Rift Valleys are formed when the Earth’s crust (outermost layer) spreads or splits apart. Millions of years of geological processes condensed into a single sentence. If you fell asleep in high school geology then that’s more than enough, but for those few readers who are still with me, East Africa’s Rift Valley (also known as the Great African Rift Valley) is here for us to enjoy because of complex geological processes.
Hailed as one of the world’s geologic wonders, the East African Rift System (EARS) stretches from the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden to Malawi (approx. 6,400 km long and 48 – 64 km wide in some places). The EARS is a complex feature with two main rift branches, the Western (Albertine Rift) and Eastern Rifts (also known as the Gregory Rift). There are still debates as to the mechanics behind the rifting, but rifting is clearly evident due to the number of physical features across East Africa. Three plates are involved in this process and they all meet in the Afar region of Ethiopia, known as the triple-junction.
- With so much tectonic activity in the EAR, it’s a potent power source. Geothermal energy via ‘steam wells’ can be converted into electricity. One well in Kenya has enough energy to power 5,700 homes!
- The EAR is considered a cradle for human kind, in Ethiopia a 3.2 million-year-old hominin called Lucy was found. While in Kenya, a 1.5 million-year-old hominin skeleton was found.
- Not all lakes in the EAR are rift lakes. Lake Victoria’s basin was formed by mountains uplifting around it.
- There are very few active rift systems, on continental lithosphere, in the world. The EAR is one of four continental rift systems in the world (the others are the Baikal Rift Valley, West Antarctic Rift and Rio Grande Rift).
- Lake Tanganyika is the world’s second deepest and second biggest (by volume of water) lake in the world.
Sights Along the EARV
Many of Africa’s natural wonders owe their existence to the tectonic activity of the Great African Rift System that’s taken place over millions of years. Starting in the north of Ethiopia and moving our way down, we are going to cover some of the sights along this extensive rift.
Afar Depression, Ethiopia
The Afar Depression (also known as the Danakil Depression) is a geological depression found in northern Ethiopia towards the border of Eritrea. It overlaps Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Afar Region, and faintly touches Somalia and Djibouti. At 155 m (510 feet) below sea level, the Afar Depression is the second lowest place on Earth. The aridity here is unlike anything you’ll experience and the region of Dallol, is one of the hottest places on Earth year-round (average annual highs of 41 – 43oC and average annual lows of 28 – 30oC). The hot springs of Dallol, along with its salt flats, add to the foreboding feel in this region and give it that ‘out of this world’ look.
Lake Turkana, Kenya
From desolate salt flats to lakes in desolate deserts. Lake Turkana is located in northern Kenya, with a segment crossing over Ethiopia’s border. It is the world’s largest permanent desert lake. This lake may look like a desert oasis, but it’s also the world’s largest alkaline lake. Although the water is considered safe to drink, it has a nasty taste. Due to extreme temperatures, the aridity and geographical inaccessibility, this lake has retained its wild character. This lake may not be in your travel plans, but it’s an interesting feature nonetheless. This area may not receive a lot of tourists, but Kenya is making use of Turkana’s unique wind conditions and constructing 365 wind turbines for electricity generation.
Lake Victoria, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya
Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest lake and the second largest freshwater lake, by surface area, in the world (68,000 km2). Receiving most of its water directly from rainfall, the Kagera River is the largest river entering the lake and the Nile River is the sole river that drains it. The lake basin is shallow, with its deepest point approximately 80 m (260 feet), but once you’re on its waters it will feel like an ocean. When you make your way to the middle of Lake Victoria, nothing but water touches the horizon. A number of settlements are located along Lake Victoria including Musoma (Tanzania), Kisumu (Kenya), and Jinja (Uganda), East Africa’s adventure capital.
Many fables have been told and many stories have been written about Africa’s great Nile River. Not surprising though when at 6,853 km long (4,258 miles), the Nile River is considered to be ‘the longest river in the world’ (although it’s still disputed if the Amazon River is longer). Debates aside though, this river is truly remarkable and has been an enduring feature in East Africa’s tapestry.
Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda and the DRC
The towering Rwenzori Mountains form a prominent natural border between Uganda and the DRC. Reaching heights of up to 5,109 m (16,762 feet) (Margherita Peak of Mount Stanley the highest point), many peaks of the Rwenzori’s are permanently snow-capped. The tectonic rifting and upliftment that occurred resulted in the formation of these mountains and the surrounding Great Lakes (Lake Albert, Lake Edward and Lake George). These mountains are known for their distinct vegetation zones and endemic species. Not as popular, or as high, as Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Stanley still poses a formidable challenge for climbers, and is an option that’s less travelled but equally rewarding and beautiful.
Mount Nyiragongo, DRC
One of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mount Nyiragongo is found within Virunga National Park, in the DRC. Studied closely since it was first discovered, Nyiragongo has erupted 34 times since 1882. The lush forests surrounding the slopes owe their existence to the eruptions that have taken place over the years and amongst these evergreen slopes are the homes of Africa’s last mountain gorillas. Apart from the opportunity of seeing East Africa’s mountain gorillas, travellers can ascend Nyiragongo’s slopes to the lava lake at the crater rim, for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
The Great African Rift Valley’s most prominent feature has to be Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. At 5,895 m (19,341 feet) above sea level, this dormant volcano, with its three volcanic cones (Kibo, Mawnezi and Shira), is the world’s fourth highest mountain. First summited in 1889 by Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller, this mountain has been firmly in the sights of many adventurers and climbers. With a number of routes to Uhuru Peak (each with their own challenges), Mount Kilimanjaro is a life-defining experience for novice and experienced climbers.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
When craters come to mind, you may think of Hollywood’s upcoming disaster movie for the summer (spoiler alert: a meteor is heading to earth brining unimagined destruction). Ngorongoro Crater is a crater of a different kind though. This crater was formed two to three million years ago, when a large volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself. From untold destruction came one of Africa’s most fertile landscapes teeming with life. The slopes and floor of this crater is home to approximately 25,000 large animals, making it one of the must-see sights along East Africa’s Rift Valley.
The Great African Rift Valley has contributed substantially to some of Africa’s natural wonders. If the geology and formation of the Great African Rift Valley doesn’t interest you in the slightest, then you can enjoy the sights along this extensive rift. The sights and destinations described in this blog are only a handful of what you can see, so be prepared for more than one visit.