Possibly aside from Mt. Everest in the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro is the most iconic mountain on Earth. Europeans can recognize Mont Blanc and Americans have Denali, but everyone recognizes Kilimanjaro's name and importance. It's the tallest mountain in Tanzania and all of Africa, making it one of the Seven Summits, or the highest mountains of each continent. Aside from being written about by Ernest Hemingway and other important Africa travelers, it's popular because most people are physically capable of doing it. Though not the shortest of the Seven, it's considered to be the easiest*.
Don't let that description fool you. Relative to the world's very tall mountains, it's easy, but it's still objectively reasonably difficult. A lot of "serious" mountaineers will put the mountain down as an easy, overrated hill for wealthy tourists, rather than "serious" climbers. While I was climbing both Ruwenzori and Mt. Kenya, every guide or experienced Africa climber told me that after I'd done those two mountains, I'd find Kilimanjaro boring.
Generally, itineraries proposed by guiding companies are short, ranging
from four to six days to the summit, depending on the trail you take. We completed the mountain with the Machame route, which is considered to be more scenic than the more popular, standard Marangu route. Most of the trail is just a straightforward hike, with only one middle section and the summit attempt being physically difficult. How long it takes to complete depends on the hikers. The standard time is four days with the summit bid during the night after the fourth day followed by one more day of hiking out of the park. However, you can add in extra days for acclimation to increase your chances of success. I strongly, strongly recommend that anyone considering a Kilimanjaro climb do this. We had an advantage in that we had been living in Nairobi, whose elevation is around 6,000' above sea level. Unless you live in central Colorado or the Alps, you'll be coming from a decidedly lower elevation, which makes acclimation a lot more difficult. The hike itself is never overly strenuous, but acclimating in the time you have to climb it can be quite difficult.
Because the entrance fees to the park are very expensive (it's over $100/day), most people try to complete the mountain in the shortest time possible, which is why guiding companies usually advertize short itineraries. If you're going to do it, it's worth the extra money for another 2-3 days. Any solid guiding company will be happy to oblige and they can help you pick good camping elevations to help you to acclimate. The failure rate for people coming to the mountain from low elevations in other countries is really high. Depending on who you ask, it can be as much as 75% for people attempting to complete the mountain in four days. On average, it's around 40-50% and plenty of people who summit don't feel great when they do. We made it, but we were feeling too sluggish and gross to enjoy the really amazing summit caldera and the view it provides as much as we should have.
Getting to Kilimanjaro is easier than any other mountain in Africa because of its popularity. There's an airport right in Moshi, the town next to Kilimanjaro (it's like the Aspen of Africa), named after the mountain and the sole purpose of its creation was to shuttle in Kilimanjaro tourists. If you're trying to save money, it's much cheaper just to fly to Nairobi and to hop on the special bus line that delivers you right to Moshi. However, you will need a visa for each country. If you're an American, right now that's $150, and Tanzania will only issue a $100 multiple entry visa instead of the standard African $50 single entry visa. Visas: You'll need them everywhere you want to be! At least in Africa. Only South Africa and Rwanda will let an American enter without one. Tanzania's capitol, Dar es Salaam, is actually a lot farther than Nairobi. Dar is one of those magical cities that you would go to only to go to somewhere else. Anywhere else in Tanzania is a good choice.
The shuttle from Nairobi leaves mid-morning. It's packed with tourists from across the globe, most of whom are heading to northern Tanzania to go on safaris in the Serengeti, rather than Kilimanjaro. Our bus had several British, Canadians, another American, a group of Slovenian climbers, and a guy who'd just flow in from Fujian, China exclusively to go on a short safari before returning home. The drive itself takes you through the heart of Masai territory, so you'll see a lot of traditionally dressed people herding cattle and donkeys alongside the road. If you haven't already seen the countryside of Kenya and Tanzania, it offers you a pretty great view of the area. Flat savannah with volcanic mountains sticking out of it the whole way, each with great relief from its surroundings. It's hot and dry, but with amazingly clear skies and long views of the area.
The drive to Kenya's border with Tanzania takes about two hours. The border town that contains the crossing itself (Namanga) isn't too bad. Because there are so many tourists piling down to northern Tanzania, it can take 1-2 hours to cross. Everyone gets out of their bus, stands in line on the Kenyan side of the border to get stamped out of the country, walks across the invisible line separating the two countries, and stands in line to get stamped into Tanzania. Throughout the process, Masai women will aggressively try to sell you jewelry. The border guards try to keep them away from the lines of tourists, but the minute you break away from the herd you'll be swarmed with them. Keep your arms close to your chest or they'll start putting bracelets on them which they'll refuse to take back. Otherwise, it's an amazingly straightforward border crossing, and one of the few land borders in Africa where you can get a visa on the spot if you need one.
A little while after you've crossed the border, you'll be going along the flat savannah without any mountains in sight. Then, suddenly, Mt. Meru looms in the distance. It's about 4,500' shorter than Kilimanjaro, but it still stands impressively high over the surrounding plains. Meru is still taller than the highest peak in the contiguous US (Mt. Whitney in California--speaking of which, anyone feel like hiking or climbing it this summer?) by about 500', so its appearance isn't deceiving. The bus stops for a little while in Arusha, the town at the foot of Meru. Arusha and Moshi are both extremely well-developed for the tourists and offer everything from fleabag backpacker hostels to five-star palaces. It's a good place to take a half-hour break from the bus ride.
After Arusha, it's only about an hour further to Moshi. When we arrived mid-afternoon, much of Kilimanjaro was covered by its normal afternoon clouds. It did pop out from behind its cover for one brief minute. Only three mountains on Earth stand higher relative to their surroundings than Kilimanjaro, and one of those is Everest. Kilimanjaro isn't a steep or jagged peak, like Margherita in the Ruwenzoris or Mt. Kenya's summit spire, but it has a powerful presence that no mountain I've been to does. It is IMPOSING. It says HELLO not in a shouting and intimidating voice, but an enormous and expansive one. And then it goes back into hiding.
It's easy to see why so many explorers and travelers in years and centuries past have thought "I NEED TO CLIMB THIS." There's nothing unimpressive about the mountain.
Because we'd arrived too late in Moshi to check into the park and complete the first day's hike, we stayed at one of the tourist hotels. Hotels in Moshi, as you would expect, are a lot nicer than they are in most other places. Also, the little Italian restaurant in the hotel served a "Kilimanjaro Pizza", which was two pizzas stacked face-to-face with the top one pushed into a dome and covered with marinara sauce to look like a volcano. It was the kind of delicious, high-calorie goodness that all climbs should be started with.
You'll also notice the different culture in unexpected ways. When we were being shown to our room, the maid didn't realize that we were married and asked us if we would need separate beds, being an unmarried couple. She stopped pushing the beds apart when we told her that we were in fact married.
Checking into the park takes a while. The entrance area is a seething mass of climbers and their support teams. Porters line up a hundred deep to have their bags weighed (one porter can only carry 25kg, a rule imposed because a lot of climbers would save money by forcing single porters to carry grossly excessive loads) and climbers all wait together in a shelter for their entry paperwork to be completed. It's best to be patient. If you don't get your permit and your extra copies, which you'll have to leave with rangers at each camp, you can find yourself in a world of trouble. Enough people try to poach access to the expensive park and enough people get sick or injured that they take keeping track of climbers very seriously. You have to check in with the ranger station at each camp every night with your permit.
Compared with the other mountains, Kilimanjaro isn't the most social mountain. Don't get me wrong, people aren't unfriendly on the mountain. There are just so many of them (think 200-400 at each camp), including a few big groups, that people tend to stay within their own group, rather than reach out to others during down time at the end of the day. On Ruwenzori, there were around 20-25 people on the entire Central Circuit trail while I was there, and about 15 of us at the first two camps that I stayed at. We all ate at the same table every night and always talked to each other throughout the evening. Mt. Kenya probably had 20 people on the route I used and 40-50 on the mountain, so it was about the same. Kilimanjaro has literally thousands of people on the mountain at any given time during the high season (now) and everyone eats in their own team's mess tent, rather than at the same communal table. Despite all of the people around, you'll actually talk less. Over the course of the hike, there still ended up being a few people we kept running into. The team of Slovenians from the bus ride took the same route at about the same pace as us, so we actually saw them just about every evening. One day, me and Marie were talking about hiking Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Scotland and the UK, and the man in front of us (who turned out to be Glaswegian/from Glasgow, Scotland) turned around and started excitedly telling us about the hike and the joys of visiting Scotland.
Kilimanjaro is filled with Americans. I personally attribute this to Hemingway and yuppie culture. In the Ruwenzoris, I was the only American. On Mt. Kenya, I was one of two. Even just traveling around other places in Africa, we're a decisive minority amongst the tourist community. The main reasons there are so many more Europeans and (recently) Chinese in Africa are straightforward and accidental. Africa's really close to Europe, while an American who wants to get to Africa usually has to fly to Europe and then south to Africa, making it a greatly longer and more expensive trip for Americans than others. However, a good 50% of the climbers on Kilimanjaro are American. It's physically beautiful and stunning. It's an excellent mountain for relatively inexperienced people because the hike is not so difficult that you need to be in peak physical condition to do it and with a guide it's not hard to figure out an acclimation schedule. But that can't be all that makes it such a popular mountain, since there are a lot of other mountains closer to home that could be described in the same way.
A good proportion of its popularity is caused by Hemingway, who made the mountain an American icon as well as a European one. Also, one thing that stands out right away is the kind of person climbing the mountain. There are plenty of people there who are just into mountains, but a huge proportion of the people on the mountain are yuppie professionals, largely from the American East Coast, who are wearing all-new gear (i.e. this is probably the only major mountain they'll ever do). Don't misunderstand me: I qualify as nearly all of those things myself, being an attorney who went to school in the east, so I'm not raining judgment down on these people. Also, I have no problem with casual adventurers. I like people who, while not very "outdoorsy" or adventurous, will still come out and enjoy nature here and there. Personally, I think popularizing conservation and making it successful depends on them more than anyone else. That's a whole discussion for another time, though.
However, Kilimanjaro seems to have become a part of America's professional-class subculture. It doesn't matter what age--all were represented, from young professionals fresh out of school to aging ones who have always dreamed of climbing the mountain. Some of it is money--it takes a certain amount to come all the way to Tanzania just to climb one mountain in an expensive national park. However, it's definitely caused by much more than it being easier for professionals to afford the trip. It really does appear to be cultural, rather than a pragmatic accident. I imagine it started with a mixture of the old Hemingway wealthy-professional-scion-turned-adventurer crowd which later melded with the Dick Bass adventure tourist crowd*. Especially on the start day, there was active professional networking going on, with a surprising amount of people talking shop about their law firm/engineering job/medical practice back at home and what it does and for whom. Doing Kilimanjaro almost seems to be a handshake within certain parts of the American professional crowd. Very, very few American climbers on the mountain weren't professionals. I felt a little like an outsider, because, despite being a professional, I came to the mountain because I'm a climber, something I was for a decade before I became a professional. I would've never seen it as a club's handshake or a networking opportunity on my own.
It's not something that's good or bad, it's just a quirk of the mountain's climbing subculure. Every region has one. Mt. Kenya and the Ruwenzoris definitely have a decidedly German and Polish middle class flavor, with few people that don't match that description climbing the mountains, for instance. Colorado's Front Range smells like marijuana and lawyers. The Ozarks and the Alaskan Range are filled with East Coasters who hate the East Coast. And so on.
Anyways, that's what climbing the mountain feels like qualitatively. Next comes the actual climb!