Africa's Other Mountains

Introduction: Kili and Company

Put the words "Africa" and "mountain" together in a sentence, and most of us immediately picture Kilimanjaro looming over the African savanna, probably with a giraffe or two photogenically posed in the foreground.

At 19,335 feet Kilimanjaro deserves its prominent place on our collective mental map of Africa. Located a lion's pounce from the legendary game preserves of Serengeti and Ngorongoro, it is a convenient, if not exactly easy, add-on to a traditional game safari. Immortalized by Hemingway, captured in a thousand photographs, Kilimanjaro is an African cliché—until you realize that no mountain this big is a cliché when you put boot to slope and start walking uphill.

It is a magnificent climb. The summit view at sunrise is a lifetime highlight. And of course, there are the bragging rights you earn by setting foot on the high point of a continent.

No surprise, then, that thousands of hopefuls flock to the so-called tourist route every year. You've never carried a backpack before? Never slept in a tent? No matter: Kilimanjaro is, at least by the standards of high mountains, an easy climb. Guides lead the way. Porters put up the tents and serve your meals. And the popular Marangu route's nickname—the Coca Cola route—clues you in that civilization, at least in the form of soft drinks, is never very far away.

But Kilimanjaro is not quite as easy as that. Even with porters, guides, and all the Coke you can drink, most hikers don't make the summit. Some overestimate themselves and underestimate the mountain (always a painful combination). Many are affected, at least to some degree, by altitude sickness, which can manifest itself as a mild (or severe) headache, nausea and vomiting, disorientation, lack of coordination, or life-threatening cerebral and pulmonary edemas. Then there's the expense of guides, porters, permits, and fees, which can tally up to between $600 and $1000 per person, depending on which route you choose and how many days you take.

Good thing, then, that there are other mountains to climb. Mount Kenya, Tanzania's Mount Meru, and Uganda's Mount Elgon are as different from each other (and from Kilimanjaro) as a pine forest is from a cypress swamp, or a rocky-mountain meadow from a heather-covered moorland.

So if one mountain isn't enough, if Kilimanjaro just sounds too big, if you prefer fewer regulations, if you favor solitude, or if you want to get in shape for the "big one," you might want to consider one—or all—of East Africa's other mountains:

Mount Elgon, 14,172 feet, an extinct volcano with a huge caldera, straddles the Uganda-Kenya border.

Mount Meru, 14,943 feet, is, like Mount St. Helens, a volcano that exploded so violently that half the mountain was blown away, leaving behind a spectacular summit ridge and cinder cone.

Reaching the true summit of Mount Kenya, at 17,053 feet, is the hardest of all of East Africa's peaks, but there's an easier route to a so-called trekker's summit at 16,350 feet. Mount Kenya has a secure place at the top of my list as one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »