On the magical mist mountains of Taita Hills
Above: The ancient crystalline rock face of Ngangao some 260 million years old in Taita Hills – during the time of the dinosaurs.
Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper, 19 May 2018
“It’s the nest of Taita thrush,” whispers Handrison Mwameso, the guide from Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO). We’re inside Ngangao forest on the high peaks of the magical Taita Hills in southeast Kenya. We’ve walked a few metres from our campsite into the forest entering though a narrow path shaded by a bunch of Phoenix reclinata, a common palm tree here.
Taita thrush is another of the ‘only found in the indigenous forests of the Taita Hills’ rare wildlife. The nest to the untrained eye is just a bunch of twigs and dry grasses high on a tree unlike the nest of the even rarer Taita apalis that is found a few feet off the ground in the little gaps in the forests.
Ngangao is the largest of the indigenous forests with lots in it. Mwameso guides me to the tallest tree in the indigenous forest nicknamed by the locals as the ‘mother tree’. It’s a Newtonia buchananii. Straining my neck to see its flat-topped canopy, it’s impossible – all l see is the moss and lichen clad solid trunk breaking through the forest canopy. The guess is that it’s more than 130 feet tall.
It’s quiet inside the beautiful ancient forest with just the bird chirp and the crinkle of leaves as we step on them. At night the forest comes alive with bushbabies and other nocturnal animals calling out.
Taking our time, we wander around enjoying the beauty of the patterned forest floor with leaves and roots, fallen trees, standing trees, wild flowers, fluttering butterflies and camouflaged chameleons. It changes suddenly when we get to the pine plantation. There’s no life here, just a plantation of trees to be farmed and the spiny leaf litter of the exotic trees slippery to walk on. Once through it, we’re back in another part of the indigenous forest and by a gigantic cave. Carefully making our way down to the bottom and inside the cave, we search for any sign of rock paintings or skulls of the Taita – but its empty with just a steady stream of water flowing from the top.
Walking back, Mwameso leads the way to the highest point of Ngangao on the bare rock face of the ancient crystalline mountains that came into being some 260 million years ago. From here the peaks of Vuria, Msindunyi and Iyale show where the last of the indigenous forest remain and its wildlife. It’s a tiny world – only one per cent – compared to the surrounding landscape of exotic forest plantations, farms and towns.
By now the sky is darkening that signals we should start heading back when Mwameso excitedly points to another gigantic tree.
Just as we get to it, huge fat raindrops begin to fall. We’re caught in the rain.
Here’s the magical part of it. The tree is hollow and for the next hour we while our time in it watching the rain and the gale blow the plants – and yet we’re completely dry. The tree is like a cathedral big enough for us to wander around it.
“There’s a folklore attached to this tree,” tells Mwameso. It’s about a herds’ boy sent out by his father to tend the livestock. In the forest, the boy finds a little antelope caught in a hunter’s trap. The boy lets it loose and returns home he tells his father about the incident. The angry father asks the boy to climb the tall tree and when the boy is on the top the father removes the ladder. It’s a punishment for letting the animal go.
But in flies a big bird and rescues the boy who grows up to become a wealthy man with many cattle. One day he hears that his father is sick and he returns to help. His father is ashamed of his mean behaviour and asks for forgiveness.
The tree that offers us a refuge is the Aningeria adolfi or the muna tree, once common in places like Limuru. Today there are only three standing in Tigoni at Brackenhurst and nowhere as large as the one we’ve been in.
The few days scaling the peaks of the hills and wandering around the indigenous forests have been exciting and l’m feeling like super woman bursting with health and happiness.
Some words to get you by in Taita
Kwalale mana – good morning; answer: Nalale mana too
Chawucha – thank you
Contact Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO) Resource Centre for a guide. It’s cheap and cheerful – Ksh 250 to camp or if you’re lucky grab one of the two permanent tents. Cold shower and a kitchen to cook. Book through Nature Kenya www.naturekenya.org