What is the Great Rift Valley?
Stretching from the Arabian Penninsula into the southern African country of Zimbabwe the Great Rift Valley of Africa was formed – and is still changing – when the great land mass of Gondwanaland began to split into separate continents. The Rift is visible from space and is one of the earth’s great geographical features.
The East African Rift, which is the most celebrated part of the Great Rift Valley, splits in Northern Kenya into the Eastern Rift and the Western Rift – also known as the Albertine Rift – before coming together again at the top end of Lake Malawi. With many defining ecological features the Great Rift Valley hosts one of the greatest species diversities in the natural world.
Volcanoes, lakes, mountains and endless plains make up one of the earth’s most dramatic wilderness regions. From lions and elephants to the mighty apes, gorillas and chimpanzees, the Great Rift Valley supports Africa’s greatest safari destinations.
Birthplace of Mankind
The general consensus is that Africa is the birthplace of mankind – and the Rift Valley is believed by some to be the epicentre of mankind’s transformation. Much of what we know today of our earliest relatives was discovered in the earth of the East Africa Rift Valley.
Olduvai Gorge on the Serengeti Plains is one of the world’s best known hominid sites with many famous discoveries coming from the area. Standing on the edge of Olduvai and looking out across the landscape
Africa’s great game sanctuaries
East Africa is home to many of Africa’s iconic names in safari. Names like Serengeti, Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest point and the highest free-standing mountain in the world – and Ngorongoro [Masai Mara] have been written into African folklore. This is the Africa of legend, of Hollywood – postcard Africa – and it has been shaped by the Great Rift Valley.
Ngorongoro Crater is Africa’s most unusual wilderness area. The crater that is Ngorongoro was formed by the volcanic explosion and collapse of a Kilimanjaro-like mountain millenia ago. Over time wind-borne earth and seeds collected in the crater – the seeds germinated and an Edenic wilderness took shape. Today 24 000 animals inhabit the Ngorongoro crater at any one time.
The great plains of the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania host the epic Great Wildebeest Migration where almost two million wildebeest, accompanied by zebra and gazelles, move across the grasslands in search of grass and water. [See great wildebeest migration]
The lava from the great explosion of Ngorongoro carpeted the southern parts of the great plains known today as Serengeti. In time earth covered the lava and seeds took hold. Due to the lava the earth cover is very shallow and this ensures that all the nutrients are kept in the upper soil layer. The grass is very nutritious on the southern plains because of this and the great herds gather here to give birth every year.
Great Rift Valley Lakes
Of the Great Rift Valley’s most attractive features are the many lakes that the valley is renowned for. Names such as Tanganyika, Victoria, Manyara, Nakuru and Malawi are legendary and are the source of many legends and adventures.
The lakes support many aquatic species and the shores echo to the calls of birds and other wildlife, including chimpanzees. The Mahale Mountains on the shores of Lake Tanganyika provide some of the best chimpanzee activity on the continent. Much of what is known of our closest ancestors today was learned through studies at Mahale and through the life’s work of Jane Goodall in Gombe Streams to the north.
If the plains of the Rift Valley are about a multitude of animals then the lakes are about birds, and in particular flamingos, millions of which paint the edges of many of the lakes in a pink hue. Birds in their multitudes gather in the shallows of the lakes formed by the Great Rift. From a distance it seems as though the lake shores are washed in blood but closer inspection shows flamingoes in their millions carpeting the edges.
Chasing the Rift
The Rift Valley may well be the place of our beginnings but recently the place has been in the news for reasons of human conflict. With many ethnic groups living in relatively close proximity to each other on the fertile soils of the valley there is always the danger of conflict but despite this the valley maintains its legendary status.