In Ngong Road Forest
Above: Swallowtail at rest wth wings open in Ngong Road Forest. Copyright Rupi MangatIt’s a drop-dead scent.
Stopping in my tracks, I sniff the air and look around, all the time inhaling the fragrance deeper. It’s from the tiny white flowers in bloom on the gorgeous tree in front of me, the Schrebera alata.
The rains have brought a burst of scents, colours and flowers in the forest that is the first time for most of us to enter, a part of the Ngong Road Forest. It’s a chilly Sunday morning. The track ahead is laden with local trees including another show stealer with lilac-pinkish flowers, the Cape chestnut. “The tree has flowered earlier than usual,” comments Fleur Ng’weno the eminent naturalist.
It’s surprising that most of us in the group have never been in the forest that’s just off Ngong Road at its junction with the southern by-pass – and yet we’re born and bred Nairobians.
Anyway, the Schrebera alata has a stunning profile – tall and branched out to the skies. Its bark seems eaten by termites but that’s not a problem. “Eating the outer bark is not a problem as it’s the inner bark that is very important because the tree uses it to carry food up and down. That’s why it’s important not to carve deeply into a tree like some people do, etching their names in it. It acts as an open wound letting in diseases and insects,” explains Ng’weno.
The fresh forest air is invigorating. The path is lined with Brachylaena huillensis or muhugu, the wood-carvers’ favourite tree because it’s so beautiful to work with – but so over-harvested that it’s endangered in many places. Stopping to admire the urban forest, a Montane white-eye busily flits in the shrubs bringing food to the chicks in the nest.
Meanwhile the forest floor is decked in pale lilac forest flowers, the Pentas whose roots have traditionally been boiled as a tea.
A few steps on a butterfly, a swallowtail, is warming itself on a warm stone, its black and jade wings open.
“Ngong Road Forest used to be one large forest,” Ng’weno narrates. “It is now in five patches.”
By this time we are standing on a buff overlooking the southern bypass with its loops and bridges, and all sorts of cars zooming along it.
The morning despite the grey May sky and cold, is turning out to be fun while doubling out as a workout in the wild. Another tree catches our eye, an ebony but not the famous one, a Diospyros.
“Forests in Nairobi like the Ngong Road Forest are dry upland forests,” Ng’weno continues. We’re always amazed at her encyclopedic memory and when she talks, all listen.
“It’s not a highland forest or a lowland forest but in-between. The soil in Nairobi is not very deep and the rainfall not very high except for this year. So the trees don’t grow big like in Kakamega Forest where you will see that the trees are much bigger. But nevertheless this forest has many diverse species of trees and it’s easy to walk through because there is not so much undergrowth.
Staring high, a tree is lush with green ferns and mosses that cover the branches. These are epiphytes just sitting on the trees, getting the moistures from the mist rising from the forest ponds.
Someone sees a squirrel, others spot the tiny, lively Black-collared apalis flitting in the undergrowth.
A few hours later we’re by the railway tracks on the forest edge by urban Dagoretti with wayside flowers in a kladeiscope of colours.
There’s more happening here. An African harrier hawk has a kill which looks like a rat and flies with it into the canopy of the lone acacia in a field full of the invasive weed, Parthenium that in a decade has rendered so much of the soil infertile.
Above another raptor, an Ayres’s hawk-eagle, scans the forest.
Fifty-five species of birds, four hours later we break for a picnic in the forest. It’s for this that Nairobi is the famed bird-capital of the world. Leonard Githuka is super excited because he’s just seen a Yellow-bellied waxbill that is a lifer for him. In bird-watching lingo it means ‘seen for the first time’.
This indigenous part of the forest that we have enjoyed is largely due to the late Dr Imre Loefler who fought relentlessly to have it saved when the roads were being built. By convincing the authorities to shift the road a little to pass through the exotic plantation of eucalyptus trees, we still have this rich green lung in the city.
Contact Nature Kenya naturekenya.org for details on weekly and monthly bird walks.
Contact the Kenya Forest Service <email@example.com> or Ngong Road Forest Sanctuary Trust (Simon 0729-840715) for booking a walk in Ngong Road Forest.