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The Big Escape

The black volcanic rock is bright and glossy in the moonlight; it crunches softly underfoot. Above Karanga Camp, the iconic snow cap is blue-white against a night sky bursting with stars. My breath hangs in the air as small, fluffy clouds and I am chilled to the bone despite the layers under my down jacket. Dome tents huddle in small groups on the mountainside, some glow softly, lit from within by headlamps. The stillness of the night is broken by the shuffle of canvas and the cough of a climber suffering from altitude sickness. It is hard to believe that a mere 2,000m below my camp there is a tropical rainforest.

Despite the cold and grinding fatigue, I find myself grinning. I am finally here! Standing on the upper slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro - Africa’s highest peak - and living the grand adventure I had first imagined when I was eight years old. This precious moment has been a lifetime of dreaming and two years of careful preparation in the making. At dawn, two days from now, I will attempt to summit Uhuru Peak and officially tick a goal off my bucket list. I have chosen the road less travelled for my ascent, a challenging route called Umbwe. This southern approach is short, steep and fierce, widely considered the toughest but quietest path.

The Big Escape - the ice blue snow cap of Mount Kilimanjaro
The ice blue peak of Kilimanjaro
The Big Escape - a glowing tent on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro
A glowing tent on the upper slopes of Kili
Climbing Kili - Combine your Kili trek with an Amboseli safari
Discover Kili from afar, then make the adventure happen with an unforgettable trek

I had first heard about Umbwe in travel blogs by experienced mountaineers. Despite the dire warnings about the inherent danger of such a fast ascent, all I knew for certain was that I did not want to trek the popular ‘Coca-Cola’ route, Marangu. I also knew that although some 15,000 people attempt to summit Kili each year, only 6,000 succeed. When I chose Umbwe, the route with the lowest success rate, I knew I needed to take my preparation and planning seriously. However, beyond the physical training, beyond the carefully researched and tested gear, my most important investment was choosing the right travel company – a source of current, on-the-ground expertise and a true partner in my adventure.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is one of many bucket list destinations and activities in Africa. A vast and exotic continent, Africa is home to some of the last truly wild places on the planet. Its open grasslands, aching blue skies and spice-scented breezes call to the adventurous of heart. If ever there was a playground created especially for big escapes, Africa is it.

For many experienced travellers, half their bucket list involves journeys here: to witness the spectacle of the Great Wildebeest Migration, watch a full moon rise over the Namib Naukluft, or sail a dhow across the Mozambique Channel. It is with good reason that the experts call Africa a theatre of marvels – from the Serengeti to the Quirimbas Archipelago, the Skeleton Coast to the Okavango Delta, the diversity is simply awe-inspiring.

Africa’s Swahili Coast stretches along its eastern seaboard from Kenya in the north to Mozambique in the south. Shaped by the warm Agulhas Current, the westernmost boundary of the Indian Ocean, this bountiful coastline offers some of the world’s best marine escapes. Sail, snorkel and explore exquisite tropical archipelagos, with teaming coral reefs, and warm waters lapping idyllic beaches and postcard-perfect palm trees.

The Big Escape - the wildebeest cross the dangerous Mara River
Wildebeest cross the life-threatening Mara River during the Great Migration
The Big Escape - quad biking on the Makgadikadi Pans
Disappear into the heart of the Makgadikadi Pans in Botswana

The Swahili culture is a legacy of pirates, traders, missionaries and explorers. It is a melting pot of African, European and Middle Eastern peoples whose heritage provides for sumptuous cuisine and a rich, lilting language. Arab dhows still plough the balmy waters, clove plantations still scent the air, and the Sultan’s palace throws open its carved doors to modern explorers.

Africa’s endless grasslands boast a heavenly helping of unspoilt, natural beauty and legendary wildlife. Vast herds of wildebeest, zebra, elephants and antelope roam the plains, pursued by prides of predators, from mighty lion to elusive leopards, wild dog and cheetah. As the seasons change so are arid, inhospitable landscapes transformed by annual rains into migratory destinations for the great herds. I have witnessed the distinctly different migrations of wildebeest into Tanzania’s Serengeti, and zebra into the Savuti plains of northern Botswana.

I keep a folder of destinations and challenges that inspire me – after nearly two decades of exploring this continent my folder is still bursting with ideas. Every two to three years, I narrow down the list and start the steps to turn a dream into reality. First step: research, research and more research. Google is my best friend for finding useful websites, comparative travel blogs and firsthand video footage. Armed with an expert travel partner and the knowledge of when I need to be where (and what I want to see and do when I get there), I can begin budgeting and planning my adventure in detail. Finally, it comes down to whatever physical preparation I need to do, testing my gear and failing outright to think or talk about anything else in the run-up to my departure date.

The Big Escape - a large herd of elephants drinking from the Chobe River, Botswana
Cruise down the Chobe River past herds of wildlife gathered at the water's edge

Each time I set off on a new adventure, I discover another corner of this continent that takes my breath away and witness something original that I know I may never see again. I have been stalked by leopard, charged by elephant and seen my humanity reflected in the rheumy gaze of an elderly gorilla. I have seen clouds of flamingoes descend in their thousands to settle on the temporary lakes of the Makgadikgadi, giving the barren landscape a carnival atmosphere. I carry the sounds of Africa with me – calling up the iconic cry of a fish eagle or the roaring Smoke that Thunders to drown out the noise of traffic in my daily commute.

There is an infectious, untamed spirit in the air of Africa, carried on the perfume of wild sage warmed by the sun. It echoes in the hearts and minds of the adventurers who escape to these shores to challenge themselves or simply explore new worlds. Perhaps we will meet on some winding path in the jungles of Uganda, or on a dhow headed for Vamizi Island. Until then, I wish you good travels and happy adventures.

TRAVEL FACT FILE

Donyale trekked Mount Kilimanjaro's Umbwe Route as her 'Big African Escape'. Browse our recommended Kili safaris, or start dreaming about your own once-in-a-lifetime adventure with some travel inspiration.

Written by Donyale MacKrill. Connect with her on Google+

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