Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Plug For Kakamega Rainforest, the Great Weekend Getaway

I can’t believe I’ve lived an hour’s bike ride away from the forest for almost two years, and haven’t really spent a lot of time there. It’s a minor tourist destination for people who actually make it out to Western Kenya, or who are working their way towards Kisumu or Uganda, but it takes a few days and some exploring to find its best-kept secrets. There are scores of trails winding through the forest, but only one is helpfully marked with a destination and estimated hiking time (River Yala, 3 Hours). Even that one has a confusing hairpin turn with a few side trails branching off in different directions, all of which I’m sure end up at the foot of a mass grave full of decomposing tourists still clutching their Nalgene bottles.

A few weeks ago we saw a troupe of blue monkeys migrating past one of the campsites. A research assistant was jotting down notes and watching them through binoculars. She explained that this troupe was invading another troupe’s territory, and if the other troupe came along and discovered this, a massive fight would ensue. This particular troupe had about 40 members, including youth, and like all blue monkey troupes it was dominated by a single alpha male. The rest were all females, and they each had a particular ranking in the group. The research assistant was trying to establish which females were dominant over others based on their behavior during inter-group fights. At one point the monkeys dropped down from the trees one by one, crossed the lawn, and ran under the stilted guesthouse, where they began eating dirt. “Calcium,” the research assistant explained.

They’ve also renovated the bandas at the KEEP (Kakamega Environmental Education Program) center, which is a nice place to crash for the night. Each banda has beds and mosquito nets, and is constructed like traditional Luo (or Luhya?) homes with thatched roofs and a covered veranda with simple furniture to lounge in. There’s running water, solar electricity, newly constructed choos and bafus, a party banda, and friendly staff who will heat your bath water to scalding temperatures and cook local meals upon request. You want chicken? They’ll find you a chicken. All this under the forest canopy, for 500/= a night (extra for the cook). Fall asleep to the 24/7 tooting bird, strange insect noises, monkey calls and that creepy clicking jungle sound that you hear on Lost. Wake up to the 24/7 tooting bird, the Christmas bird (whose song sounds like the beginning of Silver Bells), and all sorts of other songbirds, including roosters.

Alternatively there is what I like to call the Rooms-On-Stilts. KEEP calls it their guesthouse, an aqua blue wooden structure raised one and a half stories up on stilts as if the area were prone to flooding. There are only four rooms available here, but each one has two beds with nets, a flushing toilet, and a bathtub with running water. An added bonus is that you can see the ground below through the floorboards, which sometimes bend under your weight. The Rooms-On-Stilts has a balcony that is eye-level with the forest canopy, and we were able to wake up one morning and watch blue monkeys and black-and-white colobuses over breakfast. And the best part is that each room, which sleeps two people, is only 770/=, or 385/= per person.

The only problem with the forest, especially if you’re exploring the areas around KEEP and Rondo Retreat, is that its business model involves KEEP members, who are from the local community, trained to constantly hit up tourists for guiding fees. You’ll be offered walking tours to the river, to the lookout, to the bat cave, night walks, bird-watching tours, monkey-watching tours, and lectures on local butterflies and snakes that include peeks at their meager collection of both. All of these tours are expensive (for the Peace Corps budget), starting from 400/= per person per hour. The first time I went to the forest I was tricked into a couple of these tours, which add up when you’re talking three or four hours of guided instruction on how to walk through the forest. It was informative as long as we kept asking questions. To our guide’s credit, she was knowledgeable. To her discredit, she wasn’t too keen on talking.

The forest is a great place to escape Kenyan village life. There are, of course, plenty of villages surrounding it, but once you get into the protected areas, it’s just you, monkeys, butterflies in every color imaginable, and crazy tooting birds. (Here’s a question: Is it true that someone came up with a mathematical formula for the flight pattern of a butterfly? Or did I just imagine it?) There’s almost nowhere else in Kenya so peaceful and relatively undamaged by people. I thought that with so many parks and reserves it would be easy for me to find wilderness in Kenya, but ironically those kinds of spaces are much more accessible in the U.S. Any unprotected land of any value in Kenya has been claimed for some purpose already – farming, firewood, grazing.

The Kakamega Forest is only a fraction of what it was just a few decades ago. Apparently it used to extend all the way down to Kisii. And before that, I’m told, it was part of the equatorial rainforest that stretched all the way to West Africa.

When I talk to locals living around the forest I realize that they place no value on conservation of forest lands. To them it’s firewood. Life is about survival, not lifestyle. When I stop to watch monkeys, they shake their heads and laugh.

“Don’t you think monkeys are neat?” I ask.

“No,” they say. “They are monkeys.”

“The trees and flowers in the forest are beautiful,” I say.

“No,” they reply. “It’s just trees.”

KEEP has done a lot to educate people from the surrounding villages about the importance of conserving the forest and its ecosystem, and it sounds like they’ve made some progress. Women are only allowed to gather firewood from certain areas of the forest where cypress farms have been planted, and they are being taught how to plant eucalyptus and other fast-growing trees on their own property for firewood. There are even community-based organizations that breed butterflies to sell to museums and zoos around the world as income-generating activities.

You visit me, I’ll take you to the forest. You can even pick your own chicken.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds beautiful and peaceful! I thought about going there last year when I visited. Reading you blog now, I do wish I had had added it to my itinerary! No regrets however-Pat

3:36 AM  

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