Shimba Hills National Reserve was established to protect two of Kenya’s most valuable national assets, namely the second-largest surviving tract of coastal rainforest, and the large population of Elephants that have called this land their home for many generations. The forest contains rare endemic plants that are seldom encountered anywhere else in the country. A great many other animals (some rare!), birds, insects and plants depend on Shimba’s National Reserve status for their continued survival.
Shimba Hills National Reserve was gazetted in 1968, with the joint objectives of protecting the water catchment of the area (the reserve is the source of no less than 4 permanent rivers!) and generating tourism revenue. Today, the protection of the remarkable biodiversity of the reserve and the establishment of true eco-tourism in the area is the prime objective of KWS (Kenya Wildlife Services), who manage the reserve.
Shimba Hills Reserve is located in Kwale County, in the south-eastern corner of Kenya, just 30km from the coastal city of Mombasa, or 15km from the coast. Adjacent to Shimba Hills is the Mwalunganje Community Elephant Sanctuary, a co-operative project with the local community to provide a migration corridor for the Shimba Hills Elephants.
The scenery in Shimba Hills National Reserve is quite dramatic, and provides a complete change from the low-lying coastal landscape. The Shimba Hills, from which the reserve gets its name, rise quite sharply from the coastal plains to form a generous plateau which reaches an altitude of 450m above sea level in places, and entices trekkers with a arduous but rewarding trail up Sheldrick Falls and various viewing areas. From these lofty vantage poinst you can see the Indian Ocean in the distance and get a bird’s eye view of the amazingly lush vegetation of the reserve.
Enjoy some or all of these activities at Shimba Hills:
Trekking or hiking
Picnicking and Camping
The terrain inside Shimba Hills Reserve is undulating to say the least! As you can imagine, there are some really steep portions of road as you negotiate the road up to the main picnic sites and viewing points. A four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended, and going on a guided game drive is definitely the best way to see the reserve.
Due to the very dense jungle-like vegetation it is quite challenging to spot the wildlife, most of which prefer to spend the hot midday hours in the forest shade. For this reason, the best time of day to go for a game drive is late afternoon, when the cooler temperatures entice the animals to emerge from the forest and move across the patches of open grasslands to the rivers to quench their thirst. Best places to catch them on the move are in the eastern part of the Reserve, near Giriama, the Longo forest or Buffalo Ridge.
Walking is generally not allowed in Kenya’s national parks and reserves, (due to the possibility of suddenly coming upon dangerous animals), but because there are no Lions in Shimba National Reserve, visitors are allowed to set off on foot to explore! Of course, you should not throw caution to the wind as there is always the chance of encountering Elephant or Buffalo, both of which can be totally unpredictable if startled. For this reason we recommend that you only go on guided walks. In addition, your trained guides will be able to point out a multitude of interesting animals and plants that would never be noticed by the untrained eye!
There are some great hiking and trekking trails to follow, from a pleasant afternoon ramble to the picnic sites and lookout areas, to full-scale trekking with an overnight stop at one of the camping sites. Once again, it is highly recommended that you take along a guide. Also take plenty of drinking water, hat and sunscreen; although you will be able to enjoy the cool forest shade most of the time, there are several open areas that you will need to cross under the scorching African sun!
Birders are in for a treat at Shimba Hills Reserve, and you will have the chance to spot many of the 111 species that have been recorded in the reserve. If you possibly can, try to visit in late March to early April, when the many endemic species are spectacularly joined by a host of Palearctic migrants. Regardless of when you visit, there will always be a good core population of local birds to see, including many that are locally threatened, such as the Spotted Ground Thrush.
The scenery is pretty spectacular, and very unlike that which you will see in Kenya’s popular savannah parks and reserves; you can rest assured that photo opportunities will pop up around every bend in the path!
One of the main highlights of a visit to Shimba Hills Reserve is the possibility to leave your vehicle and safely enjoy one of the 5 scenically-located picnic areas. Pengo Hill, which faces west, is the best spot to settle in with a cool sun-downer and watch the sun as it drops majestically below the horizon. On a clear day it may even be possible to see as far as the Tsavo Plains and Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The key features of your visit to Shimba Hills will be the rare rainforest vegetation, the unusual wildlife and the wonderful views.
This amazing eco-system supports an incredible 1,396 plant species, around 280 of which are endemic to the Shimba Hills area. Sadly, nearly one fifth of these species are considered to be globally rare and endangered, due to loss of habitat. Most notable are the giant Cycads, Baobabs and several species of Orchid, two of which are locally threatened.
Shimba Hills is the only reserve in Kenya where you will be able to spot and photograph the endangered Sable Antelope. In fact, the presence of this rare species was the reason for the inclusion of sections of grassland within the reserve. Sable Antelope have very distinctive black and white facial markings and beautiful sabre-shaped horns. Look for them in the grasslands near Buffalo Ridge and Longo Forest.
Shimba Hills once had the highest density of Elephants in any national park or reserve in Kenya. At one time there were over 700 Elephants resident in the reserve, and resources were severely strained, as were Elephant/Human relations in the surrounding areas!Such large numbers of Elephant were unsustainable without severely damaging the fragile eco-system, and in 2005 over 400 Elephants were relocated to Tsavo East National Park. There is still a thriving population to be spotted both inside Shimba Hills Reserve and at the adjacent Mwalunganje Community Elephant Sanctuary, which is joined to Shimba Hills by a fenced migration corridor.
Read more about Mwalunganje Elephant Sanctuary here:
Be on the lookout for the following other animals as you make your way through the reserve:
Genet and Civet cats
Black and white Colobus Monkey
Black-faced Vervet Monkey
Blue and Bush Duiker
Black and Red Shrew
Bird life is prolific. Of the 111 species found in Shimba Hills National Reserve many are either globally or regionally threatened. Some of these are:
Southern Banded Snake Eagle
Spotted Ground Thrush
Ayres’s Hawk Eagle
African Crowned Eagle
Little Yellow Flycatcher
A large number (295 species) of dazzling Butterflies are also regularly spotted and there is a very healthy representation of lizards, frogs and other reptiles.
No visit to Shimba Hills would be complete without visiting the impressive 21mt high Sheldrick Falls, but you do have to make some effort to get there! There is a 2,6km trail leading through the lush vegetation to the falls, and the energetic visitor is rewarded by the opportunity to plunge into the cool clear waters and enjoy a 21mt-high shower! There are free daily tours to the falls at 10.00hrs and 14.00hrs, or you can enlist the services of a paid guide at any time that suits you.
A large number of visitors come to Shimba Hills on a day-trip from Diani Beach or Mombasa. However, if you would like to immerse yourself in the peaceful and serene atmosphere of the reserve there is nothing to beat staying overnight in Shimba Hills.
Accommodation ranges from self-catering Bandas (cottages) to a choice of 4 large and rather basic campsites.
If you prefer something a little more comfortable, choose the Shimba Rainforest Lodge, which is a little like staying in an over-grown tree house in the very heart of the jungle! All the comfortable rooms have private balconies overlooking a water hole, and the lodge has a 120mt wooden walkway which you can follow to a peaceful lookout point, perfect for spotting animals and birds.
Read all about Shimba Rainforest Lodge on our blog here: To The Point: Chat With Gabriele Kampenhuber
For more accommodation choices in the vicinity check our listing here: Diani Hotels & Lodges
Shimba Hills is easy to access from Mombasa or Diani by road in less than 45mins.
I am guessing that by now you are champing at the bit to get to Shimba Hills National Reserve! If you can tear yourself away from the beaches and marine reserves of Kenya’s remarkable east coast for a few days, Shimba Hills is the perfect add-on to your coastal holiday, offering an excellent jungle adventure and a cool reprieve from the humid coastal temperatures. See you there!!
Check out some other tempting Kenya safari itineraries that combine Beach and Bush right here: Kenya Twin Attractions Special Beach & Bush