Part 1 of 2
Above: Ngangao Cliff face that is part of the Taita Hills. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 22 December 2018
Nestled in Ngangao on the ancient hills of the Easter Arc Mountains
I love the forests of the Taita Hills because they are one of the most amazing places on earth. Rising from the plains, the massifs of the magical mist mountains straddle the skyline near Voi and are the northern extreme of the Eastern Arc Mountains. Like beads on a string the first to show by the side of the road is the single massif of Mbololo, followed by the Dabida cache of hills and then the Sagalla Hill that frames the town of Voi surrounded by sisal plantations on red soils.
These ancient hills have been around for over 200 million years but what sets them apart from the ordinary is the fact that despite all the climate changes that have happened since then, the climate on the hill tops has remained stable because of one main reason: the hills catch the ocean-swept moisture-laden clouds drifting in from the Indian Ocean. These moisture-rich clouds have kept the ancient forests of the Taita Hills bursting with biodiversity that today they boast the highest density of endemic species – that is the special tag ‘found only in Taita Hills’.
Already the journey from the plains has been interesting with the short rains giving leaf to the baobab and the custard-coloured flower of the Delonyx elata where a lone elephant coated in the famed red dust of Tsavo grazes by the side of the road between Tsavo West and Tsavo East. It has the truckers fascinated. The elephant can’t go into the east side of Tsavo because of the fence along the standard gauge railway that now blocks the once ancient access. The young bull has to find an opening in the embankment or return to the west side.
The road up from Mwatete on the base of Taita Hills to Wundanyi the hilltop town reveals dramatic drops to the plains, more rock faces and the ridges of the hills. Edward Abbey’s quote comes to mind. “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds,” wrote the famous American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues.
By eventide everything is blanketed in white mist that drifts in from the Indian Ocean.
In the early morn, the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro juts above the clouds to frame the blue sky at Wundanyi and we’re off to Ngangao the largest forest patch on the Taita Hills. It’s pristine as I follow Handrison Mwameso, my erstwhile guide from Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Group (DABICO) who leads me through the miasma of forest trees with clusters of the endemic Phoenix reclinata dotted around. I’ve been enchanted with the Taita Hills since my first foray twenty years ago and every visit only increases my fascination.
From the forest floor up, it’s layer upon layer of shrubs and trees. We bump into the bird researchers checking on the nest of Taita thrush and Taita apalis – two birds with the tag ‘only found in Taita Hills’. Both birds are on a rapid decline and potentially could become Kenya’s first birds to become extinct in modern times – and all because of the pressure from the increasing human population surrounding the remnants of the forests on the hill tops.
The researchers are by a nest of a Taita thrush high in a tree. Each nest has a GPS marking. There are two new-born chicks in the nest the size of a coin and bare of skin. The birds don’t know they are being watched for the team has a mirror attached to a long pole that’s reflecting the birds to us on the ground.
The bird team vanishes and we’re left on our own. Above us, a troop of Sykes monkeys follow our wandering around chattering all the time.
With the short rains the forest is alive with colour. The forest floor is a mosaic of mushrooms and fungi in colours and shapes new to me – pint-sized saffron umbrellas, white coral-heads, pink mushrooms, orange fungi – an unbelievable colour fest in the green forest. Higher on the canopy, flowers deck the indigenous forest trees of Craibia zimmermanni, Lobelia gibberoa and the Taita version of Millettia oblata.
And then suddenly we’re at the Mother Tree. It towers above all. It’s the towering Newtonia buchananii. Moss and lichen clad the solid trunk breaking through the canopy. It’s more than 130 feet tall and so fat of girth, that it’s a veritable citadel. Sitting on its thick buttress root, we’re just specks on it.
In the quietness of the forest, a tiny bird sends a musical note. It’s an African dusky flycatcher, a picture of perfect poetry.
Discover the Taita Hills
The indigenous forest remaining today from all the hilltops is only 4.1 square kilometres. If we can’t protect this, it’ll be a gross failure on our part.
There’s tons to discover from the skull caves to the flora and fauna. Hiking the hills is also great for your body and soul. You must have permission from Kenya Forest Service to enter the forests and a fee is applicable.
If you have never been to the Taita Hills, check in at Taita Rocks Hotel at Wundanyi where the management can arrange forest excursions. The intrepid can camp at DABICO. Contact Nature Kenya for guides to the hills – naturekenya.org
Tarmac road from Nairobi to Voi and Wundanyi in Taita Hills – 360km southeast of Nairobi and 190 northeast of Mombasa.