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The serene forests where life thrives

By Jayne Rose Gacheri | June 13th 2021

Rondo Retreat at Kakamega forest on September 5, 2020.[Benjamin Sakwa,Standard]

Forests are part of tourism? It is adventurous discovering what they offer.

I set out to find what the country’s two prominent indigenous forests have to offer, and why they are under the “must be protected” lens of the UN.

Spectacular Kakamega Rainforest

I arrived in Kakamega – a bustling urban centre in this western part of the country in good time to visit the famous Kakamega rainforest. A few kilomentres down the Kakamega-Kitale road; I spot a signpost that directs us to the Kakamega National Reserve.

A short while later, we are at our destination – the 240 square kilometre forest, (44 square kilometres are under a 10-year (2012-2022) special project).

I am here to learn. It is a Sunday, and I am apprehensive about finding a guide. However, at the entrance, we are lucky to find Rosemary, a ranger who is willing to be our guide for the day as she lives inside the park. 

She gives us an insight into tropical rainforests – they are located between the Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer where temperatures are constantly high (25 degrees on average). 

A four-kilometre drive on a rough but well maintained all-weather road brings us to a captivating open area surrounded by a think wall of trees. This is Kenya Wildlife Service’s (KWS) Udo camping site. We find about 10 vehicles parked in the compound, with families having a wonderful time.

There are about four different groups. The older men are embroiled in discussions or helping the women in cooking, while the younger people are having fun – playing games, listening to music or engrossed on their mobile phones.

The guide points out that some of these families have come from as far as Kisumu, Eldoret, Kitale and Kericho. They often do this over the weekends, she says. Despite the pandemic, she explains, Kakamega rainforest continues to draw visitors.

Canopy of natural beauty

As we explore the adjacent forests, Rosemary explains that trees in tropical forests can reach a height of 60 feet. These form a canopy for the short trees – nature’s way of protection. The short trees are home to vine climbers and bushes that form different layers in the shading conditions provided by the forest canopy.

“Rainforests provided our forefathers with food – fruits, nuts, mushrooms, oil, honey and species while herbs from certain trees and vegetation were used for medical purposes,” says the guide.

Rainforests are important for our survival, and future generations the ranger educates us, which is why KWS is jealously protecting the Kakemega rainforest. 

Today, the forest does not only attract tourists but also local and international researchers.

Even better, rainforests are primarily home to herbivorous animals and one can walk deep into the forest without worrying about being a carnivore’s lunch. Watch out for snakes though!

After about another two kilometres, we enter the deepest part of the forest. Sounds of birds chirping from trees and shrub filled the forest with noisy melody, and it was a happy-go-lucky scenario as we looked out for birds competing on who spotted the most species.

Unfortunately, the forest is thick and impenetrable and, except for a few bushy-foot paths, it was impossible for us to pursue the birds further “in the thick of things”.

We follow the designated path. Rosemary seems to have a bombshell for us as she keeps us at a brisk pace.

Then she stops in front of a massive tree – an 800-year-old Elgon-teak, which she explains was at one point gifted to Queen Elizabeth II of England.

Kakamega Rainforest is also home to the plant said to be an aphrodisiac mukombero, currently under the protection of KWS as it is in high demand.

The Southern part of the forest, Isecheno Forest Station, run by the Kenya Forest Service, is the most accessible and a major visitors’ attraction.

It is home to the well-known Mama Mutere tree, the most photographed tree in Kakamega Forest. We also located many strangler fig trees, another attraction also.

Another highlight was our visit to the breathtaking Isiukhu falls, about two kilometres from the Udo KWS camping site.

Kakamega Rainforest is the only remnant in Kenya of the once great tropical rainforest that stretched across Central Africa. It is home to several hundreds of species of birds, snakes, monkeys, bushbucks, duikers, countless tree species and natural glades.

It holds over 380 species of trees, 330 species of birds, 27 species of snakes, seven primates and more than 400 species of butterflies.

Local tourist at Kakamega forest on September 9, 2020.[Benjamin Sakwa,Standard]

Finally, we capped our visit with a walk to the Buyangu Hill - the highest point in the forest and another must-see for visitors. The peak offers a splendid view of both the southern and northern parts of the rainforest, the campsite, the community homes and the surroundings.

Fun-filled-adventure at Arabuko-Sokoke forest

Away from Kakamega forest, there is the Arabuko-Sokoke indigenous forest on the opposite end of the country, along the coast.

“You cannot visit Kilifi and miss out on an early morning walk of discovery through the Arabuko Sokoke Forest,” Joseph Marekia, my host, tells me.

I am hesitant, but Marekia points out that if I want to see the elusive golden-rumped elephant shrew found only in this forest, I would have to take the walk. An irresistible offer despite a 5am wake-up call.

We set off at 5.15am and after about one kilometre, we leave our car behind and set off on foot. There are over 40 kilometres of well-marked rough driving tracks and a network of walking paths.

A short walk brings us to an open path and, our guide signals for us to be “dead silent” and watch the path ahead.

The silence that follows this order is deafening! Suddenly, the guide points at what seems like a black object about 200 metres ahead. I am baffled. The elephant shrew is tiny! Not what I had in mind for something with the name ‘elephant’. It is no bigger than a mongoose. I thought what I had seen earlier in the picture was a miniature image, it turns out it was the real deal.

The cameras start clicking. The tiny little thing must have a strong sense of hearing as it quickly dashes back into the forest. For the next 20 minutes, we wait, hardly breathing but in vain. The guide decides that we can explore the forest, to try our luck once more.

Our next destination is the Tree House. From the viewing platform, the view is splendid, spreading out over the old sand quarry area and onto the adjacent forest. In the rainy season it provides an ideal habitat for a variety of water birds as well as over 17 species of frog.

We continue our walk, as the guide explains that Arabuko-Sokoke indigenous forest is the largest surviving coastal forest in East Africa, covering an area of about 400 square kilometres.

It comprises of three distinctive forest habitats – mixed lowland forest, open woodlands and dense forest. The forest provides a unique and important habitat for a number of endangered birds, insects and mammals.

The forest, too, has a small population of elephants, buffaloes and six species of small antelope, adder duiker, a globally endangered species; mongoose, genet cat and bush baby, all of which are found in the Arabuko Sokoke Forest.

Birds are many here. There are over 260 species of birds recorded in this forest, out of which six are globally threatened. The forest is critical to their survival and conservation.

Many coastal bird species, including Fisher’s Turaco and Southern Branded Snake Eagle, thrive here. Butterflies are abundant in the forest, especially during the rainy season, with one-third of Kenya’s 870 species found here.

On our way back to the station, luck is on our side as we encounter a pair of elephant shrew. The guide confirms our luck, commenting that some visitors have never had a chance to see one.


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