Kenya's Taita Hills: Much more than scenic views

A section of Taita Hills. Ngangao Forest, which is one of the few remaining indigenous forests in Taita Hills, boasts of many rare tree species including one locally known as Chamsidi, or The Mother Tree. (PHOTO:MAUREEN ODIWUOR/STANDARD)

A story is told in Taita Hills of a tree that has prevented people from cutting down other trees in Ngangao Forest in Taita Taveta County. The tree, locally known as Chamsidi, or The Mother Tree, is said to be over 200 years old. Its circumference is about ten metres.

According to John Mbori, the Taita Taveta Forest Station Manager, the tree survived after "fighting back" when other trees around it had been cut down. While it was being cut, it started to fall, but stopped midway and trapped the implement that was being used to cut it in the wedge.

The legend that the tree refused to be cut down was passed from generation to generation, and each believed it, and dared not try to cut it because they feared it.

That is why it is the oldest tree in the forest. It can also pass as the biggest since seven adults can put their arms around it, says Mbori.

Ngangao Forest, which is one of the few remaining indigenous forests in Taita Hills, boasts of other rare tree species.

Surrounded by four villages - Makandenyi, Maghimbinyi, Mgambonyi and Kitumbi - the forest lies 10 kilometres from Wundanyi town and covers around 139 acres.

To say that the forest is a godsend to the villagers is an understatement. It is their source of herbs which they use to treat both themselves and their animals, according to Forest Guard, Mwarabu Gabriel.

Other unique things in the forest are birds that are only found in Taita Hills. There is the Taita thrush (Turdus helleri), also known as Taita olive thrush, an endangered bird from the family of thrushes (Turdidae).

Conservationists are using the thrush as the flagship species to champion the conservation of the Taita Hills forests.

Other bird species include the Taita apalis (Apalis fuscigularis), Taita falcon (Falco fasciinucha) and the Taita fiscal (Lanius dorsalis).

"Taita appalis cannot leave anywhere else and cannot go further than the forest ecosystem," says Mbori.

In terms of biodiversity, Ngangao Forest is very crucial since it provides subsistence use for fuelwood for the local community. Part of the forest also has industrial tree species that stand out as investment to the local community.

"The potential of Ngangao Forest has not been tapped fully," says Mbori. "There are proposals to develop water catchment from rocks and eco-tourism sites and what so far has been done is construction of a community resource centre."

He says the forest is one among very few in the country where depletion through charcoal burning is unheard of and there were only forest fires in 2010 and 2011.

The fires were caused by a mentally unstable person who resided in the forest.

The forest is just one among the interesting sceneries within Taita which has about 50 hills referred to as a Precambrian mountain range.

The hills comprise about three massifs of Dawida, Sagalla and Kasigau on the border with Tanzania.

The Dawida massif is the largest and tallest at 2,228 meters at its highest peak, Vuria. Dawida has three other peaks such as Iyale, Wesu and Susu.

Due to the altitude, the place is cold, but of late the residents have been complaining that temperatures are rising due to climate change caused by severe logging in the past, and clearance of forests to accommodate the increasing population which has risen from 90,000 in 1962 to the current 300,000.

The Taitas live on the edge of forests and are subsistence farmers who grow mostly food crops such as maize, sorghum, beans and vegetables.

Taita Hills cover an area of 1000 square kilometres and they form the northernmost part of the Eastern Arc Mountains.

Accessing the hills is not so difficult because there is a an access road from the lowest point which is between 600 and 900 metres above sea level to the highest peak, Vuria.

Even then, driving along the narrow road is a trip filled with anxiety for those who fear heights and fun in equal measure for those who enjoy adventure as this area is a popular spot for  hiking.

Taita Taveta County is also home to the famous Tsavo National Park, Lakes Challa and Jipe and Mzima Springs, which are popular with foreign tourists, who usually seek accommodation at luxurious hotels such as Taita Rocks Hotel and Sarova Taita Hills Lodge which offer scenic views of the surrounding hills.