From the archives: Saturday nation magazine – December 2009

Above: Sheldrick Falls in Shimba Hills National Reserve. Credit Shimba Lodge

It’s two kilometer’s track from Shimba Hills Lodge to Sheldrick Falls tells Azana Omari, the naturalist at Shimba Hills Lodge. Almost 17 kilometres away as the crow flies, Indian Ocean’s magnetic blue lines the horizon and further, the faint outline of Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains. An old male giraffe, dark with age stands in the midst of the savanna sprawl.

Shimba Hills National Reserve. Credit Shimba Lodge
Shimba Hills National Reserve. Credit Shimba Lodge

The humid coastal air and the sun makes it a hot walk and feeling like a dying duck l’m beginning to wonder how far two kilometres can possibly be when the sound of crashing water reaches the ear. I can only imagine how David Sheldrick, the first game warden of Tsavo East National Park (1948-1976) must have felt more than half a century ago, when he came upon the falls by chance. Until then, according to literature, not even the locals knew of its existence. There’s a natural pool at the bottom of the 82-foot waterfall which is River Mkulumudzi, meaning ‘big village’ in the Digo language. The river empties way down at the village on the seashore called Msambweni, providing the people with precious fresh water to drink.

Looking out for the endemic Sable antelopes of Shimba hills, we fail to see one. “Shimba is the corruption of the Digo word ‘Shambi’,” Omari who is also a local Digo explains. “’Shambi’ means sable in our language.”

Sable antelope only found in Shimba Hills National Reserve. Credit Shimba Lodge
Sable antelope only found in Shimba Hills National Reserve. Credit Shimba Lodge

Found nowhere else in East Africa, the handsome sable with its sharp pointed backward curved horns is the last of the herd left in Shimba with a population of about 500 to 600 and well on its way to extinction – unless by some miracle we can extend its home range – which seems highly unlikely with an ever-increasing human population and its need for land. “Shimba Hills National Reserve was gazetted in 1968 because of the sable,” says our good guide. “It measures 192 square kilometers in area.”

Refreshed by our frolic in the falls and the four-kilometer walk, lunch at the only tree hotel at the coast never tasted better. The resident African fish eagle perches on the indigenous trees of the forest by the waterhole and a lone monitor lizard swims quietly under its gaze. We catch glimpses of grey bodies of elephants walking through the thick forest and a magnificent old bull with beautiful tusks browses by as we enjoy our lunch.

The Sheldrick Falls. Copyright Rupi Mangat
The Sheldrick Falls. Copyright Rupi Mangat

In Elephant Valley for a sundowner in Elephant Valley, a burst of white jasmine fills the forest with its fragrance. High on the tallest mahogany tree a pair of crowned eagles sits in the nest. The Crowned Eagle is the most powerful raptor on the planet with three and a half inch talons, which can grab a bushbuck.  These birds are good indicators of the state of the old forests.

Lots of elephants in Shimba. Credit Shimba Lodge

“My father was born here,” says Omari as we enjoy our cocktails watching the sun go down. “They had to move out when the land was gazetted. But my grandfather is buried here and many other Digo people.

“It was a sacrifice to move out but now we see it as one that was necessary because we have the only sable population in East Africa here.”

Many of the coastal forests have survived because of the Mijikenda people who when forced to flee the Galla from the horn of Africa in the 9th century took refuge in them Called ‘Kaya, these forest fortresses harbour the talisman from the homeland and many are today gazetted due to their rich harness of species.

Simply Shimba

Shimba Hills Lodge. Credit Shimba Lodge
Shimba Hills Lodge. Credit Shimba Lodge

Stay in the midst of the tropical rain forest at Shimba Hills Lodge – email:

Or try camping or self catering at Sable cottages in the reserve – email:

On Tiwi Beach is another sacred forest, Kaya Tiwi and Kongo mosque of many centuries guarded by the wizened old baobabs.

Stop at the Shimba Hills Forest Guides office to see a model kaya

For bird lovers there are over 111 species amongst them 22 coastal endemics and rare mammals like the rufous shrew. From Shimba you can either drive to Nairobi via Samburu or to the South Coast. Or you can fly direct to Ukunda or else face the ever-growing Mombasa traffic and queue to the ferry.