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ZEITGEIST: MOVING FORWARD | OFFICIAL RELEASE | 2011
Birding Safaris,Road Safaris Kakamega & Kakamega Rainforest Kenya ,East Africa
Kakamega is the headquarters of the Luhya,a loosely defined group of people whose only clear common denominator is the Bantu language,spoken in more than a score of vernaculars,which distinguishes them from the Luo to the south and the Kalenjin to the east.Numerically the Luhya(also spelt Abaluhya or luyia)are Kenya's second largest ethnic group, and most are settled farmers.
Kakamega itself was founded as a buying station on the ox trail known as Sclater's Road,which reached here from the coast in 1896.Historically its only fame came in the 1930s, when gold was discovered nearby and more than a thousand prospectors came to the region.However very few fortunes were made.In the early 1990s,Kakamega became the first town in Kenya to use the bicycle taxis known as boda-bodas,now almost a nation wide institution.Today it's a lively town, but with little to detail casual visitors.If you're passing through in August of an even numbered year,however, its worth being aware that some of the Luhyas are swept up in the exuberant boys' circumcision parties_though nthe actual chop is usually done in the hospital and the initiates themselves tend not to be the ones doing the parting.
A more sedate event,the Agricultural Society of Kenya annual show,takes place at the town's showground every November.The nearby Kakamega Forest is one of Western Kenya's star attraction and if you have any interest at all in the natural world,it's worth going far out of your way to see.Fortunately its's easier to get to Kakamega Forest from Kisumu or,if you've been in the Mount Elgon region,from Webuye along scenically forested stretch of the A1.
Kakamega is fairly sm,all and manageable.If you arrive here late in the day(or after 2.30pm in a 2WD vehicle,when the rain often starts to fall),you may want to stay in town rather than arrive in the forest after dark.There are Barclays and SCB banks with ATMs,and several descent lodgings and places to eat.
The Municipal market, next to the bus station is very lively and particularly so on the big market days(Wed & Sat),when the stalls are swelled with produce from the outlying rural areas.Among the local produce on offer you'll find natural remedies and medicines made from the forest plants.For supermarkets,Mama Watoto on Canon Awori street,and Yako supermarket on Kenyatta Avenue,should the job.Vaghela bookshop,on Mumias road has reasonable selection on Kenyan and other English-language fiction.There's internet access at several places of the Ambwere alliance Hotel and at Kakamega cyber café by the Somken station on Sudi Road.For matters relating to Kakamega Forest, visit the Kenya Wildlife office;go past the golf Hotel,right at the round about,follow the road past the past the Dc's office to the next junction,turn left and its on the left after 50m.
- Ambwere Alliance Sudi road,nearly opposite Total petrol station.At the lower end of "mid range" but descent enough,plain agreeable and cheap,with clean rooms,hot water, mosquito nets and safe parking
- Franka Mumias Rd.The secure,clean,s/c room(some with good views),erratic hot water,a good bar,reasonable breakfasts, and nyama choma in the evening make this,all in all, a reasonable choice.
- Golf Khasakhala Road. Well insulated rooms(nets &tvs,bathtubs and old-style showers,but no fans or a/c)in a vcomfortable tourist-quality hotel from the late 1970s,its pretensions comically clipped by the vultures hopping over the lawns.There's a large pool and a gift shop but rates for non-Kenyans are too high.
- Jionee GuestHhouse Cannon Awori street.A friendly little place above the snack shop café, offering plain but spick-and-span rooms with nets,though some rooms share bathrooms.
Eating and drinking
In addition to the hotel dining rooms,there are some good cheap restaurants in Kakamega,and plenty of places to drink and listen to music,too.Cannon Awori st has a few good eating places:there's a long menu of Kenyan eating standards at the western café,and a short but descent Kenyan fare at snack stop café.An interesting spot is Lawino 2000,an innovative western Kenyan specialist("our mission:to contribute to a healthy and safety nourishment,through indigenous African cuisines"),serving local dishes,such as aliya,(smoked beef) and even wine.For drinking places with character,you're spoilt for choice.The bar t Franka is one of th liveliest drinking holes while Msafiri is at the mellower end of the spectrum.The town's only nightclub,stardom,has a good bar and forest-style décor,andopens up its dance floor on Wednesday,Fridays and Saturdays for a mix of reggae, rumba and R'n'B.
The Kakamega Forest
Some 400 years ago,Kakamega Forest would have been at the eastern end of a broad expansive forest stretching west,clear across the continent,virtually unbroken as far as the Atlantic.Three hundred years later,after the advent of the human population explosion and widescale cultivation,the forest everywhere had receded and had reduced Kakamega to an island of some 2400 square kilometers,cut off from the rest of the Guineo-congolan rainforest.Today,with an area less than 230 square kilometers,it's a small patch of relic equatorial jungle,famous among zoologists and botanists around the world as an example of how an isolated environment can survive cut off fom it's larger body.
The Kakamega Forest is a haven of shadowy gloom for more than 300 species of birds,45% of all the butterfly species ever recorded in Kenya,seven species of primates,as well as snakes,various other reptiles and untold varieties of insects.Many of these creatures are found nowhere else in East Africa because similar habitats no longer exist.The fear among environmentalists now is that even this tiny surviving track of rainforest,unique in Kenya is in danger of being eliminated.
Despite a laudable scheme to educate the local population about the forest,the lack of any coherent backing from the authorities means that its long-term future isn't bright.Pressure from local people who need grazing for their livestock,land to cultivate and firewood,amounts to a significant threat.The present area is less than a tenth of what it was in 1900,and its closed canopy cover(which indicates the forest's health and maturity)has dropped from 90% to 50% of the total area.This has led to the degradation of the natural habitat,and inevitably to some species being threatened,some like the leopard,last seen in 1992,becoming extinct.
Moving on from Kakamega
The obvious routes out of the area lie along the A1,north to Kitale or south to Kisumu.The road down to Kisumu is a real roller coaster,with a final eight kilometer descent over the picturesque, boulder-strewn Nyando Escarpment which brings Lake Victoria into view.In clear weather,it allows fantastic panaromas across the sugar fields of the Kano plains towards the massif of the Mau and the Kisii hills.Look out for the florid church on the left,founded in Egypt in the early years of Christianity.If you're heading back to the Rift valley or Nairobi,you don't need to use the busy A1.You can go straight through the Kakamega forest via Shinyalu and out to Kapsabet,where you join an excellent tarmac highway,the C36 to Nabkoi and rejoin the A104.
If you have time and inclination for a diversion somewhat off the beaten track,you could visit the small town of Mumias,the sugar belt largest processing center and one of western Kenya's Muslim strongholds.The road from Kakamega is paved and there's regular transport.Among the bus routes available,Akamba runs two daily services to Nairobi,via Kisumu and via Kapsabet,both at 8.30a.m and one to Mumias daily at 4p.m;coast bus runs direct,daily services to Mombasa at 4.30p.m:and the comfortable Easy coach departs from Nairobi at 8a.m and 8p.m.Most matatus leave from the main stand on Sudi road,but those for Mumias have their own stand on Mumias Road.
The forest is fragmented,interspersed with open fields of grassland,and the larger central area has cultivated stream margin,small settlements and even tea plantations.Two main areas can be visited.The first which has been accessible for many years,is the central Kakamega Forest Reserve,lying east of Kakamega town,somewhat off the beaten track,and managed by the Forest Department.Most visitors come to one of the densest stands of the forest in this area,and often stay at the Forest Rest House in the glade at its edge.The second section,the Kakamega Forest National Reserve is northeast of the town,just off the A1 highway,and very easy to get to.This is a strictly controlled zone of 44square kilometers,maintained by the KWS more or less like a national park.
The Central District:Kakamega Forest Reserve
On arrival at the Forest Rest House,you'll be greeted by an official guide(a member of Kakamega Biodiversity Conservation Tour Operators,KaBiCoToa for short)whose name should be on the board outside the hut on the path up to the house.You will be given a brief introduction to the region and the conservation work being done by KEEP_all guides should have a KEEP identity card,which is attempting to educate villagers and school children on the outskirts of the forest the importance of preserving it
It's best to take up the offer of a guide,especially if you are a woman on your own.Exceptionally for a profession that usually attracts hustlers,this lot are professional and knowledgeable;their walks aer tremendously enjoyable and they're happy to tailor them to your particular interests.Expect a wonder along the labirinthyne jungle paths with birds, monkeys,chameleon and other animals pointed out to you,most of which you would miss if you went on your own.A pair of binoculars is more or less indispensable if you're out to watch birds.
Among the commoner birds are the noisy and gregarious black-and-white casqued hornbill and the very striking, deep violet Ross's turaco.You may also see farmiliar looking African grey parrots and,circling above the canopy on the lookout for unweary monkeys,the huge crowned hawk eagle.Kakamega's avian stars,however are the great blue turaco,glossy,turkey-sized birds like dowagers in evening gowns.They're easily located by their raucous calls:a favourite spot at night is the grove of very tall trees down by the pump house.They arrive each evening to crash and lurch among the branches as they select roosting sites.
The forest draws mammal-watchers as well,particularly for its monkeys.Troops are often seen at dusk,foraging through the trees directly opposite the Forest Rest House veranda.Apart from the ubiquitous colobus,you can se sykes' monkeys and the much slimmer white-nosed monkey(most easily recognized by its red tail).They're often seen milling around with the hornbills.You may also see pairs of giant forest squirrels capering on the treetops_the deep booming call you sometimes hear in the morning is theirs.
At night,armed with a powerful torch,you might catch a glimpse of bushbabies,palm civets,genets or even a potto,a slow-moving,lemur-like animal whose name aptly conveys in appearance and demeanor.The forest is also home to several species of fruit bat,of which the hammer-headed fruit bat(Hipsignathus monstrosus)is the largest in Africa,with a wingspan of a meter and an enormous head.Other nocturnal Kakamega specialities are the otter shrew,which lives in some of the forest streams,the tree pangolin(a kind of arboreal scaly anteater)and the flying squirrel.
The forest reptile life is legendary,but few people actually see any snakes,and you're much more likely to come across chameleons.Reptiles spend a great deal of time motionless,especially when frightened,and to see snakes in the dense foliage you have to be skilled.Visible or not, the snakes are however abundant and you should not walk in the forest bare-footed or in sandals:the sluggish gaboon viper,growing a meter or more in length,and fatter than your arm,is a dangerous Denizen of the forest floor,though not an animal that seeks confrontation.To avoid a serpentine encounter,simply walk heavily:snakes are highly sensitive to vibration and wil flee at your seismic ,approach.
If you have time for more than one daylight walk,you could ask a guide to show you the way to Lirhanda Hill,via a trail that's rich in medicinal herbs.You will be shown the leaves,berries and saps that forest dwellers chew,swallow or anoint themselves with to cure certain ailments.Lirhanda Hill itself is a lookout point, offering fine views over the whole expanse of the forest,with the somber bulk of Mount Elgon glowering in the distance.Cutting into the hillside near the top is a gold-mining shaft,long,disused and now home to a llarge colony of bats.With a powerful torch and a steely nerve you can grope your way along the tunnel to meet them at close quarters.
Arrival and practicalities
Ther are several ways of getting to the Forest Rest House.If you're driving from Kakamega,the easiest road is from Khayega,7km south of Kakamega on the A1.The junction is marked by signposts for the Arap Moi girls' school and the office of the president.From here,an earth road leads 6km to Shinyalu.Keep right at Shinyalu and continue for another 5.3km to Isecheno,turning left just after the barrier and a signposted arrow.From the barrier it's less than a kilometer up the trail to the Forest Rest House.
If you're driving from Eldoret via Kapsabet,the road into the forest starts at Chepsonoi,on the C39 where you take the right turning(west),signposted "Kisieni 12km D267".Whichever way you're taking,the surfaces get treacherously slippery during wet weather(especially for low –clearance 2WD).Given the predictable afternoon rains,this limits you to getting there between 10am to 2pm,when the road is at driest.Even so 4WD is advisable.
If you're using public transport from Kakamega,the cheapest way is to catch a matatu to Shinyalu.There are occasional matatus from Khayega too,or you could take a boda-boda from there.From Shinyalu it's a lovely hour-long walk to Isecheno.From Eldoret,any bus or matatu heading towards kisumu via Kapsabet,Chavakali and Maragoli will pass the turning for Isecheno at Chepsonoi.From this junction if you don't get a lift,it takes about three hours to walk through the magnificent forest scenery to the Central District headquarters at Isecheno.
If you stay in one of Isecheno places(the Forest Rest House or Isecheno Bandas),you'll find the closest reliable supplies are at the dukas about 3km away on the road to Shinyalu;so its best to bring your own food.For candles and simple staples_bananas,chai,mineral water,biscuits,sodas and sometimes beer_there's a small duka on your way to the pump house,which is open daily.They cook inexpensive meals to order,given a few hour's notice.
- Camiha café at the start of the Isecheno Road in Shinyalu.If you want to stay somewhere with beer and music,this might fit the bill.It's really just a café and bar,with four basic rooms,bucket showers(hot water on request)food available and music till late.
- Forest Rest House Central district HQ area,reservations in advance.If you're not fussy about comforts,this wooden chalet is a delight_a kind of budget Treetops without crowds.There are four 3-bedded,s/c rooms on the first floor,with a long veranda facing onto the walls of the forest.There's basic bedding but you might bring a blanket or sleeping bag,as it can get decidedly chilly in the morning.There's no electricity and erratic water supplies(when the pump is on,each room has a functioning bathroom and toilet;otherwise you have to fetch water from,the pump house.
- Isecheno Bandas central District HQ are next to the FRH.KEEP's own bandas are located right next to the FRH and cost the same,but the money is used locally for KEEP's ongoing community conservation projects.There are five non-s/c bandas,with beds,blankets,sheets and pillows,and a separate shower(hot water on request)and toilet block.As at the forest house,you can bring food and firewood to self cater, or make arrangements locally to have meals provided.
- Isecheno Blue shouldered Guest House 500m south of the central district HQ.Quirky little homestay named after the blue shouldered robi-chat,one of Kakamega's unusual birds.Sleeping five in three rooms,the house has a veranda,from where you can watch monkeys from the trees opposite.Meals to order(or bring your food and cook),and the forest walk available,(the owner is a Kakamega guide).
- Rondo Retreat Center 2.5km east of the isecheno junction. If myou want a high level comfort,this is the upmarket option in the forest,situated in a fine old sawmiller's house built in 1948.This "Christian sanctuary for nature's lovers"_owned by a group called the Trinity Fellowship_has wonderful, bright,four-poster bedrooms in cottages set among cool lawns.It's fresh and elegant,with just enough clutter and lack of uniformity to make it feel homely.There's great bird-watching,butterfly-spotting and flower enjoying, but they don't serve alcohol(though there's no objectio0n if you want to bring your own.
Kakamega Forest National Reserve
Driving south down the A1 road to Kakamega from its junction with the A104 at Maturu,you enter the thick forest of the Kakamega forest region after about 14km.Although parts are cleared and there's no lack of people about, it's a very different environment from just a out anywhere in Kenya.Some 22km south of Maturu you reach a cluster of shops and hotels set back from the road.This is the junction for the murram road into the Kakamega Forest National Reserve the part of the forest managed by KWS.
If you've got your own vehicle,it's easier to get around mthis part of Kakamega forest than the central zone.The forest proper is,in fact,a fair walk from the KWS_run.Udo's Bandas and campsite named after the ornithologist Udo savali,which is barely 300m from the northern reserve boundary and less than 2km from Main Gate.
About the Author
Anthony Mmeri is the Editor and Senior Aviation Director at Wings Over Africa Safaris Limited.
This is a Tours & Travel Company that specializes on Birding Safaris,Hotel Accomodation,Wildlife Safaris Kakamega & Kakamega Rainforest Kenya,East Africa. The website has guided thousands of travelers to achieve their dream holiday. For more information and guidance, visit the site at http:// www.wingsoverafrica-aviation.com/index.php/services/tourist-flights.html
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