Searching for the skulls caves in Taita Hills
Published: 12 May 2018 Saturday Nation magazine Nation newspaper, Kenya
Above: Taita Hills – the magical mist mountains – copyright Rupi Mangat
The plan is to enjoy the indigenous forest of Vuria. I have no intention of puffing up to the peak which is the highest of the Taita Hills and the highest point at the coast reaching 2,228 metres (7,310 ft). But we lose the group in the forest. Trying to find it, we’re on the peak a few hours later, looking at the plains below. The mission was to search for the legendary skull caves of the Taita people.
The following day, we’re back at the base of Vuria and this time with Hendrison Mwameso, a guide with Dawida Biodiversity Conservation group (DABICO) we ask around for the historical caves.
It’s Murphy’s law.
The previous day we reached the peak searching for one. Cosmus Mghanga, a nest trekker with the Taita apalis team points to a huge fig tree near the road. “The cave is in there,” he tells in Kiswahili. The Taita apalis is Kenya’s rarest bird found only on the few indigenous forests on the hilltops. An estimated 150 remain today, a sharp decline from 600 in 2001.
Mwameso and l follow the narrow nondescript path through the bushes, with the village kids in tow.
And suddenly we’re peering in a dark cave hidden by the tree. Littered on the ground inside are the skulls barely visible. It takes a few minutes for the eye to adjust to see deeper in the low ceilinged rock cave with the white, bare skulls of the ancestors of the Taita. We count at least fifty. The kids also peer in with us.
Stepping back in the sunlight, gorgeous red fireball lilies are in bloom with the rains and we suddenly see a lot more skulls lying in the dense leaf litter outside the cave. We’re told it’s a deranged woman who threw them out of the cave. In any case, it’s against tradition to pick the skulls or disturb them.
A passer-by tells of another skull cave but it’s higher in the mountain a kilometre away. With time on our hands we walk through rural homesteads and ask villagers for the path.
We meet Mzee Austin Mwachania hurrying down the hill. On hearing that we’re looking for the skull cave, he replies with enthusiasm, “my family cave is up there and there are others spread round the hill.
“Follow the path up to those rocks,” he points and then gives a little brief about the custom of storing the skulls in caves. The last skull burial according to Mwachania happened in 1930. A few days after the burial, the skull was removed from the body amidst a ceremony and buried in the caves. Women were never part of it.
The caves were sacred and families went to tell their ancestors of their troubles and ask for guidance. It was always the respected men like the medicine men, the wealthy, the hunters – in other words those who contributed to the society – whose skulls were stored.
A little while later we meet Mzee Bernard Kisochi who tells more. “The practise became less after World War 1 because many Taita men fought and died in it. Those who returned did not want to continue with it and also Christianity was more practised.
Further up on the hill we meet with Mzee Gaspar tending to his farm by the homestead near the cave. He leads us up to the cave on a steep slope and it’s empty! This time it’s a mad man who threw out the skulls down the deep ravine.
A few days later Mwameso and l head to another side of Vuria. The steep slope through the homesteads leads us up to stunning rocks covered with moss and lichen from where the plains of Tsavo West National Park are spread green. A thick line of green etches the flow of Tsavo River to join Athi in Tsavo East National Park and become the Galana to flow into the Indian Ocean north of Malindi.
Walking back, we stop in a fighi, a tiny grove of a scared forest. Once venerated by the community, it’s beautiful with trees rarely seen now, sculpted with the passage of time.
When in Vuria
It’s part of the Taita Hills. Drive to Voi either from Nairobi or Mombasa. Take the turning for Taita Hills, Wundanyi. Up to Wundanyi it’s a tarmac road. To travel further into the hills you need a four-wheel drive.
The road is historical with a lot happening along it during World War 1.
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