This is a piece I wrote for the June/July edition of Swahili Coast on the Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve, an exciting new destination for visitors to Zanzibar. Travel agents and tour operators, please send guests there.
Rachel Hamada visits Zanzibar’s latest tourist attraction and finds it rich in natural appeal
It’s pitch black. Shrill shrieks echo damply around us, and the fluttering wings cause eddies in the air that can be felt on the skin. A narrow beam of light appears, highlighting eerie pillars of white rock that seem to belong in the Palace of the Ice Queen. A voice explains that this place is fabled to be the home of female spirits – “shetani” – and that once people used to keep leopards, associated with witchcraft and sorcery, here.
This isn’t a strange nightmare brought on by reading spooky books late at night. This place exists, close to some of Zanzibar’s most luxurious hotels, and is planning to open up to tourists this June or July. If you don’t like caves, bats or the dark, this may not be the destination for you, but there are also nature trails through original coral rag forest with ancient and endangered trees and the chance of seeing exotic birds and rare red colobus monkeys.
This is the Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve on the east of Zanzibar, an initiative that the island’s Department of Commercial Crops, Fruits and Forestry has been working on for six years. Designed to benefit surrounding villages while also preserving authentic forest and species under threat, the reserve is an exciting addition to the tourist trail, and will particularly appeal to wildlife enthusiasts and those who like a bit of adventure.
Approaching the reserve in a Forestry Department truck we pass through Zanzibar’s underrated fertile interior. We bisect lush green rice fields humming with crickets and frogs. Passing twisted screw and date palms and legions of banana plants, the soil varies from gentle rust to deep chocolate. We rise and dip through rolling hills, unusual for an island that could otherwise rival Holland for flatness. Turning off the main road we navigate a bumpy track past mango trees dripping with fruit and bushes garlanded with flowers, and teeming with turquoise and midnight hued butterflies. The air is rich with birdsong, as it should be – this forest is host to birds such as the Fisher’s turaco, the white-browed coucal, the crowned hornbill, the Zanzibar sombre greenbul, the collared sunbird and the mouse-coloured sunbird.
Ecotourism officer Mwinjuma Muharami shows me where the visitor centre will be, and we then set out for the caves, accompanied by forestry and wildlife experts. The reserve is host to a number of caves, some quite unique in East Africa because of their depth – two of them are over 200 metres deep – and their stalactite and stalagmite formations. Stairs and walkways have been constructed to make the caves more accessible. The first cave we enter is breathtaking. After descending the steps into the cave entrance we scramble over loose rock until we reach the flat cave floor. The dark is absolute, but we have a handful of torches that give us just enough light to make a path through the cave.
One of the guides swings the torch upwards, revealing a colony of roosting bats, who flap and squeal in protest. Some of them take off from their perches and dive into the airspace above our heads, swooping down and around us without ever bumping into us, for these little creatures are fitted with advanced sonar technology. It’s disconcerting but not frightening, unless you have a phobia.
Marching deeper into the cave we start to encounter small stalactites and stalagmites, and the further we venture the more extraordinary and other-worldly these natural sculptures become. We are now so deep into the cave that it would be tricky to find our way out if the batteries for our torches ran out, as some do. However, the guides say reassuringly, there is a rope somewhere in the cave that can be used to determine the route back to the cave entrance if need be.
These caves have been used by locals as far back as anyone can remember. They are used for their sacred properties – villagers have traditionally made sacrifices in these caves in order to gain assistance with earthly matters such as harvests and fertility. The caves were also used as hiding places in the First and Second World Wars – young men would shelter here to avoid being drafted to the front line, and their parents would sneak down in the dead of night to bring them food.
When leopards were still present on the island (there were still some alive in the mid-1990s but they are now commonly thought to be extinct), individuals said to be witches or witchdoctors would sometimes keep them tethered in the caves, as they conferred status on the owners and induced terrible fear amongst the general population.
While the first cave we visit is said to be the home of female spirits, the second cave is the domain of the male spirits. Locals are said to prefer the former as female spirits are believed to be kinder than male. However, the second cave is less eerie than the first as holes in the roof allow natural light in, pushing the shadows back toward the cave walls. Winding ficus plant roots descend like thick ropes in search of water and minerals. Near the cave entrance is what looks like a recently dug pit – the more Gothically-minded might even think it looks like a grave. In fact, explains the guide, a local had a lucid dream in which he saw a man buried in this location inside the cave. So clear was the dream that he came to the cave and dug up the earth to find the body. Fortunately he did not find anything, but it illustrates the pull the caves have on the unconscious minds of those who live close. The awe and fear with which locals regard the caves and the forest immediately surrounding them is thought to be one of the main reasons that this area of forest has survived to its current extent.
Under the new forest reserve initiative, locals are still fully entitled to enter the caves and forest, though they are asked not to cut down trees for firewood. The team who have been managing the conservation project have high ideals but are also pragmatists, and realise that villagers have been living so close to the poverty line that they have had no alternative but to harvest endangered trees for fuel, even when they knew species were under threat. Therefore a major thread of the team’s work has been to create other income-generating projects for the surrounding villages. Energy cooking stoves are also being obtained for villagers to reduce dependence on firewood for cooking. Profits from tourists visiting the reserve are to go to the local community rather than to the government, and local representatives are included in the decision-making body.
The initiative has come just in the nick of time, as many plant and animal species teeter on the brink of extinction. Degradation of the forest has been accelerating since the 1970s, not just because of locals collecting firewood but also because of the harvesting of wood for the construction of luxury hotels along the nearby coastline. Hotels also used the area as a dumping ground for rubbish.
As we explore the forest via one of its nature trails, scrambling over sharp tongues of solidified coral rock, our guide explains that the forest today covers over 3,000 hectares, and is a combination of shrub land, mixed thickets, low and high coral rag forest and open patches that are the result of recent fires. The endangered Ader’s duiker, a tiny antelope found only on Zanzibar, is native to this area, as is the African redwood tree, one of the most at-risk tree varieties on the island, immortalised in a song by local taarab musician Issa Matona. One tree is so endangered that only two examples have been found in the forest and guides are planning to keep quiet about it as it is prized for its medicinal use. The intention is for tours of the forest to increase biodiversity awareness amongst both locals and tourists.
This is also home for one of Zanzibar’s few groups of indigenous red colobus monkeys. These monkeys only live on this island and cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. As this particular group is wild, unlike the tamer groups living in better-known Jozani Forest, tourists won’t necessarily be guaranteed a sighting, but on the day we visit the monkeys are curious and follow us to the cave entrance, swinging from tree to tree above our heads, shouting to one another. It’s almost as if they are excited about the future of their forest home.
Guided tours of the Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve, including the caves and forest trails, will cost $10 per person. Visitors are recommended to wear sturdy footwear, and the reserve is unfortunately not suitable for the very elderly or infirm.