Ode to the Wanderlust (Part I)

I still remember the ride in a dinghy van, dark green in color, if my 6 year old memory serves me right. I can even recall stopping at a police checkpoint by the KBC broadcasting station just past Karen. When we got to Ngong, we turned off the tarmac road and took to the gentle slopes bordering the town.

Saikeri is located on the leeward, much drier, side of the Ngong Hills. It was during the dry season, so the route was dusty as hell. 3 hours later, when we finally got to Aunty Wamaitha’s house, we were all caked in a brown layer of fine dust. We were helping her move. Her husband, her kids, and some of her in laws had joined her in this new venture. They had just recently bought previously unfarmed land in a community that supported Masai ranchers and herders. They planned to settle in “town” for a little bit, before eventually moving to their actual farm a little bit farther on into the hinterland.

Then, as now, classifying the tiny hamlet we had arrived at as a town was a stretch of the imagination. When I recently re-visited the town it had grown to a one-street line of dukas – including at least one or two “watering holes.” One cannot be expected to survive  the bumpy three hour ride over arid scrubland without the redemption of a frothy adult beverage. Equally, partaking of a heavy meal to quite the hunger pangs is essential. When my dad and I accompanied Wamaitha back in 1989, I remember a goat barbecue for our welcome meal. In the evening, the green van took of for its return trip to Gikambura, while we spent the night, planning to head back the next day.

I don’t remember much of our journey back from Saikeri. I would even go as far as saying it was uneventful. My dad, on the other hand, would vehemently disagree! From Saikeri to Gikambura is about 20 miles, in his wisdom, my dad decided that the best idea was for him, and my 6 year old self, to walk back. Needless to say, we cut across open brush, foot paths, and occasionally proper roads – untarred. Perhaps he was hoping to accidentally “lose” me on the way. Then as we got closer to home, and the reality of my mother’s wrath, he changed his mind. Alas, by then it was too late for the trek had began. We had to either walk back to Saikeri and wait for the rickety mini buses which showed up every market day, or keep walking. I, for one, was totally over the whole walking thing. By the time we got to the halfway mark, I was ready to die of thirst and starvation – give up the ghost. Dad had no choice but to place me on his shoulders and keep walking. I still remember that we eventually got back home very late, and even more tired!

 

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Many years after, I came up with the brilliant idea of undertaking a solo trek across the Ngong Hills. Keep the following in mind as you judge my depravity: the range of the Ngong Hills essentially dominates the skyline from my house. From grades 1 through  8, I commuted to Ngong Hills Academy under the shadow of these slopes and valleys. These small mountains practically hovered over me ever since we moved to Ngong in 1990. One semester, my school organized a one day excursion to scale some of the more manageable parts of it. I joined approximately 50 schoolmates plus several teachers, and maybe even 1 or 2 armed administrative police. One girl fainted on our way up; it was then explained to the rest of us that we must ascend more slowly so we don’t suffer the same fate. The cops accompanied us because there had been several muggings of hikers on the hills.

Mentioning crime on Ngong Hills brings up several raw memories. The first dates back to 1978 when J. M. Kariuki, a Kenyan politician, was found murdered and partly devoured by wild animals. He had been an outspoken critic of the Jomo Kenyatta government. The last time he was seen alive, he was in the company of several Criminal Investigation Department officers from Nairobi’s Central Police Station. He went missing until his body was discovered by a Masai herdsman.

More recently, Muindi, a Kenyan cyclist training for an international meet, was killed somewhere in the Ngong Hills. The expensive training bike he’d been riding was never recovered – prompting many to believe this was a daylight robbery gone wrong. Others, however, insinuated that his untimely demise may have been connected to an increasingly competitive Kenyan cycling scene and this unnatural attrition of top athletes was sure to benefit someone. In any case, our school-related expedition benefited from a police escort to ensure no fifth graders went back home missing lunch money, not to mention their precious little limbs.

For that reason, trekking the Ngong Hills alone was somewhat nerve-wracking. I didn’t even bother finding a partner in crime: none of my friends are so whimsical as to embark on such a fool’s errand.

 

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