One of the world's highest National Parks, Mount Kenya is an extinct volcano some three-and-a-half million-years-old. Straddling the equator, the mountain offers a unique mosaic of forest, moorland, rock and ice, and is crowned by the glittering twin peaks of Batian (5,199 m) and Nelion (5,188 m). The sacred home of Ngai, God of the Kikuyu people, Mount Kenya is Kenya's highest mountain, a national icon, a climbers' Mecca, the nation's namesake, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site and a wildlife stronghold. Anyone in reasonable health can attempt the steep trek to Point Lenana (4,985 m), which is the highest point for trekkers.
To the indigenous people who lived in central Kenya for thousands of years, Mount Kenya had various names. The Kikuyu, who make up the bulk of Kenya's modern day population, called the mountain Kirinyaga, which roughly translated means, the ‘white' or ‘bright' mountain. The Embu people, meanwhile, called the mountain Kirenia (the mountain of whiteness), and the Maasai called it both Ol Donyo Eibor (the white mountain) and Ol Donyo Egere (the speckled mountain). Anthropologists and linguists believe that the modern name ‘Kenya' comes from the Akamba people, who called the mountain Kiinyaa, the ‘Mountain of the Ostrich', because, in their opinion, the dark rock and speckled ice fields looked like the tail feathers of the male ostrich. The peaks of Batian, Nelion and Point Lenana were all named by Sir Halford Mackinder (who made the first recorded conquest of the mountain) in memory of three legendary Maasai laibons or medicine men, all of whom were renowned for their wisdom and bravery.
Like most of East Africa's mountains, Mount Kenya is an extinct volcano with a massive volcanic cone, circular in shape and around 70 km in diameter. Born between 2.6 and 3.1 million years ago, it formed as successive layers of volcanic lava erupted with massive force from a central vent, which had burst open in the earth's surface. Rising a majestic 5,000 m above its 800 m high surrounding plains, Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa (after Mount Kilimanjaro at 5, 896 m). Experts believe, however, that at its birth it may have been 1,000 m higher, which would have made it Africa's highest mountain. Considered the perfect example of an equatorial mountain, though it straddles the equator, Mount Kenya is permanently crowned in ice. A number of glaciers extend from the peaks, the largest being the Lewis Glacier, which lies along the route from Teleki Valley to Point Lenana via the Austrian Hut.
Mount Kenya's forests are rich in wildlife and shelter such threatened creatures as leopard, bongo, giant forest hog, black rhino and African elephant together with the uncommon central Kenyan species of black-fronted duiker.
Along the forest tracks, for instance, both elephants and buffalos are common while black and white colobus monkeys leap in the ravines and Sykes' monkeys feed along the roadsides. Bushbucks and Defassa waterbucks are plentiful, and after sunset the chilling screams of the tree hyraxes and the cries of the bush babies can be heard; white-tailed mongooses may also be picked up in the glare of the spotlight. The dense understorey of the forest provides shelter for black-fronted duiker, suni, bush pig and giant forest hog (the latter first noted by scientists in 1904). The animals of the understorey are rarely seen by visitors, due to their natural shyness and the thick vegetation which constitutes their realm. The forests are also home to one of Kenya's rarest creatures, the elusive bongo, a massive forest antelope with a rich red-brown coat banded with white stripes, which is now teetering on the brink of survival (less than 100 Eastern Mountain bongos remain in the wild, most of them in the Aberdare National Park).
Weighing up to 450 kg, the massive bongo is the largest and rarest of Kenya's forest antelopes; it is also wholly endemic and restricted to the Kenyan highlands. The last sighting of a bongo on Mount Kenya was in 1994, while there are believed to be only one hundred or so remaining in the Aberdare National Park. Shy and easily disturbed, bongos range from the high forest glades to the bamboo zone, and even up to around 4000 m in pockets of sheltered woodland. Easily recognizable by the 12-14 vertical white stripes that emblazon the flanks of their bright chestnut coats, bongos tend to live in groups, while the old bulls usually leave their group to live out the last of their 12-14 year lifespan alone. A bongo breeding and re-introduction programme is currently being carried out by a number of institutions including the Bill Woodley Trust and KWS. Leopards are common throughout the forests and have occasionally been seen as high as 4, 500 m, where they hunt for rock hyraxes and grass rats. Lions and serval cats are also infrequent visitors. As for the rhinoceros, though the forests of Mount Kenya once offered a traditional stronghold for the black rhino, today only a few are thought to remain there. Above the forests, at around 2,400 m impenetrable thickets of bamboo appear, often pierced by dark tunnels which are the thoroughfares of elephants and buffalos. The glades of the heath zone, meanwhile, are the home of the giant Kenya mole rat, whose presence is flagged by the existence of what look like large mole hills thrown up in the turf. In the deep mossy glades you might also make out the slightly raised earth outlines that mark the tunnels of the endemic Mount Kenya mole shrew, while the earth mounds of the endemic Ruppell's root rat can often be seen in the Hinde Valley. Above the forest zone the most commonly seen resident is the rock hyrax, which feeds on the abundant lobelia leaves proliferating there. Duiker, eland and other species of antelope are also present, while the Sirimon slopes of the mountain are home to a herd of zebra. Lions have been known to hunt high on the Naro Moru trails, while elephants and buffalos are also occasional visitors (the skeleton of a buffalo found by Sir Halford Mackinder in 1899 can still be seen today). Rodents meanwhile abound, particularly the groove-toothed rats that scuttle along the trails.
Above the 3, 300 m line, vast swathes of blonde tussock grass stretch to the snowline. And although elephants and buffalos sometimes venture as high as 4000 m (especially in the Teleki Valley) and elands and zebras have been seen at the base of the peaks around 4, 300 m, this is essentially the realm of the rock hyraxes who thrive among the rock outcrops. Endemic mole rats are also common and there have been rare sightings of a mysterious ‘golden cat'. The northern slopes, meanwhile, are the habitat of hartebeest , steinbok, zebra (especially along the Timau Route) and eland (often around the Sirimon roadhead).
Boasting the second highest bird-count in Africa (after the Democratic Republic of Congo), Kenya numbers over 1,070 species of birds (compared to 300 in Britain and 600 in North America). And, though forests cover only 1% of sub-Saharan Africa, 30% of Africa's total of 1,500 bird species live in her forests. In Kenya, 335 of the bird species inhabit the forests, of which 230 are entirely forest-dependant and 110 are forest-specialist. The best time for bird watching is early morning and late afternoon in the rainy seasons, and during the winters of the northern world, when Kenya hosts a wide range of European migratory species. The mountain is rich in montane bird fauna with 53 out of Kenya's 67 African highlands biome species, at least 35 forest-specialist species and 6-8 of the species that make up the Kenyan montane endemic bird area. In the forests that cloak the lower slopes, pairs of Hunter's cisticolas duet on top of bushes, Hartlaub's turacos glide across the road with a flash of scarlet wing feathers, silvery-cheeked hornbills swoop and sun themselves (especially near the Naro Moru Gate) and red-fronted parrots flock around the fruiting Podocarpus trees. As you walk you may see white-headed wood hoopoes probing the cracks of the gnarled forest trees for insects, or the cinnamon-chested bee-eaters which snap up prey from exposed branches. The forest also hosts two species of francolin, the Jackson's francolin and the scaly francolin, both of which will scurry away into the undergrowth at your approach. In the deep, marshy forest glades, you may spot the rare Mount Kenya race of the green ibis, while another great rarity the Abyssinian long-eared owl has been recorded in the high forest near the Sirimon track. High on the moorlands alpine chats perch fearlessly at arm's length while jewel-hued sunbirds probe the everlasting flowers, gladioli and brilliant blue delphinium. Scarlet-tufted malachite sunbirds may be seen feeding on half hidden lobelia blossoms. Slender -billed and red-winged starlings also hunt through the lobelia for the thin-shelled snails that make their home there. Above 3, 300 m the birdlife includes African snipes in the grasslands, African black ducks on the tarns and white-naped ravens scavenging around the huts. High above the crags cruise the mighty lammergeyers (especially around Sendeo or Terere Peaks on the Sirimon Route). Mottled and scarce swifts are also common and alpine swifts can often be seen near Two Tarn Hut.