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Kate Gould explores the landscape and plants she discovered whilst climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Kate Gould and Keith Chapman recently climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for Perennial. Whilst climbing Kilimanjaro, Kate felt inspired by the landscape and came back with a whole host of new planting ideas. Here, Kate shares what she discovered with Pro Landscaper

One evening in mid-January, I received a phone call from Keith Chapman who, with delight, told me he’d signed us up to climb Kilimanjaro for Perennial. This is how – nine months later – I found myself fighting for oxygen at Uhuru Peak, 5895m above sea level in Tanzania, whilst simultaneously cursing Keith under my breath. Well, I would have if I actually had any breath to curse him with.

When preparing for the trip, my first purchase was not a daypack, Imodium, merino wool socks or wet wipes – it was ‘Trees and Shrubs of East Africa’. At this point, Keith realised that our preparation methods were polar opposites. Early on, I had a vision of being able to stop and identify the plants we passed en route to the top, but given that the book weighs about 300g, and the imposed weight limit for Kilimanjaro is 5kg per daypack, which (with 3kg of water, wet weather clothes, sugary snacks and a med-kit already factored in to the equation) does not leave room for any fripperies like plant identification tools. So, mid-September dawned, and I headed off to Kilimanjaro – without the book, but with plenty of blister plasters.

Kilimanjaro is comprised of five distinct climatic zones, each with its own beauty. The higher you climb, the less plant life there is – until scree takes over and only bacteria survive. The lowest slopes, with the top of Ben Nevis still towering above, are jungle rich, with a palette of ferns and bold tropical leaves. Here, though, the sides of the path nestle little gems: Impatiens kilimanjari, Viola eminii and Geranium kilimandscharicum. The flowers and leaves are unmistakably recognisable, even to the untrained eye, as plants in the same genus we grow in gardens back home – even if on Kilimanjaro they are mixed amongst giant ferns and Banana. In an overwhelming sea of green, these tiny pops of colour certainly stand out.

Higher up the mountain there are also recognisable plants. Between 2800m and 4000m, in areas of heath and moorland, Erica excelsa punctuate the landscape, often strewn with Usnea (or beard lichen) and interspersed with Protea kilimandscharica and Lobelia deckenii (unlike any Lobelia you might grow back in the UK, this is a Triffid in comparison).

There are also species of Kniphofia and the most amazing groundsel that tower over altitude-sick walkers. If you climb Kilimanjaro, this is the region where you are most likely to start to feel ill, and I can attest to that with gusto – even looking at the plants didn’t make me feel better. The majestic Dendrosenecio kilimanjari can reach 9m in height and are best described as a ‘horticultural candelabra’. Forests of these cascade down the slopes and to protect themselves from frost at night, closing up on themselves and only opening again with the warmth of the sun the following day.

Alpine desert takes over at about 4000m and even the tough range of everlasting Helichrysum that pepper the heath and moorland below with their papery tussocks begin to dwindle, as do the tussocky grasses – until you reach 5000m, where there is nothing but barren dusty scree. This, though, has its own rugged beauty, even if walking in it is monumentally energy sapping.

Seeing the sun rise above the cloud line on our way to Stellar Point and feeling the fierceness of its glow after walking through the freezing night is a scene that I will never forget. In fact, I will never forget any of my time on Kilimanjaro. It was only brief, but it has had a profound effect on me, from the people who cared for us so well and kindly shared their mountain so generously, to the friends made and experiences shared. I will go back, but next time I am not camping – and I am absolutely taking my plant book!

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