245km (152 miles) NE of Nairobi
Mount Kenya is an extinct volcano known to the Kikuyu people as Kirinyaga, the "Place of Light." When through its veil of mistlike clouds you first see the imposing mountain silhouetted against the African sky, you'll understand why the people of this region believe that at its uppermost reaches resides their god, N'gai. Just north of the equator, smack dab in the center of the country, the venerated mountain rises majestically from a vast, broad base some 80km (50 miles) in diameter. From afar, it's distinguished by its rugged glacier-clad twin peaks, Batian (5,199m/17,053 ft.) and Nelion (not far behind, at 5,188m/17,017 ft.). The truth is that Africa's second-highest mountain is worthy of up-close exploration. Its Afro-alpine moorlands and bamboo forests are shot through with glacial moraines and ice-blue tarns, and its slopes' diverse ecosystems support a rich variety of wildlife, not to mention some of the most unusual plant life you've ever laid eyes on. The mountain may be Kenya's spiritual and physical heartland, but it possesses good looks and fascinating details to match.
Europeans first heard about Mount Kenya as recently as 1833, when it was reported by a German missionary. Baffled by the possibility of a snow-capped mountain just 16km (10 miles) south of the equator, experts denounced his claim. Officially, Mount Kenya has existed only since 1849, when the missionary's accounts were finally confirmed. Considered one of the most treacherous climbs in the world, nobody managed it until 1899, when Sir Halford Mackinder made the summit ascent. Since then, it has become increasingly popular among seasoned climbers and was used for high-altitude training by Reinhold Messner, the first man to ascend Everest without oxygen. You need to be a hardcore technical climber to get to the uppermost peaks, but treks to the lower summits, while strenuous, throw up some truly impressive scenery.
While many visitors come here solely to climb the mountain (an expedition not to be taken lightly), the lower reaches of the mountain shelter an array of wildlife, and many find the salubrious, mountain air conditions more conducive to unharried game viewing than the semi-arid parks in the Kenyan lowlands. Below the imposing rocky peaks, the lushly covered slopes are inhabited by bands of cheeky Sykes' and colobus monkeys, and it's common to spot elephants, rhinos, and buffalos while out on a hike -- more than good reason to take ample precautions and a knowledgeable guide when trekking this formidable mountain.