Part 2 of 2

Published Saturday magazine Nation media 20 January 2018

Above: The peak of IYale – second highest of Taita Hills
Copyright Rupi Mangat

Older than the age of dinosaurs these hills continue to fascinate nature lovers

Critically endangered bird Taita apalis adult. Copyright Luca Borghesio
Critically endangered bird Taita apalis adult. Copyright Luca Borghesio

With a few more days in the hills with a mission to spot Taita apalis, our next stop is to Ngangao the largest forest block, Vuria the highest peak, followed by Msindunyi a tiny forest block where Dr Luca Borghesio and research assistant Lawrence Wagura – both associates of the National Museum of Kenya – discovered an undocumented population of Taita apalis in 2012. In total, the indigenous forests measure less than five square kilometres.

With a sharp decline from 600 in 2001 to fewer than 200 in 2016, this tiny insectivorous songbird could make Kenya the first country on the African continent to lose a landbird – unless there’s serious effort to increase its natural habitat and raise public awareness.

First stop out of Wundanyi is at the beautiful Taita Hills Research Centre to meet friends and other researchers. The attention is diverted by a ‘nyoka’ making a fast attempt to reach the safety of the rock cave.

We crowd around the shy snake overwhelmed with the attention and slips fast into the safety of the rock. It’s a mildly-venomous East African garter snake that’s never been documented to kill anyone. It’s a great service provider as it feeds on pests like rats and mice that saves the farmer from spending money on pesticides.

Forest Hikes

It was in Ngangao that I saw my first Taita apalis in 2013.

There’s a sudden burst of sunshine through a gap in the forest canopy. Struggling through the vines, l reach the nest of the critically endangered bird in a low bush.

“Taita apalis is a forest bird,” explains Borghesio. Despite this, the tiny bird is very particular about its space – it prefers the gaps created in the forest by falling trees.

I meet up with the team of nest searchers led by Maina Gichia. He’s trained local youth like Nathaniel Ndigila to search for the rare nests and monitor them.

At this point they carefully install new version of camera traps by the nests to find out exactly what is preying on the little chicks and eggs.

Maina Gichia and Cosmus Mghanga in the mist mountains searching for nest of Taita apalis Copyright Rupi Mangat
Maina Gichia and Cosmus Mghanga in the mist mountains searching for nest of Taita apalis Copyright Rupi Mangat

The next nest is a few kilometres away. Through the mist shrouded forest, a youngster with his dog materialize. It’s Cosmus Mghanga, another nest trekker.

He leads us through the dense forest and again there’s a burst of light in the clearing to proudly reveal the nest. Cosmus has never attended school and until recently, illiterate. Now he pulls out a notebook and pen from his homemade satchel made from hide and fills in details – he doesn’t speak English but he’s actively engaged in discussion with the scientists.

The researchers retrieve the chip from the camera to look at what images its captured. They’ve just missed the shot of fledglings fly out of the nest – because of a bunch of leaves that blocked the view. The camera has to be re-positioned.

At Msindunyi, a male and female Taita apalis are engaged in a duet. It’s calm and beautiful sitting on the forest floor and a rustle diverts our attention to a forest shrew with its snout foraging for something to eat.

Walking out of the forest l stop at a local homestead of a Taita family. They offer lunch to the stranger and l indulge in cooked leaves of the sweet potato with ugali. They know there are rare birds in the forest but beyond that their time is taken eking a living by farming.

Jardel Wangusha my guide offers to take me to Wesu Rock where there’s a skull cave. We missed the trail leading to one on Yale.

Skull cave on Taita Hills Copyright Rupi Mangat
Skull cave on Taita Hills Copyright Rupi Mangat

Until a century ago, skulls of respected elders were safely stored in caves – a practice that died out with the coming of Christianity a century ago. Many hill caves were also used by soldiers during the First World War and later by freedom fighters like Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

But the mist has settled hiding the hill top. Instead we enjoy a meal in Wundanyi at a local hotel of mashed matoke with minced meat. On a misty night it goes well with a cup of steaming chai.

Fact File

Endemic chameleon on Taita Hills Copyright Rupi Mangat
Endemic chameleon on Taita Hills Copyright Rupi Mangat

Contact Nature Kenya for guides to the hills –

Tarmac – Nairobi to Voi and Wundanyi in Taita Hills – 360km southeast of Nairobi and 190 northeast of Mombasa.

Drive the historical First World War now tarmac road via Maktau through Tsavo West National Park into Voyager Ziwani Tented Camp. Take road via Loitokoikitok to Amboseli National Park and Emali or Namanga back to Nairobi.

Nice, inexpensive hotels in Wundanyi to hike into the beautiful natural mist mountains.