Above: Plains of Tsavo from the Mwachora Hill. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 15 June 2019
The road from the peak of Ngangao that is part of the magical Taita Hills loops steep into the plains of Tsavo with amazing views of the solitary massifs of Sagalla and Kasigau. I’m taking a break from hiking to discovering the tastes and tales of Taita.
I’m full of respect for the pikipiki having reached Mwatate safely. It’s the town on the flat lands at the junction of the historical road that was action-packed during the WW1 fought between British East Africa (Kenya) and German East Africa (Tanzania).
Mwatate at the turn of the 20th century had morphed into a busy settlement for pioneering farmers to plant sisal dubbed the ‘green gold’ to make rope for the shipping industry. But then came the WW1. The 100-kilometer road between Voi and Taveta on the Kenya-Tanzania border became a battlefield. Towns like Maktau a few minutes south of Mwatate boasted the first military airstrip in East Africa with 20,000 Allied forces stationed including armoured cars made by Leyland and Rolls Royce. The German soldiers called the Rolls Royce the Devil’s Rhinoceros. A new railway line was constructed in 1915 between Voi and Taveta to provide supplies like fresh water to the garrison towns.
It’s midday and in this once historical town our first stop is at the ‘Office’ at Mwatate. It’s a popular restaurant and l’m looking forward to a plate of Kimanga the Taita signature dish of pounded bananas. But it isn’t on the menu. It has to be pre-ordered tells Nathaniel Mkombola of Dabico (Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Organization) my guide. So we settle for a mouth-watering dish of nyama choma. Meanwhile life outside in the dusty little town continues with the boda-boda drivers and matatus waiting for passengers and business brisk with customers at the MPESA and little dukas along the street.
Driving back up the winding road after lunch, Mkombola points to an imposing cliff face. “It’s Mwachora, derived from the word mortuary,” he shouts against the wind. Pulling off the main road, we’re on a narrow path that winds its way high to the edge of the cliff.
Inching my way carefully to the edge of the rock to peer down, it’s really a long way down. A pair of agama lizards watches while basking on the rock warmed by the afternoon sun. “If you were found guilty by the council of elders here, you were pushed off the cliff,” tells Mkombola. “I’ve often thought of climbing down to see if there are any bones down there.”
Although it’s a really pretty place to die l think to myself, l don’t think it was a happy place for the convicted. In the heat of the afternoon, it’s now a great place to lie down on the hot rock with Kasigau and Sagalla popping on the plains.
Back on the high road nearing Wundanyi, Mkombola halts at a kiosk by a triangular sign showing falling rocks and then that view stretching to infinity. He has seen bunches of the green banana that’s used for cooking Kimanga. The thing is that you can’t use any banana to cook the dish. It has to be the local brands called ndezi, kiangulume or mujaja. So now there’s me and two enormous bunches of bananas at the back of the pikipiki which are delivered to Mama Rosenah Kamae living next to the Dabico resource centre.
It takes a few hours to peel and cook the dish. Later in the evening the bananas are still in the clay pot over the fire but ready to be mashed. Mama Kamae lifts the pot – nyungu – made with special clay called wudungu – and puts it on the ground with two stones propped under to steady it. And then the pounding begins until it’s a fine mesh mixed with maharagwe or red beans. Meanwhile in the dim kitchen lit by a solitary candle my eyes water from the smoke that l’m virtually blinded but it’s a welcome feast later that night for everyone.
Early next morning we slip into Ngangao forest. The forest air is crisp and clean and l take in lung-fulls. I’m on a mission to look for bushbabies that are heard during the night but hard to see. My guide know a nest but we have to cross the forest and into the farms. Two hours later, l get my first glimpse of the rarely seen but often heard galago or bushbaby. It’s a mother and baby cute as teddy bears in a bamboo grove. Asleep during the day unless disturbed, it’s usually their luminous eyes that give them away at night as they flit across the trees.
Kenya has about six species and nine subspecies of galago according to galago researchers Yvonne de Jong, Tom Butynski and Noah Dekker. All galagos make a loud call that is unique to the species which can be identified from the call – so go to www.wildsolutions.nl/galago and click on the species you are curious about!
Our bushbabies are either large-eared greater galago or the white-tailed small-eared greater galago but we’re not sure.
Explore the Taita Hills
Check out Dawida on Facebook for exciting hikes into the hills. Easy directions – From Nairobi or Mombasa get to Voi and turn in for Mwatate and then turn right into the hills. A sturdy 4-wheel drive is recommended. There are hotels in Wundanyi but campers will find it easier to camp at Dawida for forest hikes.