Guy Adams: 'The glaciers seemed remote and shrivelled'

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The Independent Online

According to the guide who took me up Africa's tallest mountain, the name "Kilimanjaro" comes from two words. The first, "Kilima" is Swahili for "hill". The second, "Njaro", can mean "white", or "shiny", or even, depending on both the vigour with which it's pronounced and the imagination of the listener, "shimmering".

As all three translations suggest, the glacier-capped nature of Killy is central to its majestic appeal. By day, it looms surreally over the parched Rift Valley and dusty plains of the Serengeti. By night, it can seem translucent, glowing in the reflection of thousands of stars.

Ernest Hemingway was so inspired by the sight of this landmark that he wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro, first published in 1936. Since then, generations of tourists have plodded up the twisting footpaths that in a few days take you from equatorial warmth to the freezing desert on the roof of Africa.

In Hemingway's day, glaciers covered almost the entire top half of the extinct volcano, which sits roughly 20,000ft above the surrounding plains. When I climbed it, just over two years ago, they seemed remote and shrivelled. Only on the final, six-hour push to the summit did we pass any patches of snow on the ground.

That came after three days trekking through a variety of landscapes, from rainforests to tussocky grassland, which are all, in their own way, reliant on the vast expanses of frozen water on top of the mountain. Many are unique ecosystems, supporting rare species that will struggle to survive the disappearance of the glaciers.

For tourists, the disappearance of the white summit would be a terrible pity. For communities in the surrounding regions of Kenya and Tanzania, for whom glacier water supplies wells and springs, and helps irrigate thousands of acres of coffee farms, it would, of course be far, far more devastating.