‘Kibo’ The story of Kilimanjaro’s ice caps

Since 1912, Mt Kilimanjaro has lost 82% of its ice caps. After finding out this devastating fact I wanted to find out a little more about what is causing such a rapid response and what the local communities think about their largest mountain. Our wonderful tour guides at Sirikwa Travel told us about the stories that had been passed to them about the mountain and what they believe is the meaning for its name.

They believed that the name is a mix of the Swahili word Kilima, meaning ‘mountain,’ and the Chagga word Njaro, loosely translated as ‘water’ or ‘white’ (possibly due to the view of the ice caps from afar.) There is no doubt of the mountain’s striking appearance set amongst the plains of East Africa. The first sighting of it is overwhelming, especially when you know you have to then climb it!

Bearing in mind the historic meaning for the mountain it is truly unfortunate to think that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are in fact melting.

There are a number of contributing factors causing the glaciers to melt, but scientists point to climate change as one of the leading sources. Fewer clouds and snowstorms means Uhuru Peak has a front row seat to the sun’s burning rays.

Also, we can’t forget that Mt. Kilimanjaro is a volcano. Though it hasn’t been active for hundreds of years, the molten magma that exists far below its surface may be enough to slowly melt away the glaciers at its peak.

“Like climbing icebergs in an ocean of sand” is how ice climber and consummate adventurer Will Gadd described ascending the melting glaciers in late October 2014.

There are also other human inputs due to deforestation, which leads to less vegetation, less rainfall on the lower slopes and finally less snow on the summit. It is feared that most of it is happening because people don’t have energy supplies so they are cutting down trees to make charcoal.

People are still not taking this issue seriously because the melting glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are not directly harming those that live around it. They no longer depend on the melted water from this dormant volcano for their needs in farming.

Yet, one can only imagine all the probable outcomes that can come off this melting scenario. Doug Hardy, a senior research fellow in the Climate Systems Research Center at the University of Massachusetts claims, “The shrinkage and ultimate disappearance of these glaciers will create tremendous ecological and social problems in the near future.”

Kilimanjaro, being a world tourist attraction, is a very big revenue-generator for Tanzania. And the motivation to climb this incredible mountains and reach snow almost at the equator is truly a bucket list experience. The Overseas Development Institute claims that about 35 to 40 thousand tourists visit the mount each year, with a total spending of about $50 million in the country. One can only imagine what will happen to Tanzania once its great protector, Mount Kilimanjaro, is no more.


Our tour guides also told us that the Kibo glacier was named after the Swahili word for Kibo ‘Wow’. Having climbed to the summit I can think of no other word that can be used to describe the beautiful view we had of Mount Kili every morning!!!


Kilimanjaro ice caps will remain in my heart and memories for a lifetime. I only hope generations to come will have the opportunity to enjoy it as much as I did.

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