Sci-fi plants of Mount Kenya, Kenya

Sci-fi plants of Mount Kenya, Kenya

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By Richard Trillo
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The Kikuyu people venerated Mount Kenya as the dwelling place of God. They believed if they climbed to the peaks, they would find spiritual inspiration. Straddling the equator and piercing the clouds, Africa’s second-highest mountain – the eroded remains of a vast, prehistoric volcano, towering 5199m from the plains – is a steeper and quicker climb than Kilimanjaro, and in terms of scenic variety and fauna and flora is perhaps the more inspirational of Africa’s two giant mountains. It’s certainly the less busy.

For most trekkers, the climax of seeing the sunrise from Point Lenana, among the jagged, glacier-studded peaks, is the literal highpoint of the experience. But try to love the climbing moments, too: on day three of the Naro Moru trail, once you’ve overcome the slightly daunting “vertical bog” and emerged into the high moorland, the wonders of alpine Africa’s otherworldly flora, seemingly designed by some 1950s science-fiction writer, are all around you. Altitude and the equatorial location combine to nurture forms of vegetation that exist only here and at one or two other lofty points in East Africa. When you first see them, it’s hard to believe the “water-holding cabbage” or “ostrich plume plant”. This is a land of giant shrubs and weeds: giant heather, giant groundsel and giant lobelia. It turns out the cabbages on stumps and the larger, candelabra-shaped, tree-like plants are the same species, known as giant groundsel or tree senecio. The intermediate stage has a sheaf of bright yellow flowers. These enigmatic plants, though frail-looking, are slow growers and individuals may survive on these chilly, misty slopes for more than two hundred years.

The tall, fluffy, less abundant plants are a species of giant lobelia, popularly called the “ostrich plume plant”, discovered by the explorer Teleki and found only on Mount Kenya. The furriness wich gives this giant lobelia such an animal quality acts as insulation for the delicate flowers. It is perhaps the only plant in the world that could fairly be described as cuddly.

Climbing Mount Kenya is possible all year round. Many Nairobi operators and agents can offer tours, or you hike independently with a local guide. Kenya Wildlife Service (kws.go.ke) has information on fees and mountain accommodation.

 

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