The clear, bright, blue sky was a welcome change to the ominous, dark, cloud-filled skies of the past few weeks. The rainy season has been unusually prolonged. Some say el nino, some say la nina. I was just glad to be able to go on a long walk without being drenched.
I packed my rucksack with apples, a litre plastic bottle of boiled and filtered water, my sunglasses and the brilliant Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens fitted to my 6D camera body. This would be ideal for capturing photographs of birds. For close up and “street photography” I would rely on my OnePlus3 smartphone.
The first church services of the day were ending when I tramped up the muddy road from our house to the main highway. Families dressed in their Sunday best and clutching their Bibles were walking home. I crossed the highway by the Anglican Cathedral and headed north down into the valley.
Boda-boda motorcycle taxis swished past me when their riders had cut the engine and were freewheeling down the slope. Those with empty pillions beckoned me to come aboard. Those already loaded with passengers would wave and shout greetings, lost on the slipstream. I discovered recently that there was no import tax on motorcycles of less than 250cc, so they were popular and more affordable.
Motorbikes coming towards me would have coasted down the opposing slope of the valley. As they bled off speed, their drivers would press the electric starter, but sometimes this didn’t work, and they would stop and have to kick start the motor. Going over speed bumps can be tricky while you are messing about with the starter.
Everyone at the side of the road, gardeners, motorcycle washers, people coming and going to church, would all catch my eye and greet me.
“Where are you going?”
“To the forest,” I would reply.
“Because I want to walk.”
Some of them expressed surprise that a muzungu (white man) would be walking at all. They think we are all from the WaBenzi tribe (the people who are driven around in Mercedes Benzes).
Up ahead was the Sunmoon Lodge, a local hotel. There was a half moon in the sky, but I couldn’t frame a photograph to show both. I walked up the hill and past a few dilapidated dukas (shops). The Njukiri Forest was to my left, but there were no clearly marked paths in that direction according to Google Maps. (I have a love/hate relationship with this app. It can be lifesaving at times and infuriatingly wrong at others.)
There was a sign pointing to the County Show Grounds, laid out on the fringes of the forest. I can just imagine the scene 70 years ago, with the white farmers proudly displaying their produce, their wives entering bakery and flower arranging competitions, with prize beasts being judged by men in white lab coats. It looked sad and dejected now.
At Njukiri Shopping Centre, a vivacious middle-aged lady wanted to walk with me. She hooked her arm through my elbow but I declined. I didn’t want to spend the next mile explaining to her why I didn’t want an African wife. She laughed and went back to her crowd of friends. I wondered what on earth had been in the priest’s sermon.
The prolonged rainy season had painted the countryside bright green. It is very fertile, with people planting stands of maize, interlaced with beans, sugar cane, potatoes (English and sweet) and arrowroot everywhere. The lakes and dams were full. I took a long look at one stretch of water to see if there was any birdlife. Two lads in fashionable Western clothes and American baseball caps asked me if I wanted to swim. I told them that I’d left my swimming trunks behind, unfortunately, and they laughed.
On the other side of the road, there was a ruckus. A man was trying to control a massive bull as it rumbled through the undergrowth onto the tarmac road. The bull continued to be rather frisky on the road, and motorbikes had to swerve to avoid it. I greeted the man and asked him what he was doing. Surely they would not be slaughtering on the Sabbath? No, he was taking the bull to cover some cows. “He knows, that’s why he’s impatient,” said the cowherd.
From one of the many churches at the side of the road, I saw a man with a massive box on a wheelbarrow. We chatted and he told me he had to move the loudspeaker from one church to another for the next service.
A boda-boda driver stalled his engine going over a speed bump and couldn’t get it restarted. I offered to help but he didn’t think much of my expertise. He pushed the bike up the hill, where there was a shack offering boda-boda repairs.
I’d been walking for two hours now and the sun was beating down. I stopped to rest and look down at a garden in a flooded valley. It looked charming, so I got out my camera. Out of nowhere, two men came to ask me what I was doing. “I am photographing this attractive scene. Your country is very beautiful.” They seemed unconvinced. “Why is this beautiful?” I rambled on about the verdant pasture, the different crops, the flooded stream, the people working in the distance. They were still suspicious. “What are you doing here?” I told them I just wanted a pleasant walk to see the countryside. “Why are you in Kenya?” When I said I was Daktari, their manner completely changed. From being a suspected spy, I had become a most welcome guest.