Kenya: The Kakamega Forest

9th February - 1st March 2002


I walked across the border from Uganda at the border town of Busia. Busia itself is a town split in two by the frontier, or in reality it is two towns known as Busia U and Busia K. It was a hot day and there were a sea of people moving to and fro across the border; most, like me, seemed to be walking from the taxi park in Busia U to it's counterpart in Kenyan Busia or vice-versa. There was a queue of traffic waiting between the border gates in no-mans land, mostly goods vehicles, the majority being petrol tankers heading into Uganda. Their diesel engines belched black smoke, which hung in the air with the dust thrown up by the hot breeze. While walking the few hundred metres of no-mans land and getting my passport stamped at the relevant immigration offices, the Kenyan taxi touts were already hounding me. I let one lead me to a matatu for Kisumu; resistance was useless.

Kisumu is Kenya's third largest town and is just over 100km from Busia on the shores of Lake Victoria's Winam Gulf. I arrived on Saturday afternoon and the town seemed very quiet, a lot of the businesses had already closed for the weekend. Once I left the chaos of the taxi park behind me, the rest of the town seemed to be asleep, with very little traffic or people in the town centre. I walked to the Razbi Guesthouse, just off Oginga Odinga Road and checked in for a night. It was a very pleasant guesthouse and the staff friendly and helpful. Unfortunately there was no running water, which turned out to be a town wide problem; there was a problem with the pumping station and none of the town had any water pressure. It was back to bucket showers again. At least the cold water was refreshing as Kisumu was definitely a lot hotter and more humid than Jinja and Kampala, where I had just travelled from.

I didn't do much in the town and only stayed the night, as my main aim was to get to the Kagamega Forest Reserve about 40km north of town. I was too exhausted to do much in the afternoon after my journey across the border. I went out for the evening and ate at the TOT Coffee House and had a nice beef curry, washed down with Tusker beer while watching the third place playoff in the African Cup of Nations between Nigeria and the hosts Mali; Nigeria won on a penalty shoot out after extra time. There is a large Asian community in the town and this was definitely reflected in the local cuisine.

The following morning, Sunday, I walked back up to the taxi park and took a share taxi to Kagamega. The town centre was even quieter than yesterday; as we drove north out of town along Jomo Kenyatta Highway we soon found where everyone was this Sunday morning, the Kibuye Market. This is a once weekly market which stretches along the highway about 1km out of the town centre. The highway was a mass of people buying and selling, it looked as though you could buy almost anything along this stretch of road.

The journey to Kagamega was mostly uphill passing fertile farmland on the surrounding hills. It was somewhat uncomfortable with nine people in the car, a couple of them definitely on the large size. I soon found my left leg going to sleep and I struggled to keep the circulation going by wiggling my toes. It was with relief that we pulled into the taxi park at Kagamega and the human cargo in our car stumbled back out into the world, myself limping until I managed to get some blood back into my left leg. Kagamega seemed to be a bigger town than I expected, it had most services you would need here. I didn't stay long and climbed into the back of a pickup truck for the 10km trip along a dirt road to the village of Shinyalu.

The journey became a little more difficult from Shinyalu, at the edge of the forest. It was another 8km to the Forest Rest house, where I planned to stay, but there was very little if any traffic continuing along the road past Shinyalu and through the forest. I was left with only two options, to walk or to take a bicycle taxi. I chose the latter option, as they seemed only too willing to pedal me along the road into the forest. I climbed onto the back of a bicycle and was slowly pedalled out of Shinyalu on the final leg of my journey for today. It was now the middle of the afternoon and very hot, but my cyclist kept a steady progress slowly cranking the pedals round as the bicyle creaked and groaned under our combined weight. We weaved along the road through the forest trying to find the smoothest piece of dirt. It hadn't rained for sometime and the road was covered in a thick layer of dust, a couple of inches thick in places. It began to make the going slow, it must have been like trying to cycle along a dry sandy beach, difficult. By the time we hit our first hill, which was hardly noticeable to the naked eye, we came to a crunching halt. We both climbed off the bike and began walking, sweat pouring from the cyclist's forehead.

This is how our journey continued for the 8km, cycling and walking, until we reached the turnoff for the Forest Rest house. I had expected the road to have just passed by endless trees into the forest, but instead found that we passed by many small settlements and farms along the way from Shinyalu, and a constant traffic of pedestrians and bicycles along the dirt road; I don't recall passing any other vehicles though. Once we turned off this road we walked past a small tea plantation before freewheeling downhill the rest of the way to the Forest Rest house. By the time we arrived I felt rather guilty for the physical effort expended on my behalf and gave the cyclist an extra twenty shillings to buy a drink. I really thought he was going to die on me at one point.

The Forest Rest house is in a little hamlet of buildings in the forest. The Kagamega Environmental Education Programme centre is based here plus a few other houses for forest workers and a couple of kiosks; there were about ten buildings in all. The Rest house is an old wooden building built on stilts. There are four rooms, each with an en-suite bathroom, which almost worked, and a large veranda running the length of the building. The place looked fairly deserted as I was shown up to room two by the caretaker. He told me that there was only one other person staying here, an American who was doing a study of insects in the forest. It didn't look as though he needed to go far to study insects as there was a hive of bees living in room one.

Later that afternoon I met the American, Roy on his return from the forest. I was a little surprised to see a Native American sitting on the veranda, in just a pair of shorts, very tanned and his hair in two plats that reached down to his waist. I think he looked older than he really was, but I would have guessed he was about seventy. He had spent his career working as a curator at the natural history museum in Los Angeles; he was in charge of bees, wasps and ants. Since he retired he has spent all his time doing fieldwork, which was something he never had time to do during his career. If he was studying bees he needn't go any further than room one; all during the day there was a constant drone of bees coming from the room. He goes wherever someone pays him to go to study ants. This was one of his many trips to the Kagamega Forest, paid for by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, to do a survey of the various species of ants that live here. It is a study that no one has done yet and on Roy's visits to this forest he has so far identified 102 species of ant, one of them new to science. His other trips take him to exotic places like Thailand, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and northern Australia.

I spent three nights at the Forest Rest house, during which time Roy and myself got into something of a routine. Later on that first afternoon he knocked on my door holding a couple of cans of Tusker beer. Each afternoon, after I returned from one of my hikes in the forest and Roy had returned from collecting ants, we would sit on the veranda having a beer. The mornings also followed a similar routine with Roy brewing up a large pot of coffee. It may sound strange but it's really difficult to find a decent cup of coffee in Kenya, yet the stuff grows everywhere; wherever you look there is either a tea or coffee plantation. The only coffee served locally was instant Nescafe, the rest I guess is exported. Unless you are prepared to go self-catering, which I wasn't as it was too far to the shops in Kagamega to pick up supplies, the only choice for somewhere to dine is a little kiosk at the end of the road. This is where I ate during my stay in the forest.

The kiosk didn't have a name, it was just a wooden shack with a corrugated iron roof; I named the place Mama's Kitchen, after the Mama, a large lady who tried to do the cooking. My only regular dining companion during my stay was a chicken. It was always around scratching about under my table. Occasionally Mama's children would run in, quickly say, 'Jambo', before turning shy and running out the back door. The menu was not extensive and I settled for a bowl of mixed vegetables, rice and a chapatti, washed down with a bottle of warm beer that tasted foul. That's when I really began to appreciate Roy's Tusker beer and for the rest of my trip through Kenya always ordered a Tusker when I was at a bar. I ate at Mama's Kitchen for the three nights I stayed at the Forest Rest House; each night I ate the same, it kept things simple and avoided any confusion, but the food gradually got worse and worse each night. By the third night I found Mama lying on one of the benches in the kiosk, wrapped in a blanket, cooking my dinner over a charcoal fire. You would think that you couldn't really go wrong with rice, vegetables and bread but believe me, Mama managed by day three to make it almost inedible. I only managed to eat it as I was hungry from not eating all day. Roy always joked when I returned to the guesthouse that I managed to survive another one of Mama's meals.

I spent my days hiking in the forest, getting in some training for my up coming trek to the summit of Mt Kenya. As the forest is only designated as a forest reserve and administered by the Kenyan Forestry Commission, there are no park fees payable and you are free to hike through the forest by yourself without having to take a guide or ranger with you. I asked around at the Kagamega Environmental Education Programme office for a map of the forest showing the trails, which are supposed to be waymarked. After much searching they found that they no longer had any maps or guides. Roy later told me that all the waymarkers had long ago disappeared, probably aquired by the locals to use as firewood or for construction.

There is a lot of pressure on the forest from the surrounding villages and many illegal activities are going on. Even the Forestry Commission advise against taking photos of people in the forest, because the majority of them will be there illegally and won't appreciate having their photo taken. I found a constant caravan of women marching through the forest carrying huge bundles of firewood on their heads back to the villages. Roy, who has been visiting the forest for the last few years told me that the problem is getting worse each year. There is a lot of illegal logging going on as well and the villagers herding their cattle through the forest have turned the paths into large tracks cutting a swathe through the trees. It appears that either the Forestry Commission doesn't have the power to act against this encroachment or just turns a blind eye. Unfortunately I think the later is true as in the past the Forestry Commission has tackled the problem of encroachment on forests by redefining their borders and surrendering the land to the villagers. This is what Roy told me from his experience of working in the forests of Kenya over recent years.

So without a map or waymarkers on the trails my hikes became more challenging than I expected before I had even started. I decided to carry my compass in my pocket just in case. At first I followed a trail north from the Rest house which after a while lead into a large glade where the villagers graze their cattle. It was very difficult to pick up a trail on the other side of the glade as it was so big and the trails just disappeared into the long grass. I found a trail on the opposite side, which I followed for a while until it petered out and I found myself just walking through the undergrowth along a very indistinct path. I turned back to the Rest house, fearful of getting lost in the forest.

Near to Mama's Kitchen was a sign pointing along a path saying, 'Pump house trail'. I followed this to the pump house out in the forest. Along the way the path forked. I doubled back and followed the other fork, which lead out onto the main dirt road through the forest. I walked along this for two or three kilometres until I reached the Rondo Retreat, a more expensive version of the Forest Rest house. I continued walking for a while until I saw a sign pointing to a trail saying, 'Yala River Trail, 3 hours walking.' I thought that this sounded promising, checked the time on my watch, the direction of the trail on my compass and began hiking. The trail lead through the forest and out onto open grassland following a gentle valley in a southerly direction. I only saw one other person along the trail, a local boy herding some cattle. The weather was hot and sunny, hardly a cloud in the sky and the going got hot once I reached the grassland and low bush.

After about an hour walking from the road the track turned into a narrow path, which lead into thick forest. I kept following the path deeper and deeper into the forest, now keeping an eye on my compass to see if the trail would lead me in a circle back to where I entered this thick patch of forest. The path swung from a southerly direction to westerly confirming my thoughts that this was a loop trail. Soon I came to a small grassy glade. There were no cattle grazing here, it was far too deep in the forest for the villagers to herd their cattle down to. I followed the faint traces of a trail through the long grass to the trees on the far side of the glade from where I could hear the distance sound of falling water; I must be getting near the Yala River at last. The path went downhill winding through the trees, the sound of falling water becoming louder and louder. Eventually I arrived at the banks of the Yala River just downstream from a waterfall. I was hot and the air thick with humidity; my T-shirt was soaked in sweat and sweat dripped from my forehead.

I stood by the edge of the river, which was flowing fast, the water brown with sediment. It was then that I began to get spooked from my surroundings. I knew that there were no crocodiles or hippos along this river but it still didn't stop the thoughts going through my head that there could be all kinds of nasties living in or along this river, deep in the forest, two hours walk from civilisation. I decided to continue along the path that now lead away from the river in almost a northerly direction. Just as I began walking along the path the leaf litter in front of me moved and this snake slithered across the path just one step away. It quickly disappeared off the path and into the forest. If I wasn't spooked before, I was now; I had almost trodden on one of the nasties that was going through my head as I stood by the rivers edge. I really was in a jungle. I began to walk faster, the trail crossing many small streams and clearings where the undergrowth grew thick and tall; the perfect place for snakes my mind kept telling me.

Eventually the trail lead me out of the forest and back to the low bush and grassland. There had been a few forks in the path in the forest but it appeared that I had chosen wisely and soon found myself back where I had started, my jungle adventure over. It still took two hours to get back to the Rest house where Roy was waiting for me with a can of Tusker. I recalled my adventures in the jungle and my snake encounter. Roy laughed and said he loved that part of the forest along the Yala valley, it was really wild down there he told me.

My other hike I went to the Lirhanda lookout hill. Again the trail to the hill wasn't marked but I guessed that a trail lead off the road somewhere past the Yala River trail. I was right, a couple of kilometres past the Yala trail I came across a large path leading south through the forest. I thought to myself that this must be it and began to follow the trail, which gradually began to go uphill. After about twenty minutes walking, the path began to climb steeply and lead out of the trees and up a steep grassy slope; I had found the lookout hill. As I climbed the hill I heard the first rumble of thunder in the distance, which I didn't take much notice of. The hill is about 50-75 metres higher than the surrounding forest and, as it name suggests, is a good lookout hill with panoramic views 360' across the forest. The view was fantastic but to the east I could see the storm clouds gathering and the rumbles of thunder becoming louder and more frequent, lightening streaking across the black clouds.

In addition, to the west a thunderhead rapidly formed, the two giant clouds merging above me as I sat on the hill. It began to look inevitable that I was going to get rather wet. The first large raindrop hit my hat and was soon followed by a rhythmic tapping on my hat as the rain began to steadily fall from the sky. In the space of a few minutes the hot sun had disappeared and heavy, black clouds surrounded me. I hiked back down the hill and into the forest, the rain beginning to fall in a steady downpour. The leaf litter on the forest floor appeared to come alive as the rain dripped off the trees above and hit the ground, causing the litter to almost dance around my feet. By the time I reached the road the storm was in full swing, lightening striking above illuminating the shadows along the side of the road. The red, dusty clay road, which only a little while ago was baking in the hot sun, was now steaming as the rain fell, leaving a mist, which covered the road up to about waist height. The dust quickly turned back into heavy clay and stuck to my boots in huge clods, weighing down my feet. The road was deserted, the locals must have been able to read the weather better than I could and taken shelter. I walked alone back towards the Forest Rest house, only passing a couple of brave cyclists along the way and finally arrived back soaked to the skin.

Roy was already sitting on the veranda with a couple of cans of Tusker waiting for me with a smile on his face, as he saw me walk along the veranda, dripping wet. As we drunk the beer and the storm continued to rage around us he gave me one of his tips. When he is out in the forest and hears the first rumble of thunder, he turns back for home and generally just gets back as the first drops of rain begin to fall; I will try and remember that tip in the future.

The storm finally abated and later that night while I was sitting in my room an intruder flew in through my window. It was big, ugly and noisy; I dived for cover under my mosquito net. From the relative safety of my mosquito net I assessed the situation. The flying bug was absolutely huge, I had never seen a bug so big before which could fly. It's body, which was jet black, must have been the size of my little finger, with long, bright orange legs dangling from it's abdomen; when it rested it's wings formed a delta wing shape on it's back. It was going to be a battle to the death, the room wasn't big enough for the two of us. The bug kept flying around the room, it's vibrating wings making a menacing noise as it passed by my net. I decided to use chemical weapons first on the intruder to try and stun it. I reached for my bottle of DEET insect repellent spray. As it flew past me I released a cloud of DEET, I scored a direct hit, sending the bug spiralling across the room. This battle continued for some time, whenever the bug was in range I squirted a cloud of DEET at it. The DEET was beginning to have an effect and the bug flew in increasingly erratic patterns across the room, thumping into the wooden walls and dropping to the floor. At one stage it crash-landed on the opposite bed, I took my opportunity and coming out from the safety of my mosquito net ran across the room to clobber it with a sandal. All I managed to do was stun it; I retreated back under my net as the bug took to the air once more, this time landing on a wooden chair to take refuge. I grabbed my DEET spray and my knife and ran across the room, stunning the bug with DEET while it sat on the chair and then plunging my knife into its thick body, pinning it to the chair, it's legs twitching as it's life ebbed away; I had won.

In the morning I told Roy about my battle with the bug and showed him the carcass. It turned out to be a spider wasp, which has a very nasty sting; I knew the bug was bad news. Roy told me that it flies into spider webs, catching the spider, which it then lays an egg in before burying it; the wasp's egg hatches and the lava feeds off the spider's body. Roy told me that I had caught a mighty fine specimen and asked if he could keep it with his collection. I agreed, pleased to have done my little bit for science, and apologised for the knife wound in its body.

Continue reading this journey: Planning the Mt Kenya Trek