Mount Kenya is one of the most iconic landscapes of Kenya and East Africa due to its rugged glacier-covered summit and forest cover in the midsection. It was formed several million years ago from volcanic activity and adopted the shape of a symmetrical cone. Steep, pyramidal peaks characterize its summit area.
The mountain is the highest peak in Kenya at 5,199 meters (17,058 feet) above sea level and the second highest in Africa after Kilimanjaro, which is 5,895 meters (19,340 feet). It is also a part of Mount Kenya National Park, which encloses 277 square miles. As a result, many birds, animals, and plants co-exist in a complex ecosystem attracting thousands of visitors yearly. Other features, including glaciers, mineral springs, lakes, wildlife, and cultural value, make Mount Kenya unique from its nearby peaks.
Where is Mount Kenya Located?
This majestic volcano lies in the Central Kenyan highlands. It straddles the Equator about 193 km northeast of the capital Nairobi and approximately 480 km from the Kenyan coast. The peak of Mt Kenya also intersects the country's former Eastern and Central provinces, now Embu, Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Laikipia, Kirinyaga, and Isiolo counties.
Photo Credit: CC
Accessing Mount Kenya
There are six gates to Mount Kenya National Park and several walking routes leading to Point Lenana. However, Chogoria, Naro Moru, and Sirimon are the most frequented routes. The Chogoria route is the most scenic as it passes through vegetation zones, including the bamboo and rainforest, while giving stunning views across the Giant Billiards table and Mugi Hills. The Naro Moru route is the quickest, though not particularly picturesque. Then, the Sirimon course is popular due to the steady ascent rate. Many climbers ascend using the Sirimon way and descend using the Naro Moru or Chorogia routes.
Nanyuki town (about 120 miles (190 km) north of Nairobi), which lies at the northwestern foot of the mountain, and Naro Moru lying to the west, are chief bases for ascents.
Mount Kenya is an ancient extinct volcano formed approximately 3 million years ago and last erupted about 2.6 million years ago. Thus, it is also considered a dormant volcano. The mountain has three distinct peaks named after Masai Chiefs and differs by a few meters. These are Batian (5,199 meters (17,057 ft)), Nelion (5,188 meters (17,021 ft)), and Point Lenana (4,985 meters (16,355 ft)).
There are 11 remnant glaciers on the mountain, all receding rapidly, of which Lewis and Tyndall are the largest. Radiating from four central peaks are ridges separated by seven main U-shaped glacial valleys. Together, these snow peaks tower over a unique afro-alpine ecosystem. The mountain's base lies at some 5,250 feet (1,600 meters), and the circumference is approximately 95 miles (153 km) at the 8,000-foot (2,440-metre) contour.
The glaciers feed the streams and marshes on the mountain's slopes. Although radial drainage is prominent, all streams eventually flow into the Tana River, the largest river in Kenya, and the Ewaso Nyiro North. The Mount Kenya ecosystem provides water directly to more than 2 million people.
Mount Kenya's highest peak, Batian (5,199 meters), Photo Credit- CC
When was Mount Kenya first climbed?
The first European to see Mount Kenya was Johann Ludwig Krapf in 1849. Then the Hungarian explorer Sámuel, Gróf (count) Teleki, partially climbed it in 1887, and the British geologist John Walter Gregory in 1893.
Sir Halford John Mackinder, the British geographer, was the first to reach the summit, Batian, in September 1899, along with Swiss guides Josef Brocherel and César Ollier. However, the trio had made three unsuccessful attempts the same year, having experienced numerous challenges such as deserting porters and lack of food. Since then, interest in climbing Mount Kenya has increased, and multiple successful ascents have followed.
The original name and cultural significance of Mount Kenya
The original name of Mount Kenya is Kĩrĩnyaga in Kikuyu or Kĩnyaa in Kamba, after which the republic of Kenya is named. The Kikuyus are Bantu-speaking people who migrated to the foothills of Mount Kenya in the 1500s and considered the mountain a sacred place and a central part of their creation myth. According to tribal legend, their traditional god Ngai or Mwene-Nyaga created Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya), which means "the mountain of brightness" due to its snow-capped peak. They firmly believed that their god (Ngai) and his wife Mumbi lived on the mountain's peak when he came down from the heavens to survey his creation and bestow blessings and punishment upon his people.
Other communities, which include the adjacent Embu, Meru, and Maasai, also regard Mount Kenya as holy. For example, the Embu people (Aembu) living in the southeast believed the mountain was god's home and called Him Ngai or Mwene Njeru. The Ameru occupy the mountain's east, north, and north-western slopes. They referred to Mt. Kenya as Kirimara, which means 'mountain with white features' and believed their god Murungu was from the skies.
The Maasai are semi-nomadic and graze cattle. They occupy the land to the north and believe their ancestors descended from the mountain. They called the mountain Ol Donyo Keri, meaning 'mountain of stripes,' which referred to the dark shades observed from the surrounding plains. One Maasai prayer refers to Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya National Park
The history of the Mount Kenya National Park
The government of Kenya established the Mount Kenya National Park in 1949 to protect the mountain's surrounding region. The Park is within the forest reserve which encompasses it. Thus, Mount Kenya is part of Mount Kenya National Park, covering about 277 square miles (718 square km) and including much of the lower skirts of the mountain.
The outstanding universal value of Mount Kenya
In April 1978, UNESCO designated the Park a Biosphere Reserve under the Man and Biosphere Program. In 1997, it added the National Park and forest reserve to the World Heritage list as a World Natural Heritage Site. UNESCO recognizes the biodiversity, ecological, and cultural value of Mount Kenya as a sacred place.
Why was Mount Kenya National Park created?
The Government of Kenya had four main reasons to create a national park on and around Mount Kenya. The first was to safeguard tourism for the local and national economies. The mountain ecosystem is particularly vital to the livelihood of local populations that depend on it for fuel, grazing livestock, and cultivating crops.
The second was to conserve the rich biodiversity it supports, and the third was to preserve the area's scenic beauty. The visual contrast and diversity of landscapes between the Kenyan Highlands and Mount Kenya enhance this setting. They loom over the flat, arid grassland and sparsely wooded plains of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to the north.
Further, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve, located in the ecological transition zone between the semi-arid savanna grasslands and the mountain ecosystem, also lie within the traditional migrating route and feeding of the African elephant population.
Fourth, the government sought to protect the crucial water catchment reservoir for nearly one-third of Kenya's population. The Mount Kenya water tower also feeds the country's longest and largest river, Tana, supporting hydroelectric plants that provide more than 50 percent of the country's electricity.
Vegetation (Flora) at Mount Kenya
Ecologically, Mount Kenya is an island rising high above the semi-arid landscape of the country. The mountain supports a succession of six distinctive, elevation-based vegetation zones. They include the lower montane forests that begin at elevations of 1200 meters, where agricultural settlements border protected areas and extend up the mountain to an altitude of 2500 m. It is a dense ring of forests that is part of Kenya's largest continuous block of indigenous closed canopy forest. Cedar and yellowwood are prominent on the drier western and northern flanks.
Above the lower montane forests is the bamboo zone (Arundinaria alpina) at 2200-3200 meters. The bamboo decreases markedly in height with increasing elevation and merges into the succeeding zone, the giant heather.
Above a transition zone (11,000–12,000 feet [3,400–3,700 meters]) is the Afro-alpine moorland (high moorland). The Paramo (also known as the alpine zone) begins at approximately 4000 to 4600 meters, and dwarf vegetation (bushland/shrubland), including mosses and lichens, characterizes it. Further up from the Paramo is the Nival zone, a cold desert belt consisting mainly of moraine, gravel, and stones. Above that, there are only bare rock, gravel, glaciers, and other regions of ice and snow.
Wildlife (Fauna) at Mount Kenya
Mount Kenya National Park supports a unique afro-alpine ecosystem and is home to abundant wildlife. The lower forests and bamboo zone sustains larger mammals like elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards, black rhinoceros, suni, black-fronted duiker, and smaller ones such as giant forest hog, tree hyrax, white-tailed mongoose, and several species of antelope. Black-and-white colobus monkeys also inhabit the forests.
Photo Credit- Common Creatives (CC)
The localized Mount Kenya mouse shrew, common duiker, and hyrax comprise some of the moorland mammals. At elevations up to 4,000 meters, the endemic mole-rat is regular throughout the northern slopes and the Hinder Valley. In addition, the Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy enhance the diversity of species within the Mount Kenya ecosystem, including being home to the biggest resident population of Grevys' Zebra in the world.
The ecosystem further supports an impressive array of birdlife, with over 130 species recorded. These include green ibis (local Mount Kenya race), Ayres hawk eagle, Rüppell's robin-chat, Abyssinian long-eared owl, numerous sunbirds (Nectariniidae), scaly francolin, near endemic alpine swift, and the locally threatened scarce swift.
Four unique and interesting facts about Mount Kenya
- The sun rises and sets simultaneously every day, with the day and night lasting 12 hours. For instance, if the sun rises at 6.30 am, it is bound to set at 6.30 pm due to the location of Mount Kenya and the forces that affect equatorial regions! There is only a 1-minute difference between the shortest and longest days in the year.
- Mount Kenya was higher than Kilimanjaro at over 6,000 m (19,700 ft) high before glaciation. However, two significant glaciation periods occurred since the mountain became extinct, thereby shifting rocks, soil, and other materials from their original position. After studying the moraines, Gregory put forward a theory that the ice cap covered the whole mountain summit at one time, and erosion of the peaks reshaped Mount Kenya's structure to how it is today.
- The mountain is symbolic of Kenya. Kenya was declared free after gaining independence from the British colonizers in 1963. In the spirit of nationalism, the brave Munyao Kisoi mounted Kenya's flag at the peak of Mount Kenya. He battled the cold weather as he volunteered to hoist the flag at the top. The mountain symbolizes national unity and independence and is significant to the Kenyan people. Mount Kenya is also a sacred symbol for the communities that live adjacent to it and is considered holy and is, therefore, respected.
- Mount Kenya is difficult to climb. The mountain has complex terrain that requires some mountain climbing and rock-climbing skills to get to the highest peak. Two of its peaks, Batian and Nelion, are the most difficult, while its third peak, Lenana, is more accessible to climbers.
Important Information for Visitors to Mount Kenya
- All visitors entering the Park should have a qualified and certified guide. The Park management issues guides and potters with identification cards.
- Disposable plastic water bottles are not allowed in the park.
- Guides and potters are not allowed to carry luggage that exceeds 25KG. The luggage is weighed at the gates on entry.
- All visitors must check in and out of the park by recording personal information.
Global warming and regional environmental changes, such as deforestation, are some of the most serious long-term threats to Mount Kenya. The glaciers are rapidly shrinking. Barely new ice has formed in the past few years, and snow rarely falls on the mountain. Based on these developments, researchers predict that the ice will completely disappear by 2050 if the current temperature and precipitation trend continues.
Other threats to Mount Kenya's ecosystem's existence and sustaining role include charcoal production, domestic and commercial logging, and Marijuana cultivation. However, most of the forest destruction through illegal grazing, poaching, and other human activities that impact the broader ecosystem occurs outside the property, in the forest/national reserve that serves as a buffer zone. Therefore, understanding and mitigating these threats to the broader ecosystem is critical because they impact the long-term viability of the property.
There is a legislative framework that is generally good and provides adequate protection of the site. The Wildlife Act, the Environment Management and Coordination Act (1999), the Water Act (2002), and the Forest Act (2005) are among the most relevant ones. For instance, through the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS, the government has formed wildlife conservancies among owners of large tracts of land, especially among local communities, as a long-term strategy.
Other interventions include tree planting and enclosing the Park with an electric fence to discourage animals from straying and devastating crops into surrounding small holdings. As of 2021, 250 kilometres out of a planned 450 kilometres were constructed in the Mt. Kenya area. The fence discharges an electric shock without harming humans or animals.
Overall, involving the local communities by helping them reduce poverty, giving them a voice in decision-making, and supporting their cultural identity has significantly contributed to the preservation of Mount Kenya.
Mount Kenya remains one of the most impressive landscapes in Kenya and East Africa. This ancient extinct volcano, which rises in the centre of the country that shares its name, has long been a wonder to all who beheld its icy peaks gleaming with sunlight. Mount Kenya is not just an incredible sight but god's earthly home to the local African communities who live under it. It is a holy place, cultural symbol, and livelihood source.