An extinct volcano some 3.5 million years old, Mount Kenya is Africa’s second-highest mountain, with two jagged peaks. Formed from the remains of a gigantic volcanic plug – it rose more than 7000m above sea level until a million years ago – most of its erupted lava and ash have been eroded by glacial action to create a distinctive, craggy silhouette. The peaks are permanently iced with snow and glaciers, the latter in retreat due to climate change. On the upper slopes, altitude and the equatorial location combine to nurture forms of vegetation, seemingly designed by some 1950s science-fiction writer, 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”, “ostrich plume plant” or “giant groundsel”.
Europeans first heard about the mountain when the German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf saw it in 1849. His stories of snow on the equator were not taken seriously, but in 1883 the young Scottish traveller Joseph Thomson confirmed its existence to the outside world. The Kikuyu, Maasai and other peoples living in the region had venerated the mountain for centuries, and park rangers still occasionally report finding elderly Kikuyu high up on the moorlands, drawn by the presence of God – Ngai – whose dwelling place this is. It is not known, however, whether anyone had scaled the peaks before Sir Halford Mackinder reached the higher of the two, Batian, in 1899. Another thirty years passed before Nelion, a tougher summit, was conquered. Both were named by Mackinder’s expedition after nineteenth-century Maasai laibon, or ritual leaders.
The KWS-managed national park encloses all parts of the mountain above 3200m plus stretches down the Naro Moru and Sirimon streams. Inside this area fees have to be paid, and strict rules control your activities. Outside this zone, surrounding the national park, lies the Mount Kenya National Reserve, in which your movements are normally only limited by your inclinations and equipment – though on some access roads, such as the one for Mountain Lodge, fees are payable even in the reserve. Various specialist guidebooks and maps are available to help you explore on your own.