Few mountains in the world are as recognizable as Mount Kilimanjaro, rising alone from the African plains in northern Tanzania with its snowy cap, although in recent years the world has had to get used to changing views of the mountain, as ice cover at its summit has decreased by more than 80 percent.
At 19,340 feet (5,895 meters) it is by far the highest peak on the African continent and the largest single-standing mountain in the world. It exudes an awesome mystique, towering above the Great Rift Valley, home to humankind's ancestors.
Kilimanjaro, or Oldoinyo Oibor, as it is known in Maasai, is a triple volcano with the youngest and highest peak of Kibo lying between Shira to the west and Mawenzi to the east. Kibo has survived as an almost perfect cone and the crater measures an incredible 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) across. The Wachagga tribe, which has inhabited the fertile volcanic slopes at the base of the mountain for around 300 years, has a legend which tells of Mawenzi receiving fire for his pipe from his younger brother, Kibo. While this suggests fairly recent activity, the volcano has been inactive in modern times, although steam and sulfur are still emitted.
The cultivated lower slopes of the mountain give way at 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) to the forest belt, characterized by flora such as fig trees, tree ferns, and lush undergrowth. Flowers, including the 10-foot- (3-meter-) high giant lobelia, abound in the clearer areas. Colobus and blue monkeys inhabit the forest, and elephants can be spotted roaming the forest slopes. At 9,570 feet (2,900 meters), the forest zone ends abruptly, giving way to the heather zone and moorlands with giant groundsel. On the higher moorland only small mosses and lichens grow, eventually giving way to snow and rock. In spite of the mountain's great altitude, the peak is relatively accessible, attracting thousands of walkers each year. The mountain needs to be taken slowly, however, as altitude sickness is common and can be fatal. There are six routes up the mountain with varying degrees of difficulty and different features to recommend them. Accommodation is provided for walking parties and their guides in huts along the way. Climbers begin their final ascent around midnight and are rewarded with a spectacular sunrise at the peak.