The Kiwengwa caves in the Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve are part of ancient history of the Zanzibar Island. The locals have visited the caves to worship their ancestors, bringing gifts to the holy stones in the caves. In the old days, the villagers kept leopards in the caves as a status symbol of the owner. Forest guard found these longest caves of Zanzibar in 2002, and there is now an initiative to make this natural wonder available for tourists to visit and enjoy. In 2005, the Department of Commercial Crops, Fruits and Forestry of Zanzibar, in cooperation with the Turku Geographical Society of Finland and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), started the Kiwengwa Ecotourism Project to develop these unique caves as an ecotourism destination.
The Cave System and Rich Biodiversity
The cave system is divided into three parts. Only the North cave and South cave are accessible for tourists. These are 230 and 205 meters long respectively. The East cave is 50 meters long, is darker, has a lot of bats, and can only be entered by crawling. The stalactite caverns have formed from water dissolving calcium carbonate from coral stone. There are many insects and also five species of bats, of which two are considered to be rare in the caves. The naturally formed holes in the ceiling of the caves let sunlight in, creating an exciting atmosphere. Another curious feature is the roots that have forced their way through the ground and look like electric wires connecting the ceiling and the bottom of the caves.
The caves are surrounded by three natural trails; a short 0.2 km, a medium 0.4 km and a long 2 km trail. The Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve is the only large remaining high coral rag forest area in the Northern Zanzibar. There are endemic species, for example Red colubus monkey, duikers (big antelopes) and mini antelopes, which you might see when walking the trails. There are also 47 bird species such as Fisher’s Turaco and a lot of butterflies in the forests.
Most of the trees and other plants along the trail have interesting traditional medicinal purposes, and you can ask your guide about the usage of these plants. There are some endemic and rare species of trees such as Uvarioendron kirkii and Pittosporum viridiflorum and tree climbers such as Vernonia Zanzibariensis and Monodora grandidieri. They are used commonly as local medicine, which is part of the reason why they have become rare.
Developing Ecotourism and Livelihoods of the Communities
The Forest Conservation by Livelihood Development Project (LIVE Project) aims to conserve the forest areas and biodiversity in Zanzibar by supporting alternative livelihoods for the local communities. LIVE Project supports 40 groups in 11 villages around the Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve, including Kiwengwa. There are also ten Village Conservation Committees involved in the project, working to develop sustainable use of forest resources. By visiting the caves, visitors will also be able to support the project, as well as experiencing one of the most spectacular natural wonders of the island.
Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve is located in the Northeastern region of Unguja Island, and you can get there by taking a dala-dala from Kiwengwa to Mchekeni. The distance from the Stone Town is approximately 35 kilometres. The last journey of the road (about 500 meters) is in a bad condition, but the LIVE Project is seeking funding for fixing the road.
This is a site not yet known to tourists. A reception center has been built, with a café and a souvenir shop, although the center does not have the capacity to provide services for visitors yet. For now there is no entrance fee, while later when the services are more developed, visitors will be required to pay US$5-10 to enter the site. LIVE Project welcomes visitors interested in being among the first to experience this unique attraction.