We leave the cool tea plantations of Kericho in the back of a car driven by a sweet middle-aged couple who pick us up on the highway. Joel is a pastor and he and his wife Ruth are passing by when a matatu driver flags them done and says we can go with them; they are a kind couple and it’s definitely more relaxing than a squashing into a crammed matatu.
We have one night in Kisumu: a more relaxed city than Nairobi and Mombasa, strung out along the shore of the enormous Lake Victoria. It’s a Saturday afternoon and we head down to the lakeside: woodsmoke, tin hut restaurants selling fish, people washing their cars in the lake, families in orange life jackets going out on boat tours, a mysterious number of Aston Villa shirts. Sunset over the lake from our guesthouse and watching the mechanics in the garage below.
The next morning we navigate the matatu touts and find a bus going north. I sit next to an old man carrying a peeping box of chicks that squeak at every bump in the road and scratch futilely at the cardboard. The conductor is young, has a huge smile on his face, a cocktail stick stuck in the corner of his mouth. At one point we stop in a small town and people queue to get on; by total chance we spot Renson from our Masai Mara journey standing with his wife and children and we wave through the crowd of people, he smiles and waves back.
Where the highway runs through a small town called Kayega Market, we get off and climb on the back of boda-bodas, speed along the dirt road through hamlets. People stare at these two white people on the back of motorobikes and children run waving. We pass forests and the air is cool, fresher than the steaminess of lakeside Kisumu. We are heading for the last remaining rainforest in Kenya.
Western Kenya was once covered in jungle, part of – what our guidebook refers to as – the mighty Guineo-Congolian forest ecosystem. Thanks to the British, these rainforests were felled to make way for tea estates and faster growing “exotic” pine trees, used for timber construction.
The area left is known as the Kakamega Forest. It’s a unique part of the county and has plants, animals and birds that only exist here.
We’re staying at a guesthouse run by a guy called Smith – its basic but nice. Around are his shy, sweet daughter Grellen (originally called Clare but they changed her name because it was too old-fashioned…) and the equally shy and sweet groundsman Gideon. Grellen picks up leaves and twigs and we play a game that involves her bringing them to me and me being delighted by them. We go out for a walk before rain drives us back and we sit out playing card games then go to bed early as we have an early start. There’s the smell of woodsmoke and the sound of crickets all around as night falls. I light the oil lamp and we read under the mosquito net.
The alarm goes off at 5am. It’s still dark outside and we dress warmly. An engine sounds from down the track and Abraham our guide revs into the enclosure on his motorbike. We climb on behind him then head toward the forest along the dirt road, grey light and cool wind in our faces. After ten minutes or so we continue on foot and can have a chance to speak to Abraham; he’s so knowledgeable and reels off the names of plants, insects, birds, mammals and butterflies we can find in the forest, using their English and Latin names. The forest feels almost enchanted in the early light: huge trees, silver bark, creepers, the darkness enfolding us. We begin to climb Lirhanda Hill, breathless behind Abraham’s quick stride. Ahead I can see the bulk of the hill still to climb and peel off a layer. At the top, finally, we turn and it’s a beautiful view spread out below: trees all around, the mist pocketed above the forest and the first few rays breaking through.
Layers of birdsong around us, colobus monkeys swinging through the trees, blue monkeys high in the branches, butterflies gathering on the paths. We walk back in the morning light and chat with Abraham, try to explain the reasons why men don’t have more than one wife in the UK. Our stomachs rumble. Back at our guesthouse, Gideon has made breakfast: a flask of coffee, papaya, fried eggs, boiled eggs, pancakes. We eat it all.
We go out later by ourselves, take ourselves off into the forest and it’s lovely to walk the quiet paths. I’m worried about getting lost though so we retrace our footsteps then branch off in another direction, return later in the afternoon with aching tired legs.
The next morning when we leave we walk down the track to find a boda-boda, bags on our backs and the cool air around. By chance, the matatu that picks us up is run by the same smiling guy that brought us here – we’re happy to see him again. It’s raining so everyone is in the fields and he has barely any passengers, the opposition leader Raila has just defected and joined the government; but this guys still has a smile on his face. “Life is sweet!” he tells us, “life is sweet like a sweet banana!”. It’s a fitting end to our time in amazing Kenya.
Next stop: Uganda!