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How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains

There's no escaping them: Table Mountain hugs Cape Town in a warm, motherly embrace while Kilimanjaro is the snow-capped backdrop for Amboseli's ambling elephant herds. Most often photographed from afar, the best views are from their summits: Table Mountain promises dazzling ocean and mountain panoramas, Kili has much of the Rift Valley's turbulent topography under its gaze.

You've got to get to the top however - Africa does not give away her finest views so easily. And although both mountains are very accessible and require no climbing to conquer, you're in for a walk of grand proportions. Here's how to do it and what to expect.

How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - Table Mountain
Table Mountain is not only one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, it's also one of South Africa's top hiking destinations.
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - picnic at the top
Lovely views of Table Mountain from the top of Lion's Head.
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - hiking the hidden folds
Discover the hidden hiking secrets of Cape Town's great mountain.

Table Mountain - A mountain for all seasons

The in-house presence of the world's most recognisable mountain makes Cape Town a truly unique destination. Its steep-sided buttresses and crumbly ravines look intimidating, but a dozen paths snake their way up to the top, none easier than Platteklip Gorge.

To get there, drive past the lower cable car station (ignore the temptation to join the queues!) to the well-marked start of the trail a little further on. A tumbling stream will keep you company for a while until the path begins its climb, ricocheting back and forth between patches of welcome shade.

Count on around two hours to the top. No climbing is required and you don't need to be Tour de France-fit but don't underestimate the mountain: the clatter of a hovering rescue helicopter is a regular sound in high summer. Open all year, temperatures in Platteklip Gorge range from pizza oven to deep freeze. In summer, take more water than you think is polite, a hat and plenty of sun block; at other times of year, pack a rain coat and warm top.

How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - the mountain is home to many different plant species
An impressive floral kingdom thrives on the slopes of Table Mountain, including rare fynbos species.
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - there are many routes to take
There are many routes to the top, some more treacherous than others...
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - the cable car is an easy way to the top
...however some are quite easy and allow for amazing views!

Once at the top, you are 3 000 feet over one of the Africa's most picturesque ports; whether you turn right for the nearby cable car or left for Maclear's Beacon (the mountain's highest point), you'll enjoy colossal views of the city, Table Bay and the surrounding mountain ranges. The latter are usually snow capped in winter, while the bay sparkles like a beauty pageant in summer.

For the 'classic' self-guided hike, walk up Platteklip and take the cable car down. However, the cable car closes in strong winds - something to remember if you're hiking in poor weather. (It also closes for a month's maintenance in winter.)

Platteklip Gorge is a pretty straight-forward hike but for a richer experience, hire a professional guide to accompany you to the top. And if you want to try one of the lesser-used routes, the use of a guide is highly recommended.

How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - Mount Kilimanjaro stands tall and proud as it looms over Amboseli National Park in neighbouring Kenya.
Mount Kilimanjaro stands tall and proud as it looms over Amboseli National Park in neighbouring Kenya.
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - camping on the ridge
During summit season, many colourful tents line the slopes.
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - the summit looms
The summit draws ever closer as you make your way up.

Mt Kilimanjaro - "pole-pole" to the top.

Pole-pole - Swahili for 'slowly, slowly' - is the mantra guides teach hikers attempting to summit Africa's highest peak. Unlike up-and-down-before-lunch Table Mountain, Mt Kilimanjaro demands a solid commitment of at least a week; in fact, the more time you take, the better your chances of a successful expedition. Only 60% of those who take six days actually reach the top, a success rate that goes up to 90% for hikers who allow nine days.

The reason? You'll be going higher than Everest base camp, up to an altitude where glaciers crack and creak in the thin air. Kili might not be a walk in the park, but it is a walk. It requires a decent fitness level, the right hiking gear and a solid determination to reach the peak. It is highly recommended that you hike with a recognised and reputable operator, giving you the advantages of professional guides, properly paid porters, pre-erected tents and hot food. 

How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - reaching the summit!
Making it to the summit is such a rewarding experience.
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - glacier on top
The ice glacier at the top is quite a startling sight.

Of the half a dozen routes to the top, three stand out:

The Marangu Route: Kili's 'Coca-Cola Route' is the easiest, shortest and most popular. Staying in huts, it usually takes five days but it's best to add an extra acclimatisation day.

The Machame Route: The longer and more scenic 'whiskey' route uses tents and needs at least six days. There are a lot of ups and downs and you need to be pretty fit.

The Rongai Route:The second easiest route after Marangu has far fewer people on it and a high success rate. You'll need to budget at least six days for this tented hike, but it's one of the most varied and interesting ways up. 

How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - admiring the mountain
High altitude hiking not for you? Take a Masai-guided walk & enjoy the view.
How to Hike Africa's Iconic Mountains - wildebeest gallop past
Make the most of your trek by adding on a post-hike safari or beach break.

Remember that you'll need to add a night on either end of the hike, making climbing Kili an eight or nine-day commitment. Read more about our tried-and-tested Kilimanjaro tips and tricks here but since you are at the heart of East Africa, what better way to reward your mountaineering efforts than by adding on a safari or beach holiday? Make it easy by using the services of an African Safari Expert who has the been-there knowledge to ensure A connects with B and C. 

Written by Dominic Chadbon. Connect with him on Google+.

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