Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Trees of Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro is a huge dormant stratovolcano in northern Tanzania, near the border with Kenya. The mountain last erupted about 150,000 years ago, but there is still a smoking ash pit in the summit caldera. The mountain is the highest in Africa and may be the highest mountain on earth that can be accessed by hikers without technical climbing equipment or mountaineering skills. It rises about 4,800 metres (16,000 ft) from its base to Uhuru Peak at 5,895 metres (19,341 ft) above sea level. These elevations have been re-surveyed recently and differ by minor amounts from survey to survey. I summited in September, 2015, with three friends and will post some photographs in the coming months.
The map shows our route based on waypoints measured by my friend's Garmin GPS unit. On the way down via the southern route, you descend on the Mweka Trail to the Mweka Gate. Because the elevation changes so greatly, a trekker passes through distinct botanical/biological zones, ranging from alpine desert to jungle. This article is about the Trees of Kilimanjaro*.

* Sorry, I could not resist paraphrasing the title of Ernest Hemingway's 1936 short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". It is about a hunter who is dying of gangrene. The 1952 film stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Susan Hayward, with music by Bernard Herrmann. Quite a star-filled production.
Above Millenium camp, the terrain is a bare, dusty, terrain of rock and ground-up rock powder (see photograph no. 1). But at Millenium, you begin to see stunted trees and brush. And at 12,000 ft altitude, the air feels so thick after sleeping above 15,000 ft for three nights. I guess everything is relative.
Below the Millennium Camp, the trail passes into a spectacular forest of monstrous trees and ferns. It is so Jurassic Park, you wonder when a dinosaur will pop up from a valley. According to Wikipedia, the montane forests on the southern slopes contain Ocotea usambarensis as well as ferns and epipythes, while farther up in cloud forests, Podocarpus latifolius, Hagenia abyssinica and Erica excelsa thrive as well as fog-dependent mosses.
The trail is nicely-graded here and takes you relentlessly down. One thing we noticed is that the trail within the forest was no longer dusty but was hard-packed dirt. The trail crews had dug gutters and water troughs to control runoff in the wet season.
The tree ferns are gorgeous with backlighting.
And then there are the trees. Nothing subtle about this timber.
Occasionally, the view opens to a fern-covered field and vistas of forest.
The trail reaches a jeep track with a resting tree for the porters. These guys are amazing considering the heavy packs, tents, and supplies they carry at over 15,000 ft to support trekking groups.
You continue to pass through a spectacular forest as long as you are in the Kilimanjaro National Park. In the lower areas, local villagers are allowed to harvest something (not sure what) from the forest floor. But they cannot cut timber.
Finally you reach the Mweka Gate at 1640 m elevation. You receive your official certificate (if you summited), as well as lunch and a beer. And if you are really lucky, an air-conditioned van is waiting to take you back to your hotel and a shower. We had a fabulous trip, and I thank Ed, Fred, and Zak for being such cheerful and great companions.

If you want to take your own trip to Kilimanjaro, I strongly recommend Embark Adventures of Portland, Oregon.

Photographs taken with a Panasonic G3 camera with Lumix 12-32mm lens. RAW files opened with Photoshop Elements and processed with DxO Filmpack 5, mostly with the Tri-X film emulation and yellow filter.

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