Down to the White Sand - Part 2

North to Kakamega Forest

Since Emmy was coming over the border to meet us, it made sense for us to start our trip nearer to the border with Uganda. Fred organised transport for us to get into the Kakamega Forest, a reserve in the north-west of Kenya, just over the border to the north of Lake Victoria. Our destination turned out to be a secluded religious retreat in the middle of the forest, comfortable rooms in a colonial-style bungalow with good food and service, but no alcohol! It turned out that they didn’t sell alcohol, but had no objections to us buying some beer in the village and keeping it in the fridge.

We were soon settled in and well fed, but there was no sign of Emmy. With poor mobile phone signals in the area, it took a few attempts to get hold of him, something that was finally achieved around eight o’clock. It turned out that he had been delayed at the border for more than three hours, but he was finally on his way and was soon greeting us all in his usual enthusiastic way. We had time to make our plans for the following morning before getting an early night for as much sleep as possible.

Kakamega Forest is one of the last remaining fragments of the ancient equatorial forest in East Africa. It is a similar ecosystem to some of the forests that we had visited in Uganda, with many similar bird species, including some found nowhere else in Kenya and one found nowhere else on earth. As each trip to Africa has come and gone, each has become more and more focussed on the search for birds. When Chris is with us we have two keen bird-watchers. With Emmy we have an expert who must be considered more than keen. Elizabeth and I make up the numbers, but I appreciate the species that I do see and am certainly getting a little better at identification. In any case, the chance to see an isolated endemic species shouldn’t ever be overlooked.

Early on the following morning, Wilson, our local guide, took us down to the forest offices to pay our fees and then to take a walk in the forest nearby, looking for whatever we could find. I wanted to see the Great Blue Turaco, but Emmy – of course – wanted to see the elusive Blue-headed Bee-eater. As it turned out, we managed to see both, but the viewing was very difficult. Both birds like the tops of the trees and in Kakamega these can be thirty metres tall or more. Even if the bird is in the tree next to you it is still a long way away. The searching was fairly interesting though as there were many more birds to be seen and heard nearer to the ground. In the end we spent all morning looking around and added more than twenty species to the trip list.

When we arrived back at the camp, it turned out that the Blue Turacos came right into the tall trees of the garden and we got better pictures and views of them after lunch than we would ever have managed in the depths of the forest.The same turned out to be true the following morning when we found the Bee-eaters in a smaller tree just a few hundred metres along the main road. One posed on a branch long enough for Emmy to climb onto the roof of the car for an even closer photo. Back in the garden we found a nesting Crowned Eagle, one of the few large eagles that I hadn’t managed to see before. Again he was very high in a tree and the photos were less than I would have liked.

On our final evening in the area we climbed a small hill in the middle of the forest, one that was clear of trees, to get an overview of the area as the sun was setting. Anything as an excuse for a beer as the sun goes down. From 100m above the surrounding ground we could see the expanse and scale of the forest, but also the encroachment of habitation and cultivation that threatens so many of the wild places of Kenya and beyond. The forest service have had to allow the collection of fallen timber within the forest for firewood, something that we had seen in the past elsewhere, leading to a certain degree of abuse of this privilege. It could even be argued that just taking out dead wood reduces the nutrient content of an already poor soil over time – in normal circumstances the nutrients from these rotting branches would be returned to the soil from whence they came.
Despite these concerns for the future, Kakamega seemed to be well managed and the ecosystem was certainly diverse. From our high viewpoint we could imagine ourselves floating on a sea of tall trees, huge giants reaching high into a canopy of green spreading for kilometres in all directions. Far to the north-west, partly obscured by the clouds that surrounded its summit we could see the massive bulk of Mt. Elgon straddling the border between Kenya and Uganda.

Kembu and The Mau Forest

Soon enough it was time for another day of travelling, this time about 100km back to the east, to a place that Fred, Elizabeth and I had visited before, Kembu Cottages in the Mau Forest. Fred had tried to plan our trip to be a series of not-too-long drives between different places, but also to have an ever-changing set of eco-systems and environments to explore and maximize our bird-spotting.

In the end the drive took something more than four hours, including time spent looking at no fewer than six different species of sunbirds in the same roadside hedge. Part of the problem was the traffic, which was as usual heavy and unpredictably dangerous. Our other problem was that Gladys – Fred’s Garmin SatNav into which he had loaded a set of African maps – had something of a fit over the directions. Basically she turned us off the main road far too soon, great because we got to see all the sunbirds, but bad because it added at least 30 minutes to our journey on much poorer roads.

Our final arrival at Kembu was therefore in the mid-afternoon. We were quickly shown to our bungalow – just a few metres below the one we had used on the previous visit. It was newer and more spacious, with plenty of room for the five of us. Once again we would be catered for in our bungalow and the food would be plentiful and excellent. We soon found ourselves on the veranda and birding from our comfortable chairs as a number of new species for the trip paraded in front of us.

The next morning was spent in taking a quick trip down into the city of Nakuru so that Elizabeth could go to the bank and change some money into shillings. This was followed by various walks around the garden and farm, looking for more birds to add to the list.

Fred, Chris and Emmy were keen to explore and after some advice and dodgy directions from Andrew – the owner of Kembu and the farm – we set off the following morning after breakfast to explore some remnants of the once-great Mau Forest. Using a mixture of Gladys’ navigation skills and the better and more detailed maps in my phone, we eventually found ourselves on a steep track climbing the side of the mountains to the north of the main road. Eventually we came to a point too steep for Emmy’s Landcruiser to manage on essentially road tyres so we all decamped and started to move slowly uphill on foot.

The climb was quite steep and we were already well above 2300m, but we made steady progress over the next couple of hours, stopping frequently to catch our breath and spot more new bird species to add to the list. Andrew had suggested that we start from the transmission masts at the top of the mountain, but we never got that far – we probably took the wrong road somewhere as there were several on the map, all leading in a similar direction. Indeed, we ended up coming back down the mountain on a different road that happened to be worse than the one  we went up along.

That evening, Andrew took us out around the farm by torchlight to look for owls – with mixed success – in fact we only found the Verraux’s Eagle Owl the following morning, just before leaving to move on to our next destination.