On October 22, 1959, 2 years before he would become chief minister of a newly independent Tanganyika (soon to become Tanzania), Julius Nyerere addressed the Legislative Assembly, saying, "We, the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on the top of Kilimanjaro, which would shine beyond our borders, giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where before there was only humiliation."
The speech was to inspire Africans throughout the continent. As Joaquim Chissano -- inaugurated as president of independent Mozambique in 1986 -- would say in an emotional speech to Tanzanians years later, "Kilimanjaro carried the torch that liberated Africa."
Today Kilimanjaro's snowcapped dome -- when she deigns to appear from behind the clouds that swaddle her for much of the day -- continues to be one of the most inspiring sights in Africa. It is the combination, perhaps, of the viewer being physically immersed in equatorial heat while high above the cloud cover -- towering 5,895m (19,336 ft.) above the plains -- and the other-worldly glow of snow and ice. The tallest freestanding mountain in the world, Kilimanjaro is just 3 degrees south of the sweltering equator. It's hardly surprising that early-19th-century explorer-missionaries relayed tales of "a mountain topped with silver." Even the most celebrated among them, David Livingstone, attributed the mountain's white crown to "a mass of white rock, somewhat like quartz."
Fascinated by local accounts of this mysterious mountain, Johann Rebmann, a Swiss-German missionary whose taste for adventure apparently outweighed his religious zeal (he notched a mere seven converts during his 12-year sojourn in Africa), set off to find it with his guide, Bwana Kheri, on April 27, 1848. Two weeks later, Rebmann became the first white man to look upon Kilimanjaro, writing in his diary, "I observed something remarkably white on the top . . . and first supposed it was a very white cloud." On closer inspection, Rebmann correctly identified it as snow, an observation that was dismissed out of hand by armchair geographers in Europe as the "visions of his imagination." It was to take another 12 years before Rebmann's report was finally verified by two more avid explorers, Briton Richard Thornton and the German Baron Carl Claus von der Decken. The two men climbed to 2,500m (8,200 ft.) before they were forced to turn back, the bottle of champagne they carried consumed in solace rather than celebration. Only the Baron attempted the climb again, this time reaching 4,200m (13,776 ft.) before a heavy snowfall forced yet another disappointing retreat.
The mysterious allure of Kilimanjaro's snowcapped peaks drew many more suitors keen to conquer her summit, but weather, porters, and local chieftains defeated their ambitions until 1889, when Dr. Hans Meyer and Ludwig Putscheller finally scrambled to the top, proudly planting the German flag on what the local Chagga tribes called Kipoo (Kibo) and naming it Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze. The climb took them 6 weeks. Thanks in part to the shrinking snowline, the ascent is much easier today, but one cannot help but wonder what the two intrepid climbers would make of the fact that the summit can be reached in 4 days today; that some 25,000 climbers now head up these slopes every year (though only around 60% make it to the top); and that record-holding victors include 87-year-old Valtee Daniel, 9-year-old Joshua Schumacher, and quadriplegic Bern Goosen, the first wheelchair user to make it to the summit.
Despite its exotic "highest mountain in Africa" moniker, Kilimanjaro is unique in the pantheon of great mountains, in that it can be scaled by virtually anyone with the drive to do so. No mountaineering skills or special preparations are needed, though you do need to be in relatively good health and able to complete a hard hike. Being super-fit can be a drawback, as pace is everything -- the slower, the better. That said, the relative ease with which she can be conquered should not engender a careless, gung-ho approach. Aside from enduring the debilitating effects of altitude, a serious onset of pulmonary and cerebral edema can be lethal. If you plan to climb its summit, come prepared, and book your trip with a reputable company, some are recommended in the "Organized Tours" section. Alternatively, you could spend a pleasant few days rambling the foothills and lush forest that ring the lower slopes, stopping well before the 3,000m (9,840 ft.) moorlands zone, where the effects of altitude begin to set in. For the more sedentary, it's uplifting enough just to raise a toast to Kili as she shows herself in the late afternoon, her still-snowcapped dome tinged pink by the setting sun. As the popular T-shirt for Kilimanjaro Beer, one of Tanzania's most refreshing home-brewed beverages reads, "If you can't climb it, drink it!"