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Searching for the elusive chameleon

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The Chyulu hills are famous for elephant sightings – and also for reptiles, as Rupi Mangat discovers.

“Look out for chameleons on every tree and bush,” I said to the Kenya Wildlife Service ranger as we drove very carefully through the tall lush grass growing over what is supposed to be a road.

Heavy grey clouds sat atop the stately peaks of the Chyulu Hills draped luscious green. The ranger looked at me incredulously.

“But there are many elephants in the park,” he replied, thinking I might not know about the elephants.

The Chyulus, sandwiched between Amboseli and Tsavo West National Parks, are famed for many things – elephants use it as a corridor to munch their way to either park.

Early in the morning we had tried to drive in through the gate at Makindu to look for the remnant population of the eastern black rhino but to no avail. The long rains this year has made the red-earth road between fat towering baobab trees too slippery.

The road through the Kibwezi gate proved more accessible and soon we were ‘chasing’ after chameleons.

And this is why.

A bird in Chyulu Hills. PHOTO | RUPI MANGATA bird in Chyulu Hills. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

Stephen Spawls, the author of several field guides including the 500-page tome Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa, was in the park two weeks ahead of me in search of frogs for his new guide on amphibians.

The higher we drove, the more closely I peered at every bush and tree for chameleons but to no avail. Instead we were treated to millions of butterflies rising like animated confetti from the road.


Two hours later, minus the elephants and chameleons, we were atop Kisula Caves that are actually lava tubes. From our vantage point, the Yatta Plateau stretched in the far horizon and the plains of Tsavo East. The clouds still hung heavy on the volcanic young mountains that on a geographical time scale were only born yesterday.

Isaac Kini, the KWS ranger, led us down the ladder. Wild ferns and mosses decked the rock-strewn entrance. Two openings on either side of the stairs revealed dark tunnels. Walking through the bigger-mouthed cave the light faded. Fat droplets of water landed on my head. It was bizarre because we were so deep inside the lava tube.

Wild flowers on Chyulu Hills. PHOT | RUPI MANGATWild flowers on Chyulu Hills. PHOT | RUPI MANGAT

The 100-kilometre stretch of the volcanic Chyulus – a chain of small hills and cones – is fascinating. They are so young that there is not enough biomass produced to capture even the rainwater, which percolates right down through the lava to the bottom of the volcanic hills to resurface crystal clear in the famous Mzima Springs some 20 kilometres away in Tsavo West.

For botanists studying its flora and fauna, it’s like discovering how the world started as the first plants colonised an area.

Kini switches off the torch and it is pitch dark. I can’t even see my hand in front of my nose. A shaft of sun falls through a cave hole. It’s ethereal to see light in the darkness. The lava tube continues to emerge somewhere.

I opt to try the opposite lava tube that’s narrower and strewn with lava rocks and after a few meters into the pitch black tunnel I turn towards the mouth of the cave.

Surfacing from the lava tubes, Kini leads us to another opening in the ground about a kilometre away. It’s where we would have surfaced if we’d walked the entire length of the lava tube – but it looks so small l’m not even sure I would have been able to squeeze through.

As the evening rain begins it’s time to leave the beautiful hill-strewn park that boasts the new-found chameleon called the Chyulu Hills Blade-horned Chameleon (considered extinct). The volcanoes are still considered active. The last two eruptions happened in 1856.