Mount Kilimanjaro – the island in the sky -a view from Amboseli

Apart from the vastness and diverse ecosystems in Amboseli this is one aspect that cannot be ignored, the giant looking down from just across the border in Tanzania, the snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro. It is quite incongruent to be sitting in a game vehicle in the warm equatorial sun in the swamps and grasslands of Amboseli National Park in south east Kenya looking up at the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro – the sight is breath-taking!

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” ~Dr. Seuss

No one knows the origin of the name Kilimanjaro. It may mean “mountain of caravans” (kilima – mountain; jaro caravans), a landmark for caravans seen everywhere from afar.

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” ~Edward Abbey

This mountain is massive and is positioned in south east Tanzania about 205 miles from the equator, along the Tanzanian/Kenyan border.

Africa’s eastern side is scarred by the Great Rift, a fracture zone running from north to south. Along the fault lines lie volcanoes of all sizes, but in Tanzania the biggest dwarfs them all – Mount Kilimanjaro (Kili). It is one of the ‘Seven Summits‘ which comprise the highest mountains on each of the seven continents of the Earth: Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Mount Vinson and Carstensz Pyramid. Kilimanjaro is not only Africa’s tallest peak, but also the world’s tallest free standing mountain. The summit, named Uhuru Point, is 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level.

Kili is a dormant volanco, in fact one of three volancoes. Kili is classified as a dormant stratovolcano which is composed of three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, the highest at 5895metres (19 340 ft), Mawenzi at 5,149 metres (16,893 ft); and Shira, the lowest at 4,005 metres (13,140 ft). Mawenzi and Shira are extinct, while Kibo is considered to be dormant and could erupt again. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim and the word Uhuru is Swahili for “Freedom”. This mountain was so named in 1961 when Tanganyika gained its independence from Britain. Tanganyika later joined with the islands of Zanzibar to form Tanzania.

Seeing “Kili” clearly at any time of the day from Amboseli is a chance affair. The weather around Kilimanjaro is influenced by the height of the mountain, which allows the concentrates to influence the equatorial trade winds and the high altitude. Kilimanjaro has daily upslope and nightly downslope winds, a regimen stronger on the southern than the northern side of the mountain. The flatter southern flanks are more extended and affect the atmosphere more strongly. The northern slopes receive much less rainfall than the southern ones.

Kilimanjaro is 40 miles wide, covering an area 50 times the size of Manhattan. Being so big, Kilimanjaro creates its own weather system. The south-east trade winds carry moisture from the Indian ocean and eventually hit “Kili” forcing them upwards. As the air rises it cools and condenses, forming clouds and precipitation. So mid-March through to the end of May is the wet season on Mount Kilimanjaro and its surrounds. 

The rain from Kilimanjaro together with the melting snow waters are vital to the mountain’s varied plant life and the mountain’s immediate surrounds.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” ~John Muir

There are two dominant influences on the climate in Kenya: the onshore monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean, and its altitude. The winds determine the onset of Kenya’s two rainy seasons, with the hot anti-trade winds or northeast monsoon or kaskazi blowing dry air in from the Persian Gulf from November to March/April and the warm, moist kusi monsoon blowing in from the southeast from April/May to October.

Mount Kilimanjaro was estimated to have developed about 3 million years ago during the formation of the Great Rift Valley. During that period many volcanoes erupted in the Kilimanjaro region. Three distinct volcanoes formed Shira, Mwanzi and Kibo. Shira was the first to become extinct, eventually collapsing and was later covered by debris from the other two volcanoes. Shira was thought to have been 16 000 ft high before its collapsed. Mawenzi followed and a massive explosion broke its eastern rim creating a spectacular gorge. Kibo continued to grow after Mawenzi’s collapse and later the magma pulled back from the central vent and was covered by a cone of ash around the rim. Today, Kibo is considered dormant but not extinct like the other two. “Kili’s” last major eruption was dated at 360 000 years ago with the most recent activity around 200 000 years ago.

The changing size of Kili’s snow cap has been the source of much speculation around the effects of climate change. Some call it “the poster child of global climate change”. Kili’s icecap has shrunk 82% since 1912 and some scientists estimate the glaciers may be completely gone in 50 years. There is much debate about the cause of the reduced snowcap but its is thought to be due to deforestation rather than global warming.

At the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in southern Kenya, the melting snow off the mountain’s permanent snowcap feeds south into a large wetland called Kimana in Amboseli National Park. Kimana wetland area is approximately 10 square kilometres with other small wetlands along the rivers and the whole area acts as a vital water stop for wildlife migrating between Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

The landscape of Amboseli is made up of swamps, grasslands and acacia bushveld and even fever tree forests, but the heart of the park is certainly the swamps which draw in herds of elephant and buffalo, giraffe and zebra, to the water and lush grass in the dry season.

The park is dependent on the water fed by Kili and is critical to the high productivity of the swamps sustaining a vast array of wildlife and contributing to the biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Amboseli like the Tsavo West National Park supports large concentrations of wildlife despite the relatively arid terraines thanks to the nearby volcanic structures. Wildlife is sustained throughout prolonged dry seasons by underground water fed through porous rocks of the volcanic uplands. Swamps on the Amboseli Plains rely on groundwater from the Kilimanjaro massif. Tsavo West is fed by the Mzima Springs with water derived from the Chyulu Hills.

Life is abundant in the grasslands and swamps below Mount Kilimanjaro. The view of this “island in the sky” is breath-taking. I had seen it briefly, somewhat shrouded in clouds, the last time I was in Amboseli in 2018, but this trip we were fortunate to get several opportunities to see this mountain in all its majesty in bright sunshine. Once you wander around the Amboseli National Park you realise how important the melt waters from “Kili’s” snow cap and its weather influences are to the abundance and diversity of wildlife in this wonderful park.

“Dark clouds become heaven’s flowers when kissed by light.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

There are many wonderful game parks with a range of hills in the background, Mana Pools in Zimbabwe with its high escarpment in the background springs to mind but nothing on the scale of “Kili”.

“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being” ~Ansel Adams

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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