How many climate zones are there on mount Kilimanjaro?
From the base at under 1000 metres of altitude, to the dizzy heights of the summit at a heady 5895 metres, Kilimanjaro has an amazing variety of vegetation and landscapes to distract you during your iconic climb. Here’s what you can expect as you pass through five distinct zones on the way up.
Between 2,500 and 6,000 feet (or, from 800 to 1,800 metres) you will cross the Cultivated Zone, also referred to as the Bushland Zone. These lower slopes of the mighty mountain are fed by the waters descending via direct rainfall and also from the run-off from the rainforest above, allowing the cleared areas to be used for agriculture. Once forest and brush, nowadays these lands are put to good use by the Chagga and other local people who grow yams, bananas, potatoes, corn and coffee. Soils here are fertile and allow the Chagga – the third-largest ethnic group in Tanzania – to demonstrate their skilful agricultural techniques to the maximum. They have practised these for thousands of years. And the locals also provide a rich source of Kilimanjaro mountain guides!
While you are unlikely to see many large mammals in this area, encounters with smaller species such as bush babies and hyrax are possibilities. Crested turaco and sunbirds are amongst the bird species here.
As you climb beyond 1800 metres (6,000 feet) you enter the Rainforest Zone. From here to an elevation of around 2800 metres (9.000 feet) the forest is thick, representing the ideal habitat for a variety of local wildlife. But not always so ideal for those wishing to observe it, as the density of the lush vegetation often conceals the olive baboons, monkeys (both Colobus and blue), bush-babies, and even the occasional buffalo or elephant. Sometimes a prowling predator may pass through. Wildlife is most likely to be seen at the edge of the Shira Plateau, but if you don’t spot animals in this zone, console yourself with the vibrant, bright colours of the vegetation: exotic ferns, beautiful orchids, fig and olive trees, giant camphorwoods pushing up to 40 metres. The greens here are particularly stunning, adorning the trees and forest floor.
Higher still, beyond 2750 metres (9,000 feet) and 4000 metres (13.000 feet), you transition into the Heather Zone then the Moorland Zone. We leave the rainforest behind, and the temperature drops as the air becomes drier. The clue to what you will find in the first part of this section is in the name, but have you ever seen heather that stretches to over 30 feet (9 metres) in height? Along with the change in vegetation, you will certainly notice the temperature change, too. In daytime, you may encounter over 100 degrees F of heat (40C), while at night the thermometer may plummet to freezing point (32 Degrees F, 0 Degrees C), or even below. Ascending higher still, the heathers give way to grasses – tall grasses which tell you that you are in the Moorland Zone. This is an area also notable for its wild flowers.
The most iconic plants in this zone are undoubtedly the endemic groundsels and the giant lobelias. While animals are scarce, look to the skies to spot a lammergeyer or maybe a crowned eagle.
One note of caution is that acute mountain sickness can start to affect some climbers in this zone. Slow acclimatization is the key to avoiding its worst effects.
Alpine or highland desert zone
Above 4000 metres (13,000 feet), perhaps you would not expect to find a desert, but the Alpine or Highland Desert Zone occupies this section of Kilimanjaro until it reaches a lofty 5000 metres (16,500 feet). Little rain falls here each year and the variations in the temperature are extreme. Blistering heat, sub-zero readings, all in the same 24 hours. Frosts can decorate your tent each morning. It’s no surprise then that there are very few animals to be seen, and even many plants find the environment and dry soils too hostile for their survival. You will also be reminded that you are climbing on a volcano, albeit a dormant one, as evidenced by the motley collection of volcanic rocks strewn across the scarred terrain. High above you, yet ever-closer now, you will be awe-struck by the iconic glaciers of the mountain.
Sufficient time spent here at this altitude can help guard against the effects of altitude and climbers must also be conscious of the powerful solar radiation, taking precautions with appropriate sunscreen.
Above 5000 metres, things get serious in terms of temperature. This is officially classified as ‘extreme altitude.’ Loose scree is the tell-tale sign that you are now in the Arctic Zone, which stretches all the way to the summit at 5895 metres (19,341 feet). This is the final zone, therefore, and the patches of ice give away how this zone acquired its appropriate name. These patches soon become bigger and more frequent and eventually the path takes you to the foot of the mountain’s summit glaciers. Animals and vegetation are virtually non-existent up here.
The main challenge for nearly all climbers in this zone is undoubtedly the avoidance of the worst effects of altitude. As there is only half as much oxygen as you get at sea level, breathing is much more difficult in this zone. And this is not a zone we want to linger in for too long, so our objective will be to get to the summit and then make our descent as efficiently as we can.