Above: Osprey in Juja. Copyright James Kashangaki 

Published: 5 January2019

When Elspeth Huxley penned the Flame Trees of Thika, the road out of Nairobi in 1913 was very different from the Thika super-highway we are driving on to reach Juja, 40 kilometres away. Her description from the novel is of her as a six-year old with her mother on an ox wagon travelling out of Nairobi to meet her father who has just acquired virgin land that’s deemed to be great for coffee farming.

Pygmy Kingfisher. Copyright James Kashangaki (800x601)
Pygmy Kingfisher. Copyright James Kashangaki

Beyond Ainsworth Bridge (that now supports a spaghetti junction by the Nairobi Museum) after leaving Norfolk Hotel that opened in 1904 on Christmas Day, it was open country with wild game like lions on it. Giraffes on the grass plains and antelopes watched the little party inch its way to reach Thika in two days.

Just over a hundred years later, our road is filled with urban sprawl expanding all the way to Thika where Elspeth and her mother stopped at the newly opened hotel that had posts painted blue that is today the iconic Blue Post Hotel between Chania and Thika Falls.

Our route diverges a few kilometres before Thika and on to a country lane to Juja for a day of hiking and birding with Nature Kenya. The country lane is red murram straddled by coffee farms patched with grass plains dotted with acacias in flower.

Fireball lily that is an indigenous flower. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
Fireball lily that is an indigenous flower. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“The land between Nairobi and Thika, now fast becoming built up, is particularly rich in biodiversity,” states Fleur Ng’weno, Kenya’s most eminent naturalist who started the bird walks from the car park at Nairobi Museum in 1972.

“There are a number of plant species that are only found in the Nairobi-Thika area,” continues Ng’weno. “That’s why it’s so important to conserve green spaces as the city builds up.”

Stopping by the gorgeous green wooded grassland in the midst of homes and fences in and around the wetlands, a pair of endangered Grey Crowned Cranes stalks to feed on the frogs and other small creatures that breed in them.

Grey crowned crane at Juja near the homes built close to swamps. Copyright Sdney Shema (800x597)
Grey crowned crane at Juja near the homes built close to swamps. Copyright Sdney Shema

Recent studies show that in the past two decades in Kenya and Uganda, the population of the Grey Crowned Crane has dropped by 80 per cent with their nesting sites most affected by humans.

Suddenly someone spots an osprey on the top of a tall tree and all binoculars are excitedly trained to it. The osprey is a large, handsome raptor and a visitor here from the northern hemisphere. Perched on the tree above the wetlands is a great vantage point for it to scan the natural pools for food like frogs.

Osprey in Juja. Copyright James Kashangaki (800x601)
Osprey in Juja. Copyright James Kashangaki

Sidney Shema, an ornithologist working with the Kenya Bird Map project gives an impromptu talk on the migrants that’s so fascinating. The Kenya Bird Map is a project to map the current distribution of birds across Kenya, a project between the Ornithology Section of the National Museums of Kenya, A Rocha Kenya, the Tropical Biology Association, Nature Kenya and the Animal Demography Unit of the University of Cape Town.

“Africa,” begins Shema, “receives many species of birds that migrate from Eurasia (Europe and Asia) every year. These are called Palearctic migrants. They spend several months in Africa to escape the harsh Eurasian winter. They then return to Eurasia to breed during the summer.

“Several of these migrants enter and leave Africa through narrow ‘corridors’ called bottlenecks. These are areas that minimize the distance that the birds have to fly over the sea between the African and Eurasian continents.

The bottlenecks are like the Sinai Peninsula linking Egypt and Israel, or the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco.

“The thing is,” continues our bird-man, “that the flight patterns of Palearctic migrants have been studies extensively and are known.

“But little is known of birds that migrate within Africa.”

Ziwani House in Juja
Ziwani House in Juja .Copyright Rupi Mangat

A leisurely hour later, we’re driving in through the gates of Ziwani, a coffee farm cum guest house on the Karakuta-Gacibi estate. It’s a beautiful stretch of lawn with towering trees. Charles Kibe of Ziwani gives an introduction to the farm.

“Coffee farming was established by the colonialists who also built the house,” tells Kibe. “The house was built to last for generations with walls two feet thick.”

However tells our guide, the fortune in coffee farming is dwindling.

“Most of the coffee has been uprooted and replaced with boma Rhodes grass which is baled as hay, avocados, herbs and tomato farming. But we still have some Ruiru 11 and Batian coffee varieties which are disease-resistant.

Ndarugo, a subterranean river. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Ndarugo, a subterranean river. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Past the green lawn, a narrow path leads us to Ndarugo, a subterranean river. It’s a stunning gorge strewn with gigantic rocks carpeted with lush moss and a river forest. “The river runs along the farm for about 2.5 kms and disappears underground for a kilometre to re-emerge on the neighbour’s farm,” explains Kibe.

Driving back in the late afternoon, the osprey is on the same tree, resting before it takes to the skies again.

Fact File

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