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Tanzania Plans Kilimanjaro Cable Car

Earlier this year, the country announced plans in the works to install a cable car that will allow access to the mountain for older and physically challenged tourists.

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The Tanzanian government is considering installing a cable car on Mount Kilimanjaro in an effort to boost tourist numbers by providing access for young children and elderly or disabled tourists.

Kilimanjaro is the tallest peak in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, at a height of 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level. As such, it draws tens of thousands of climbers from around the globe annually with hopes of reaching the summit, Uhuru Peak.

Constantine Konyasu, Tanzania’s Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, told Reuters in May that the construction of a cable car could increase the number of tourist visits to the mountain by 50 percent. He clarified that the plan was not yet solidified, and that several routes up the mountain were being examined as potential lines for the car. The length of the route is also under consideration, depending on cost, engineering issues, and environmental impact. Most likely, the cable would not extend to Uhuru Peak, but to a lower spot, such as Shira Plateau (12,999 feet), from which visitors would be able to take in the stunning views from the side of the mountain.

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The plan has proven highly controversial, provoking widespread criticism and more than one online petition asking the Tanzanian government to abandon the idea. Konyasu has defended the plan by pointing out that the decision was not unprecedented. He said to Reuters, “This won’t be the first time in the world, cable cars are there in Sweden, Italy, the Himalayas.”

Glaciers near Uhuru Peak. Photo: Emily Lyons Brittan.

In one online petition, Mark Gale dismissed the idea that the cable car would provide older tourists with the “thrill” of climbing the mountain. He wrote, “I climbed last month at 53 years old and it was an amazing experience putting one foot in front of the other and living on the mountain, there is no thrill in taking a taxi to the top of a mountain.”

Currently, Kilimanjaro National Park regulations prevent children under 10 years old from climbing above 12,000 feet. There is no upper age limit, although older climbers are cautioned to consider their own physical abilities and the unpredictable effects of altitude. In July, 89-year-old Anne Lorimor of Paradise Valley, Arizona, became the oldest person to summit Kilimanjaro. She had previously broken the record for the oldest woman to climb the mountain, at the age of 85.

Gale also expressed the feeling that cable car access would take away some of the meaning, sense of achievement, and awe currently felt by climbers. This sentiment is shared by the author of another petition, Derrick Esperanto, who wrote, “Reaching the summit is also an exclusive goal that makes Kilimanjaro unique among all continental highest peaks. It’s a global point of pride in Tanzania, that should be preserved for future generations to strive for.”

Beyond these feelings, the petition writers and many others—including members of the Tanzania Porters Organization and the Mount Kilimanjaro Porters Society—have expressed significant concern over the effect that cable car access would have on those whose livelihood currently depends on the mountain. The park requires all climbers to hire a local, licensed guide in order to pass through any of the gates at Kilimanjaro’s base. Additionally, most expeditions employ a number of porters, who assist climbers by carrying the bulk of gear and food up the mountain.

Barafu Camp (4673m). Photo: Emily Lyons Brittan.

On my own recent Kilimanjaro climb, I was initially shocked by the number of porters recommended by the guiding company to accompany my group. On my previous climbs and backpacking expeditions—none of which, granted, extended to 19,341 feet—I had always carried my own pack and gear, and didn’t understand the necessity of such a team. I quickly learned, however, that employing teams of porters is standard practice on Kilimanjaro.

My trek lasted seven days and took the Machame Route, one of the proposed routes for the cable car. During our hikes, I spent some time talking to guides and porters about their experiences working on the mountain. One of my central takeaways was the huge role that the climbing business plays in the local economy, and its importance as a source of jobs. One day during our climb, our assistant guide Paul asked me about higher education and employment opportunities in the United States. I gave him my answer and asked about the same in Tanzania. He said that he believed a major contributor to unemployment was the slow pace of technological progress in the country. “Technology drives job creation,” he said. Then he pointed to a group of porters passing us on the narrow trail, loaded with packs. “Without this job, these are men who would have very few other ways to make money.”

Of course, such conditions are inevitably susceptible to mistreatment and underpayment of workers, which is why organizations like the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project strive to improve working conditions for porters by providing gear and education, advocating fair wages, and providing climbers with information in order to help them choose to hire a company that treats its employees ethically.

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Working on the mountain bears common challenges for all employees of a climbing company, from guides to porters to cooks. It is, of course, a highly physical job, and the unpredictable effects of the environment can take their toll. Our guide Godlove told us that he occasionally experiences nausea from the altitude, despite having summited Kilimanjaro over 300 times. Keeping watch over the symptoms of the climbers, who may have never previously spent time at such a high altitude, is a tricky and attention-consuming job. Additionally, Godlove and our assistant guides agreed that the length of treks can be a challenge, as they have to be away from their families for days at a time.

Evidently, it’s tough work, but it can be a solid source of income, and one that guides and porters are afraid to lose. Every local professional with whom I broached the topic was opposed to the building of a cable car. One expressed hope that UNESCO might intervene, given that Kilimanjaro National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The major concern is the possibility that easier access will discourage tourists from experiencing Kilimanjaro the traditional way. Tourism is a vital source of revenue for Tanzania, and has grown in recent years. A cable car would provide access to a group of people with a wider range of ability, potentially increasing the total number of visitors to the mountain, as suggested by Konyasu.

It would also present a considerably cheaper option, giving tourists the alternative of experiencing views from above the clouds without the need to pay a group of guides and porters to support their journey. Therefore, many of these workers worry the cable car has the potential to decrease the number of tourists who actually hike Kilimanjaro, as they may choose to take the easier, shorter, and cheaper path.

There are other concerns as well, including the complicated and unpredictable effects of altitude, and of consequent lower oxygen levels, on the human body. In an article in The EastAfrican, Patty Magubira points out that Shira Plateau, one proposed end point for the cable car, has an elevation of 3,962 meters (12,999 feet). She writes, “If people typically start experiencing acute mountain sickness at about 3,000 metres above sea level and some can experience symptoms at as low as just over 2,400m, taking a cable ride from ground level to Shira Plateau in about 20 minutes can pose serious health risks.”

Karanga Camp (3,995 meters). Photo: Emily Lyons Brittan.

Climbers are currently strongly advised to spend at least 5 days on the mountain in order to give their bodies time to acclimatize and to minimize the risks of altitude problems. My group took five and a half days to ascend, followed by a day and a half to descend. The pace allowed us to spend three nights sleeping between 12,000 and 14,000 feet, climbing to higher altitudes during the day and then hiking down to make camp—a common practice known as “climb high, sleep low,” which assists the body in acclimatization.

Furthermore, cable car construction would have an environmental impact of unknown proportions. Magubira describes the building process: “First, trees and vegetation have to be cleared to create the cable line route causing adverse environmental impacts, as does erecting huge pylons and towers and stations that destroy the flora, which take years to recover, if at all.”

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The vocal response from around the world sends a clear message: many people oppose the idea of a Kilimanjaro cable car, for reasons ranging from personal financial worries to environmental concerns to simple love of the mountain. For now, we simply have to wait for the results of Tanzania’s assessments, and for an ultimate decision.