Just six kilometres from the noisy Nairobi City Centre is the tranquil Karura Forest that has survived thirsty city developers and become a tourist site, writes PETER MUIRURI
Muthaiga, Gigiri and Runda conjure up https://cdn.standardmedia.co.ke/images of tranquillity hence the connotation as the leafy suburbs of Nairobi. Though the areas are known more for the good living, they also neighbour some of the best nature trails in the city, thanks to the nearby Karura Forest.
The forest attracts local and foreign tourists eager to enjoy the beauty of this pristine natural Karura Waterfalls is one of the main attractions in the forest.
resource located only six kilometres from the city centre.
Karura Waterfalls is one of the main attractions in the forest.
Marketed locally and internationally as part of the Nairobi tourism circuit, Karura Forest, managed by the Kenya Forest Service, has what it takes to satisfy a person looking for serenity concealed from the hustle and bustle of the city.
It is for this reason that I took a morning off to experience the famed tranquillity, and as I found out, a trek in Karura Forest is more than just a walk in the park.
Scaling the trails, especially with the recent rains, is not an adventure for the faint hearted. The rewards, however, are worth the effort.
My walk started right after the main forest entrance where friendly officials welcome you ¡ª well, into the forest.
Within minutes, all that you knew about civilization recedes into the past as the peace and serenity of the forest take over. The only marks of human developments being directional signposts erected sporadically within the forest.
Tales of carjacked individuals allegedly killed in the past and their bodies dumped in Karura creep slowly in my mind. The dark clouds hanging overhead do little to calm my nerves.
The Forester-in-charge, John Orwa, who is on an inspection tour of the forest, seems to notice my apprehensions.
"You can see how serious we take visitors¡¯ security here," he tells me.
I have no reason to doubt him. On tow are three armed but friendly rangers, part of a security team that includes recruited scouts from surrounding villages and G4S guards, ensuring Karura Forest enjoys ample security.
Security has also been enhanced by an electric fence, especially along parts of the reserve that border densely populated areas, to keep off gangsters who used it as a launch pad to commit crimes in the neighbourhood.
The move is also to curb illegal private developers and tree harvesters.
With my confidence levels boosted, it is time to delve even deeper into the forest, all the while taking in refreshing air filtered by the myriads of trees.
Four kilometres after the forest office, a signpost points downwards towards the Karura caves and the waterfalls.
A flight of steps made of hewn stones lead us to the caves, dungeons that I¡¯m told once hosted Kenya¡¯s founding President Jomo Kenyatta and his colleagues in the freedom struggle. These caves are also considered sacred by the local community, with a long history of usage as a place for religious worship.
A ranger tells me to exercise caution as a cobra or a python may be lurking in the bushes.
The slippery track off the caves leads us to the spectacular 50-feet Karura Waterfalls, one of the main attractions in the forest. With brown waters (a sign of rains upstream) furiously cascading over three decks of rock before settling to a gentle flow down the river, the falls are a sight to behold.
Karura River has its source in the Limuru Escarpment and is part of a network of four rivers that penetrate the park. These include Thigiri, Getathuru, Ruaka ¡ª all tributaries of Nairobi River.
By now, some rays of the overhead sun filter in through the canopy, creating an almost magical view in the impenetrable forest.
I am exhausted from the walk and use the falls as a perfect excuse to take a few minutes rest. I also use the interlude to get some fascinating information about the forest from Orwa, a walking encyclopaedia of sorts who has spent the last 22 years protecting forests in Kenya.
Karura was gazetted by the colonial government in 1932 and is one of the earliest forests to be gazetted in Kenya. It is made up of two blocks ¡ª Karura and Sigiria. At 1041.3 hectares (2,573.1 acres), Karura is the largest of the three main gazetted forests in Nairobi, the others being Ngong and Ololua.
The British had identified the area as one that had favourable conditions for the propagation of the exotic eucalyptus trees. They intended to use the wood for timber and fuel for the locomotives of the Uganda Railway. The massive trees now grow together with the many indigenous trees.
Other plant species typical of the forest include the Croton Megalocarpus (mukinduri) and Vepris Simplicifolia (munderendu).
Animal life abounds in Karura, too. Apart from snakes, duikers, bushbucks, bush pigs, monkeys and squirrels are residents here. On this particular day, however, I only see a foraging monkey.
There are 113 species of birds in Karura, including the Ayres hawk, sparrows, owls, vultures, Turacos and several varieties of weavers.
Again, it is time to move on and explore more enchanting sights. A kilometre away from the Limuru Road Gate is the Lily Lake, aptly named due to the abundance of water lilies that cover almost 75 per cent of the water body.
Our presence here sends some water ducks and other aquatic birds diving into the lake, but not before I capture some ¡ª on camera that is!
The lakeside is a popular picnic site where Nairobians flock and enjoy each other¡¯s company on weekends. On this particular day, a white family that lives nearby is enjoying some sandwiches. The sight of food makes my mouth water.
All too soon, it is time to bid Orwa, who has been my guide for the better part of the morning, goodbye.
As I exit the forest to join the crazy Nairobi traffic, I contemplate what would have happened had the many ¡®private developers¡¯ succeeded in grabbing the forest.
Perhaps there would be no waterfall, as the trees would be gone and hence reduced rainfall. There would be no caves, as they would have been turned to some underground parking spaces.
Gone too would be the labyrinth of the 50km nature trail, to be replaced by tarmac driveways. The Lily Lake would be no more, replaced by a clear swimming pool.
Thanks to the successful reclamation of the forest through the Forest Act of 2005 and the Friends of Karura Forest, the forest can once again breathe a sigh of relief.
I cannot help but wonder how Karura Forest Reserve, with such tranquillity and natural splendour, could be so close to a mega city.