Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Shy Mountain

It was late in the day when my prayers were answered. The skies opened up to reveal a towering peak in the distance - a picture of floating clouds over glistening ice! After all the wait, what now emerged before us was indeed Mount Kenya - the source of the name of Republic of Kenya. So this was Kikuyu Kirinyaga, Embu Kirenyaa and Kamba Kiinyaa - “God’s resting place”; Maasai Ol Donyo Keri - “mountain of stripes”, called so from the dark shadows that it draws on the surrounding plains. Mount Kenya is thought to be the shyest mountain in Kenya since it hides its peaks most of the day, taking off its wraps only briefly at sunrise and sunset. 
God's resting place

The highest peaks of the mountain are Batian and Nelion – I have no clue which one we had sighted, but it was high enough to have ice on it, however little. Mount Kenya is the highest mountain in Kenya with an elevation of 5,199 m (17,057 ft) and the second-highest in Africa, after Kilimanjaro. It is an extinct stratovolcano (i.e. a tall, conical volcano built up by many layers or strata of hardened lava, volcanic ash and other material; also called a composite volcano) created approximately 3 million years after the opening of the East African rift.
The mountain of stripes
We have talked so many times about the rift and its valley - what exactly is the East African rift? To get to the basics - what is a rift in the first place? I delved into complex scientific material study. Here is a synopsis of my understanding. In geology, a rift or chasm is a place where the Earth's crust and lithosphere (uppermost solid mantle) are being pulled apart. In simple terms, it can be thought of as a fracture in the earth's surface that widens over time. During this pulling apart or "stretching" of the continent, since the surface rocks are too brittle to stretch, faulting (cracking) occurs, and rift edges get uplifted (in the form of mountains) forming rift valleys in between.

Beneath East Africa (Ethiopia-Kenya-Uganda-Tanzania) is an active, I repeat active, continental rift zone in which the African Plate is in the process of splitting into two new tectonic plates; called the Somali Plate on the east (the smaller plate that is pulling away) and the Nubian Plate on the west (that makes up most of Africa). These two plates are moving away from each other and also away from the Arabian plate to the north. The East African Rift came into being approximately 40 million years ago. Instead of being a single rift, it is really a series of distinct but related rift basins. These rifts are generally following old sutures between ancient continental masses that collided billions of years ago to form the African craton (i.e. the part of the continent that is stable and forms its central mass). This intricate phenomenon has given shape to the topography of the land in the form of volcanic mountains towards the east; and much deeper basins that contain large lakes and lots of sediment (including Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world, and Lake Nyasa or Malawi) towards the western side of the area. The peaks of Mount Kenya are almost all from a volcanic origin.
The stratovolcano
The peak that peeped from behind the clouds was quite rugged. Mount Kenya was covered by an ice cap for thousands of years. This has resulted in much eroded slopes and numerous valleys radiating from the centre. The forested slopes are also an important source of water for much of Kenya, providing water directly for over 2 million people. With 11 small glaciers, Mount Kenya is the main water catchment area for two large rivers in Kenya; the Tana (the largest), and the Ewaso Ng'iso North. Sadly, the glaciers on Mount Kenya are retreating rapidly. There is no new snow to be found, even on the Lewis Glacier (the largest of them) in winter; so no new ice will be formed. It is predicted that in less than 30 years time, there will no longer be any ice on Mount Kenya – we sure were lucky to have seen traces of ice on the peak.
The shy mountain
The combination of latitude (being at the Equator) and altitude makes for an interesting biology here. Many of the species are endemic, specialised with adaptations to strong sunlight and ultraviolet along with cold and fluctuating temperatures. At the highest altitudes of Afro alpine zone, it is summer every day and freezing winter every night. Mount Kenya National Park is certainly on my "to accomplish" list, hopefully someday that does get struck out as "completed". The final moments in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy were spent capturing a flitting cisticola on camera. At the end of a tired and hungry day (we had skipped lunch so as to not miss out on what we could "see"), we reached our lodge at Naro Moru - just as the topical sun slipped out without notice to let the chilly night sneak in; its silence broken only by the roars of colobus monkeys.
We started back for Nairobi the following morning – carrying in our minds the image of a pair of crowned hornbills perched together outside a room window, one of them looking at its reflection on the glass (who knows maybe admiring the long red down-curved bill) while the other looked away. Not the one for abstract souvenirs, Adi went for more tangible mementos - he made us tear away two colourful balls from the Christmas decorations in the lodge (he has them till this day, although as one would expect, he has no recollection of the clandestine effort that went towards "lifting" them).
Crowned hornbills
On our way back, I was glued to the window watching the plantations of napier grass (grown as livestock fodder), banana, maize, coffee and pineapple zip past us. All of sudden I shouted out, was thinking aloud actually - we had forgotten to get our packed lunch. The carried forward lunch from the day before had been missed again; that too after prolonged discussions with numerous people over the last two and half days on how this mission needed to be carried out. We all burst out laughing at the thought. There was a sigh of relief from Atanu, he had just managed to avoid a double hat-trick of potato disappointment; full credit to him though for braving the potato repeatedly!

I want to end this piece with a thought (or should I say a matter of fact) that I came across while researching on the rift valley and Mount Kenya - I had never thought on these lines before. Fertilisers feed our masses, gasoline powers our engines of war and peace, plastics form our consumer products, gas heats our homes, and coal makes our electricity. Believe it or not, all these things come from the past rifting and colliding of the continents!


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and illuminating as usual! Keep them coming:)