Published Saturday Nation magazine

The dam in the forest -copyright Rupi Mangat
The dam in the forest -copyright Rupi Mangat

18 March 2017

Kitui county’s little-known hill in its southern side is a show stopper

This is drama fit for Nat Geo Wild. There’s a sheer copper-coloured cliff in front of us. We’re perched on a rocky outcrop by the side of a dam deep in the forested hills of Mutito. The dam that provides clean fresh water to the town of Mutito was built in the 1930s by British missionary and still functions.

We’re scanning the cliffs and the skies for Mutito’s special birds as it’s a hotspot for the feathered flock, plants and other creatures when a black bird taking advantage of the rising thermals begins to soar higher and higher, with something dangling from its talons. With binoculars trained to the raptor, the something shows clearly. It’s a snake!

None of us have seen such a sight and the snake’s probably never reached such heights. We’re glued to the eagle until it completely vanishes with the snake in the skies. “The eagle is heading to its perch to devour the snake,” states Jennifer Oduori, a seasoned birder with Nature Kenya.

It’s a busy place to be at in the late afternoon. In a crevice of the cliff marked by a fig tree and the white droppings of the birds, another pair of black birds fly out of a cliff cave. Through the binoculars, they are the Red-winged starlings using the crevice to nest.

The forest rangers are enjoying their day with us learning from the birders when one of them scrambles down the rocks followed by Oduori and Everlyne Kitavi the tourism officer in the county government. She’s running the forestry programmes in the hills, working with the bordering communities. “Since Muumoni and Mutito hills have been listed as Important Bird Areas, the communities living around the hills are very excited. It’s given them an insight into what they can do with this natural resource.”

Suddenly the forest guards disappear down the rocks and into the thickets to reappear a few minutes later with chicken feathers.

“This is the home of Kwa Lala,” tells the ranger.

He narrates the Kamba legend where women made sacrifices to the big snake called Lala so that he could bring rain. From descriptions, Lala sounds like a python.

It looks like the sacrifices are still happening by the fresh scoop of feathers – but this time there’s rumour of mercury on the hills and fortune seekers try to sneak past the rangers in search of it.

It’s a long stretch of hill with many folds and ridges but with very few tracks up which makes the unexplored massif even more intriguing. Research scientists from the National Museums of Kenya in 2006 wrote that these isolated hilltop forests are ‘biodiversity hotspots’ which had remained unknown and therefore had not been accorded adequate protection. Harbouring at least five globally threatened species of birds, it’s one of the Kitui hills that’s now recognized as an Important Bird Area and Key Biodiversity Areas.

Making our way back in the eventide, the rangers want to show us another dam from the 1930s hidden in the forest. It’s called Nzau – for some reason because in Kikamba it means hunger.

It’s picture-perfect.

A gigantic rock face acts as the wall from where the water cascades down from the pool above. The dam reflects the gigantic mango tree branched over the upper pool and the white jasmine flowers falling off the boulders and fish swimming. Mangoes float, butterflies flit about, Red-billed hornbills squawk settling down for the night and in this tranquil spot we simply while away time till it’s almost dark.

Know Kitui

Check the map of Kitui county – it’s on eastern side bordering Tana River in the east, Taita-Taveta and Kilifi to the south, Makueni, Machakos and Embu in the west and Mbeere, Tharaka Nithi and Isiolo to the North.

Contact Kitui Tourism: for sites to see, places to visit.

Nairobi to Kitui – 174 kms via Thika road enroute to Garissa

Stay at the many new inexpensive and comfortable hotels – 2 or 3 star.

On the hills, carry your camping stuff or drive back to Mwingi or Kitui for overnight.

More sites to see: Muumoni Hills, Mutomo plant sanctuary, the 1895 church at Ikutha, KanyonyooWildlife Conservancy, Nzambani rock and more.

Work in progress is developing the infrastructure in Mwingi National Reserve and South Kitui National Reserve that border Meru and Tsavo conservation areas respectively. It will open safer ground for the big game and bring tourism income for the communities.