Bicycling (South Africa)
Climb Africa’s highest peak, to enjoy 3 000m of daredevil mountain-bike descending? Here’s how tour operator Nikki van Veelen did it – so you can too.
AAt 5 895m, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
Kili is located close to the Equator; which means you can hike more than 60km, gain 4 000m in altitude, and traverse rain forest, moorland, alpine desert, snow fields and ice cliffs, all in less than seven days. It’s a technical climb, but approximately 30 000 hikers attempt to summit Kilimanjaro each year.
To date, fewer than 60 bikers have managed to stand on the roof of Africa with their mountain bikes. Of these, fewer than 15 made it to the summit unassisted.
Meaning that from start to top, those few mountain bikers cycled, pushed and carried their bikes to the summit with no guides or porters. The rest received assistance from porters, who either carried or pushed their bikes over some sections of the route to the summit – before starting a mighty rollercoaster 3 000m downhill adventure.
SA adventure legends Martin and Jeannie Dreyer successfully summited Kilimanjaro, unassisted on their mountain bikes, in February 2017. After this ground-breaking achievement, ClimbingKilimanjaro.com decided to developed this concept further, in order to offer guided mountain-bike expeditions to the summit.
I had successfully summited Kilimanjaro three times before, by hiking up; but I had little mountain-biking experience. In order to successfully establish and market this relatively new concept for Africa’s highest mountain, I knew I had to experience such an epic adventure first-hand!
We got our team together: to start with, me (aged 39 years) and my collegue Karel Swanepoel (33). Maroshell Odendaal (aged 56), a past client who’d successfully hiked Kilimanjaro in 2017, asked to join, together with her sons Raymond (34) and Bertus (32). Karel and I have little previous experience on MTBs; but the Odendaals are experienced mountain bikers, having competed in the Transbaviaans and the Attekwas, to name but a few. We discussed dates, and finally departed Johannesburg on 24 January.
We had decided on the Kilema route, which runs parallel to the Marangu route. Kilema is used mainly as an access road for vehicles taking supplies to Horombo hut (and evacuating sick hikers from Horombo hut!).
Our first challenge was altitude sickness. The main cause is ascending too high too quickly; when people hike Kilimanjaro, the guides constantly remind them to go pole pole – ‘slowly slowly’, in KiSwahili. The slower you ascend, the more time you give your body to acclimatise to the higher altitude.
On most routes, hikers spend their first night at around 2 800m; but on the Kilema biking route, the first overnight hut is Horombo, at 3 700m – currently, there is nowhere to overnight between Kilema gate (1 950m) and Horombo.
Given the fast ascent rate of cyclists, spending the first night at Horombo is not an option, as it would substantially increase the possibility of altitude sickness.
One way to acclimatise faster is to climb high and sleep low, and that was our plan for the first day. After registration we would cycle from Kilema gate to Horombo, have lunch, and then descend to Mandara hut at 2 700m for our first overnight.
Currently, cycling to Mandara is not permitted, so we left our bikes at Horombo and hiked down.
“Fewer than 60 bikers have managed to stand on the roof of Africa with their mountain bikes.”
The great trek
At the start of our challenge we were pleasantly surprised by the condition of the trail from Kilema gate to Horombo hut. Some areas have loose rocks and mud, but a fit and experienced mountain biker should be able to cycle the whole way.
The journey begins in the rainforest; and for me, cycling through such beautiful vegetation was one of the highlights. As Karel and I were mountain-bike novices, Day 1 was tough for us – the continuous steep uphills, steadily reducing oxygen and rain showers took their toll, and we ended up pushing our bikes at times. The others cycled most of the way, and arrived at Horombo about 90 minutes before us.
After a late lunch, we left for Mandara hut on foot, descending 1 000m over 12km. We arrived at around 8pm, and were welcomed with a delicious dinner prepared by our cook, Ziggy.
Day 2 started with the same 12km hike, but in reverse – straight back up to Horombo, at 3 700m. It’s an interesting hike, though: from Mandara the trail passes through a short stretch of forest, skirts to the base of the Maundi Crater, and then emerges into the transition area from rain forest to moorland.
We reached Horombo hut at about midday, again in time for lunch. To acclimatise further, later in the afternoon we hiked up to Zebra rocks (at 4 000m) and down again.
On Day 3 it was back on the bikes, cycling from Horombo to Kibo hut, at 4 730m. The first three kays of the trail were rocky, and extremely difficult to cycle; but the next seven were flatter, and less effort.
Still, the cold temperatures and low oxygen levels both came into play, making things pretty challenging: it took about three and a half hours to complete that seven kilometres, with 800m of altitude gain.
So we really enjoyed lunch at Kibo hut – and then embarked on one of the best downhills of my life, descending that same 800m back to Horombo, from where we’d started that morning. It may seem as though we didn’t achieve much, but that acclimatisation day would increase our chances of a successful summit attempt.
On Day 4, we headed back to Kibo hut; and I must say it felt a bit easier compared to the previous day, as our bodies had adjusted a little to the altitude and lack of oxygen. We arrived in time for lunch, followed by an afternoon rest. At 4pm we went for a short 500m acclimatisation hike on the final summit route, to orientate ourselves for our summit attempt the next evening.
Karel, Maroshell and I decided we would make use of the porters to get our bikes to the summit; but the ‘youngsters’ were determined to push and carry their own bikes all the way to the top.
On Day 5 we had an early dinner and then slept, as much as we could; at 10pm, Nelson (our chief guide) woke us up. We had
“A fit and experienced mountain biker should be able to cycle the whole way.”
a light meal, and at 11pm we set off on our summit attempt.
And we made it – after taking six and a half hours to travel only six kilometres, with 1 200m altitude gain. Why so long? Well, the oxygen level at the summit is only 9.5%; and with temperatures dropping as low as minus-16 degrees, it’s an extremely tough and difficult trek.
We’d done our preparation, but nobody can prepare you for this; only strong mental and physical determination will get you to the summit. But once you’re there, all suffering disappears – replaced by an amazing feeling of accomplishment, and euphoria at standing on the roof of Africa!
After taking our summit photos, we went back down to Kibo. We enjoyed a quick meal, packed our gear, and then embarked on the ultimate downhill mountain-bike rollercoaster ride: starting at Kibo hut, at 4 730m, we descended all the way to Kilema gate, at 1 950m – distance approximately 30km, vertical descent approximately