TRAVEL: A hidden wildlife treasure

Friday March 17 2017

Relaxing by the dam at Mutito Hills - Kitui

Relaxing by the dam at Mutito Hills - Kitui County. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT 

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This is drama fit for Nat Geo Wild. We’re perched on a rocky outcrop by the side of a dam deep in the forested hills of Mutito. There’s a sheer, copper-coloured cliff in front of us. The dam that provides clean fresh water to the town of Mutito was built in the 1930s by British missionary and still functions.

We’re scanning the cliffs and the skies for Mutito’s special birds (it’s a hotspot for flora and fauna) when a black bird taking advantage of the rising thermals begins to soar higher and higher, with something dangling from its talons. With binoculars trained to the raptor, the something shows clearly. It’s a snake! None of us have seen such a sight and the snake’s probably never reached such heights. We’re glued to the eagle until it completely vanishes into the depths.

The dam is a busy place to be at in the late afternoon. In a crevice of the cliff marked by a fig tree and the white droppings of the birds, another pair of black birds fly out of a cliff cave. Through the binoculars, we see that they are the Red-winged starlings using the crevice to nest.

One of the forest guards who is with us scrambles down the rocks followed by Everlyne Kitavi, the tourism officer in the county government. She’s running the forestry programmes in the hills, working with the bordering communities. “Since Muumoni and Mutito hills have been listed as Important Bird Areas, the communities living around the hills are very excited. It’s given them an insight into what they can do with this natural resource.” These hills harbour at least five globally threatened species of birds. Research scientists from the National Museums of Kenya wrote in 2006 that these isolated hilltop forests are ‘biodiversity hotspots’ which had remained unknown and therefore had not been accorded adequate protection.

Suddenly the forest guards disappear down the rocks and into the thickets to reappear a few minutes later with chicken feathers. “This is the home of Kwa Lala,” tells the ranger.

He narrates the Kamba legend where women made sacrifices to the big snake called Lala so that he could bring rain. From descriptions, Lala sounds like a python. It looks like the sacrifices are still happening, judging by the fresh scoop of feathers. There’s also rumour of mercury on the hills and fortune seekers try to sneak past the rangers in search of it.

It’s a long stretch of hill with many folds and ridges but with very few tracks up, which makes the unexplored massif even more intriguing. It’s evening now, and as we make our way back, the rangers want to show us another dam from the 1930s hidden in the forest. It’s called Nzau – in Kikamba it means ‘hunger’.

It’s picture-perfect.

A gigantic rock face acts as the wall from where the water cascades down from the pool above. The dam reflects the gigantic mango tree branched over the upper pool and the white jasmine flowers falling off the boulders and fish swimming. Mangoes float, butterflies flit about, Red-billed hornbills squawk settling down for the night and in this tranquil spot, we simply while away time till it’s almost dark.