On Google and Trip Advisor it has earned a five-star average rating and a cumulative 8,000 positive reviews. But how many of these Matterhorn superfans know they’re celebrating not just one of Europe’s highest peaks, but one of Africa’s?
Let’s just come right out and say it: the Matterhorn is in Africa. Not Africa the continent, of course. No matter how easy it may seem to traverse these days, there’s still the matter of the Mediterranean Sea dividing that from Europe. But the iconic Swiss mountain is in – or literally made from – Africa the plate.
At least the top 1,000 or so metres are. These are without a doubt the Matterhorn’s most famous metres, which include the mountain’s symmetrical, pyramidal, compass-oriented and supremely photographable peak. Everything below that is in Europe. Switzerland, to be precise. Which means that Switzerland shares a border with France, Italy, Austria, Germany, little Liechtenstein – and Africa.
It all started around 30 million years ago, when Africa and Europe went by different names: Gondwana and Laurasia, respectively. They came together midway through our turbulent, geologically fecund Cenozoic era, which has persisted for over 60 million years and given birth to not just the Swiss Alps, but also Morocco’s Rif, the Pyrenees, Italy’s Apennines, the Balkan peninsula’s Dinaric Alps, the Carpathians, Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, the Caucasus, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas – just to name a few.
When Gondwana met Laurasia, it was love at first sight – in geological time, that is. In the context of Earth’s vast several billion-year geological time scale, during which the continents have danced all over the globe, the meeting and courtship of Gondwana and Laurasia is really just a blip. A very impactful blip.
Together they bulldozed the Alps into existence, from France all the way to Slovenia. In the process, gneiss rock from Africa was thrust on top of European sedimentary rock and the Matterhorn emerged – though it would still take millennia of erosion and glaciation to whittle down its famous profile. After all that time, the Matterhorn still stands as Europe’s sixth tallest mountain (outside of the Carpathians). And as the 12th tallest mountain in Africa.
Without the Alps, Switzerland literally wouldn’t exist. Which means that all our Swiss cheese, our tunnels, and our love of fresh air owe more than a little to our continental neighbour to the south. So next time you tour, climb, or just admire the Matterhorn’s stunning 4,500 metres, spare a moment to thank the forces that helped raise it – all the way from Africa.