and beautifully sculptured peak with sheer jagged rock walls on all sides. The peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi are connected at 15,000 feet [4,600 m] by a vast, sloping plain strewed with boulders. To the west of Kibo lies Shira, which is the collapsed remains of an ancient volcano long since eroded by wind and water, now forming a breathtaking moorland plateau 13,000 feet [4,000 m] above sea level.
An Ecological Masterpiece
Kilimanjaro’s ecosystem is made up of different zones defined by altitude, rainfall, and vegetation. The lower slopes are covered with pristine tropical forests in which herds of elephants and Cape buffalo wander. Several species of monkeys dwell high up in the forest canopy, and a visitor can sometimes catch a fleeting glimpse of shy mountain bushbuck and duikers, which so easily melt into the thick undergrowth.
Above the forest is the heather zone. Old gnarled trees, twisted by the harshness of wind and age, are draped with strands of lichen that resemble the long gray beards of old men. Here the mountainside opens, and giant heather flourishes. Tussocks of grass interspersed with clusters of brightly colored flowers make the countryside beautifully scenic.
Still higher above the tree line, the moorlands appear. Trees are replaced by unusual-looking plants called giant groundsels, which reach 13 feet in height [4 m], and lobelias, which resemble large cabbages or artichokes. Around boulders and rocky outcrops grow everlasting flowers, which are strawlike and dry to the touch and add some color to the otherwise silvery-gray landscape.
Higher up, the moorlands give way to the alpine zone. The terrain is dull in color with tones of dark brown and gray. Few plants can take root in this sparse, dry environment. At this point the two main peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi, are connected by a large saddle of land that is a high-altitude desert, dry and rocky. Temperatures here are extreme, reaching up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit [38°C.] during the day and plunging to well below freezing at night.
Finally we reach the summit zone. Here the air is cold and clear. Against the dark-blue sky, large glaciers and ice fields stand white and clean, contrasting beautifully with the mountain’s dark terrain. The air is thin and has about half the oxygen content that is found at sea level. At the top of Kibo’s flat summit is the volcano’s crater, which is almost perfectly round and has a diameter of 1.6 miles [2.5 km]. Inside the crater at the very core of the mountain is a huge ash pit that measures over 1,000 feet [300 m] across and plunges hundreds of feet [120 m] into the throat of the volcano. Hot sulfuric fumes slowly rise into the frigid air from small fumaroles (smokeholes), testifying to the turmoil deep inside the sleeping giant.
Kilimanjaro’s sheer size and mass allow it to create its own climate. Moist wind, blown inland from the Indian Ocean across semiarid lowlands, hits the mountain and is deflected upward where it condenses and produces rainfall. This makes the lower slopes fertile for coffee plantations and food crops that sustain the people who live around the base of the mountain.
People living beneath the shadow of Kilimanjaro superstitiously believed that its slopes were the home of evil spirits that would harm anyone attempting to approach its icy top. This prevented the local people from trying to reach its summit. It was not until 1889 that two German explorers climbed the mountain and stood atop the highest point in Africa. The second peak, Mawenzi, which is technically more difficult to climb, was not conquered until 1912.
Today the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro is open to anyone in good health and is quite popular with visitors to East Africa. The Tanzanian park authorities have well-organized arrangements for those wishing to climb the mountain. Clothing and equipment can be hired. Trained porters and guides are available, and several lodges offer comfortable accommodations from the beginning to the end of a mountain-climbing safari. Situated on the mountain are well-built huts at different altitudes, which provide the climber sleeping accommodations and shelter.
To see Kilimanjaro in person is impressive and inspires contemplation. One can readily agree with the words about God: “He is firmly establishing the mountains with his power.” (Psalm 65:6) Yes, high and alone above Africa, Kilimanjaro stands as a lofty testimony to the power of the Grand Creator.
[Map on page 16]
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