Solitary and imposing like a huge baobab in the Savannah, Kilimanjaro at 5895 meters is the highest mountain and therefore peak in Africa. It anchors a glacier a few hundred kilometres from the equator and conveys a fascination to the mountain lovers that few peaks have in the world. The climb is an exciting adventure that is forever memorable for most travellers who come to Tanzania to admire its majesty.
Vittorio Malagutti, one of the best known Italian journalists and columnist of the weekly L’Espresso, who recently returned to Italy after climbing the Kilimanjaro summit and having done a safari, takes us through the memories and reflections of his experience, an experience not only in endurance and resilience but also very personal: everyone climbs Mt. Kilimanjaro with a lot of questions in their minds and hope to find answers at the summit.
Vittorio Malagutti, why did you choose Mt. Kilimanjaro?
My reasons were rather personal, initially, I decided to climb the to test myself and find out how I could cope with extreme situations like exhaustion and fatigue, the scarcity of oxygen of the high altitude and the discomfort of the climate. In addition, I was attracted pushed by the curiosity towards this very peculiar mountain, which looks like a solitary giant in the boundless spaces of the savannah. Kilimanjaro is not embedded in a chain of peaks such as the ones found in the Alps, the Andes or the Himalayas. You can see it from far away, with its six thousand feet, hooded by a glacier, which unfortunately is melting and increasingly growing less extensive year after year due to climate change and other factors.
How difficult was the climb?
This mountain is the only one of the “seven summits”, which make up the Queens Summits of every continent, which can be climbed without facing mountaineering difficulties characteristic of rock and ice. It is a long trek of 34kms, which lasts six days. So you need cardiovascular and endurance training and fatigue resistance, you do not have to use ropes, ice axes and crampons making it a much easier or less difficult, depending on how you look at it.
What images impressed you most, about that part of Africa?
The Ice: this was the biggest surprise for me. I am used to alpine peaks, made of rocks, shrubs and moss. Going up the Kilimanjaro, however, you will find spectacular trees up to almost 4,000 meters above sea level and when you are at the top, where obviously the landscape is desolate and barren, you’ll be amazed to think that only a couple of days ago you walked along a path immersed in the rainforest, between sudden downpours and sometimes unbearable heat.
How did you feel once you got to the peak?
When you reach a goal for which you have struggled for, you are overwhelmed by emotion, which everyone expresses in their own way, some cry, while let out exhilarated screams of joy. Those who climb in groups, hug each other. Then you stop and look down: there is a sea of clouds that hides Africa, down there. And then the dazzling sun reflected in the white of the glacier. The terrain at the top is black, solid-state lava to remind you that you climbed on a volcanic mountain, a giant that has been sleeping for thousands of years.
Did you also get to visit other places in Tanzania?
Of course, I visited the North of Tanzania, on the border with Kenya which hosts some of the most beautiful parks in the world. I had the opportunity to participate in a photographic safari in the Ngorongoro and Serengeti reserves where I encountered unlimited spaces, lots of nature and wild animals at a telephoto range. I also saw lions, zebras, giraffes, impalas, leopards, gnu, cheetahs and hyenas. Seeing and admiring them in their natural environment was a great emotion. It was more like being in a National Geographic documentary
How was your relationship with the locals and with the organization?
The ascent to Kilimanjaro is managed by government laid down regulations. Every climbing group is required to have a guide, porters and cooks. All these attendants are perhaps not necessary, unless the purpose is to provide employment to the locals in order to improve their living conditions. I’m not sure, however, that money really goes into the pockets of those who need it most, but I can say that I’ve seen much worse around the world. As you can imagine, there are not many accommodation options in the park; you either sleep in tents in the equipped areas, as we did, or pay hundreds of dollars to stay for a few days in the few lodges within the reserve. When you wake up in the morning, with a broken back after spending the night on the bare earth, then you understand that the idea is to discourage an even larger influx of tourists at one given time, an invasion that would endanger the ecosystem.
Is there anything that you found negative about Tanzania?
I’m not an expert on Africa and it’s not easy to make judgments based on a couple of weeks stay. I can say that the small part of Tanzania that I explored gave me a view into the disparities in most developing nations; Luxurious off-road vehicles on one hand and poor people walking barefoot on the other, generosity leaps and cheap scams on tourist among others.