The hundreds of kilometres of sandy beach that fringe Kenya’s low-lying coastal strip are backed by dunes and coconut palms, traversed by scores of streams and rivers. Flowing off the plateaus through tumbling jungle, these waterways meander across a narrow, fertile plain to the sea. In sheltered creeks, forests of mangrove trees cover vast areas and create a distinctive ecological zone of tidal mud flats.
Most of Kenya’s lowland forests are on the coast and along the banks of the lower Tana River. The rainforests, all threatened by human incursion, include Witu forest near Lamu, the Mida-Gedi forest near Watamu, the Sabaki River Forest near Malindi, several forest fragments in the Shimba Hills, and the Ramisi River Forest on the southern coast. Several of the kaya sacred areas, such as Kaya Diani and Kaya Kinondo, are similar, although they’re too small to have a rainforest microclimate. The most important area of natural forest is the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve, south of Malindi. Arabuko-Sokoke is unique in that it comprises a largely unbroken block of 420 square kilometres of coastal forest, consisting of Brachystegia woodland (containing a huge variety of birdlife), dense Cynometra forest, and zones of mixed lowland rainforest that are very rich in plants, mammals and insects.
Wildlife on the coast is in keeping with the region’s lush, intimate feel. The big game of upcountry Kenya is more or less absent (though Shimba Hills National Reserve southwest of Mombasa is an exception), but smaller creatures are abundant. Monkeys are especially common, with troops of baboons by the road, vervet and Sykes’ monkeys frequenting hotel gardens, and spectacular Angolan colobus monkeys inhabiting the forests behind Diani Beach. Birdlife is prolific – if you have even a mild interest you should bring binoculars. On the reptile front, snakes, those brilliant disguise artists, are rarely seen (except in a number of snake parks), but lizards skitter everywhere, including upside down on the ceiling at night, and bug-eyed chameleons waver across the road, sometimes making it to the other side. So do giant millipedes, up to 30cm long: these harmless scavengers have been nicknamed “Mombasa Express”, after the famously slow train. Insects are here in full force (although thankfully efforts to eradicate mosquitoes are paying off), and the glorious butterflies of the Diani and Arabuko-Sokoke forests, are attractive participants in the coast’s gaudy show.