By Mike Peck (Peponi House)
For the past 2 years the Year 8s have enjoyed getting wet, splashing in the rivers of the Aberdares, for their field study trip. This trip is used to gather essential data for the completion of the Common Entrance field study enquiry that accounts for up to 20% of their final examination mark. Whilst it has been extremely successful, the modest accommodation facilities of the Kenyan Fly Fishers’ Association, who have graciously hosted us, were simply inadequate for the number of children in our cohort. Having built a very strong relationship with Rift Valley Adventures it seemed appropriate to turn to them for inspiration; several e-mails, the odd recce and a fair amount of head scratching between myself, Dipesh and Dan at RVA and a master plan was hatched!
The wonderful environment of the Ngare Ndare forest has already hosted our Year 5s and 7s who have been treated to some incredible experiences, including being woken at 4:30 am by a lion roaring approximately 30 metres from our tented forest campsite. Ngare Ndare is Maasai for “goat’s water” (not to be confused with the Kikuyu translation meaning leopard!) Natural springs feed the waterways of the forest, supplied from the surrounding landscape, including Mount Kenya. For centuries this has been a vital water source for farmers and wildlife, and the forest forms a migratory corridor for elephants and other species passing between Mt. Kenya and the Northern rangelands. It is also home to a wide variety of other wildlife, including The Big 5.
This amazing forest environment was under serious threat a few years ago as farmland became developed to the south of the forest and there were regular and fatal clashes between humans and wildlife. Exploitation of the woodland, including African Olive and Red Ceder believed to be around 200 years old, placed further pressure on the ecosystem which increased as the population of the surrounding communities began to grow.
Fencing of the forest began in 1992 but the Ngare Ndare Trust was not registered until 2004 and in 2009 a management agreement was finalised with the Kenya Forest Service. Throughout this process the local communities have been heavily involved with the preservation and protection of the Ngare Ndare and the Forest Trust comprises a very proud collection of locals who have been well trained and are genuinely passionate about their forest and its survival.
Key to the Ngare Ndare’s future has been the development of eco-tourism within the forest and the surrounding environment and companies like RVA are at the forefront of this. They provide the opportunity for local and international tourists to experience the forest’s magical charm, incredible wildlife and exciting adventure activities whilst working very closely with the Forest Trust and local communities to minimise the impact of tourism provision and maximise the benefits they gain from it.
The Year 8s had the opportunity to visit the area as ‘tourists’ with geographer’s hats on! Every task they undertook, the camps they stayed in, the meals they ate and the staff they spoke to were scrutinised and analysed from a non-judgmental and unbiased viewpoint.
Of course this did entail having some fun and the Year 8s enjoyed the opportunity to leap off cliffs into icy cold pools, haul themselves across a small gorge using the Tyrolean and float across the treetop canopy walk. More serious study involved mapping the campsites and interviewing various experts and instructors whilst continually assessing our impact on the environment. We stayed in RVA’s Forest Camp just outside the forest fence as well as the Ngare Ndare Forest Trust’s campsite located within the forest itself. RVA’s Forest Camp has capacity for about 60, mainly in large safari tents but boasts comforts such as proper beds, flushing toilets, hot showers and a fully equipped kitchen supplying fine food. It is a gated compound, located just outside the main forest fence. No trees have been cleared from this site, only a small amount of bush and, apart from the original brick house, most of the camp could be removed, returning the plot to its original state, if needs be.
The Forest Trust’s campsite is located deeper in the forest itself. Small 3-5 person tents are put up in a natural clearing. No vegetation has been removed and facilities include a couple of long drop toilets, a temporary ‘kitchen’ tent and a spring fed pipe that is the closest you will find to ‘running’ water. Security comprises the well trained Forest Rangers and, at the end of a stay, the only trace of a visit are the one ‘permanent’ long drop hut and the embers of a fire that has been lit using dead, fallen wood. With minimal effort the whole site could be returned to its original forest state.
In contrast the plot beside the RVA Forest Camp, just outside the forest boundary, has been purchased by a Nairobi business man. A lot of the natural vegetation has been removed and various materials have been imported for the completion of this ‘boutique’ hotel construction that includes swimming pools and 20 ensuite, fully serviced cottages that overlook the forest.
The challenges that face the Ngare Ndare forest are many and varied and the Year 8s have come up with some excellent hypotheses for their projects including questions such as: Does tourism benefit the Ngare Ndare environment? Is the forest managed appropriately? How could tourism be managed better? Do RVA benefit or exploit the local community? Is tourism in the Ngare Ndare forest sustainable? These are challenging questions and, at the time of writing this article I am very excited about reading the projects that are currently in production.
My thanks to Mrs Taylor and Mr and Mrs Banks for their support during the trip and to Dan, Dipesh and the team at Rift Valley Adventures for their superb support and leadership.