The forests of the Taita Hills are one of the most amazing places on earth. Rising from the plains, the magical mist mountains straddle the skyline near Voi and are the northern extreme of the Eastern Arc Mountains. The first to show is the single massif of Mbololo, followed by the Dabida cache of hills, and then the Sagalla Hill that frames the town of Voi.
These hills have been around for over 200 million years but what sets them apart from the ordinary is the fact that despite all the climate changes that have happened since then, the climate on the hill tops has remained stable because the hills catch the ocean-swept moisture-laden clouds drifting in from the Indian Ocean. These clouds have kept the forests bursting with biodiversity. Today they boast the highest density of endemic species.
Already the journey from the plains has been interesting with the short rains giving leaf to the baobab and the custard-coloured flower of the Delonyx elata. A lone elephant coated in the red dust of the Tsavo grazes by the road between Tsavo West and Tsavo East. It has the truckers fascinated. The elephant can’t go into the east side of Tsavo because of the fence along the standard gauge railway that now blocks the once ancient access. The young bull has to find an opening in the embankment or return to the west side.
The road up from Mwatete on the base of Taita Hills to Wundanyi, the hilltop town, reveals dramatic drops to the plains, more rock faces and the ridges of the hills. Edward Abbey’s quote comes to mind: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”
By eventide everything is blanketed in white mist that drifts in from the Indian Ocean.
In the early morn, the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro juts above the clouds to frame the blue sky at Wundanyi and we’re off to Ngangao, the largest forest patch on the Taita Hills. It’s pristine as I follow Handrison Mwameso, my guide from Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Group (DABICO) who leads me through the miasma of forest trees with clusters of the endemic Phoenix reclinata dotted around. I’ve been enchanted with the Taita Hills since my first foray 20 years ago and every visit only increases my fascination.
From the forest floor up, it’s layer upon layer of shrubs and trees. We bump into the bird researchers checking on the nest of Taita thrush and Taita apalis. Both birds are on a rapid decline and potentially could become Kenya’s first birds to become extinct in modern times – and all because of the pressure from the increasing human population surrounding the remnants of the forests.
With the short rains, the forest is alive with colour. The forest floor is a mosaic of colourful mushrooms and fungi – pint-sized saffron umbrellas, white coral-heads, pink mushrooms, orange fungi. Higher on the canopy, flowers deck the indigenous forest trees of Craibia zimmermanni, Lobelia gibberoa and the Taita version of Millettia oblata.
And then suddenly we’re at the Mother Tree. It towers above all. It’s the Newtonia buchananii. Moss and lichen clad the solid trunk breaking through the canopy. It’s more than 130 feet tall. Sitting on its thick buttress root, we’re just specks on it.
In the quietness of the forest, a tiny bird sends a musical note. It’s an African dusky flycatcher, a picture of perfect poetry.