45km (28 miles) N of Kisumu
Boasting a unique biodiversity, little-visited Kakamega Forest is the only natural tropical rainforest left in Kenya -- once a contiguous part of the Guineo-Congolian forest ecosystem, which stretched from the equatorial rainforests of West Africa. Thick foliage, towering trees, and a light-filtering canopy of tangled vines create an exquisitely wet, dense habitat that supports all kinds of rare and endangered birds and animals. That Kakamega exists at all is something of a miracle because its trees have long been valued for timber, and gold discovered in the area in 1923 set off a brief mining frenzy that, mercifully, quickly came to naught. But commercial tree-felling continued until the late 1980s -- native trees such as the precious Elgon teak, Elgon olive, mukomari, and African satinwood have been heavily exploited. Conservation efforts continue to be hampered by illegal tree-felling, and one of the heart-breaking sights hereabouts is of poor villagers carrying bundles of wood destined to fuel their home fires. Kakamega supports a sizeable population -- the densest rural population on Earth, in fact, and the Luhya people who live around the forest rely heavily on it for fuelwood, charcoal, and timber. Authorities are faced with a real moral bind, given the plight of impoverished local communities who have nowhere else to turn for their basic needs. The forest also continues to play a central role in some of their traditional practices -- certain clans carry out male circumcision ceremonies at sacred mugumu trees within the forest. Evidently, the race to save the forest is on, but that hasn't stopped the tidal wave of abuse. As a self-sustaining ecosystem, the rainforest is especially fragile -- even the removal of organic matter from the ground poses a threat to soil fertility and the very existence of the forest. Doomsayers observing the forest's steady decline predict that its disappearance is inevitable, making a visit to this sodden paradise not only an attractive off-the-beaten-track adventure, but an urgent detour.