Travel Stories

Africa: Tanzania - Kaiser Wilhelm's Peak

“As wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white.”

Rising sheer from the grassy plains at the rim of the Equator is one of the most famous sights in Africa – the snow-covered Mount Kilimanjaro, which is, as Hemingway wrote, “as wide as all the world, great, high and unbelievably white.” The 19,340-foot high peak was consigned to Tanzania during the Berlin Conference of 1885, when the colonial European powers were slicing up Africa like a giant pie. Evidently, Queen Victoria gave the mountain as a gift to her nephew, the German Kaiser Wilhelm, because “he likes everything that is tall and big.” Its long history as a mountain climber’s dream began in 1889, when a trio of German amateurs conquered the summit on their third attempt. Today, some 25,000 people a year make the strenuous, five-day ascent, but many more enjoy it from afar as an integral part of the classic East African landscape. Kilimanjaro also lies in the heart of the continent’s largest concentration of wildlife, within a stone’s throw of the Serengeti plains. It is also sacred to the most famous tribal group of East Africa, the Masai, tall, stately figures with their red togas and distended earlobes, who continue to drive herds of cattle as they have for centuries. Throughout the 19th century, the Masai were known to the West only by reputation – as the fiercest, most implacable warriors in Africa’s interior. In 1883, the first white explorers to actually meet them, Joseph Thomson, recorded: “We soon set our eyes upon the dreaded warriors that had been so long the subject of my waking dreams, and I could not but involuntarily exclaim, ‘What splendid fellows!’ as I surveyed a band of the most peculiar race of men to be found in Africa.” Today, the Masai still look impressive, but their traditional lifestyle is changing. Young warriors no longer wear the lion’s mane over their heads, for example. The adornment was once seen as a sign of bravery, but the lion is now protected – and, like Mount Kilimanjaro, a crucial part of Tanzania’s tourist economy.