The Tana is Kenya’s largest river, nearly 1,014 km long from start to finish (map). The headsprings for the Tana are to be found on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the Abadare Mountains. These tumbling streams converge into a wide and powerful torrent to the east of these mountains before changing nature yet again, into a slow, meandering river for the lower half of its course to the ocean.
This lower part of the Tana dissects a wild and vast area of Kenya, where the riverine strip makes a vivid contrast to the parched bush stretching for miles on either side. From the Kora National Reserve onwards, the Tana is the only supply of water in an endless sea of dry bush, rocky soil and little rainfall. It is not until the river passes Hola, and approaches the coastline, that the surrounding countryside becomes greener and less stark.
On the East bank of the river, around Hola and stretching in a band to the Somali border, is the only home of the Hunter’s antelope, a hartebeest but with lyre-shaped horns. The Arawale Game Reserve has been gazzetted to protect this rare antelope.
Continuing the journey down to the ocean, the river passes through Wenje and Garsen and some of the last few remaining rainforests in Eastern Africa. This tiny 64 km section is home to two rare animals, unique to this area of Kenya – the red Colobus monkey and the crested mangabey monkey. Both of these primates are pre-dominanantly found in West, not Eastern, Africa. A small area is protected by the Tana River Primate Reserve, but this habitat is threatened and destroyed by the increase of agriculture as the local Pokomo tribe clear more land each year. The Forest is a complex and variable eco-system, dependant upon the river; its floods, droughts and idiosyncrasies control the lives of both monkey and man alike.
Past Garsen, the river flood plains open out into a wide, grassy delta extending down to the Indian Ocean. The delta area is low, flat and crisscrossed with tidal channels, savanna grasslands, stands of doum palm trees and swamps. Small, narrow channels, the colour of milky coffee, meander through thick green jungle which suddenly opens into small villages, where herd boys bring their cattle to drink and women wash clothes in the water, despite the ever-constant threat of crocodiles.
Hippos wallow in shallow pools; reedbuck, topi, buffalo, bushbuck and elephant roam in the grassy clearings. The Tana delta is most famous however, for its prolific bird life, featuring huge flocks of egrets, pelicans, ibis and storks on every sandbank. Beautifully coloured bee-eaters, hornbills and kingfishers are a constant delight to the eye.
Finally the river pours its silt-rich, chocolate waters into the blue of the Indian Ocean at Formosa Bay, a huge sweep of deserted beach, which stretches into the horizon on both sides of the delta.
As the river travels through these diverse and fragile eco-systems, it is the lifeline of this area of Kenya. Its incredible diversity of habitats has led to equally diverse animal population, which is totally dependent upon the river for survival.