As the day's first light begins to seep across Africa, I've already been walking for six hours. I'm almost 6000 metres above sea level, approaching the highest point on the continent – the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro – and in the faint light and thin air, nothing seems normal.
Headaches and dizziness befuddle my every thought. There's a paucity of oxygen, and perhaps strangest of all are the abstractly-shaped glaciers all but resting against the equator.
"Pole, pole," murmurs the voice of a guide behind me, a Swahili phrase meaning "slowly, slowly". It's the ubiquitous instruction on this most romanticised mountain in Africa. To walk too fast is to tire and need rest, but to rest at this altitude is to get dangerously cold. We shuffle on at our own glacial speed.
Around us, the slopes of the mountain and its crater rim are a squiggle of torch lights. Though I'm in rarified air, I'm far from alone. Dozens of hikers advance through the dawn light in slow-moving scrums. Some won't make it to the summit, but that never stops anyone here from trying.
Kilimanjaro is the most popular of the "seven summits" – the highest mountain on each of the continents – primarily because it's the most attainable. To climb Kilimanjaro, you don't need mountaineering skills. Hikers swarm up its slopes like invading armies, with about 35,000 people a year attempting to reach the 5895-metre summit.
But how easy is it, really? Some figures suggest that only 45 per cent of people who set out for the summit actually make it. The primary reason for this is time. On popular routes such as the Marangu (the so-called "Coca-Cola Route") hikers scurry up and down the mountain in as little as five days, opening themselves to the likelihood of summit-barring altitude sickness.
It's for this reason that I'm ascending on the Lemosho Route, a less popular, longer and arguably more spectacular ascent to the so-called Roof of Africa. I will spend eight days on the mountain, acclimatising gradually.
"On the Lemosho, we get 90 per cent of people making it to the top," says my guide, Florence.
My Kilimanjaro journey begins with a drive from the sprawling Tanzanian city of Arusha, heading through one of the least likely landscapes in which you'd expect to find a 6000-metre mountain. The African plains are covered in corn, sunflowers, thorn trees and acacias, with just a few low hills that give no indication of the giant peak – the world's highest freestanding mountain – that hides above the cloud. It's like standing on a pebbly beach and expecting to encounter Uluru.
On foot, we set out from near the base of Kilimanjaro, hiking through a lush pelt of forest, with 50 kilometres of trail and a 3800-metre climb spooling out ahead of us. It's not until the second morning that we pop out of the forest, crossing deeply furrowed slopes to our first view of Kilimanjaro's dome-like summit rising from the Shira Plateau. It looks near, but it's still so far because the Lemosho Route circles beneath the summit walls before making its final ascent. As we set up camp this night at Shira One, we're yet to see another trekker.
The vast stretch of the Shira Plateau provides a chance to acclimatise. During the coming days we'll climb to new heights, but descend each day to sleep between 3600 metres and 4000 metres, following the mountain maxim of "climb high, sleep low".
One of those high points is Shira Cathedral, a 3870-metre peak that is part of the lava flow from Kilimanjaro's first eruption, 750,000 years ago. From Shira One, we head towards the Cathedral, weaving between rocks spat from the volcano and finally climbing a narrow ridge to its tip, from where all of Africa seems smothered in cloud even as we stand in full sun above the cloud.
"This is like standing on Kala Pattar and looking up to Everest," fellow trekker David says, likening the view of our mountain to the famous vantage point near Everest Base Camp. But there's one crucial difference. No trekkers stand on Kala Pattar thinking they must climb Everest, but here we stand knowing we will try to ascend this enormous peak ahead of us.
As the days progress we move slowly into Kilimanjaro's orbit, rising to the base of its summit walls across desert-like volcanic slopes. The days inevitably break crisp and clear, with nearby Mt Meru – Tanzania's second-highest mountain, albeit 1300 metres lower than Kilimanjaro – floating on the clouds, and Kilimanjaro casting its long shadow across them.
Up close, Kilimanjaro is far more impressive than I expected. Before arriving on the mountain, I'd been guilty of thinking that people climbed it primarily because there was nothing else higher in Africa, but up close, with glaciers leaking down its black walls, it's a place to revere and respect. By the time we reach Barranco, three days' walk still from the summit, it towers over us with the presence of a Himalayan mountain.
If reaching the summit is the most exciting moment on the mountain, the most exciting section of hiking is the day out of Barranco. From camp, the Lemosho Route scrambles through the Barranco Wall, an hour of climbing that requires hands almost as much as feet.
Along the way are a few moments of exposure that might cause me to suck in deep breaths, if that was possible at 4000 metres above sea level. The greatest moment of trepidation comes at the "Kissing Rock", a bulge in the cliffs where guides encourage trekkers to hug in tight against the rock and kiss it, primarily to distract from the vertiginous drop between their feet. It's a bit like the Blarney Stone, except here you don't get the gift of the gab, you get the gift of life. You have survived the moment. Conversely, porters with unwieldy loads balanced on their heads step around the Kissing Stone as though it's no more than a bollard.
Beyond the Barranco Wall, Kilimanjaro's slopes turn into a wild and dark landscape, resembling something from a spaghetti Western. It's through this scene that we ascend to Barafu, the highest camp on the route, where myriad tents are squeezed like debris into the barren spaces between boulders.
It's from Barafu that we'll set out into the night for the summit. By now there are glazed looks in trekkers' eyes. We've ascended to 4670 metres, where heads hurt and stomachs turn. And there's still 1200 metres to climb.
In the afternoon Florence delivers the usual briefing about the following day, but suddenly the instructions are more urgent. It's about layering our clothing, about which guides will return if anyone needs to descend before the summit, about the health checks he'll conduct as we climb, and about how he's hidden the coffee to avoid caffeine elevating our heart rates.
We sleep until 11pm, when preparations for summit day begin. At midnight we walk out of camp, one cluster of torch lights in a stream of lights inching towards the top of Africa.
Altitude turns your focus deep into yourself, and I ascend by setting micro-goals – reach that next boulder, then the next – constantly wondering whether I will get there as I watch others turn back, defeated.
After almost six hours, we rise to Stella Point on the crater rim. Two of the five hikers in our group have turned back. My drink bottles are frozen, and the buff around my neck and mouth is frozen solid. A faint band of light to the east heralds the approaching dawn.
My respect for this incredible mountain only grows as we round the rim. Kilimanjaro's famous glaciers seemingly sit randomly in place, their edges scalloped by wind. The snow is fanned into strange upright shapes, the likes of which I've never seen anywhere else in the world.
Somehow, after six-and-a-half hours of walking we've timed our arrival on Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro's highest point, to within seconds of sunrise. The day's first light pours into the crater as we step up to the sign announcing our arrival on the summit.
It's a strangely emotional moment, with Africa and a sun-lit sea of clouds leaking away to the horizon far below us. It feels like a stunning way to end a day, except that it's still only 6.30am.
FIVE OTHER AFRICAN MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB
Typically considered either Kilimanjaro's twin or rival, Africa's second-highest mountain is a jumble of peaks. For trekkers, the end goal is Point Lenana, the third-highest summit on the mountain. Any higher than this requires technical mountaineering.
Tanzania's second-highest peak requires a steep climb to a string-thin crater rim, attracting just a fraction of Kilimanjaro's climber numbers.
The high point of Ethiopia's Simien Mountains is reached in spectacular fashion, hiking for days along the edge of vertiginous escarpments in the company of gelada baboons and walia ibex.
Morocco's (and North Africa's) highest peak seemingly separates the Sahara desert from Africa's west coast. The climb typically takes about three days and you can see the Sahara from the snowcapped summit.
This biblical Egyptian peak is a place of pilgrimage, and it's a virtual commandment that hikers walk through the night to witness sunrise from the summit; many sleep near the top.
Qatar Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Kilimanjaro Airport via Doha. See qatarairways.com
Regulations stipulate that all Kilimanjaro climbs must be guided. World Expeditions runs a 10-day Lemosho Route trek that includes the eight-day route on the mountain. Trips start from $4790 and include all meals and accommodation. See worldexpeditions.com
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of World Expeditions.