Arabuko Sokoke and Mida Creek – the Lost Worlds of Kenya
My travel companions decided to take our last day on the East Coast of Kenya, near Mombasa, easy, and relax by the pool. During our previous day’s trip to Gedi and Malindi, however, something piqued my interest. We passed by several signs advertising Mida Creek and its mangrove forest. I did a little bit of research back at the hotel, and also found out more about the adjacent Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve and National Park. One thing led to another and shortly after, I had a driver arrange for my solo trip to both Arabuke Sokoko and Mida Creek.
After a very early wake up, and a bit of a weather scare, for the rainy season was upon the land, we were on the road again. I could not help but gawk at the countless mighty baobab trees on either side of the road. Just as with many other living species in the World, these magnificent trees are facing extinction, chiefly due to climate change. Thus, more than a half of those we encountered were actually dead, mere shadows of their former glory. I asked the driver to stop countless times, so I could go out to both photograph them and also just enjoy being in their presence.
We also came across other amazing sights, ponds filled with blooming water lilies, people rushing to the markets, carrying produce, to name but a few. The human presence gradually decreased as we went further North, and the forest coverage on either side of the road got thicker. After about two hours it was time to head off the main road and towards the ranger guarded entrance into the Arabuko Sokoke forest.
Arabuko Sokoke – Birds and Forest Elephants… Possibly
Now, just as it is the case with many other things in Kenya, the story of Arabuko Sokoke is rather complicated. There are the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve, and the Arabuko Sokoke National Park. The National Park, established in late 1980s, actually lies half inside and half outside the Forest Reserve. Its territory is now largely occupied by local communities, to such an extent that it is quite difficult to even figure out where it officially begins. Also, it does not seem to contribute at all to forest protection and conservation efforts.
The Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve is a whole other story. It has been jointly managed by several Kenyan state bodies and organisations, including the well known Kenya Wildlife Service. They are joined by a number of international conservation agencies in an effort that resulted in one of the best protected forests in the whole of Kenya. The forest’s main threats are the local population’s desire for more agricultural land and, of course, poaching.
As soon as we picked up our guide for the day and sorted out the entrance fees, we drove into the forest proper. It was simply majestic. The guide and I alternated between sitting in the car and walking in front of it. Although I visited a number of jungles and tropical forests to date, none of them was as impressive, imposing, and humbling as Arabuko Sokoke. There are not that many tall, impressive trees – most of the growth is of a short to medium height. But it is dense, oh so dense. The very edge of the forest path immediately turns into this impenetrable wall of vines, creepers, thorny branches and sharp-edged leaves – the embodiment of Sleeping Beauty’s Wall of Thorns. The guide tells me that it is absolutely forbidden to step off the forest path without armed escort by the forest rangers. I wonder how would one even step off the path, through foliage this dense.
Now, although you may read about the abundance of animals in the Arabuko Sokoke forest, and there is undoubtedly a lot of wildlife all over the place, you will more likely feel and hear their presence, rather than really see any. We caught a glimpse of a number of birds, spotted a trope of baboons crossing the forest trail far in the distance, and had a golden-rumped elephant shrew jump in and out of the undergrowth for a split second just before our vehicle, but that was it. The animals here, although plentiful, have this vast, inaccessible expanse all to themselves and do not have to be exposed to humans as is the case in the wide open savannahs elsewhere. That is actually as it should be, and I did not have any problems with it.
FUN FACT: THE ELEPHANTS OF THE ARABUKO SOKOKE FOREST
The forest is also home to quite a number of forest elephants. We saw the traces of their passage in the form of some felled trees, but did not encounter any. Both the guide and the driver kept insisting that they are enormous in size, much larger than any elephants in Amboseli or Tsavo, for example. Now, I have not seen them and cannot claim any first-hand knowledge, but all the sources I checked state that it is just not true and that they are on average up to a metre shorter than their savannah counterparts, which actually makes sense. Well, should you ever come across any, do let us know!
After we reached a lookout point in the heart of this part of the forest, basically a clearing on a small hill, and enjoyed observing the endless sea of green canopies stretching out in all directions, it was time to start driving back towards the entrance. The way back was largely uneventful, and after an hour or so, we left the rangers’ outpost behind for a short drive through a number of beautiful, picturesque villages. Actually, they all lie within the boundaries of the official National Park, part of that conundrum I mentioned earlier.
Leaving the confusing national park policies aside, this area was absolutely amazing – blue-clad children coming back from school, cattle grazing in the lush grassland, brightly coloured clothing drying in the sun, it was just magical. Our next destination was ahead though, and it was time to leave the car behind yet again for a trip into the most alien of all environments we encountered on this African trip.
Mida Creek – Magical Mystery Tour
The destination I am talking about is the tidal inlet known as Mida Creek, a veritable maze of pools, mudflats, channels, mangrove forests and solitary trees, all home to the most amazing of lifeforms. Now, this is not the first time I visited a mangrove forest, we went into Kampong Phluk in Cambodia as well. However, that visit was more of a serene experience, while Mida Creek provided a first hand exposure to both the environment and the creatures that inhabit it.
We drove into a small clearing featuring a simple restaurant and a number of shacks that local guides use to hang around during the high season. The weather that constantly verged on the edge of a tropical storm apparently kept all the prospective visitors away, and I was fortunate to get the entire area literally for myself. After exchanging my shoes for diving booties, an absolute must for what lied ahead, the guide and I walked off into the enormous flat expanse uncovered by the low tide.
I know I am repeating myself here when I say that I have really never seen so many odd and wonderful creatures as here, in the wet, soft sands of Mida Creek. Mere metres after we left a sparse thicket of mangroves behind and stepped into the now exposed water bed, I noticed an intricate web of lines dissecting the sand every which way. My guide explained that those are the traces left behind by the big snails, in their search for food. True enough, we soon noticed solitary snails, their prehistoric look further enhanced by bunches of apparently fossilised smaller molluscs attached to their twisting shells.
Not long after that we noticed a proper feast. If you wondered, as I did, what do those snails actually search for, it is the fallen mangrove leaves. You will see them congregating over every yellow orange weathered leaf uncovered by the retreating water. I was wondering how do they find them – using smell or perhaps some other senses, as the trails they left behind, upon closer inspection, did not meander a lot, but seemed to be homing onto the fallen leaves quite accurately. The guide did not quite know the answer to this conundrum.
Just as I tore my eyes off the feasting snails, I saw a strange phenomenon a little further. I thought that it must be some sort of a Fata Morgana, a trick that a light played on the wet sands. It seemed that the ground itself was moving, shifting in large patterns across the shallow puddles left behind. However, it took only a few steps to notice that I was actually looking at thousands of soldier crabs moving in unison in search of food. The moment I approached a step too close, as if by command (pun intended), they dispersed and burrowed into the sand in a split second. They are extremely good at spotting, and reacting to, shadows, as their main predators are the birds that come in large numbers to feed in Mida Creek.
Having learned my lesson, I spotted the next large group of soldier crabs, creeping across the flats as some kind of a beautiful, shiny, patterned carpet, but hung back this time, using a telelens to zoom in and take a look. Up close, there seemed to have been a proper, military style (hence the name) organisation to their movement. There was a number of solitary crabs, often the bigger ones, or so it seemed, that stayed on the fringes of the moving mass, their “upper bodies” raised, as if they were scouting the surroundings for any signs of danger. Seeing this enormous mass of creatures moving across an otherworldly landscape was actually one of the most amazing “David Attenborough” moments of my life.
The wonders did not stop there. We ventured into a shallow bay, with exposed mangroves on either side. Suddenly it looked as if somebody started skipping stones all over the otherwise still water surface. Alarmed by our presence, dozens of mudskippers darted across the water from one side of the bay to the other, towards the denser mangrove roots. Words cannot describe the oddity of the scene – these weird looking creatures skipping rapidly across the murky shallow water, their tails barely breaking the surface. Then, the moment they touched the muddy shore on the other side of the bay, they started scrambling up and disappearing in the messy tangle of roots. It was really one of those “well, now I’ve seen everything” moments.
The water level started slowly rising as we kept on wandering aimlessly through the wide open sandy flats and the labyrinthine mangrove thickets alike. We saw countless birds, searching for food in shallow puddles, solitary blue fiddler crabs that always seemed up for a fight, peculiar mud volcanoes, actually burrows of giant worms – there was seemingly no end to surprises and wonders. Mida Creek could spring on us. However, that ever rising water prompted my guide to start heading back towards the “shore”.
FUN FACT: MIDA CREEK, ARABUKO SOKOKE FOREST AND UNESCO
Mida Creek is actually one of the most productive mangrove ecosystems in the world. It features 9 different kinds of mangrove trees. It is also a recognised International Bird Area, being home to more than 65 types of aquatic and more than 155 species of shorebirds, and a major stopover point for migratory birds from Europe and Eurasia. Mida Creek and Arabuko Sokoke Forest are jointly recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
There was apparently one more adventure to be had in Mida Creek. As we made our final approach to the mangrove covered shoreline, a wooden shack on stilts appeared between the twisted trees. It was obviously where we were heading to. We climbed up a set of rickety stairs and went to the observation deck. After admiring the horizon for a while and observing the now easily noticeable rise of the water level, we moved to the back of the shack for the final part of our trip. See, the shack did not only host the observation deck, it was also the entry point for the well-known mangrove boardwalk.
While the boardwalk is not that high up between the trees, if you do not have a stomach for heights and extremely unstable bridges, I am not sure you would enjoy it. I loved it though. It may appear very haphazardly put together, some planks are rather suspicious, while some other are outright missing, and the rope on either side does not seem to be really connected to anything most of the time, but it was great fun nonetheless. It was one of those Indiana Jones adventure moments, when your adrenaline is pumping and you feel truly alive, swinging this and that way amongst the lush green mangroves. It takes maybe 10-15 minutes in total, likely less than that, depending on how many breaks you take. The only thing I would suggest is to have only one person per segment at any given time, as the motions can get a bit erratic otherwise.
TIP: BEST FOOD IN THE AREA
There is only one restaurant at the parking area, in a rickety shack. Do not let its modest appearance fool you. We told them before we went into the mangroves that we want to eat upon our return. They prepared an amazing feast – hands down the best meal I have had in Kenya. The fish was wonderfully fresh, crisp on the outside and tender and juicy inside, with a lovely smokey aroma from a proper barbecue, the sides and salad diverse and mouthwateringly tasty. Now, I do not know if we were lucky since we were the only visitors that day and if you would get the same treatment in busier times, but I would go back just for that meal.
Well, all good things come to an end, and one can only have so many weird and wonderful experiences in one day. After a great lunch, we said goodbye to our guide, whose contact details I have unfortunately misplaced upon my return home, and headed back to our accommodation near Mombasa. I learned upon my return that they suffered a whole day of downpour that we were fortunate to completely avoid. Our African adventure was continuing, but this was to be the last day on the East Coast of Kenya, we were heading back inland on the morrow.