Growing somewhat weary of the dust and brownness and polluted air of Kibera, I decided to seek out a bit of nature. Luckily for me, there’s a wonderful oasis of tranquillity only a short distance from the centre of Nairobi – Karura Forest.
The forest covers an area of 2570 acres. It is the remains of the montane sclerophylous forest that originally covered the Kenyan highlands from Nairobi to the Aberdare moorlands.
It was established as a forest reserve in 1932 when the colonial government designated it as a source of firewood for the Kenya-Uganda railway. It has also been used for quarrying (the old quarry is now a lake), for burning old banknotes, and various uses during the Mau Mau uprisings.
There are over 50km of hiking trails, 200 species of birds, a huge variety of indigenous and exotic trees, 5 tributaries of the Nairobi River, natural caves, and a 20 foot waterfall.
In 1997, a group of stakeholders led by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai confronted developers in a violent protest. They were successful in securing the future of Karura as a natural reserve.
Arriving and Departing:
Despite being so close to Nairobi centre, the forest was surprisingly difficult to find. You have to enter through specific gates. I used the main Limuru Gate, opposite the Belgian Embassy. However, this is a busy highway and the matatu only stops here outbound from Nairobi. To return, the nearest stage is a 10-15 minute walk away at Muthaiga. Expect to pay 20-30 shillings to/from Khoja stage in Nairobi.
Entry fee for non-residents is currently 600 shillings, with a further 500 shillings if you wish to purchase an A3 colour laminated map (I did and found it very helpful).
It is also possible to hire a guide, which may give you a more informative visit as regards the flora and fauna than if you go it alone. As I just wanted to relax, I chose not to employ a guide.
The forest is ‘open’ for visitors from 6am to 6pm every day.
The 50km of hiking trails (some of which are also suitable for cycling) are easy to follow. There are numbered posts at every junction, making it difficult to get lost if you’ve bought the map. There are also three colour-coded trails of 5km, 10km, and 15km.
The terrain is suitable for most people if you choose your route carefully. If you’re up for more of a challenge, that is certainly possible. I wanted a fairly challenging hike and wasn’t disappointed. It would be a great spot to run too, although too hot and too high altitude for me to attempt it.
Most of my hike was wonderfully peaceful. I saw not a soul for many kilometres. Walking slowly down a track appreciating nature was exactly what my spirit needed. The physical effort of the hike also did a great job of clearing my head and enabling me to relax.
As I walked, I was thrilled to be surrounded by some great wildlife. I was frequently surrounded by clouds of brightly coloured butterflies, dancing through the air like leaves or feathers swirling in a breeze. Sadly they were rarely still long enough for me to grab photographs. Overhead, in the canopy, I could hear the monkeys swinging between the trees and playing. I caught the odd glimpse of fur in the dense foliage above me. Across the path suddenly ran a Grimm’s Duiker, disappearing quickly into the undergrowth. I was surprised, on turning a bend, to see a porcupine blocking my way. I quickly found another route, unsure of the potential of all those spines!
Many creatures can be spotted in Karura from birds and butterflies, to bush pigs, civets, and chameleons. Walk slowly and quietly to give yourself the best chance to see some fascinating wildlife.
The Waterfall and the Mau Mau Caves:
Deep within the forest runs a tributary of the Nairobi River. Its main attraction is a beautiful waterfall, a lovely shady place to sit and listen to the water. It seems to be a popular haunt with young Kenyan couples. I handled many cameras and phones to take photographs of smiling young people holding hands by the rushing water.
Alongside the river you can find the Mau Mau caves. These are natural caves that were utilised as food stores, medical centres, and hiding places during the Mau Mau Uprising that eventually led to Kenya’s independence.
This was one of the occasions when I appreciated the advantages of travelling alone. With nobody to dictate my speed or direction, and with nobody to distract me with conversation, I was able to completely immerse myself in my surroundings. For much of my time at Karura it was just me, the forest, and the animals. I may not have had a phone signal, but I felt better connected than ever.