The word trekking is a uniquely African one (it is Afrikaans for a long journey, pretty much the same as the Swahili “safari”), so it is fitting we go mountain trekking in Africa.
Photo Credit: Bushtracks Expeditions. Climbing Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
It is a modern-day truism that, if you want to get to know a place best, you need to stop to smell the flowers. And there can be no better way to do this than walking in them thar hills. And one thing the major mountains of Africa all have in common is indeed flowers of a very distinct kind. The kind that get botanists down on their knees oohing and aaahing.
The Afro-montane and Afro-alpine flora are seen at their most explosively splendid in the fynbos around Cape Town (also a very good place for trekking). It’s so remarkable it’s been accorded World Heritage Site status and, what few lay people know, is that it derives from the high peaks of East Africa, where we’ll now go a-trekking.
Photo Credit: Clive Ward. Mount Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro is undoubtedly one of the world’s great mountain icons; at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) not the highest, not even the highest volcano (as many would have you believe), but for freestanding attitude, if not altitude, it has no equal (Google that if you don’t believe me). From the park gate, where your guides oversee the porter loads and other trekking logistics, you enter the wonderful realm of penumbral temperate forest, where just about anything could lurk – and many fearsome beasts do, including elephants and buffaloes.
Photo Credit: Clive Ward. Mount Kilimanjaro
The shape of Kili is parabolic, so by the time you exit the forest at the end of the day, you find yourself on ever-steepening heathlands (the same “fynbos” as found further south). Over the next three days the slope steepens, the vegetation thins, as does the air. When you finally top out at daybreak on day five, you find yourself on the ice-rimmed crater edge of Kibo, the highest point in Africa. What might surprise you is that you’re likely to be joined there by tens or hundreds of other trekkers, because this is also the most popular trekking mountain in the world.
Photo Credit: Bushtracks Expeditions. Giraffes, Satao Elerai, Amboselo National Park, Kenya
If you are looking for a somewhat more rarified trekking experience, in terms of human numbers, Mount Kenya could be your personal Everest. Not as high as Kili by several hundred meters, the true summit (or twin summits actually, ice-capped Nelion and Batian) presents the most severe Alpine challenge on the continent. Most people who claim to have “climbed Mount Kenya” have really reached only the third prominence of the massif, Point Lenana. There they would have seen a metal cross apparently blessed by some or other Pope.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons. Mount Kenya
However, for real, hard-core, off the chart adventure, you want to head for the Mountains of the Moon, or Ruwenzori Mountains that straddle the border between Uganda and the DRC. It’s the wettest place in Africa – negotiating the Bigo Bog is one the range’s trekking hurdles (if you find my wellies there, please return them). It’s also the only place in Africa that has real mountain glaciers. You can do a seven-day traverse of the central range, which can be spiced up by tackling some of higher ice-covered peaks, which require little more than courage, physical adeptness and a good guide (they are almost always hidden by clouds).
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons. Ruwenzori Mountains Between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Because of the extremely high rainfall, and the fact that you are really close to the equator, the Afro-montane heathlands reach their highest expression of what is known as “botanical giganticism” in the Ruwenzoris: everlastings five meters high, lobelias that in the Cape fynbos reach knee high here grow way overhead and the same with species after species. Some plants which elsewhere are small shrubs, or herbs, like Hagenia, in the Ruwenzoris reach as high as 20 meters. The name Mountains of the Moon should have been the clue: these contorted, dripping, fecund highlands are mysterious and otherworldly.
On the bucket list of mountain trekking these three destinations are high points. Whatever you thought was there, there is always something new to find, and I’ve not even started on the High Atlas, Mulanje or Drakensberg ranges, which are in their own rights bucket list destinations.