5 Zones encountered when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro is comprised of 5 very distinct vegetation zones of approx 1000m that have formed because of the mountain's location and extreme height. As Mount Kilimanjaro sits just south of the equator, it’s base experiences the heat and sunshine associated with this part of Africa. However as you climb it gets colder and there is less and less rainfall as you approach the arctic conditions of the summit. These zones reflect the temperature and precipitation change. On a typical climb you pass through 1 zone approx every day and a half. The zones are; farmland zone, forest or jungle, heather and moorland, highland desert and the summit zone. Read more about the zones below.

Zone 1: Cultivated Zone (800m – 1800m)

A coffee farm on the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro

A coffee plantation on the southern foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro

This is the region of the mountain that receives the greatest rain annually. Coupled with the many rivers formed by merging streams of glacier run-off on the mountain, this zone is made up of farmland and small villages (many of which now rely on the climbing industry for income). A lot of the porters and guides you will see on the mountain will have come from these Chagga villages. As you leave your hotel for the mountain on the first day of your climb you will be driven through this zone to the start of the forest.

The farmland in this region is mostly used for coffee production, in fact some of Africa's best coffee comes from the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro! Bananas are also grown on the lower mountain, a large number of which are used for the production of banana wine and beer.

Zone 2: Forest (1800m – 2800m)

Climbing through the cloud forest of Mount Kilimanjaro

A porter climbs through Mount Kilimanjaro's impressive jungle. Check out the vines!

It’s in this vast forest that you will start your climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. Because most of the rain on the mountain falls in the south and the east, the forest is much thicker here than to the north on the Kenyan side of the mountain. The flora and fauna is diverse but the latter is very elusive. Monkeys (both Blue and Colobus) are prevalent on certain routes and while olive baboons, leopards, mongooses, elephants, bushbabies, black rhinoceros, giraffes and buffaloes are known to visit the mountain,s slopes they are rarely seen. If you do see some good wildlife take lots of pictures, you’ll be one of the few people who have! The best places to see wildlife are just above the thinner jungle on the Rongai Route and on the edges of the Shira Plateau.

For those who have never been in a jungle before, trust us, it's a spectacular place for a hike. Deep gorges fall away to each side of the well-kept trail as you climb ridges, surrounded by some of the tallest trees you have ever seen. Climbing through the cloud towards the upper limits of the forest makes for some very atmospheric photography. The forest is usually mild and if it’s going to rain on your climb, it probably will here.

Zone 3: Heather and Moorland (2800m – 4000m)

climbing through heather and moorland on Mount Kilimanjaro

Climbing through the heather with Kibo just visible over the ridge

Above the forest the daytime temperature can soar above 40oC yet and drop below 0oC at night. Coupled with increased winds and decreased rainfall, giant heathers, wild grasses and a rocky trail replaces the trees and mud of the forest. Some of the heathers can grow to over 10m in height, dwarfing a person but as you climb higher the flora reduces in size and grasses become much more predominant. Large fields of wild flowers cover sections of the mountain and you will often see clouds floating at your eye level. Expect vivid blue skies and sun at the upper end of this zone, with little cloud to protect you from the sun’s UV rays you will need lots of sun block, climbing with burnt ears and a burnt neck is not fun!

As your now above the low cloud line and a lot of the airborne dust from the plains below you will be treated to a spectacular array of stars when night falls. With Kili rising 7000 feet ahead of you and an incomprehensible number of stars above you, this is a surreal and peaceful place.

Zone 4: Highland Desert (4000m - 5000m)

Kibo rises above the barren but beautiful highland desert on Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro's highland desert sits in the shadow of snow-covered Kibo

This region of the mountain is a strange place, truly deserving the title of Desert. There is a mean annual rainfall of less than 200mm a year and what plant life exists at this altitude has to put up with fierce, burning sunshine and sub-zero temperatures – all in the same day. Thomas told us that last year he only saw it rain once in this zone. All around you are the very obvious signs of volcanic activity. From small stones to huge boulders, volcanic rock stretches as far as the eye can see. You are now close enough to the cone of Kibo to see the vast glaciers that cling to the deep gorges on the slopes and the breaches in the crater rim where molten lava punched through during ancient eruptions. This is one of the most dramatic landscapes you will ever witness.

Wrap up warm at night, at this altitude the mercury dips well below 0oC and you can expect to find frost on the ground in the morning.

Zone 5: The Summit (5000m - 5895m)

The snow covered summit at the end of a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro

Snow, huge glaciers and cloud 10,000 feet below the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

The lower section of this zone is made up of scree that is quite difficult to climb; hence the summit bid being made at night when the evening dew has settled and frozen, knitting the scree together and making it more stable underfoot. As you climb, ice will begin to appear in patches and soon in large fields as you approach the lower reaches of the summit glaciers. On the rare occasions when it does precipitate the porous, volcanic rock absorbs the moisture in an instant. The traditional summit route takes you up to the rim of the volcano and west for one last push. Following the rim as it rises beside a massive glacier to Uhuru peak, you finally approach the sign telling you the journey is now at an end, you’re at the top of Africa. To the east, the peak of Mawenzi is just visible behind the crater rim and to the north Kenya spreads out on the horizon.

The crater is a fascinating place and if you still have some energy in reserve, it’s well worth making the short trip.. Inside the inner crater is the Ash Pit (no ash though) and at 360m across by 120m deep, it’s one of the largest in the world. Check out the fumaroles that occasionally puff smoke on this 'dormant' volcano.