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From battlefield to picnic site

By | Published Thu, March 31st 2011 at 00:00, Updated Thu, March 31st 2011 at 00:00 GMT +3

Karura Forest has been the site for struggles and clashes in recent decades, but today it is a beautiful space with a picturesque waterfall, a bamboo forest and marshland fit for family picnics, bike trails, bird walks and other exciting events, writes Kiundu Waweru

I listened keenly with a sceptical smile playing at my lips and eyes dancing with disbelief as speaker after speaker eloquently spoke about Karura Forest having been made safe, and consequently opened to the public as a recreation site.

Alice Macaire, the chairperson of Friends of Karura.

This was in October last year at the Shell BP Sports Club during the launch of Karura Forest Education Trust. I was skeptical because, as a writer for the sister crime magazine, CCI, I had heard harrowing witness tales of violence meted against hapless Kenyans in the forest. Images of hijacked people, stripped, blindfolded and tied to trees flashed before my eyes. Now it was going to be a nice place to walk your dogs off the lead in Nairobi, an open woodland with good wide paths all around it and some paths criss-crossing through it to make varied routes.

Alice Macaire, the chairperson of Friends of Karura, told of how she came together with Charity Munyasia, Head of Conservancy at Kenya Forest Service and marshaled enough support to fence the forest. The passion in Alice’s voice mellowed my countenance somewhat, and by the time she sat down, I was completely sold.

The idea of unwinding in a forest, so full of rich history (Mau Mau abode), land grabbing (and the woman who defied the system, Prof Wangari Maathai) and the crime, stark in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Nairobi was too alluring to let go.

I spoke to Alice and asked if I could visit the forest "But of course, I will take you around myself!" she said.

The spot where the Central Bank incinerates old bank notes.

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A few weeks later, the gracious Alice, who is the wife to British High Commissioner, Rob Macaire, and Charity, treated us to a grand tour of the pristine forest.

The nature trails within the forest are so enthralling with a calming cool so removed from the city running amok just a few kilometres away. The chirping sounds of birds, the whistling of trees and other sounds merge to a cacophony of echo; and yet, listening carefully, you are engulfed with reflective silence.

Safe haven

Charity, in her official uniform, was erudite as she explained about the different types of trees in the forest. For the record, she declared the forest completely safe as compared to the time when they would bump into human bodies in the bushes.

As we approached one of the attractions in the forest — a waterfall-- — we panted down a slope holding on to climbing plants. The conversation was light,

A river flows peacefully in the forest.

the laughter echoing. But the aura of wellness depicted by nature would be broken as Charity painfully said; "Just imagine, if it was not for Prof Wangari Maathai, this place would be a concrete jungle with skyscrapers everywhere."

Waterfalls

The thought that monkeys, bush baby, bushbuck, wild pig, porcupine, duiker, genet, dik dik and other animals would have been homeless is chilling.

Alice chipped in, "Kenyans have been denied a recreation site for years. A place to unwind instead of sitting in traffic."

As we approached the waterfall, we were greeted by the unmistakable and rare sound of water falling from a height. Going through a narrow trail suddenly and whoa! In front of us lay the 20 metre magnificent waterfall that Charity had "discovered" not a long time ago. We walked by the banks of Karura River, which the fall flows to. Karura River is a tributary of the Nairobi River, among other tributaries that cut through Karura including Thigirie, Getathuru and Rui Ruaka.

If you grew up in the village, like I did, you will understand the feeling of dÈj‡ vu as you walk along a river in the middle of a forest. Eventually we came to the famous Mau Mau caves. It is said that the freedom fighters used to hide in these caves. As early as 1930s, Louis Leaky had found traces of occupation in the caves.

Beside one cave is a very large indigenous tree that seems as old as creation with a note reading, "Crabian Brownii, Father of all trees" pinned on it.

At the roots, held precariously by the cave’s walls, is an opening. Looking inside we surprisingly discovered the inside is hollow. "The Mau Mau used to hide inside the tree," explained Charity, "and even if given a lifetime the enemies would never think of such a place."

From the caves, we went up a slope, breaking a sweat to the next attraction site, the Pretty Valley, which the two women said could be ideal for holding events such as weddings; a real cool idea, don’t you think?

Leafy lilies float in the Lily Pond. PHOTOS: [MARTIN MUKANGU/STANDARD]

Pretty Valley is also rife with history. A curious looking chimney stands lonely in a cleared part of the forest. Charity explains its existence. "The Central Bank incinerates old bank notes here. Also, officers would come here to practice for target shooting."

There are other attractions, a body of water buzzing with beautiful butterflies and fittingly baptized "Butterfly Lake". And from Limuru Road entrance and a few metres to the Shell BP Sports Club is the Lily Pond. Leafy lilies float in the pond, offering a breathtaking sight.

On second visit, I found various families sitting in tents at an expansive clear area beside the pond.

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