PART 2:  THE MATHEWS RANGE:  KITICH FOREST CAMP

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After a brief stop-over in Nairobi, it was on to the north and more specifically the Mathews Range in the greater Samburu area.

In Nairobi I spent a pleasant afternoon and overnight at Karen Gables, a guest house a couple of doors down from Hemingways, the luxury boutique hotel.  Karen Gables is nothing like Hemingways though.  With only 6 rooms or so, it offers a ‘home-stay’ experience with the affable Dutch owner, his two young children and a couple of dogs around most of the time.  I very much enjoyed the large, comfortable room, excellent cooking (dinner and breakfast) and the pool.  The surrounding suburb is a good place to get a run in and I managed 10K passing the Kazuri bead factory and stopping short of the busy Langata Road.  My lungs reminded me that Nairobi is a mile-high city!

At the time of my visit, Kitich Forest Camp was a solid 2 hr 30-minute drive from Kalama Airstrip.  Currently, it is more easily accessible with a Cessna 206 based at Kalama, so that guests can hop over to camp or fly over to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary or further beyond on a scenic flight.  The Ngelai (Kitich) airstrip is about 45 minutes from camp.

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By the end of my two-day stay at this intimate and personal camp which has only six tents, and having experienced the superb hosting of Emma Hedges and her wonderful team, I was reluctant to leave.  Set in a beautiful forest glade alongside and overlooking the Ngeng River, this low-key classic property is about as peaceful, remote and private a spot as one can find anywhere in Kenya.  The anti-Mara.  Located fairly high on the upper slopes of the Mathews Mountain Range, known ecologically as a ‘sky island’, Kitich Forest Camp is all about walking and exploring forest trails and crystal clear mountain streams.

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On our first morning there, we set out on a 2-hour amble along the Ngeng River, a  clear mountain stream.  Resting up at a pretty natural rock pond (it’s ok to jump in!), we enjoyed the kind of solitude and peaceful environment becoming increasingly difficult to find anywhere else. But even here, in this seemingly idyllic setting, the world’s problems are not far away.  Climate change, which is widely held responsible for erratic rainfall, results in unusually long dry spells.  In the Mathews Range this leads to forest invasion and cutting down of trees to feed the vegetation to domestic animals such as goats.

On a subsequent outing, we went in a different direction – following the river upstream – concluding the walk with a delightful picnic lunch on the banks of the river.  While our walks were quite relaxed, we did come upon some elephants which gave us a look before they stomped away; we disturbed a leopard resting on a tree limb (it crashed into the thickets before we could eyeball it), we identified (thanks to fellow traveler Richard Turner) several interesting birds species, and we marveled at the profusion of butterflies.  Some of the notable ones to be found in the area include the endemic Noble Swallowtail, African Blue Tiger and Mocha Swallowtail (aka flying handkerchief).  The area boasts some 300 species of birds, 150 species of butterflies and of particular interest is an endemic giant cycad, a plant which dates back to and has hardly changed since the Permian, around 250 million years ago.  The one to be seen in the forest here is the Kenya Giant Cycad, encephelartos tegulaneus.

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At night, the atmosphere at Kitich turns magical, and the glade is lit for guests to observe nocturnal visitors which may include leopard, elephant, bushbuck, and buffalo.   Kitich provides old fashioned safari comforts, including soft & fresh linen, comfortable double beds, iced drinks, and gracious dining.  I certainly enjoyed my comfortable tented room with bucket shower and indeed the food was delightful.   Among the highlights were marinated pork chops served with grilled potatoes and fresh vegetables.  The desserts were consistently excellent. Some of the staff have worked at Kitich for decades and it shows.  People encountered in the area are Samburu and Ndorobo, a semi-nomadic pastoralist community related to the Masai.  The camp relies on solar power and LED lighting.  Most of the staff are from the local community and fresh goods are mostly sourced locally.

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Kitich Forest Camp offers a refreshing variation on the traditional safari in a part of Kenya which hasn’t changed for 30 years.  It is not a twice a day game drive camp and there is no mass tourism.  It is an uninhabited wilderness where you can do some proper walking, swim in the natural rock pools, enjoy a bush picnic, learn about birds & butterflies, discover ancient cycads and unwind by a log fire to the soothing sounds of chirping tree frogs.

At Kitich, you will feel at one with nature, a world away from the world.  It is serene, pristine – a hidden treasure.  Need a break from the relentless game drives and the clattering of other people’s camera shutters?  Spend a couple of days at Kitich and go on to Sarara or Samburu with your batteries recharged.

A few observations about the Kitich Forest 

The special plants of the Mathews Range – the Encephelartos or cycad species – are unmistakable, odd looking palm-like plants.  They are a primitive group of plants which flourished over 250 million years ago, concurrent with the dinosaurs.  A few remaining species are found in tropical areas scattered all over the world including several countries in Africa.  The cycads are the most characteristic plant of the Mathews Range, growing in dense forest and forest edges.  They are highly endangered and their numbers are slowly dwindling due to habitat loss and pollination challenges.

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Croton is the dominant tree at lower altitudes in the Mathews range forest.  Be on the lookout for the Wait-a-bit thorn, a shrub-like tree found in the bush and along forest edges; its nasty hooked thorns will definitely trip you up if you brush by too closely.

Of the wild fig trees there are eight species found around Kitich.  These trees start off as seeds carried in the belly of a  fruit-eating bird, deposited in leaf litter and then germinating in the axis of two branches.  They form roots which grow downward along the trunk of the tree until they reach the ground.  Once reaching the ground the wild fig starts to grow aggressively and in the process it often strangles and replaces the host tree.  Remnants of host tree are sometimes visible in holes in the fig tree, or sometimes it simply has a hollow inside.  Wild fig trees are an important source of food for fruit-eating bids such as touracos, as well as bats and other animals. They are a constant supply of food because they do not all fruit at the same time and at no time of the year is there a fig tree without some mature fruit.  Among the birds most frequently seen around wild fig trees are Hornbills, starlings, barbets and green pigeons.

Continue to Part 3


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