Many non-Africans think Africa is a country with most of the continent covered in grasslands. The stereotypical image is white Africans live North of the Sahara and black Africans live south of the Sahara. This image is mainly due to the television, on-demand video and film content that non-Africans get their information from. For instance, the film and TV series Lion King focuses on just the savannah region. Likewise, Madagascar 3 portrays both Madagascar and the mainland of the Continent as purely unpeopled areas. The real continent is massively different to that image. Black Africans are indigenous to both north Africa and south Africa.
A savannah is a mixture of woodland and grassland in an ecosystem mainly made up of trees widely spaced so that canopies are not formed by extended branches above ground. The open canopy in savannah areas allows sunlight to access the ground surface areas to support the growth of grasses.
The word savannah is almost exclusively applied to Africa, although similar vegetations have a different name in other continents. In North America savannahs are called prairies, in Europe savannahs are called grasslands, and on Asia savannahs are steppes.
TV series and movies like Lion King have popularized the misconception that Africa is only rich in savannah plains from the North of the country down to the South, but this is far from the truth. The continent has a variety of vegetation, climate, and natural environments.
In this article, we will look at Africa’s mountains and throw more light on all there is to know about some of the natural mountain wonders unique to the continent. By using the term mountain, we are referred to raised sections of earth above 300 metres in elevation.
Quick Facts about Mountains
The world has 35 million square kilometres of mountains: 6.3 million square kilometres of mountains are in Antarctica, 5.7 million square kilometres of mountains are in the Far East, 4.3 million square kilometres are in Russia, 4.2 million square kilometres are in North America, 3.0 million square kilometres of mountains are in Africa. For comparison Europe only has 2.2 million square kilometres of mountainous areas.
33% of mountains have an elevation between 300m to 1,000m above sea level. Mountains make up 24.3 per cent of the earth’s land mass. 23.1% of the earth’s land mass are mountain ranges between 300m to 4,500m above sea level. 25% of mountain regions covered by forests.
Mountains provide a plethora of vital ecological services to humanity and the animal kingdom including water supply, driving the water cycle, locations for dam construction, food for grazing and space for agriculture, timber supply, granite supply, meat supply, natural ecological systems, military barriers for national security, biodiversity and recreational value.
One-eighth of the world (13 per cent) live in the mountains. Half of the world (50 per cent) of people rely on mountain watersheds for fresh water. Three quarters of the world’s countries (75 per cent) have mountain ranges or high plateaus. At least two billon (2,000,000,000) people rely on mountains for food, hydroelectricity, timber or mineral resources.
Rivers originate from mountains and the tracks of water drainage create basins and watersheds which empty into the world’s seas and oceans. These rivers are fundamental to agricultural activity. The Nile passing through Egypt for instance begins at two source: the origin of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana – the largest lake in Ethiopia and a lake formed from volcanic activity – and the origin of the White Nile, Lake Victoria.
Origin of the Nile at Lake Victoria and Lake Tana
The seven highest peaks on each continent are called the Seven Summits:
The Seven Summits
Types of Mountains
Based on existing knowledge, there are three types of mountains namely Fold mountains, Block mountains, and Volcanic mountains. But before we proceed, let’s briefly explain how geologists think mountains were formed.
How were mountains formed?
Mountains were formed over million of years ago, if naturalism is to be believed. Mountains developed from mainly two causes. First cause is the action of tectonic plates colliding leading to deformation of the earth’s crust, thickening of the crust in some cases and the upward movement of the earth’s lithosphere (the crust and the mantle). The second cause is the actions of volcanoes.
Volcanic mountain formation occurs when the Earth’s magma works its way up to the surface and once it gets to the surface it erupts in lava flows and ash deposits. In time the lava and ash grow in size to form large rocky ranges that we see in various parts of the world including Africa. Magma is known to rise when there is a shift in tectonic plates under the Earth’s core moving towards each other. In some cases, these shifts are noticeable to human and animal surface dwellers, but in most cases, we don’t notice these shifts at all. We only realize the effect when they become visible. Volcanic mountains occur on land and also under water.
Below are the three mountain types.
A Block mountain is a mountain type caused by faulting emanating from tensile and compressive motored forces (endogenic forces) coming from within the earth. Blocks are those parts of ground between two separate fault lines on either side of a graben or a rift valley. This mountain type is formed by the natural faults within the earth’ crust.
Block mountains, also referred to as Horst mountains, are characterized by massive swelling of the earth’ crust. They are large in size and have comparatively steep topography. Block mountains have a very steep front and a sloping back side. Their ranges rise in folded zones formerly with a mountain relief that no longer have plasticity due to smoothened denudation. Denudation is an erosive process that breaks and removes rocks from the surface of the earth through weathering, erosion, moving water and ice waves.
Block mountains are of two types.
- The Tilted block mountain with a steep side comprising a gentle side and a fault scarp.
- The lifted block mountain type with a flattened summit comprising a tabular shape and a very steep slope of two fault scarp boundaries
Fold mountains are the most common type of mountain in the world. Fold mountains are formed from a process called orogeny. An orogenic event takes millions of years. Orogeny is from Greek; oros means mountain and genesis means creation. Orogeny refers to a series of geological processes involved in mountain creation when a continental tectonic plate collides with another plate, at convergent boundaries or continental collision zones, causing the plates to crumple. The earth’s crust is pushed upwards to form one or more mountain ranges. Orogens or orogenic belts form from the Earth’s lithosphere (the crust or uppermost mantle).
When tectonic plates collide, the layers of rock accumulated may crumble and fold like a crumpled tablecloth. This deposit is then pushed across the earth’ crust especially if one layer is too weak to hold it in place. Fold mountains are longer in length than breadth.
Types of folds include anti-cline ᴒ-shape folds, syncline ᴗ-shape folds, domes, basins, monoclines, chevrons, slumps, ptygmatic folds and disharmonic folds. Each fold mountain range is usually a combination of these different kinds of folds. The Cape Fold Mountains of South Africa is an example of a Fold Mountain range.
Characteristics of Fold Mountains
Rock Thickness: Fold mountains have very thick sedimentary rocks. Some can be as thick as 10km such as the Alps.
Massive Granite: Massive granite intrusions occur for as long as several kilometers within the same direction and range.
Features: The structural features of fold mountains are directly related to pressure conditions, and they include nappies and thors, massive scale recumbent faults and high cases of rock wedges covering up smaller ones.
Seismicity: Recurring seismicity is common in organic belts. Seismicity is an expression of stress build upon the earth’ crust.
High heat flows: High flows occur during volcanic activity.
When you feel the ground with your bare feet or your hands, it feels cool especially during temperate weather, right? But if you dig a few kilometers down you will begin to notice a rise in temperature as you go further. Once you surpass about 30km or more temperature levels can reach as high as one thousand (1,000) degrees Celsius. Such a temperature is hot enough to melt a rock if it is exposed to it. Molten rock is called Magma and magma is amassed in large chambers underneath the earth.
A volcanic mountain starts as a simple crack called a volcanic vent but gradually erupts in force as the lava flows out causing an explosion. Lava is the magma that reaches the surface of the earth. Not all magma is lava, but all lava is magma. The exploded material accumulates on the Earth’s surface around the exposed vent and piles up in time depending on the degree of force. In time, a volcanic mountain builds up in a cone shape.
What is a volcano?
A volcano is a mountain with an opening that runs deep into the earth where the liquid rock is found. As pressure builds inside the volcano, the mountain above not able to hold it any longer will give way for a lava eruption. The volcanic formation is related to the changes in tectonic plates within the earth’ crust. It is important to note that not all mountains have volcanoes and most that do have dormant or inactive volcanoes. There are only very few active volcanoes in the world currently.
Characteristics of Volcanic mountains
There are five main characteristics of Volcanic mountains, listed below.
Eruption: This occurs when the volcano becomes active. This happens in the form of lava and chemical gas ejection.
Explosion: This is another characteristic that occurs when the mountain explodes with rocks and fractured strato-plates well as hot lava, and bombs. A thick fog of smoke forming combustible clouds is also common.
Expansion: As the volcanic mountain expands due to molten magma accumulation, it is divided into stratoplate causing magma to form on the mountains’ surface. During eruption phases, the temperature is often very hot and can reach as high as 600° Celsius.
Inflation: inflation is a direct result of new lava mass rising to the surface area of the mountain pushing old rock aside and taking its place.
Emulsification: When volcanoes are active, lava combines with chemical gases to form aqueous fluids. These fluids sometimes become trapped in cold layers in earth forms.
Craters: Volcanic mountains may have craters formed by the impact of a meteorite or eruption.
Types of Volcanic mountain
- Cinder cone mountains. A cinder cone mountain typically has a bowl shaped crater at its summit and is arrayed with pyroclastic fragments around the conical hill at the summit. Pyroclastic fragments are clinkers, cinders, magma and ash deposits blasted from the vents which rain back down to the earth’ surface surrounding the summit of the mountain. Cinder mountains are among some of the smallest mountains you will find anywhere in the world because they are not very large in size.
- Shield Mountains. These are built from several lava outflows of low viscosity. Low viscosity enables the lava to flow out more easily. The lava flowing out of the exposed vent can spread for several kilometers covering a very large land area. Shield volcanoes are very large in size and are among the largest volcanic ranges in the world.
- Stratovolcano mountains are made up of so many layers of hardened lava, ash and rocks. They represent some of the largest volcanoes in the world and are common in the far ends of the earth in South America to the West and Far East Asia to the East.
Africa’s Volcanic Mountains
Africa is home to so many volcanoes. 75% of these volcanic mountains lie within East Africa. According to a recent NASA satellite image discovery, the volcanoes in Africa are cracking up the continent into two parts due to the shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates. The most significant crack recorded so far is called the Gateway to Hell by the locals in Ethiopia where the phenomenon is being recorded.
As mentioned above, geographers predict that the continent will split into two if the situation persists. Based on records available, there are over one hundred and thirty-five volcanoes (135) on the continent with a greatest concentration found in Ethiopia alone. Here is a list of Africa’ volcanoes.
Kenya – 22 volcanoes
The Barrier – Suswa – South Island – Silali – Segererua Plateau – Paka – Olkaria – Ol Kokwe – Ol Doinyo Eburru – Nyambeni Hills – North Island – Namarunu – Menengai – Marsabit – Longonot – Korosi – Homa Mountain – Emuruangogolak – Elmenteita Badlands – Chyulu Hills – Central Island – Bogoria
Ethiopia – 58 volcanoes
Adwa – Asavyo – Alutu – Ale Bagu – Alayta – Alu – Afdera -Ayelu – Bora-Bericcio – Boina – Bishoftu Volcanic field – Bilate River Field – Borawli – Borale Ale – Butajiri-Silti Field – Boset-Bericha – Corbetti – Chiracha – Caldera – Dalaffila – Dallol – Dabbahu – Dama Ali – Dofen – Erta Ale – East Zway – Fantale – Gada Ale – Gedamsa – Gabillema – Groppo – Hertali – Hayli Gubbi – Hobicha Caldera – Korath Range – Kone – Kurub – Liado Hayk – Ma Alalta – Manda Hararo – Manda Gargori – Manda Inakir – Mega Basalt Field – Mat Ala – Mousa Alli – Mega Basalt Field – O’a Caldera – Sodore – Sork Ale – Tepi – Tosa Sucha – Tat Ali – Tullu Moje – Unnamed 8.62°N /38.95°E – Unnamed 8.07°N/39.07°E – Unnamed 8.7°N/39.63°E – Yangudi
Tanzania – 9 Volcanoes
Igwisi Hills – Izumbwe Mpoli – Kyejo – Kilomanjaro – Meru – Ngozi – Ol Doinyo Lengai – Rungwe – SW Usangu Basin
Uganda – 7 Volcanoes
Bufumbura – Bunyaruguru – Fort Portal – Katwe-Kikorongo – Katunga – Kyatwa-.Muhavura
North Africa – 17 volcanoes
Atakor volcanic field – Bayuda volcanic field – Emi Koussi – Haruj – In Ezzane volcanic field – Jebel Marriage – Jebel Umm Arafieb – Kutum volcanic field – Manzaz volcanic field – Meidob volcanic field – Tahaira volcanic field – Tarso Voon – Tarso Toh – Tarso Tousside – Tin Zaouatene volcanic field – Todra volcanic field – Wau-en-Namus
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – 6 Volcanoes
Karisimbi – May-ya-moto – Nyamuragira – Nyiragongo – Tshibinda – Visoke
West Africa – 9 Volcanoes
Biu Plateau – Cameroon – Manengouba – Ngaoundere Plateau – Oku Volcanic Field – San Carlos – San Joaquin – Sao Tome – Tombel Graben
Top Ten Highest Mountains in Africa
The African continent is home to some of the tallest mountain peaks in the world. According to geographers, most of the mountains found on the continent are caused by volcanic activities. Mountains play a very crucial role in the natural ecosystem as they provide shelter for human and wildlife. Some of Africa’s most notable mountains are also the tallest of the lot. Below is a list of Africa’s tallest mountains starting from the highest to the lowest.
10. Mount Oku (3,011 meters)
Located in Cameroon, Oku is the tallest mountain in West Africa and the tenth tallest on the continent. Being the largest Oku Massif range, it has dangerous steppes and is one of the most difficult ranges to climb. Oku is home to indigenous Cameroonian tribes.
9. Mount Meru (3,017 meters)
Another Tanzanian wonder to behold, Mount Meru is one of the stratovolcano ranges in the continent and the second largest volcano in the country which last erupted in 1910. Mount Meru is home to diverse animal and plant species.
8. Jabel Marra (3,042 meters)
Sudan is blessed with rich volcanic activity, and the Jabel Marra is one of the long lines of volcanic peaks dotting the Sudanese landscape. Jabel Marra in English means “Woman mountain” because locals domiciled in the area say that when the mountain is viewed from the East, it’s reclining posture looks like that of a woman. The highest peak is Deriba Cladera.
7. Drakensberg Mountains (3,475 meters)
In zulu this mountain range is called uKhahlamba (meaning “the barrier of spears”). It spans Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa. The highest peak is located in Lesotho and called Thabana Ntlenyana. This mountain is the seventh highest mountain range on the continent and the highest in South Africa. The European name for the mountain comes from Dutch words meaning “mountain of Dragons”. Tourists are able to visit Drakensberg for hiking, camping, and to see wildlife. There are national parks and lodges within the mountain range area.
6. Atlas Mountains (4,165 meters)
Taking up number six spot on the list is the Atlas Mountains. This legendary mountain is located on Mahgreb country spanning three countries (Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria). Jebel Toubhkai is the highest range located in Morocco. This fabled mountain is home to wonderful animal species unique to the area. Chief among them is the famous Atlas Mountain badger and the Barbary macaque.
5. Mount Elgon (4,533 meters)
This is another volcanic mountain in Africa located in two countries: Kenya and Uganda. Although with a volcanic vent at its root, Elgon mountain is a dormant volcano. It has the world’s largest intact caldera, and Waggai is the highest point of the mountain.
An example of caldera formation
4. Simien Mountains (4,533 meters)
Located in Northern Ethiopia, the Simien mountains is a part of the now famous Ethiopian Highlands. The peak is separated by wide and deep valleys, and the highest peak of them all is the Ras Dashen peak. The mountain is a world heritage site. Living in and around the Simien mountains are different animal and plant species.
3. Mount Stanley (5,199 meters)
Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have their own fair share of the mountain ranges. Among the ranges found in both countries, Mount Stanley happens to be the most magnificent of them all. Standing at well over 5,000 meters, it is the third highest mountain peak on the continent. Mount Stanley is always covered with mist and dark clouds, and there is hardly sunshine at the top of the peak. The mountain was named after Henry Stanley Morton in 1888.
2. Mount Kenya (5,199 meters)
Located in Kenya, East Africa, Mount Kenya is the second tallest mountain in Africa. Its Baltan peak is the highest of its peaks, and it is a stratovolcano frequently covered in ice. The Kikuyu, Massai and Embu people inhabit the ranges of Mount Kenya and derive their livelihood by fishing, hunting and tending cattle at the base of the mountain.
1. Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 meters)
Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa reaching close to 6,000 meters in height. Located in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro has three volcanic cones and is a dormant volcano. Each year, many hitchhikers brave the trip to climb the range. The mountain is the most popular on the continent and attracts tourists from all over the world each year.
Humboldt profile of the latitudinal position of the altiltude belts of mountains across the glove and compression of thermal zones on mountains, altitude for latitude. Grey is montane, black is alphine and white is nival belt. (Komer 2003)
Mountain Tourism in Africa
Whether for exploratory activities or for tourism, Africa has a rich collection of mountain ranges that you can visit for study or pleasure. To view nature from the very top, the only way to go about it will be to climb to the very top of any mountain of your choice. Visiting parks, museums and cinemas is fun but being able to climb to the very top of a mountain to behold the natural beauty world around you is indeed a sight to behold. In recent times, Africa has been a tourist hotspot with visitors coming from different parts of the world to behold the beauty of African mountains.
Some of the famous mountain ranges on the continent are among those mentioned above. Other popular ones include
Mount Ruwenzori: Located between Uganda and DRC, it stands at 5,109ft and is rich in natural life. The best time to ascend the mountain is between June to August and December and February.
Mulanje Mountain: With Sapitwa as its the highest peak, Mulanje stands at over 3,000 meters high. Located in Malawi, East Africa, this mountain attracts a great deal of tourist each year who love to travel to the top for a perfect getaway. Mulanje is also one of the easiest mountains to navigate and offers visitors an opportunity to view the wide-open country from elevated points. Another interesting thing to note is that on Mount Mulanje, you experience all four seasons at intervals when vacationing at the top. The best time to visit is between the months of May to October as you will get the very best of climates.
If you are looking to tour any of Africa’s famous mountains, there are so many to choose from. With well over 200 mountain ranges, you will be spoilt for choice as to the one to go for. Some tourists make it a habit to visit different ranges every year to take in the natural wonders in and around these mountains. Before you decide on a choice, ensure that you are provided with a guide who knows the area and range well before embarking on an expedition. And lest I forget, make sure you bring along a camera to take fantastic shots of the views you will certainly be blessed with. At the foot of the mountains and at the top, there will be quite a lot to see and capture that your fingers will be unable to keep up.