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Landscape and Climate

Overview

The equator cuts Kenya almost exactly into half. Due to diverse geographical features, the landscapes of Kenya range from tropical rain forests to deserts. Beyond the narrow strip of the fertile coastal region stretch the dry plains of the Nyika plateau which are interrupted by some scattered mountains. The land rises consistently to form the central highlands some 500 km inland, before breaking off into the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley cuts across Kenya in a north-south direction. From its western edge, the land gently rolls out towards Lake Victoria basin. The northern half of Kenya constitutes of low lying, dry and hot plains which are dotted with occasional mountains.

Climate

From mid-May to early September, Kenya's climate is moderate at the coast and rather cool in the highlands, whereas November to March the climate is rather warm or even hot. There are two rainy seasons. In regular years, the short rains start in November and go well into the first half of December, while the long rains normally begin end of March and last until the end of May. During the rains, strong downpours, mostly in the late afternoon and in the evenings have to be expected, while the sun shines frequently in between. Beware that many minor tracks are hard to travel even with a 4WD during the long rains. Northern Kenya is hot, dry and sunny all year round. Occasional showers have to be reckoned with during the month of the long rains, which can turn seasonal rivers into raging torrents for a couple of hours.

The coastal region

Kenya's coastline on the Indian Ocean measures 500 km in length and between 20 and 80 kilometers in width. The country's longest rivers, Tana River and Sabaki River, flow into the ocean in the central section of the coast. Where the shoreline is not covered by thick mangrove forests, you will often find miles of fine sandy beaches. At low tide, tidal flats and coral pools are exposed as the sea is retreating hundreds of meters. Since climate is warm and humid all year round, lush tropical vegetation prevails.

The Nyika Plateau

Behind the coast stretches the Nyika plateau which gently rises to 900 meters, interrupted by a few significant elevations, such as the Taita Hills (2208m). The Chyulu Range (2174m), probably one of the youngest mountain ranges of the planet, rises at the fringes of the central highlands. On the southern side of Amboseli plains stands Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest elevation, which is of volcanic origin, as is the Yatta Plateau, a gigantic ancient lava flow of more than 200 km length. Beyond it, further to the East, stretch the Kitui Hills.

The Rift Valley

The great African Rift Valley is a deep trench ripped open by tectonic movements within the earth's crust. Its edges and even the valley floor are lined by huge volcanoes, such as Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Longonot. At the same time, Rift Valley boasts a pearl string of lakes, most of which have been transformed into alkaline waters by volcanic ashes. The only two notable fresh water lakes of the Kenyan Rift are Lake Baringo and Lake Naivasha. The Valley's climate is characterized by moderate temperatures and relatively little rainfall.

The Highland plains

On both sides of the Rift Valley, highlands of about 2000m altitude can be found. The Central and Western highlands were elevated when the East African Rift was formed. Outstanding mountains in its vicinity are the Aberdare Range (4001m), Kenya's third highest, the Cherangani Hills (3581m) in the Western highlands and Mt Elgon (4321m), Kenya's second highest mountain at the border with Uganda. The highlands have a moderate climate and show high rainfall which turns them into Kenya’s most fertile and productive agricultural regions. And it makes them the birthplace of the country's major rivers. During the dry months of December, January and February you have the best chances to see the highest peaks without cloud cover.

Vegetation

Kenya's many landscapes produce a diverse set of vegetation, ranging from dry forests and savannahs on the Nyika Plateau, in the Mara Basin and in much of Northwestern Kenya, to the arid flora of the desert and semi-desert areas of the North with small bushes, acacias and grasses. The primal vegetation of the wetter areas once consisted of forest, but the majority of it has been turned into small scale or commercial farms, where maize, fruits and vegetables as well as cash crops such as tea or coffee are grown.

Arabuko Sokoke and Boni forests are the largest remaining patches of the tropical forests that once covered the better part of the Kenyan Coast. It mostly consisted of Brachystegia forest, moist mixed forest and Cynometra forest.

Kenya's montane rain and cloud forests show a peculiar zoning: From 2000-3000m grow afro-alpine forests, followed by bamboo thickets between 2500-3300m, montane forests above 3500m, while beyond 4600m, only lichens and mosses grow. The Kakamega Forest in Western Kenya is the only true lowland rainforest in the country.

Kenya's rivers are lined with gallery forests formed by various species of acacia, wild fig trees and doum palms.

The vast dry Savannas show numerous grasses and flowers after rain, but their permanent characters are occasional candelabra euphorbia, the mighty baobab tree and possibly East Africa's most prominent tree: the acacia.