Africa’s highest mountains

Africa. Home to the Namib and Sahara deserts, deep impenetrable jungles, acacia-covered plains and sand-covered beaches. Home to some of the world’s most iconic animal and bird species. Birthplace of Lucy, our oldest ancestor. And home to some of the most fascinating mountains on earth! Mountains so diverse that Africa’s highest mountains could easily be described as a complete diorama of geological diversity. Some forged by volcanic eruptions. Others by geological upthrusts. Giving us a continent with some of the most fascinating mountains and mountain ranges anywhere.

The spectacularly precipitous cliffs, framed by deep gorges and valleys, of the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, and the Drakensberg in South Africa where I learnt to walk in wild places. The snow-topped Atlas Mountains in Morocco overlooking the scorching Sahara desert. The iconic Kilimanjaro rising more than four-thousand metres above the surrounding plains. Visible from more than three-hundred kilometres away on the equally iconic Mount Kenya where elephant and buffalo roam the slopes. The fascinating Rwenzori mountains with its amazing plants and multiple massifs all rising above four-and-a-half-thousand metres. The stunning Simien Mountains where I saw more bearded vultures than anywhere else in Africa. The lush green Mulanje Mountains in Malawi, still one of my favourite places in Africa. The Emi Koussi in Chad, a pyroclastic shield volcano, 3,445m high, that rises 3,000m above the surrounding Sahara. Considered by some astronauts as the most recognisable feature on earth as seen from space. Each with a character of its own.

These are my mountains. The mountains of the continent on which I grew up. And as much as I love the mountains of Europe where I live – the Alps, the Dolomites, the Scottish highlands, the Welsh slate and the rugged coastlines around Devon and Cornwall, it is African blood that runs through my veins. My connection with the mountains of Africa, where I have climbed since I was six years old, and her people lies very deep. And it is Africa’s highest mountains I want people to get to know. To explore and admire and get to love them the way I do. To experience the rich diversity of the people who support you on your climbs. Like the Berbers in the North of Africa. Generous and friendly, living a simple rural life. The African tribes in Central and East Africa with their unique cultures and habits. The people of my heimat – the Zulu and Sotho people of Southern Africa I grew up amongst.

The highest mountains

Most of us already know that the highest mountain in Africa is Kilimanjaro. Consisting of three volcanic cones, Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira, Kilimanjaro is a dormant stratovolcano 5,895m high. Its summit lies on Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kibo, the biggest and highest of the three volcanic cones.

And, in one paragraph there I’ve used three terms to describe mountains or features of mountains: ‘mountain’, ‘peak’, and ‘summit’. Even experienced mountaineers sometimes trip over their tongues using these terms, so before we continue let’s clarify the difference between these terms:

So what is a mountain?

  • A mountain is an area of natural elevation that rises steeply and abruptly above the surrounding area.
  • A summit is the highest point on the mountain.
  • A peak is a feature of the mountain. A mountain may have many peaks. One of the peaks may contain the summit. (It is also possible that the summit may be on the main mass of the mountain, and that subsidiary peaks are lower than the summit.)
  • A massif is a group of peaks, distinct from other peaks, or another massif. For example, the Rwenzori mountains are made up of six massifs, the highest of which is Mount Stanley. Mount Stanley consist of three peaks. The highest of which is Margherita Peak. Thus, to reach the summit of Mount Stanley and the Rwenzori mountains, you have to climb to the top of Margherita Peak.

Currently, I offer guided expeditions to the following mountains, but hope that I will soon also be offering guided climbs to some of the other, more remote, mountains in our list. Like the Emi Koussi in Chad.

Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain

Kilimanjaro rises spectacularly above the African plains. The tallest free-standing mountain in the world, it completely dominates the surrounding country-side and is visible from hundreds of kilometres away. It is possible to take in all three of the volcanic cones in a single climbing expedition. Starting from the Lemosho gate and climbing to the Shira plateau, then circumnavigating around the northern side, with a diversion to Mawenzi, before climbing to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kibo. This is one of my want-to-do trips. It would mean at least 11 days trekking on the mountain. Perhaps I should start a bucket list… and perhaps I should ask, who wants to join me?

Most people would, however, settle for a simple six or seven-day climb to the summit via one of its seven official trekking routes: the Lemosho, Shira, Northern Circuit, Machame, Umbwe, Marangu, or Rongai routes. The seven routes differ in length, with Marangu being the shortest and the Northern Circuit the longest. The shortest, the Marangu route has the lowest summit success rate of all the routes (below 60%). The Northern Circuit, being the longest (i.e., most days on the mountain), has the highest success rate of all routes on Kilimanjaro (more than 95%). My personal preference is the Umbwe / Western Breach approach. But this is one is for experienced and well-acclimatised climbers only.

To climb Kilimanjaro you will trek through four climatic zones, starting with a montane or rain forest zone at its base and trekking through a heather/moorland zone, alpine desert zone and finally an arctic zone. Each of these zones have a special charm of their own. The rainforest, often shrouded in mist, teeming with birds and wildlife (mainly monkeys). The heather/moorland zones with giant groundsels – taller than a house. The fascinating array of rock and lava rubble in the alpine desert zone and finally the alpine zone with the remnants of the remaining glaciers.

Mount Kenya – Africa’s second highest mountain

Much like its iconic bigger sister, Mount Kenya rises from the surrounding plains to dominate the landscape. Its twin summits, Batian (5,199m), and Nelion (5,188m) can only be reached via a technical climb. The third highest peak on Mount Kenya, Point Lenana (4,985m) is the highest point reached by most trekking parties. Both Point Lenana and the twin summits of Batian and Nelion can be reached via a number of routes, my preferred approach being via the Sirimon – Chogoria circuit.

Mount Kenya was the first of Africa’s highest mountains I climbed. It remains one of my favourites. I love the people that I work with on this mountain and have formed very strong relationships with the team over the years. The scenery, the variety of plants and trees, the animals, and the cheerful people that support you on this trip all make for a first-class mountain experience. You are most likely to come across various species of monkeys and antelope and if you are lucky, you may even see elephant. Buffalo, especially at the Chogoria side, is quite common. I remember walking with my late friend and guide Moses one day, and he pointed out the spoor of hyena following a buffalo cow and calf. Commenting that the hyena was hopeful that the young calf may not survive.

Mount Stanley – Africa’s third highest mountain

I remember writing the first day I woke up in the jungle at the foot of the beautiful Rwenzori mountains, that if ever there was a perfect setting for a Tarzan movie, this would be it! Trees taller than skyscrapers, with trunks bigger than I’d ever seen, and vines draped from its tops, giving it that feel or real African jungle.

The six massifs that make up the Rwenzori mountains are all above 4,600m high. Three of the massifs are higher than Mont Blanc (4,808m), and seven of the peaks make it into the top twelve of Africa’s list of the highest peaks. It is a big mountain, covering a huge area of 120 by 65 km, straddling the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with its summit, the 5,109m-high Margherita Peak being equally shared by Uganda and the DRC.

It should be on the to-do list of every mountain-lover. Even if you don’t intend going to the summit of Mount Stanley, which requires technical climbing know-how, you should trek on either of the two official circuits. I offer an annual trek to Mount Stanley via the central circuit. I only do this once a year, so that I can personally accompany the group and assure that things go smoothly. (When I did this trail in 2016, bits of equipment broke down, which could have ended in disaster, bar for the fact that there were other parties on the mountain, who were able to help out and rescue the situation. More about this and other mishaps in my book ‘From Platberg to Kilimanjaro‘).

Mount Meru – Africa’s fourth highest mountain

Africa’s fourth highest peak, Mount Meru is a dormant stratovolcano located 70km west of Kilimanjaro. Mount Meru can be climbed in three days, staying overnight in huts on the way to the 4,566m-high summit. Perfect for acclimatisation prior to climbing Kilimanjaro, especially if you’re thinking about one of the shorter routes.

Besides the prospect of being able to acclimatise, it is a great mountain for trekking in its own right. There are few people around, unlike the busier routes on Kilimanjaro, and you’ll trek past lots of animals on the lower parts of the climb. The overnight accommodation on the way to Socialist Peak, the summit, is basic but comfortable.

Ras Dashen, Simien Mountains – Africa’s fifth highest mountain

The 4,550m-high Ras Dashen, the highest peak in the Simien Mountains, was definitely one of the big surprises for me. And it wasn’t just the mountain. Did you know that Ethiopia was the only African country never to have been colonised? That Emperor Haile Selassie was born Ras Tafari? That Rastafarians considered him Yah? And that the skeleton of our oldest known hominid ancestor Lucy was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974? In the Simien Mountains, on my way to Ras Dashen, I came across local people regularly. Some were selling local hand-made craft – none more committed than the four children I encountered at an altitude close to 4,000m on the way from Imet Gogo to Chennek. Or the teenaged boy who had set up shop halfway down Ras Dashen with his ice-cold cold drinks. Near Ambiko I spent time helping local children practising their English with a mixture of mispronunciations, cheers, and laughter. And in the villages we passed through, I had the opportunity to talk to and interact with the people living in this highland paradise.

The best way to start this trip is to spend at least a day exploring Addis Ababa. To feel the buzz of Africa and wash away the jet-lag. And to get a feel for the history of this fascinating and sometimes tragic country. The highlights for me was a visit to the museum to pay respect to my great-great ancestor, Lucy, the oldest known hominid, and an evening in a traditional restaurant where artists were performing folk dances and music. Then to move on to Gondar, with its fascinating array of historical buildings. Most notably the Fasil Ghebbi. A castle founded in the seventeenth century by the Emperor Fasilides.

The trekking starts in Debark, where you register at the Simien Mountains National Park, and a scout is assigned to you, to protect you from elements unknown. If you haven’t met up with your guide and assistant guides (depending on group size) and cook in Gondar, they’ll join you here. You’ll shop for food from the local markets, buy all the necessary bits-and-pieces like toilet paper, etc., and rent whatever equipment we need for the five or six-day trek from local suppliers. You’ll meet up with your mules and muleteers when you enter the park, just before you start your walk on this fascinating trek, which will take you to amazing panoramic viewpoints, from where you’ll be able to view the dramatic cliffs and gorges that make this mountain one of the most dramatic on African soil.

List of the highest mountains in Africa > 3000m

The list below contains a list of Africa’s highest mountains, as distinct from its highest peaks. For example, the 1st, and 4th highest peaks both lie on Kilimanjaro. The 2nd, 3rd, and 6th highest peaks are all on Mount Kenya. The 5th highest and the 7th to 12th highest peaks are all part of the Rwenzori mountain. I wanted to know what the highest mountains were. Regardless of where the peaks ranked. So that I can plan to climb them. Note that I only show Africa’s highest mountains with summits above 3000m – because I had to stop somewhere. But there are many, many more fascinating and spectacular high mountains in Africa between 1000m and 3000m high in Africa. Like the Mulanje in Malawi. The Brandberg in Namibia. The Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco. And many more. All waiting for you to explore. (Note: Wikipedia has a list of the highest peaks of Africa.)

RankMountainMassif / PeakCountryHeightFirst ascent
1KilimanjaroKibo / Uhuru PeakTanzania58951889
2Mount KenyaBatianKenya51991899
3RwenzoriNgaliema/Mount Stanley [Margherita Peak]Uganda/DR Congo51091906
4Mount MeruSocialist PeakTanzania45661904
5Simien MountainRas DashenEthiopia45501841
6Virunga MountainKarisimbiDR Congo/Rwanda45071903
7Bale MountainTullu DemtuEthiopia4377
8Mount ElgonWagagaiUganda43211911
9Kollo MassifAmba FaritEthiopia4270
10Lasta MassifAbune Yosef / Guliba AmbaEthiopia4260
11Arsi MountainsBadaEthiopia4195
12Atlas MountainsJbel ToubkalMorocco41671923
13Guna MassifGunaEthiopia4120
14Choqa MountainsChoqa / Choke / BirhanEthiopia4100
15Cameroon RangeMount Cameroon [Fako Peak]Cameroon40401861
16Aberdare RangeOldoinyo LesatimaKenya4001
17Tigray MountainsDubbaiEthiopia3941
18Mount TeideTeideTenerife37181582
19Eastern EscarpmentWoti / UotiEthiopia3700
20Crater HighlandsMount LoolmalassinTanzania3682
21Gurage MountainsMount Gurage / GuragheEthiopia3620
22Mount GuguMount GuguEthiopia3570
23Balta MountainsGugheEthiopia3568
24Cherangani HillsChemnirot (Kamelogon Pk)Kenya3530
25Salale MountainsGara Guda /Kara GadaEthiopia3530
26DrakensbergThabana NtlenyanaLesotho3482
27Mitumba MountainsMont MohiDR Congo3480
28Tibesti MountainsEmi KoussiChad3445
29Lolibai MountainsKinyetiSudan3187
30Cameroon Volcanic LinePico BasiléEquatorial Guinea30111827/8
31Mount MulanjeSapitwaMalawi3002
Africa’s highest mountains (>3000m)

For more information on the various excursions on offer, visit Walk in Wild Places.

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