Above: Tree Fern Forest in Vuria. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 29 December 2018
It’s a hide-and-seek game with the mist and the mountains. Standing at the base of Vuria, the rock peaks vanish in the white mist only to reappear and vanish time and again. Vuria is the highest hill of the Taita Hills. The hill tops are draped in ancient forest surrounded by local homesteads and farms of the Taita people.
Having scaled the peaks of Ngangao, Iyale including Vuria a year ago, l’m in no hurry to get to the bare-faced peaks capped with ancient hard quartzite rock. I only want to escape into the magical forests and revel in the beauty of this ancient world that boasts the highest number of endemic plants and animals found in the world in an area of this size. The tag ‘only to be found in the Eastern Arc Mountains’ is to be proud of.
Stepping carefully along the narrow path passing local homesteads, there’s nearly a fatal collision or rather ‘step’. One of the hikers is about to step on a chameleon that’s only found in the Taita Hills – the Taita Hills Blade-horned Chameleon Kinyongia Boehmei. Luckily he stops in mid-step and the rare chameleon makes a ‘slow’ dash to get off the path. Kenya has 24 species of chameleons recorded so far of the 115 species and seven of these have been recorded in the last 20 years reads the Kenya Reptile Atlas.
Up on the saddle that bridges the tiny Msindunyi forest and the larger Vuria, we opt to turn right into the smaller forest of Msindunyi to look for the tiny endemic bird, the Taita apalis of which fewer than 200 survive in the forest fragments on the peaks. The two research assistants lead the party to the nests. They have the chicks in them. The insectivorous bird times its breeding with the rains when there are plenty of insects to feed the young.
Back on the saddle the sheer rock face of Iyale appears from the mist. It’s the hill for the following day. A narrow path veers into the old forest of Vuria. Whereas Ngangao was full of forest trees in bloom, Vuria delights in its towering tree ferns. At points along the narrow path we’re staring down at the canopy of the tree ferns and at times walking through them. It’s ethereal. Fresh water streams gurgle shyly down the thick carpeted forest floor.
“The Eastern Arc Mountains are not volcanic,” describes Dr Luca Borghesio, a forest biologist monitoring the rare forest birds. “They are ancient crystalline block faulted mountains aged between 290 and 180 million years ago.” It boggles the mind that these ancient massifs have outlived the dinosaurs.
The forest biologist continues to fascinate us more about the hills. “The Taita Hills have had a stable climate despite the climate change 10 to 20 million years ago on the planet. This is because of the moisture-laden clouds coming in from the Indian Ocean that deck the hills. This has led to the high density of endemic species in the Taita Hills and the rest of the Eastern Arc Mountains.”
It’s a fascinating hike though the forests that boast giant lobelias and 20,000 other species of plants on the Eastern Arc of which 1500 are endemic.
Back at the base, Fina Sicho of the Anointed Rest Hotel serves hot tea and mandazis as the evening mist begins to drift in again.
The following morning, it’s time for Iyale. The cleared plantation is giving way to a natural forest regrowth for the rare Taita apalis and Taita thrush ‘only to be found in Taita Hills species’. Forest flowers in bright yellow deck the slopes. On the quartzite-capped bare-faced peak, the mist wafts over and around us. As the mist clears the vastness of Tsavo appears. On closer ground, the once forested hills are now a maze of homes, farms and roads. In the last two centuries 98per cent of the indigenous forest remains – and what remains is just 4.1 square kilometres of indigenous forest.
We have a duty to safeguard the last of the planet’s pristine spaces.
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.