Rondo: Western Kenya’s hidden gem for nature lovers

 

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If you spend a good chunk of your day at a desk, you must have come up with several stress relievers, be it staring out of the window, replaying funny video clips on your phone or catching up with the latest international gossip online. For me, it is staring at pictures of beautiful hotels and resorts, hoping to find a little unknown gem. That’s how I stumbled on pictures of the Rondo Retreat Centre in Kakamega Forest.

With a name like that, the place wouldn’t have fought for my attention. But there is nothing like stretching lawns, sleepy cabins and towering rainforest trees to catch the whims of an urban jungle damsel with a country soul like me. So the next time I had a few days to travel, I headed for Western Kenya — destination Kakamega Forest. And Rondo does not disappoint.

After a 45-minute drive along an okay murram road from Kakamega town, which takes us past Shinyalu market and into the forest, the green gates of the retreat centre open to us. And right from the entrance we are drawn into a world of beauty, simplicity and refreshing nature where even bottlebrush bushes grow to become towering trees.

My husband and I had booked lunch and soon after check in, we headed for the dining room where the chef told us that some European guests had requested for an African lunch, and so on our plates landed chapati, rice and rather overseasoned ndengu, accompanied by icecream, a glass of orange juice and lots, and I mean lots, of tea. How else do you know you are in Luhya land?

I was in a hurry to finish my meal because my mind was on the feel of the heavy carpet of grass on my bare feet. When did I lastly run with abandon across a lawn as the grass softly hugged my feet?

But someone was more excited about the expanse of grass- my one year old, who tumbled and toppled down the slight slope as he headed for the little white chapel perched on the edge of the forest and next to a stream; honestly, how idyllic?

I sat by a bench, listening to birds chirp and the wind whistle, while keeping an eye on the rolling toddler who hasn’t seen this much space in his lifetime.

 

But thick clouds in the sky were promising to let us know what a rain forest is and soon they brought down the heavens with them.

We rushed to our cottage, the colonial style main house made of white painted wood. The centre has five cottages in the same old style, with different accommodation capacity, making them perfect for groups. I make a mental note to bring my “Plotters” here; or my Bible Study Group; or my MEG members. May be I will even do my 10th wedding anniversary here and take up the entire space.

The retreat centre can accommodate up to 35 guests at a time, with 15 en-suite double rooms, plus three more double rooms that share the large bathroom in the main house.

No two rooms are the same. The bedrooms, sitting rooms and dining room have all been decorated and furnished with flair giving them this lazy country feel.

With our windows firmly shut to keep out the rain and cold, and my tummy gleefully full, I picked up a book from the shelves in the main house (the books are available for guests as long as you return them) and folded my feet under a couch in the lobby. I was hoping to while away the afternoon reading as I watched the rain forest in front of me from the large windows. But there is nothing like afternoon rain and a postcard scene to send me off to dreamland.

I was awakened by the polite knock of the waiter who had brought the four o’clock tea that was accompanied by a huge chunk of chocolate cake.

The rain had stopped and now there was a soft wind that moved the chime by the window, filling the room with soft music. Bliss.

I forgot about calorie-watching and urban diets (who watches weight when they are on holiday) and sank my teeth into the cake, listening to the chime.

I know no matter how tempted I am to sample the other cottages at Rondo, the bewitching charm of the wind chime will see me head back to Bob and Betty’s Room.

 

The next day after a hearty English breakfast, we decided to honour the forest by taking a sneek preview through it. After all it would be unfair to tell the world I visited the Kakemega Forest when all the while I was holed up in my room drinking real lunje tea.

We took the nature trail that led us to the fishpond, along a stream and after a short climb back to the cottages.

Sitting on a wrought iron bench by the fishpond that feeds the kitchen, I came to a close understanding of why they say God is found in nature. It is easy to feel small under those majestic equatorial rainforest trees with their hanging lianas, and to find yourself thinking about the infinite.

Kakamega forest is best known for its sheer abundance and diversity of bird life, with some 367 species, 36 of which are found nowhere else in Kenya, making it a must visit for bird watchers. Flowers include 60 species of orchids and Rondo is proud to have some in its garden.

The Forest is also home to 40 per cent of the total butterfly population of Kenya (how cool) and the flamboyant great blue turaco, emerald cuckoo and black-and-white casqued Hornbill.

The retreat is run by Trinity Fellowship. Story is the house was originally owned by a saw miller who, in 1948, built a house at his wife’s request at the base of what was thought to be the biggest tree in the forest, an Elgon Olive, the stump of which still stands today. When he left the country, he handed the property to the Christian Council of Kenya.

From Rondo, you can set out to discover the larger forest, something I am yet to do — may be next time when I have a baby sitter.

For a fee, guides can take you to Lirhanda hill, which provides a breathtaking aerial view of the 240km2 forest, and the Yala River waterfalls.

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We spent two refreshing nights at Rondo and with lots of feeding from Chef Tosha (I hope he is still there) and lots of tea and fruits, it was hard to say bye. Rondo, we will certainly be back.

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