Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. It is a dormant volcano and lies 400km south of the Equator, just inside Tanzania’s border with Kenya. It's the highest point in Africa standing at 5895m/19,340ft. It is surrounded by the hot and dry plains of the continent, with wildly contrasting vegetation from rainforest to moorlands, towering cliffs and glaciers. This was my second expedition to Kilimanjaro (it was the first of my 7 Summits back in 2003) and I had the great opportunity of re-visiting it with my Mother Vicky, who had it on her 'bucket list' of things to do. We climbed the mountain by the picturesque 'Machame' Route (as I did before), which traverses several of the scenic micro environments found at the different elevations on the mountain.
Like most dormant volcanoes, the slopes on Kilimanjaro are mostly of reasonably low angle with occasional steeper sections, none of which are more famous than the Breach Wall, a towering cliff of
snow and ice descending dramatically from the summit slopes. Our route of ascent, via the Machame route, was incredibly varied in its topography and plant life. Each day we ascended through the various
climatic zones, each with unique and different views and highlights. What is initially lush rainforest thins to become alpine heather. Then we encountered alpine moorland with a cornucopia of weird and exotic plants. Nowhere is this more pronounced than arriving into Barranco camp, home to a large stand of Senecio Kilimanjari. The upper mountain features varied volcanic terrain that in places has a tortured appearance, the result of heated lava explosions and resultant flows that have long since cooled. As you get close to the summit, there are remnant glaciers scattered around the summit crater looking like giant icebergs after the tide has gone.
The climb itself is trekking on well formed trails and the camps are at sites established by the Tanzanian National Park Service. At each camp there are Rangers in residence, usually living in small huts, and hence each camp is named with ‘hut’ after the name of the camp. On our final summit day, we began in the early hours of the morning and started out climbing on a beautiful moonlit night. Only a few hours into the ascent though, the weather set in quickly and what started as a pleasant summit night, soon deteriorated into thunder and lightening, followed by a full blown blizzard and driving snow. We battled on up towards the top with zero visibilty and it was only when we arrived at the Uhuru Peak signpost, that we knew we had made it! There were no spectacular panoramic views of the African plains below this time, or any magnificent sunrise to speak of. Just wonderful memories to take home, of a very extreme summit night and an incredible journey to have shared with a parent.
Visiting Wild Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda
With only around 880 mountain gorillas left in the world, seeing them in the wild is an incredible, once in a lifetime experience. I had the wonderful opportunity to go and visit them, after our Kilimanjaro climb. About 480 mountain gorillas inhabit an extinct volcanic region called the Virunga Range along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in East Africa. The other 400 or so mountain gorillas inhabit a nearby area of Bwindi in Uganda, a thick rainforest.
Rwanda has one park in the North of the country encompassing its share of the mountain gorilla population: the Virunga National Park or Parc National des Volcans (PNV). The park covers an area of about 46 square miles and encompasses six volcanoes. Despite the terrible genocide in the early 1990's the country is fairly stable and the park permit system is running smoothly. The PNV was where Dian Fossey set up her base and research center.
The DRC also has a section of the Virunga Mountains park called the Parc National des Virunga. The DRC gorilla population suffered a major setback because several gorillas were brutally hacked to death in 2007. In 2012 a census showed the gorillas were doing better than expected despite the civil war raging around them. This was in large part due to the amazing efforts of rangers putting their lives on the line at Virunga National Park.
Getting to see gorillas is not easy, nor are you guaranteed to see them. The trek to where the gorilla groups live takes you through very dense vegetation, up steep slopes and can last several hours. Gorillas move around so they aren't all that easy to track, but the Rangers always know where they settle for the night, so use this as a starting location for the next day. The gorillas you meet are habituated to humans which is why you are able to get quite close to them. Some basic rules of tracking gorillas include:
You cannot be sick or have any infectious disease. Gorillas are very susceptible to contracting human viruses and vice versa.
Only one hour is allowed with the gorillas and you have to keep a distance of at least 5 metres.
No eating or drinking in the vicinity of the gorillas.
No touching the gorillas (although they may decide to touch you).
No pointing or staring the gorillas in the eyes.