It might be better known for bush and beach holidays, but Africa also has its fair share of magical, high-altitude mountains that deserve a place at the top of every hardy trekker’s wish list. They can be tough, torturous and knee-trembling, often involving mud-drenched trails in hot and humid rainforests, snow right on the equator and air so thin you can barely breathe. But these mountains in Africa are rewarding and awe-inspiring too, with wildlife and landscapes unique to this extraordinary continent.
Trek duration: five to nine days
Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro is the king of the mountains in Africa. Capped with glaciers and snow, it’s a magnet for charity challenges, tempting around 30,000 hikers every year. Anyone relatively fit and healthy can climb Kili, but beware altitude sickness – if ignored, it can kill.
The world’s highest free-standing mountain has various trails to the top, from the gruelling, lung-busting three-day Marangu route to the longer, more scenic and usually more successful ascents via Shira or Lemosho.
If you crave mountain solitude, try the tough new technical North Face trail that opened in 2016. However you get there, walking under a sky almost exploding with stars and watching dawn break over Africa is simply unforgettable.
Trek duration: four days to Point Lenana
Straddling the equator, only one of Mount Kenya’s three summits, Lenana (4895m), is accessible to trekkers. The dramatically jagged peaks of Batian (5199m) and Nelion (5188m), which make this the second highest of the mountains in Africa, remain the domain of experienced technical climbers.
Of Lenana’s four routes, the Sirimon/Chogoria is the most beautiful, passing through rainforest, bamboo and open moorland with intoxicating views of glaciated valleys and waterfalls. Best summited at dawn, on a clear morning, Nelion’s inhospitable rocks glow a fierce orange in the rising sun and the curvature of the earth and Kilimanjaro can sometimes be seen.
Trek duration: eight days
Called "Mountains of the Moon" by Ptolemy, the Rwenzoris have a distinct otherworldliness about them, with swirling mists, giant vegetation and deep dark lakes, making these one of the most unique mountains in Africa.
Mount Stanley may not have the height or kudos of Kili, but it’s a far tougher trek out of the mountains in Africa. Both wellington boots and crampons are essential, the former for crossing the infamous bogs (Rwenzoris means “rainmaker” and the wet stuff positively cascades here) and the latter for conquering the Margherita Glacier and sheer rock wall near the summit.
Take the Kilembe route run by Rwenzori Trekking Services, rather than the Circuit trail, for better acclimatisation and mercifully fewer bogs.
Trek duration: four days
Lying within Arusha National Park, Mount Meru is a delightful but deceptive peak, the “short, sharp shock” of the epic mountains in Africa.
From a gentle lowland stroll with giraffe, buffalo and baboons on the path, it transforms into an unrelentingly steep slog to the top. An exposed route along a narrow ridge leads to the dramatic crater rim where the rugged outline of Meru's summit appears above you and the perfectly cylindrical Ash Cone below, an intriguing volcanic peak within Meru’s own horseshoe crater.
The summit reveals the silhouette of Kilimanjaro, majestic and commanding, and the plains of the Serengeti in the distance.
Trek duration: nine to ten days
Africa’s answer to the Grand Canyon, the Simien Mountains are home to Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak and one of the most striking mountains in Africa. The walk in to Ras Dashen is extraordinarily beautiful.
Described by Homer as "chess pieces of the Gods", the Simiens are a vast cauldron of rock spires, precipices and gorges, deep ravines and soaring mountains. Weird and wonderful resident wildlife includes rare Gelada monkeys with manes like lions, the elusive goat-like Walia Ibex and the Ethiopian wolf that resembles a fox.
But climbing the mountain itself is torturous, with tough rocky terrain, false peaks and a summit-day ascent of 1200m that’s best left to fit and determined peak-baggers.
Trek duration: two to three days
North Africa’s highest peak lies within the continent’s largest mountain range, the Atlas Mountains, stretching some 500km across Morocco. In the height of summer, around July and August, Toubkal can be searingly hot and stormy; in April and October, you’ll probably need crampons.
The route to the trailhead encompasses friendly Berber villages, the ice blue Lake d’Ifni, and the pilgrimage shrine of Sidi Chamarouch. The popular South Cirque summit trail can be tough and tiring, strewn with boulders and scree, but unlike its North equivalent, it isn’t technical. Keep on trudging because the views across the expansive Atlas Mountains and the Sahara are exquisite, a true highlight among the mountains in Africa.
Top image © Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock