Kakamega Forest occupies an area along the northeastern edge of the Lake Victoria basin. Along its eastern edge rises the partially forested Nandi Escarpment, which runs along the western edge of the Rift Valley. The northern part of the forest is a small protected area (Kakamega Forest National Reserve), with its main entrance some 15km (9 1/4 miles) from the ramshackle town of the same name.
One of the main reasons Kakamega remains so far off the beaten track is the relative complexity of getting there. There is no airstrip in or near the forest, and roads in the immediate vicinity of Kakamega are horrid, a problem that's continually exacerbated by the heavy daily rainfall that also makes this such a special ecosystem. The direct drive from Nairobi can be anywhere between 6 and 8 hours, and the road journey from the Masai Mara isn't any quicker. With the roads in highly variable condition, your best bet for visiting Kakamega is to catch a flight to Kisumu, having arranged with your tour operator to have a 4X4 and driver with local experience meet you and transfer you to the forest (allow 1-2 hr. for the road trip); this vehicle will have a better chance against the perpetually wet roads, and you'll need local experience to navigate the poorly signposted region. Flying in not only will cut down on traveling time, but is a more comfortable introduction to the region.
You can also get to this part of Western Kenya on a touring circuit that commences in Nairobi and first takes in the lakes of the Great Rift Valley. From Lake Baringo, there's a scenically spectacular (if, depending on the current state of the roads, excruciating) drive across the Kerio Valley and up to the cool mountaintop town of Iten (where you should overnight at Kerio View), before descending into the west and heading through the towns of Eldoret and Kapsabet en route to the Kakamega Forest. You'll need plenty of time and, when the roads are in poor condition, nerves of steel and a level-headed driver to complete the road journey.
Confusingly, Kakamega is divided into two separate management schemes. The northern part of the forest (the National Reserve) is managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service (The Warden, Kakamega Forest National Reserve, P.O. Box 879, Kakamega; tel. 056/20-425 or 056/30-603), while the southern section (known as the Forest Reserve) is run by the Forestry Department (tel. 0722/61-9150). Needless to say, such bureaucratic confusion does not bode well for the security and welfare of the forest, which is permanently under threat from loggers, as well as local villagers looking for firewood. Entry to Kakamega Forest National Reserve is $20 per adult and $10 per child under 18; there's an additional fee of Ksh300 per vehicle. Alternatively, entry to the Forest Reserve, which lacks the diversity of habitats, costs just Ksh20 (Ksh5 for children and students). Driving is permitted on roads within the National Reserve, but this is a complete waste of time because the bush is so thick that it's impossible to catch a glimpse of any wildlife for more than a moment before it'll be startled by your engine noise and disappear back into the vegetation. Far better to leave the car in one of the designated areas (where there are also KWS-managed campsites and bandas -- useful if you're up for a self-catering experience with limited comfort and few amenities) and set out on foot. You can wander through the forest unaided, as long as you stick to those trails that are marked, but if you want to get the most from the experience, learning about the flora and fauna you encounter along the way, a local guide is highly recommended. Without such assistance, you'll easily miss out on half the birdlife.
Local community tour guides are available via the KWS office upon entry to the northern part of the forest. Freelance guides hang around the southern entry point near Isecheno (a short distance from Rondo Retreat) and offer their services for walks through the forest. One reliable fellow is Moses Livasia (tel. 0723/029-329), who has been guiding in Kakamega for 14 years; in addition to his standard 2-hour guided walk (Ksh300 per person), Moses conducts specialized sunrise (5-8am) and evening (5-8pm) walks for Ksh500 per person. You can also hire a guide directly through Rondo Retreat (Ksh300). The forest, which is best experienced on foot, includes a number of self-guiding nature trails for those looking to explore sans guide.
Over the Top
Given sufficient time, you can reach Kakamega as part of a road trip that traverses the lush Kerio Valley and the steep incline of the Elgeyo Escarpment by way of the Rift Valley. As you head out of the Rift and over its immense "side-wall" escarpments, you'll need to take a break from what will otherwise feel like an arduous journey. With its staggering views across the Kerio Valley, and even Mt. Kenya (some 220km/136 miles away) occasionally visible beyond the Tugen Escarpment, you could do a whole lot worse than to bed down at pleasant, upbeat Kerio View (P.O. Box 51, Iten; tel. 053/42-206 or 728/102-991; www.kerioview.com; 64€ double, including breakfast). Built and run by a fascinating Liverpudlian named John Williams (who came to Kenya in 1972 but retains his distinctive accent), it's located on the edge of the escarpment just outside the shambolic little market town of Iten, which has a distinctly Afro-Alpine atmosphere. It won't take you long to figure out how Kerio View gets its name or why this has become a secret haven for paragliders. Between January and March each year, these extreme sports enthusiasts arrive here from Europe to take advantage of the thermal winds that make for exquisite gliding conditions. It's possible to ride the currents for up to 3 or 4 hours, with some gliders landing many miles away. Iten is also where Kenya's superstar athletes are cultivated under fairly stiff conditions (it's 2,300m/7,544 ft. above sea level) at the High Altitude Training Academy. The presence of athletes and adventure-seekers gives Kerio View quite a convivial atmosphere, and there's usually some pleasant socializing in the fire-warmed bar and restaurant -- although food takes forever to arrive, the kitchen prepares a number of Kenyan dishes, so the menu is worth investigating. Accommodations are passable, too -- you stay in simple, wood-paneled chalet bedrooms with tile floors; big, hard foam mattresses; and kitschy '70s fabrics. When there isn't a thick cloud of mist or fog, views from the little balconies are staggering.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.