Exploring the caves of Kitui

Last weekend I ventured into somewhat unfamiliar territory. I often travel north beyond Thika, but have rarely taken the road east through Kamba country. This largely dry stretch of central Kenya offers quite a contrast to the fertile, green highlands of the rest of the central region. Instead, the road to Mwingi – our destination – is flanked by sparse vegetation, and rocky outcrops that dot the landscape like lonely teeth in an old man’s gums.

Aside from exploring Mwingi and it’s surroundings, the trip had another motive. I travelled with my mother and a colleague of hers from a UK-based charity called Trusts for African Schools (TAS), which supports some of the poorest schools in the area. The TAS model involves the establishment of local charitable trusts for each of the schools it supports, which help prioritise areas for funding. The plan for this particular trip was to set up trusts for a number of schools on the outskirts of the Kora National Park. Given the proximity of the schools to the park, and the adjacent Mwingi Reserve, TAS works in close partnership with KWS, who organised the logistics of our trip and visits the schools regularly throughout the year.

Of the four parks and reserves south and east of the more popular Meru National Park, Kora is undoubtedly the most well-known. It was made famous as the home of George Adamson, where he lived for almost 20 years rehabilitating lions back into the wild. George’s brutal murder by Somali bandits in 1989 is emblematic of the park’s enduring insecurity problem, which has hindered its development for decades. While the situation has improved since the late ‘80s, poaching, encroachment by local herders and illegal charcoal burning are still prevalent issues.

At the moment, neither Kora nor the adjacent reserves are fenced – though we did drive through a number of newly-constructed gates along their boundaries. For game viewing, Meru National Park clearly trumps its neighbour, but it may be worth combining a trip to Meru and Kora by crossing the Tana River and exploring Kora’s northern fringes. The KWS also organises an annual testimonial trip to Kampi ya Simba – George Adamson’s old camp in Kora – which usually involves a climb up Kora Rock and a visit to his grave.

While the others visited a school on the edge of the Kora/Mwingi conservation area, I had the chance to explore Ngomeni – a small town just south of the Mwingi Reserve. Ngomeni lies in the shadow of a massive rocky outcrop, which my guide Steven Nzenge claimed is the largest of its kind in East Africa. But it isn’t its size that sets it apart from all the other rocky protrusions in the area – there are also a variety of very interesting caves.

The first we explored is really obvious from the town below, and resembles a huge bite out of a giant apple. It’s a bit of a climb but the view is worth it. The brown/grey scrubland between Ngomeni and Garissa on the horizon is interrupted only by the green slivers of seasonal watercourses. Steven informed me that the cave offered a strategic vantage point for the Kamba groups who migrated to the area from Mariakani and Machakos in the early 1800s, and helped them defeat the Maasai who occupied the land.

From the cave you can also see another feature of Ngomeni history – a dam constructed by the British between 1955 and 1957. It rarely rains in the region, so the impermeable rock offers a crucial store of rainwater for both Ngomeni’s residents and their livestock. The fact that there was still water in the dam shows just how effective it is, considering it hasn’t rained in the area since April.

We clambered down from the first cave and headed to the second, where the Kamba migrants hid their cattle from raiders. To get there we walked across a flat section of rock stained black and littered with bones. This was once the spot where a cow or goat was sacrificed every year to the local god Mwendi. While the sacrifices have stopped, there is still a bit of a spiritual aura to the place, and locals often climb up into the cave to pray. Ngomeni rock spans an area of about 6km, and there are plans to fence it off and to introduce a variety of small animals into the ecosystem.

So while some of Kitui’s conservation areas struggle to match many others in central Kenya, they are still worth exploring. Though there is little in the way of sights in Mwingi town itself, there are plenty of decent accommodation options. The best by a long way is the Mwingi Cottage Hotel, with its large gardens and Bougainvillea-shaded terrace. Rates are negotiable, and range from Kshs 2,000 – 5,000.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation