This cool and shaded retreat is one of the last remnants of Africa's once huge coastal forests. Long isolated it hosts some of Africa's most rare and unusual creatures, and makes the ideal escape from the brilliance of the Indian Ocean coast.
Managed jointly by the Kenya Forest Department and the Kenya Wildlife Service, this unique forest lies at the northern end of an arc of forest, which stretches south along the Tanzanian coast to Mozambique. Three types of forest predominate; mixed forest, Brachystegia forest and Cynometra forest. The mixed forest is rich in plant species, butterflies and mammals, the Brachystegia offers the widest range of birds, while the Cynometra forest offers the densest growth and holds the widest range of animal and bird species. The forest is also interspersed with seasonal pools, which burst into life after the rains.
The forest plays host to three globally threatened mammals: the golden-rumped elephant-shrew (90% of its population survives here), the Sokoke bushy-tailed mongoose and the Ader's duiker. Red, blue and common duikers are frequently spotted, as are common waterbuck and suni. As for carnivores, the forest is home to the African civet, the blotched genet and the beautiful caracal, but being largely nocturnal and exceptionally shy the carnivores are rarely seen. Entirely nocturnal are the bushbabies (Garnetts and Zanzibar bush-babies), and the aardvarks, which dig massive holes in search of their favourite diet - termites. Three species of primate can be seen; Sykes' monkeys, yellow baboons and vervet monkeys, while the trees host red-bellied coast squirrels and red-legged sun squirrels. Largest of the forest's mammals are the African buffalo and the African elephant, both of which are rarely seen, preferring to secrete themselves deep in the forest thickets.
Boasting 230 species of birds with a high proportion of rare species, the forest is recognized by Birdlife International as an internationally Important Bird Area (IBA). It affords shelter to six globally threatened bird species, one of which, the Clarke's weaver, is found nowhere else in the world; and another, the Sokoke Scops owl, is found only here and in a small area of the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania.
Damp and shady, the forest makes an ideal reptile refuge. Most frequently seen are the small sand lizards and geckos while the largest reptiles are the Savanna and Nile monitors. Snakes are plentiful, mostly tree-climbers such as twig snakes, boomslangs and green mambas. Chameleons (flap-necked and pygmy) find the habitat to their liking as do both leopard tortoises and hinged-backed tortoises.
The forest's seasonal pools become frog kingdoms during the rainy seasons. Of the 25 frog and toad species recorded, the most noteworthy are Bunty's dwarf toad (which mates belly-to belly), the marbled shovel-shout and the common squeaker frog, while the foamy white masses dangling from branches overhanging the water are the nests of the communally breeding foam-nest tree frog.
Renowned for its flying jewels, the forest hosts some 263 recorded species of butterflies (Britain hosts only 52 species), of which at least 6 are endemic to the coast region. Indeed some 30% of all Kenya's butterfly species are found within the forest.
Insect life is rife in the forest, especially around the seasonal pools where iridescent dragonflies and smaller damselflies congregate. At night the air is filled with the sound of cicadas, while throughout the day the leaf litter is rustled by myriad crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles and termites as well as huge social colonies of tree ants, singing ants and safari ants. Perhaps the most conspicuous insect however is the magnificent but entirely harmless millipede, which can grow up to 20 cm long and is known locally as the ‘Mombasa train'.
An oasis of cool tranquility, the Reserve boasts some fine walking and driving tracks. The best place to start is the Visitor Reception Centre, which lies 1.5 km south of the Gedi and Watamu junction on the Malindi-Mombasa road. Here you can obtain information packs and engage the services (for a small fee) of an official guide, who will not only guide you faultlessly through the forest's meandering trails but will also have an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds, mammals, insects and reptiles.