We’re in the heart of Nairobi, a city of four million people, yet when we enter the 250 hectare Sigiria, an age-old indigenous forest, we forget the crowds, the traffic, the heat and stress. The world is suddenly serene as we stroll in from Thigiri Lane.
I’m here with friends to enjoy a Friday morning walk in the company of Ken Njuguna, a young guide who is knowledgeable about the forest. He stops every few steps when he sees or hears something — like the shrill call of the African crowned eagle, an apex predator in the forest — and tells us about it. That's the advantage of having an experienced guide.
Guiding is a new service offered at the forest, if you want to know more about the trees, the birds, the wildlife, or the pre-historic times when our Neolithic ancestors called this place home.
A few minutes’ walk into the forest that is part of the famous Karura, although they are separate parks, Njuguna stops to give a brief history of Sigiria (and Karura) which morphed from a robbers’ den into a people’s forest for all to enjoy, thanks to the late Nobel laureate Professor Wangari Maathai.
She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, an indigenous, grassroots, non-governmental organisation based in Nairobi, that focuses on environmental conservation and community development.
In 1999, she led a campaign that saved Karura Forest from land grabbers. She was the first honorary patron of the Friends of Karura Community Forest Association, which maintains the forest, by raising funds.
The money goes towards forest security, offering school bursaries and training the young as forest scouts.
Sigiria has many stories to tell.
As we stroll past the planted eucalyptus patch, Njuguna tells of a time when the indigenous trees were cut to fuel the steam engines of Kenya’s railway. The indigenous trees were replaced with the fast-growing eucalyptus trees, many now spanning a century.
Our guide points to the croton and the silver oak, the Waburgia and the Meru Oak. As the natural trees are brought back, we’re treated to the colours of the forest, alive with butterflies in ornate orange, blushing blues and the creamy white of the flying handkerchief that is the African Mocker Swallowtail.
“I saw my first Long-crested eagle in this forest,” continues Njuguna.
The beautiful raptor that was once common, is the emblem of Nature Kenya (the East African Natural History Society) established in 1909. Its birding group counted the feathered species in the forest and came up with a tally of 228 species, impressive for a city with some 600 recorded species.
“The forest is now 45 percent indigenous from 25 percent in 2009,” continues our guide as we stop by a grove where a group of local women from the neighbouring community are planting indigenous trees to revamp the forest. “Well-wishers are also encouraged to join in,” says Njuguna.
That sets him off on another story about the colobus monkeys. Until a few decades ago, when Sigiria stretched into the Aberdares and Mount Kenya, the Guereza colobus were common in the "city". These old-world monkeys minus a thumb are arboreal, which means they dwell in high trees and rarely come to ground. Their stomach is specially designed for a diet of leaves from indigenous trees.
The troops of the black and white monkeys we now see are from the forests that have been cleared in recent years in Kipipiri on the foothills of the Aberdares.
Safely transported to Sigiria and Karura, these enchanting tree-dwellers number 122 and have given birth to 40, which means they have taken to their new home.
However, these monkeys have caught the attention of the apex predator, the mighty African crowned eagle. After an absence of many decades, the eagle is on the hunt.
But the colobus are not to be outdone. They have teamed up with the commoner and bigger Sykes monkeys, each alerting the other of the hunter.
It’s a mesmerising walk. While we’re taking our slow stroll, so are some mothers and their children. A cyclist passes us, and a woman on horseback gallops past.
“We use the forest every day,” says Denis Bouillon who lives near the forest. His wife cycles to work through the forest from Thigiri Lane to Limuru Road. The couple also cycle and run the trails marked for five and 10 kilometres, including doing yoga on the platform at the Sigiria Coffee Shop on Sundays.
“We have participated in a five-kilometre race in Sigiria with Run Beyond to raise funds for the forest.” Run Beyond is Kenya's first premium specialist running store.
“We usually start with a walk to the waterfall on the Karura side or biking. Our most recent Jamaican visitor also took horseback riding lessons in Sigiria with New Muthaiga stables.”
It’s truly a people’s forest.
With the bikers, joggers and strollers, we meet many a dog-walker heading to the dedicated areas for the dogs to play minus their leashes.
Two hours later, we’ve covered four kilometres. And while the day has its creatures, the dusk draws the nocturnals out as revealed by the hidden cameras in the forest.
One shows a clip of the African crowned eagle with a suni (a small antelope) in its talons.
Another shows a civet, which l’ve only seen once before, in Samburu in northern Kenya. Now l discover that Sigiria has its own in addition to a python, bush pigs, porcupines and bush babies.
Sigiria Coffee House
The walk has built an appetite and we settle for lunch at the Sigiria Coffee House, an outdoor café under the shade of the Meru oak and other indigenous trees, with playful monkeys in the canopies.
The restaurant has colourful chairs and tables, a healthy menu of filling salads and fresh juices, fruity smoothies and tantalising wraps and sandwiches filled with chicken, tuna, cheese and vegetables.
Inside a revamped container that has morphed into the indoor space, the counter has a spread of freshly baked cakes and biscuits and freshly brewed local coffee.
I indulge in a mango smoothie, garnished with mint, and a chicken wrap. The smoothie arrives in a recycled jar, now a glass, with a metal reusable straw. This reduces their waste, especially of single-use plastics.
Next to the café, is the aerial park for the kids to climb the ropes and play, with staff to watch them.
Harriet Matsaert, who has walked with us and is the creator of Tree Safari, tells us of the indigenous trees in Britain —fewer than 50 species — while in Kenya we have over a thousand. She is working on documenting Kenya’s indigenous trees and forests.
“When you arrive in Kenya from Britain,” she enthuses, “you are overwhelmed by the number of trees here and the beauty of the forests.”
Sigiria and by extension, Karura, are testimony to the will of people to save what they hold valuable as a source of clean air, water, space and peace of mind. In 2009, the revenue earned in the forest was nothing.
Today with 40,000 people visiting every month, the forest earns more than Ksh1 million ($9,300), part of which goes to maintaining the forest and assisting the neighbouring communities.