Kenya is renowned for its magnificent game parks, reserves and idyllic tropical beaches. However, there are large areas of the country that remain largely unknown and seldom visited, such as the western region. The west of Kenya is an area of great geographic, cultural and natural diversity, offering visitors just as much, if not more, than many of Kenya’s better known tourist areas.
As the agricultural center of the country the western region is characterised by lush hills, forests, farms and sprawling tea estates – a refreshing contrast to the savannah reserves elsewhere in Kenya.
A major attraction in the region is the Kakamega Forest – a tiny fragment of remnant tropical rainforest, once linked to the great Equatorial forests of the Congo basin, it is believed to have once stretched along the equator across the entire expanse of Africa. Kakamega Forest resembles the rain forests of Central and West Africa much more than any other forest type in East Africa. It is characterised by towering buttressed trees, tangled vines, intermingled branches, and a profusion of flowering plants, including a variety of orchids.
Due to its insular status, there is a high level of endemism in both animals and plants, which makes it a critical biodiversity hot spot in the East African region. There are over 380 recorded species of plants. This includes 60 species of ferns, 150 species of trees and shrubs, and 170 species of flowering plants including 60 species of orchids with nine species endemic to this forest.
The sheer abundance of bird life here is overwhelming. Avian lovers on a Kenya birding safari will relish a trip to the Kakamega Forest. The forest has over 367 recorded species, nine of which are endemic. The star among these is the great blue turaco, a comically gaudy bird that flops between trees like a colourful turkey. Other avian gems include the bar-tailed trogon, black bee-eater; hairy-breasted barbet, innumerable woodpeckers, greenbuls and the African grey parrot.
The forest is home to a variety of wildlife such as the hammer-headed fruit bats, known to be the largest bats in Africa. They inhabit a cave found in the higher elevations of the forest. The forest canopy is teeming with residents like the seven varied species of primates including the colobus monkey, potto, De Brazza’s monkey, blue monkey, olive baboon, red-tailed monkey, white-nosed monkey and also reptiles like chameleons, skinks and other lizards.
The forest shrubs conceal smaller animals like forest hogs, duikers, aardvarks, bushbucks, porcupines, mongoose and also flying squirrels. Among the predators, the forest has small cats like civets, genets and servals.
Insects are abundant and some are quite spectacular, such as pink and green flower mantis. Particularly well represented groups are ants and beetles. Gastropods, millipedes and spiders are also common. Other insects like the stick insects, fireflies and Goliath beetles have unique characteristics of their own and each is a wonder to look at. The park is notably renown for it’s colourful butterflies; there are over 490 recorded species.
Kakamega is best explored on foot. The forest has many clearly marked walking trails, with each different trail leading you through diverse kinds of terrain, affording opportunities to view birds, butterflies, reptiles and the numerous primates. You can walk around on your own, however it is highly advised that you take the guided tours. There are wonderful, mostly self-taught, guides who will tell you about the plants, animals and the surrounding local community.
Don’t miss the opportunity for an early morning hike in the Lirhanda Hill – the highest point of the forest – the enchanting sight of the forest below covered in a blanket of mist is a moment to savor!
In a nutshell, Kakamega is very different to the usual game park safari in Kenya, relatively unknown and off the beaten tourist track, it’s not going to tick any of the classic safari boxes, but spending a few days exploring the forest is an absolute delight. You will get to experience a slab of tropical rain forest magic – the outlandish flora, birdsong shrills, buzzing butterflies, scampering primates swinging from canopy to canopy and so much more.