Kilimanjaro today

The twentieth century saw the focus shift away from exploration towards tourism. Gradually the mountain became more tourist-friendly. The authorities put up name plates and signs, but the most significant change occurred in 1932 when they built Kibo Hut. In doing so, they established a ready base for summit assaults. And so tourists began to trickle into Tanzania to make their own attempt on Africa’s Roof.

A smiling Julius Nyerere relaxing on the bonnet of a car surrounded by a crowd

Julius Nyerere, the Father of the Nation

The independence struggle

In 1959 the mountain became the focus for nationalist feelings and a symbol of the Tanganyikans’ independence aspirations. This followed Julius Nyerere’s speech to the Tanganyika Legislative Assembly.

“We, the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate and dignity where there was before only humiliation.”

Nyerere eventually got his wish. Tanzania gained Independence in 1961. And soon after a torch was indeed placed on the summit of Kilimanjaro. Independence also provided Tanganyika with the chance to rename many of the features of the mountain. In particular, the authorities renamed the very summit, originally called Kaiser Wilhelm Peak by Hans Meyer, as Uhuru Peak. (Uhuru meaning, appropriately, ‘Freedom’ in Swahili.)

A soldier, fighting against a high wind, places a torch on the summit of Kilimanjaro

The torch is hauled up to the summit of Kilimanjaro – Uhuru Peak

The tourists arrive

Since this mountain’s moment of patriotic glory, the story of Kilimanjaro has largely been about tourism. The early trickle of tourists that started about 70 years ago is nowadays more of a flood. Visitor numbers have exponentially increased, from less than a thousand in the late 1950s to the 50,000-plus we see today. COVID has provided a temporary respite. But it is, in all probability, just temporary.

What has been an economic boon to the people of Kilimanjaro, however, has brought little benefit to the mountain itself. With the increase in the number of trekkers comes commensurately greater numbers of pressures and problems. Its soil is being eroded, its vegetation is being burnt or chopped. Its wildlife is disappearing and its glaciers are melting.

Along with these environmental pressures come challenges to its dignity. Climbers dream up ever more bizarre ways of climbing to the top, whether it’s driving up by motorcycle or walking in fancy dress.

Kilimanjaro ablaze!

Then there’s the problem of fire. In February 1999 a huge blaze swept across the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro. The fires were first discovered on February 6 and over the next five days 70 hectares were destroyed in the fire. Thanks to the combined efforts of 347 villagers, park rangers and 40 soldiers of the 39th Squadron of the Tanzanian People’s Defence Force, the main blaze was eventually brought under control. Not, though, before the fire ha caused considerable damage to the mountain.

You can still see evidence of fire in places on Kili. This is particularly true in the moorland zone on the Marangu and Machame routes. New plants are growing here, but between the charred remains of branches and shrubs. Further fires, particularly on the Shira Plateau, have caused yet more lasting damage. The latest major fire was in October 2020 on the Marangu Route.

Depressingly but unsurprisingly, many believe that human activity is behind most of the fires. In a secret ballot, six hundred men identified as the culprits 22 men from the Kamwanga and Rongai districts. The men were all squatters living illegally in the protected areas of the national park. According to one minister who visited the scene of the devastation, there were up to ten thousand such squatters living in Kilimanjaro’s forests. It is believed that one of them discarded a cigarette butt which started the blaze.

However, others point an accusing finger at local farmers. They like to clear their farms by fire before the start of the annual rains the following month.

Kilimanjaro the eternal mountain

Despite these indignities, Kilimanjaro continues to inspire both awe and respect in all who gaze upon it. And yes, man will continue in his clumsy, careless way to deface and demean Africa’s most charismatic place. An he will continue to set it ablaze and cover it with litter. But the mountain itself remains essentially the same powerful, ineffably beautiful sight it always was.

Perhaps because, while we throw all that we can at it, the Roof of Africa does what it always has done – and what it does best:

It simply rises above it all.

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