Traversing the hinterland on the Kenana-Shimoni road in Kwale County, one hardly notices a small signage on the left side of the road.
It is not easy to see it because it is covered with dust from the ongoing road construction.
The signage shows the direction to the Three Sisters caves at Fikirini in Tswaka village.
The caves are about 15 kilometres from the Kenana-Shimoni junction.
The caves — Pangani, Kisimani and Mdenyenye — all have cultural artefacts of the Digo people.
A Tswaka villager, Dote Salim, guided us through the caves. Salim told us the rich history of the caves.
“The first cave is called Mdenyenye and is the largest. It has a wooden staircase built by the locals,” he said.
Salim said the word Mdenyenye means the act of ascending or descending using a rope or roots.
“Most of the visitors who frequent this cave prefer using the hanging roots of the trees to go down the cave. History has that this cave was specifically used as a hideout for the villagers who were running away from slave traders,” he said.
The second cave, Pangani, has several chambers that Salim said were used for prayers and resting. Their ancestors also had their meals in the Pangani cave.
Pangani is unique since it has an underground tunnel stretching six kilometres that connect to the Shimoni caves.
“Unfortunately the tunnel has been blocked and it is impassable now. The slaves used to run away from Shimoni using this tunnel,” he said.
The third cave, Kisimani (Swahili for a well) has a fresh water well that never runs dry.
“This is an important site where visitors can spot baboons and monkeys as they quench their thirst. This cave is also home to thousands of bats,” he said.
There are at least seven species including Egyptian fruit bats, common bent-wing, long-fingered bats, tomb bats, as well as angle-faced bat.
The three caves are managed by a community-based organisation and opens doors to tourists and locals at an affordable fee.
"Last year we had about 2,000 visitors, mainly tourists and some locals who flocked the caves to sample the rich history of our community," said Salim.
It is also claimed that Arabs used the caves as holding areas as they waited for arrival of ships to transfer their captives to the infamous slave market in Zanzibar, and then onward to Saudi Arabia.
Another wonder of the county is the Lwayo Lwa Mulungu tourist site in Lunga Lunga. In the local Duruma language, it means God’s footprint and is about five kilometres from Lunga Lunga town.
Whether it is mere superstition, love for religion or something beyond human understanding the footprint has drawn more attention and mixed reactions from both residents and visitors who flock the area to see the wonder.
The area is inhabited by the Duruma people, who say the footprint must be God’s since no human foot is that big.
A local, Kengo Mangale, says residents believe that God walked on the rock, leaving the mark which has since been made a place of worship.
"Although the footprint cannot be proven to be that of God, belief impacted on the people since childhood has made them to associate it with that of God," Kengo said.
MAJI MOTO SPRINGS
In Kwale, these tourist sites cannot be exhausted. After the wonders of Lwayoni in Lunga Lunga, we headed to Maji Moto springs also in Lunga Lunga.
Although little known, the Maji Moto (hot water) springs has not been fully explored.
Abdallah Mwabedi, a caretaker at the site told us the site has been neglected even though the county government erected a fence and gate in 2013.
"Our generation has forgotten about the rituals that were performed to appease the spirits of the springs," Abdallah said.
The source of the springs is the dormant volcanic Dzombo Hill, according Joseph Mulandi, a teacher at Maji Moto Primary School.
He said the locals believe water from the hot springs has medical value.
"Occasionally, those with different ailments flock the springs to bathe in the hot water with hope it will cure their diseases,” Joseph said.
Kwale County is famous for its pristine Diani Beach that has been voted the best beach destination five times in a row.
But it also boasts of other tourist sites, including Shimoni caves, Wasini Island, the Shimba Hills National Reserve and Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary, part of the Tsavo National Park, Sheldrick Falls among others, that can be tapped to bring more revenue for the county.
Speaking in an interview at his Mvindeni office in Kwale, Tourism minister Masudi Bungale said county has commissioned a study to map all its tourist attraction sites.