The Great Rift Valley

10 reasons why we named our first B787 Dreamliner after Africa’s great natural wonder

RiftValleyIt’s one of air travel’s iconic experiences: an overnight flight from Europe to Kenya, descending towards Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport just as dawn is breaking. Sitting on the left-hand side of the aircraft, you raise the blind on your window and there it is: Mount Kenya gilded by the sunrise; golden light raking its saw-tooth peaks and etching the ridges and escarpments of the Great Rift Valley. If ever there’s a time and place to reflect on the scale and beauty of Africa’s great natural wonder, this is it. Stretching 6400km from Jordan to Mozambique, the Great Rift Valley has forged some of Earth’s most remarkable and diverse landscapes – from the coral-encrusted canyons of the Red Sea to the ice-clad summit of Kilimanjaro. Geological phenomenon, wildlife haven and adventurer’s playground, the Great Rift Valley was a natural choice for naming Kenya Airways’ first Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Here we showcase 10 great reasons for exploring the Great Rift – whether you’re flying high above it, or planning a more intimate encounter…

1 Climbing the mighty volcanoes
At 5199m, Mount Kenya is Africa’s second-highest snow-capped mountain and quite possibly the most beautiful peak in the Great Rift Valley. Its summit is the hard plug of a huge ancient volcano that was active five million years ago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, the mountain receives a tenth of the number of trekkers that tackle Kilimanjaro. In just a week you can complete a spectacular traverse of the mountain, ascending through forest on the Chogoria Route to the ‘trekkers’ summit’ at Point Lenana (4985m). Here, the rocky summit of Batian (a mountaineering challenge) rises above slopes dotted with giant lobelia and giant groundsel.

2 The great lakes
The variety of life is astonishing in the Great Rift Valley, where isolated mountains and lakes have led to a high level of endemism. Lakes Tanganyika and Malawi are particularly renowned as hotspots of biodiversity, with their endemic communities of colourful cichlid fish – best seen on a snorkelling or kayaking trip.

3 Haven for the herds
A spectacular natural arena for one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife, Ngorongoro Crater in northern Tanzania is an extinct volcanic caldera, measuring up to 19km wide and surrounded by 600m-high walls. Covering an area of 264 sq km, it is thought to have formed around 2.5 million years ago when a large volcano collapsed in on itself following a major eruption. In addition to large herds of zebra, buffalo and antelope, the crater has over 30 black rhino and a thriving population of elephant.

4 A paradise for birds
One of the world’s great ornithological spectacles, saline Lake Bogoria is wreathed in pink by hundreds of thousands of lesser flamingo and smaller numbers of greater flamingo. Lake Nakuru, shown here, is also pretty in pink, while the papyrus-fringed freshwater lakes of Baringo and Naivasha are all aflutter with African fish eagles, pied kingfishers, pelicans, storks, ducks, herons and cormorants. Kenya’s Rift Valley Lake national parks also support abundant mammals – notably greater kudu at Bogoria, and Rothschild’s giraffe and both black and white rhino at Nakuru.

5 Into the blue
With scuba diving courses available in resorts on both the Sinai Peninsula and South Coast, the Red Sea is the perfect place to experience the underwater drama of the Great Rift Valley. Experienced divers can swoop along dizzying drop-offs and ride slick currents at more far-flung locations like the Brothers – a pair of steep-sided, coral-festooned rocks best visited on a liveaboard from Hurghada. Wherever you choose to take the plunge in the Red Sea, however, the profusion of marine life is extraordinary – from the ubiquitous clouds of golden anthias pulsing in and out of coral heads to chance encounters with reef sharks.

6 The lava fields
The Great Rift Valley in action, Ardoukoba in Djibouti clearly shows the extraordinary tectonic forces at work as the enormous system of faults in the earth’s crust strive to split Africa in two. The volcanoes shown here last erupted in 1978 following an earthquake that created a 17km-long rift. Known as Ghoubet Kharab, this 800m-deep fissure continues to widen today.

7 A cultural treasure chest
Few regions of the world show such rich cultural diversity as the Great Rift Valley. From proud Maasai pastoralists to the forest-dwelling Batwa, dozens of traditional peoples have made the mountains, plains and coasts of the Rift Valley their home. The young Suri man shown here is from the Omo Valley in Ethiopia.

8 A home for early humans
Patriarch of the fossil-hunting family, Louis Leakey championed the search for human origins in Africa. Some of his richest pickings were to be found here, to the east of the Serengeti Plains, at Olduvai Gorge where he and his wife Mary began unearthing hominid remains in the late 1950s. Fossils from Olduvai have not only provided a continuous record of human evolution over the past two million years, but also offer compelling evidence that the Great Rift Valley was a cradle for mankind.

9 A refuge for primates
Many visitors to the Great Rift Valley have primates in their sights. In Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park, shown here, is the place to go for mountain gorilla tracking, while Nyungwe National Park is a veritable primate paradise with everything from chimpanzees and Angolan colobus to blue monkey, grey-cheeked mangabey and l’Hoest’s monkey. In Uganda, several forest lodges provide easy access to gorilla tracking trails in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Perched on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania, Greystoke Camp offers chimpanzee tracking in Mahale National Park.

10 Views from the edge
A Samburu tribesman gazes across the eastern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley at Losiolo, north of Maralal, in Kenya. From a height of over 2400m, the land tumbles away nearly 1000m into the Suguta Valley, the domain of nomadic pastoralists, before rising again 120km away to form the Great Rift’s western escarpment. The views at Losiolo are some of the most spectacular in East Africa.

Reshaping Africa
The Great Rift Valley began forming 20 million years ago when the land literally dropped along fault lines between three tectonic plates – the Arabian, African-Nubian and African-Somalian. All three meet under the Afar Triangle in Ethiopia where the Red Sea merges with the Gulf of Aden. Pressure from deep under the Earth’s crust continues to split these plates apart and will eventually cause the Horn of Africa to break off from the rest of the continent, creating a new island and a new ocean.