Published 7 April 2018 Saturday Nation magazine
In the Taita Hills
I’m back with a mission. Staring at the gigantic bare rock face of Iyale, one of the high peaks of the Taita Hills, l’m sizing it up to summit it.
The Taita Hills is the amazing chain of massifs that make the Eastern Arc Mountains made of 13 mountain blocks. The Taita Hills in Kenya is the extreme northern end with the rest in Tanzania. These amazing and ancient forest-capped crystalline mountains are the first massifs to catch the wind-swept ocean breeze off the Indian Ocean.
Today, these mountains are one of the world’s regions facing the most urgent threat in terms of species extinction because only one to two per cent of indigenous forests remain on the peaks.
The breeding season that is from November to March is over for the endemic and highly threatened bird, Taita apalis. Now with the long rains from March onwards, the birds will tend to their chicks.
So while the team of scientists and field researchers from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Nature Kenya scour the forest for the nests of the little insect-loving song bird, Evanson Jardel Wangusha, a guide with Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO) and l begin our march up. For a bit of geography for what makes the Taita Hills: the peaks of Iyale, Vuria and Ngangao is the Dawida massif, Mbololo looms not far; by Voi is Sagalla Hill and beyond, the massif of Kasigau.
Up we hike, past the fresh water spring and the forest plantation into the rich indigenous forest of tree ferns, towering Lobelia gibberoa and the elegant palm that’s a signature of the Taita Hills, Phoenix reclinata. The ‘only found’ in Taita Hills’ Taita chameleon – K. boehmei – is suddenly the star of the moment as it staggers up a twig in the signature jerky motions of a chameleon.
Out of the forest once again, we’re on the high ridge where the invasive plants are being cleared by the local Taita in a bid to increase the natural habitats for the hills’ rare wildlife.
In front of us the peak looms and below the plains of Taita full of farms and homesteads.
The mist swirls and hides the peak. My heart sinks and I think it’s impossible again to conquer the summit.
“No, there’s no rain till later,” promises Jardel and so with the remaining energy, l follow him up the narrow path.
Finally we’re there and surprise, surprise.
There’s another peak beyond the first peak.
A red flag that’s a worn-out T-shirt with a local politician’s face flutters.
“But that’s the highest peak,” states Lawrence Wagura, the field researcher monitoring the Taita apalis.
The second peaks looks far across the ridge covered in mosses and lichens on the rocks. At this point it’s – should l, should not…l’m so exhausted.
Encouraged by the rest, l draw on my energy reserve and vanity. Climbing hills is good if you want to keep your legs in shape and burn fat. So down the ridge and up we go again.
The second peak shows the many massifs around us with Vuria the highest peak at the Coast looming in front. With the gale and mist wafting around, these peaks make for the little world that’s left for the Taita apalis and other forest creatures.
“I’m not sure if this is the highest peak,” remarks Maina Gichia, Wagura’s colleague.
“What?” l exclaim.
“Look at it from here. The first peak looks higher,” he states.
It does but at this point it doesn’t matter. I can now claim to have scaled the twin peaks of Iyale.
Arriving back in the late afternoon, the rain pelts and hunger strikes.
We’re treated to a feast of the local banana stew and chappatis.
The plan for the following day is to go in search of the skull caves somewhere in Vuria.
The night creatures awake and deep in the night the galagos of Taita send out shrieks. It’s a nice feeling to have reached the peaks of Iyale as sleep takes over.
Drive to Taita
From Nairobi to Voi and turn left to Taveta. At Mwatate, turn right to Wundanyi. It’s a spectacular uphill winding road.
Look out Yatta Plateau running along Tsavo East National Park, the world’s longest lava flow; the porous Chyulu Hills by Tsavo West National Park and on a clear day Mount Kilimanjaro.
Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO) Resource Centre is 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. Ask for guides and a cook – the young women around do super meals at good rates. Book through Nature Kenya www.naturekenya.org