Famous for its wildlife and the some of the world’s biggest rivers (the Nile; the Congo), Africa surprises with the fact it also contains a number of huge mountains. More impressively is the fact its three tallest mountains – Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains’ Mt Stanley – all contain remnants of once-huge glaciers. Yep, that’s right, the continent known for its generally hot climate, dense jungles and vast savannah plains also boasts a number of glaciers atop sky-piercing peaks.
It would be easy to see the challenge of trekking up these three separate peaks as too tough. Kili’s Uhuru Peak is 5986m, while Mt Kenya’s Point Lenana – the highest point for trekkers – is 4985m (Mt Kenya’s true summit, Batian, is a lofty 5199m, but is a climber’s route only). The Rwenzori Mountains are, as the plural suggests, a mountain range, with the highest point of Mt Stanley’s Margherita Peak sitting at 5109m. In other words, none are small, but they are all achievable summits.
You can, of course, tackle each of these summits independently, but the logistical work involved do so – especially in the case of the Rwenzori Mountains, owing to their remoteness (they straddle the Uganda/Democratic Republic of Congo borders) – means the best chance of success lies in going with a highly regarded guiding company, such as Australia’s own World Expeditions, who use local guides and porters to carry most of the heavy gear (including your main bag; you will only trek with a daypack each day).
Even with experienced guides and porters helping you, none of these summits are a doddle; their respective heights are the main challenge, owing to the obvious risk of altitude sickness, but there’s also the fact you move through a number of terrain types during your trek, ranging from the dense jungles of the lowlands to the vast savannah higher up, then the rocky, rugged steepness encountered above the tree-line, before you reach the summit-day push. Don’t let this deter you though; some multi-day trekking experience, trek fitness, a positive attitude and the right gear (well worn-in) will see you enjoying some-thing that most of the world never will: the vast sprawl of the African continent below you as you stand atop its highest peaks.
Don’t be misled into thinking ‘they’re all the same’, as nothing could be further from the truth, in terms of physical appearance, the terrain you encounter and the type of challenges involved. Each of these peaks has its own unique character – and each offers its own memorable trekking experience…
Mt Kilimanjaro is the African continent’s tallest mountain – and it is also the most popular on any serious trekkers bucket-list. The reasons are many; being the highest point on the continent, it is also one of the famous Seven Summits (each continent’s highest mountain), and it is (even though it’s the highest) probably the easiest and most approachable peak in terms of logistics and chance of success, due to its popularity. Perhaps, surprisingly, the mountain itself is not in the least spectacular in appearance. It has no sharp, jagged spires; it is all about sheer size and pure bulk (of which it has plenty), with a distinctive dome-like appearance. This immense dome hides the mountain’s three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira – with the last the true summit point. There are myriad routes up Kili, so you can pick and choose according to your timeframe and budget. Each route differs in length; the best advice is to go for one that is not too short, as a slow, steady ascent is key to avoiding any complications through altitude sickness. The Rongai route is a six-day trek that is also the only route that approaches Kili from the north. It also has a very high success rate and is not too crowded.
One of the first things you learn – very quickly – during a Kili ascent is “poli, poli” – a saying spoken by the guides every day and one that roughly translates to “slowly, slowly”, helping to ensure no-one becomes a victim to enthusiasm, and then altitude sickness, by moving too quickly for their bodies to adjust to the thinner air.
The Rongai route begins from a pine forest plantation but soon moves into wilder land where you will spot monkeys, baboons and other jungle denizens. Trekkers then leave the jungle behind, continuing higher and experiencing another terrain change as they move into alpine moorland before reaching Simba Camp, at 2600m. The following day is a big one – 12km and a 1000m ascent – but you will be pleasantly distracted by views of Kili and its eastern ice fields as you follow a narrow, rocky track across alpine moors. You will ascend to 3600m before reaching Kikelewa Camp at the end of this day, and most likely will get that first taste of altitude.
Throughout each day guides will work their way up and down the group, checking to see if anyone has altitude sickness symptoms, and making sure people aren’t walking too fast. For some people (i.e. the egotistical), it boils down to “I am fit, so I won’t have any problems”. Sadly for them the “problem” does not discriminate when it comes to fitness levels; it is all about the individual’s physiology. By day three, the effect high altitude trekking has on your body will be more obvious; everyone will slow down and be happy for short breaks as the terrain changes from alpine grasslands to predominantly volcanic rock, with the track including a number of steep pinches and ridgeline scrambling, before the pretty Mawenzi Tarn (the next camp) comes into sight. Summit night is now not that far away…
THE ROOF OF AFRICA
From Mawenzi Tarn campsite, the following day is relatively short, but does include plenty of terrain changes, including the crossing of a lunar-esque expanse between Mawenzi Tarn and Kibo Hut. Kibo Hut is your summit-night camp and it is here that guides will counsel plenty of rest, plenty of hydrating, and then feed you an early dinner for an early bedtime, all with the aim of being up again at 11pm for an alpine start for the summit. The summit ascent is the most challenging part of the trek due to altitude gain (you climb 1200m on this night/morning) and the fact you have now been steadily ascending for six days, so your legs will definitely feel it. Thankfully, this mighty ascent is slow and doesn’t go straight up; there are 85 switchbacks in the 1200m-ascent, and you will soon lose yourself in the slow, grind, interrupted by that regular switch in direction. Look up, though, and you get the chance to see what’s probably the world’s longest torch-lit conga line winding up the mountain. The guides will time your arrival at Gillmans Point (on the rim of the immense Kili crater) for sunrise and it is a spectacular sight; in some ways, even more than that from the summit. Gillmans sits at 5685m – a long way up in anyone’s language – and as you sit and sup on snacks and never-more-welcome hot tea and coffee, it offers a simply brilliant view over the vast African continent below.
Gillmans Point balances this sublime experience with the mental challenge of gearing up for the final 300m of climbing to Uhuru Peak and the true summit. While you can see Uhuru Peak from Gillmans, and it does indeed look ‘just over there’, it is usually two more hours until you are officially at the top of Africa, where the brilliant views are only slightly dampened by the appearance of the diminishing glacier and its sheer ice-cliffs. Even though you know it is there, the sight of ice atop a mountain on what is perceived as a ‘hot’ continent still amazes. After the high of the summit, the descent on the Rongai Route is a welcome relief for the legs, and another example of the variety of terrain on offer as you pass more open alpine moorlands on your way to the final camp at Horombo Hut at 3700m, before again descending through savannah and the ubiquitous dense jungle (keep an eye out for monkeys again here) before that inevitable return to civlisation. The modern day may soon take over your life, but for those six days on the Rongai, your life is pared back to just you and the mountain, with the memory of that enough to sustain you until thoughts turn to Kili’s mountainous neighbours…