This Photographer Found Peace While Fly-Fishing Kenya's Lush Highland Rivers

Pete Muller was searching for a way to heal after years of working in some of Africa's most conflicted environments. He found it at the Mathioya River.

Photograph by Pete Muller, National Geographic
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Photographer Pete Muller stands with his dog, Mosi, on the bank of the northern Mathioya River in central Kenya.
Photograph by Pete Muller, National Geographic

It’s last light in the valley and the sound of rushing water drowns out all others. I walk the river’s edge with my dog, Mosi, whose inability to hear over the cascade renders him nervous. Despite his impressive size, he trots sheepishly at my heels. Ostensibly we walk to fish, but really, we move at the urging of men long since past—of John Burroughs and John Muir, of Loren Eiseley—and of my parents, Norman and Paula, who are alive today but live far from this Kenyan valley. Walk in the woods, their voices advise, along the banks of a river where, in the blue end of a day well spent, you may find the rhythms that elude you. There, among the fish and the flowers and the forces that bind them, you might make peace with your worried mind.

I began to venture to the highlands of central Kenya in 2013, with a hope that its rivers might exert their transformative power upon me, smoothing my edges as they have, over time, polished the stones in their path. I’ve never been free of emotional distress but my years of working as a photojournalist in some of Africa’s most conflicted environments left additional barbs in me. With time, it became hard to differentiate the conflicts within and before me. Gradually, it seemed, they became intertwined and I came to feel an expanding sense of tension and discomfort in my core.

Photographer Pete Muller is using fly-fishing to calm his mind after years of working in complex and conflict-ridden regions.

Fly-fishing, with its knot-tying, wading, and rhythmic casting, embodied a type of artistry that seemed a meditative antidote to the chaos I’d photographed in recent years. I’d not cast a fishing line since the age of 10 or so, when I used bait and lures to fish the Atlantic waters that surrounded the places I lived as a child, first along the coast of New Jersey and, later, in Massachusetts. My mother’s boyfriend at the time taught me the basics. He was a large, avuncular man who’d been an interrogator in the Special Forces, an experience that left him with his own scars. As he affixed lures to his line, he explained that he could handle little more than fishing and taking photographs, the latter his chosen profession after leaving the military. At dusk along the jetties, his hand resting comfortably on the rod, he seemed at ease.

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A local fisherman moves across the rocks in the Mathioya River.

It was to waters that I returned, nearly three decades later, in search of solace and connection. Between assignments, I began to drive out from the chaos of the capital of Nairobi, where I live, to the undulating hills that surround central Kenya’s Ragati and Mathioya Rivers. The slow-flowing Ragati drifts through protected indigenous forest, where a network of paths, used by humans, leopards, elephants, and buffalo, cut through lush vegetation. The Mathioya is a clear, impressive river that rushes through the heartland of Kenyan tea production, between the slopes of the Aberdares Mountains and the glacial peaks of Mount Kenya. Both rivers are home to populations of furtive brown and rainbow trout maintained through the stocking programs of the few nearby fishing clubs and lodges.

I rent a basic cottage at the rivers edge where the sounds of the Mathioya are always present. I follow John Ngaii Moses, a nimble man who, at the age of 57, moves across wet stones with a grace and confidence of someone younger. His life began at a time when the valley’s beauty was tainted by man’s conflict and injustice. John was born in an internment camp above the river in the village of Kamuturi in 1961, during a period of “emergency law” when British colonists interned tens of thousands of Kenyans as they sought to suppress an armed movement for independence. The story of his birth reminds me, as other situations have, that men can enact violence and cruelty even in the most serene of places.

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David Miner, a fishing guide at the Ragati Conservency, casts a line into a calm pool.

Below the village where the camp once stood, John points to calm pools where fish linger and feed. I wade in, moving cautiously amid the rocks and swift currents, and fitfully cast my line. On my first visits, I know nothing of the principles of fly-fishing: about the presentation of the fly, about keeping the line taut while allowing it to float freely enough that fish mistake the artificial fly for a real one caught in the current. I mistakenly believed, as most do, that the difficulty of fly-fishing lay simply in its famous back-and-forth casting. In fact, fly-fishing is a complex study of both technique and ecology, requiring knowledge of the rhythms of the river and how fish feed, in order to effectively trick fish in one of their most basic skills.

As John and I traverse the river, I realize that our definitions of fly-fishing vary. John, like nearly all people who fish for sustenance rather than recreation, prefers to catch fish than spar with them, and so sometimes baits his line. His method is effective, but for my more meditative aims, I decide to pursue a slower, and far less fruitful, purist approach. John could teach me about the river, about its history and ecology, but the subtleties of technical fly-fishing would be my own challenge.

So began a period of quiet study, through books and websites, trial and error, in the graceful, patient art. I made nearly a dozen trips to the rivers of central Kenya before feeling even a nibble from the trout below. But despite my initial lack of fishing success, my excursions created both ease and excitement within me. As I’d walk and cast, and sit and write, I understood that the hooking of fish was but an excuse to explore and observe. To notice the sweet, enveloping scent of Angel Trumpets as the sun begins to set behind the hills. To watch pairs of Black African Ducks surf the current as mid-morning sun chases out the mist. To once again consider things both bigger and smaller than I.

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The southern portion of the Mathioya River rolls through the Kenyan village of Gacharageini.

And as the fish began to take my flies, I came to know that the river had given me more than I had initially asked. I’d arrived in search of peace and pastime, a counterweight to the stresses in my life. But as I waded in the eddies, in a cathedral of mist and wood and leaves, I felt connected, as I did on the summer days of my childhood, when sand sharks and puffer fish made my heart beat with curiosity and wonder.