I’ll take a guess and say you just thought of the Amazon rainforests of South America or the Cloud Forests in Ecuador?
These are the big guys of the rainforest world, the ‘carbon sink’ forests, the ‘captured on every documentary going’ forests. These tropical rainforests have been called the ‘world’s largest pharmacy’, with over one quarter of natural medicines discovered within them. Half of all the living animal and plant species on the planet and two-thirds of all flowering plants are found in these forests, and there may be millions of species plants, insects and microorganisms still undiscovered in them.
But not all tropical rainforests lie in the vastness of South America.
The tropics take a major role in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide with climate change being significantly contributed to by the destruction of the rainforests. A simulation was performed in which all rainforests in Africa were removed. The simulation showed an increase in atmospheric temperature by 2.5 to 5 degrees Celsius. One such rainforest in Africa is Kenya’s Kakamega rainforest. A definite baby of the rainforest world, it comes in at just 238 square kms, a little less than half of which currently remains as an indigenous forest. It is Kenya’s only tropical rainforest and is said to be the country’s last remnant of the ancient Guineo-Congolian rainforest that once spanned the continent.
In 2009, dusty and hot from a cramped mtatu (small van) ride, I found myself in Kakamega Forest National Reserve. This Reserve in the north of the forest comes in at just 45 square kms. It’s situated 50km north of Kisumu city and near to the border with Uganda. It has over 360 species of birds, 380 species of plants, 350 species of trees, and 400 species of butterflies. It also houses 7 species of primates including the endangered DeBrazza monkey, the black and white Colobus monkey and the Vervet monkey. It boasts flying squirrels, chameleons, lizards, aardvarks, bush bucks, giant forest hogs, duikers, Dik diks and the Potto (the world’s slowest mammal). The forest also includes some of Africa’s greatest hard and soft woods: Elgon teak, red and white stink woods and several varieties of Croton and Aniageria Altisima.
With 7 kms of trails, there are a team of ranger guides to escort visitors through the forest, though you can take yourself round with a guide book if you’re feeling sure-footed. I went with a guide for a full day’s walk, roughly 5-7 hours, which set me back 2000 Kenyan shillings (Ksh) which is approximately 14 British pounds. Other options, which must all be paid in cash, are: Short walk 0-2 hours – Ksh 500; Long walk 0-3 hours – Ksh 1000; Night walk 2 hours – Ksh 1200; Sunrise/sunset walk – Ksh 1200. I visited in July and was told that this was one of the best times to visit; between April and July, during the rainy season, the flowers are at their most bizarre and colourful.
Photo from Flickr user: Felix Krohn
It was my first rainforest, and in my head, it was up there with the heavy-weight giants of the Amazons. Orchids grew amongst the branches, exotic birdcalls pierced the dense canopy, unfamiliar scents crept from the deep shade, half-camouflaged snakes coiled around nearby trees, and monkeys crashed through the undergrowth; I learnt that a rainforest is never still, never silent. My guide passed by trees and plants and managed to name hundreds of them, imparting his knowledge of their medicinal properties and lifecycles. We passed huge buttress roots and jumped over thick lines of ants trails – if you’re going to visit this rainforest, or any other, wear good walking boots that protect your ankles as no matter how far you step over an ant trail, a safari ant will always try to latch onto any exposed flesh on your heel if you’re a flip-flop/sandal fan.
We spent the day passing between thick rainforest and exposed meadow glades, before clambering up Lirhanda Hill in the thick heat to reach the highest elevation of the forest at 1700m above sea level, where the sheer sweeping scale of the rainforest could be taken in under the midday haze. From here we snuck into the bat caves before retreating back to the shade of the forest. It was a strangely overwhelming day, filled with butterflies the size of my palm and trails leading off into the seemingly endless undergrowth. I could have easily spent a week returning to different trails, at different times, and I’d recommend camping or staying in one of the Reserve’s bandas if you have the time.
Whilst Kakamega Forest is the main tourist destination in the area, another stop-off I’d recommend is the Crying Stone of Ilesi. Located along the highway towards Kisumu, just some 17km from the Reserve, it’s a 40m high rock dome consisting mainly of quarts, alkali, feldspar and mica. It resembles a human figure with water running down its structure from ‘head to toe’, giving the air of a gowned figure endlessly crying. There’s something as equally overwhelming about this crying rock structure as there is about the tangled trails of Kakamega Rainforest. Suffice to say, I can’t imagine how overwhelmed I’d be if I ever made it to the Cloud Forests…