Afraid and excited in Kenya’s Kakamega Forest

Evan and I make camp in Kakamega Forest, western Kenya.

Even though we’d been careful to duck into the Kakamega Forest unseen, our bicycles still needed locking up for the night. A narrow, thorny tree beside a decomposing log was the only thing that would accommodate the cable lock.

Gingerly, I placed myself near the log and to the minimum extent required reached through the vegetation to reach the tree. I was grateful that the sun hadn’t set, more confident that I would see any snakes taking refuge in this little corner of the forest before I heard them. This wager didn’t quell my fears completely, but the task needed doing and this rationalization helped.

The next morning we saw the dead cobra.

There is lots to worry about while travelling on a bicycle if one chooses to or is that way inclined (me, often), but there’s also relief. For although it can create feelings of vulnerability, by its very nature this plodding way of travel also offers consolation. By cycling with others, I’ve learned that what plagues and comforts me is uniquely my own, and doesn’t change significantly with location, Canada to Kenya. Regardless of where I am, the same few peculiarities of the lifestyle set me on edge, while others relax me.

The first few nights camping in new areas leads to jitters as night descends, regardless of how strenuous the day’s cycling was. That stage passed, the cumulative exhaustion of pedalling along the road all day has the effect of something strong poured over ice after work. It dulls a churning mind, funnelling attention from the hypothetical to the tangible. Leaving the log and tree with bicycles secured, I am so far unscathed. Snakes are soon forgotten and to ease a cramping stomach I lay on the forest floor, marvelling at small, new, green life. Momentarily, I have thoughts only for peppermint tea and a bite on my arm from a little ant.

This process repeats again. Every monkey shaking unseen branches is at first imagined as a potential human intruder. Only after being recognized as harmless can the sounds be appreciated for what they really are: rare, and delightful. After all, isn’t the whole point of the bicycle to allow for surprise? What could be better than taking refuge in a forest with monkeys jumping from tree to tree?

With nightfall the sounds of the forest change, but they are no longer as disconcerting. Within the tent, the rustling heard outside is no longer monkeys, who are also ending their day. Although what now disturbs the silence can’t be seen, most sounds are no longer enough to fight inertia. After a long day contending with Kenyan heat, dust, motorcycles and speeding minibuses invading personal space, not much will keep my eyelids open. Besides, what can I do about it?

It was unlikely for us to see a cobra in the small corner of Kakamega Forest that we briefly inhabited, and we didn’t – not exactly. Soon after rejoining the red dirt road in the morning, the body of the cobra was spotted on a road cut. It was slung over a rock jutting out of the excavation, the neck and the tail each hanging down the better part of a metre. A large group of children were passing on their way to school. They stopped. A pick-up truck with several men also stopped, its passengers getting out to join us and the children. We all stared at the huge black cobra missing most of its head.

Perpetually the passer-through, when I am confronted with something as frightening as a cobra there’s not much to say. I’m just grateful for once again avoiding the wrong place at the wrong time. Those who live in the neighbourhood can’t leave the hazard behind in the same way. Does their familiarity with cobras save them from harm during excursions into the forest? Maybe, but such knowledge only comes from living day to day with the risk. Perhaps among the group of by-standers was someone who’d been directly affected. And maybe the cobra hadn’t been killed by a truck, but had been attacked out of self-defence, or revenge.

There’s no steel box separating you from the outside world; on the bicycle your skin is directly in the game. Each day there is exposure to some visible risks and some that are more hidden. The silver lining in travelling in a way that confronts you with risk is the opportunity to gain perspective.

To penetrate the forest where we slept that night we found and followed a narrow path. Never mind that this path was a great thing, saving us from bushwhacking and allowing us to sleep in an amazing place. My anxiety argued that it could allow some bogeyman of the night to reach us! Bicycle travel provides a remedy to this mindset. It puts you in front of people living ordinary days in their lives. Those that live in Kakamega Forest who know the narrow path we took and use it regularly face more hazards than I, passing through, probably understand. At my best I use this as a humbling consolation, and even a reason to continue to travel on a bicycle.

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