Lake Naivasha and Hell's Gate
Trip Start Oct 01, 2008
27Trip End Dec 01, 2008
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The drive went well for the first two hours on extremely smooth roads (and we passed the equator, woohoo), until we got to the 18km of road construction being done outside of Nakuru. This slowed us down considerably, and I believe it took us an hour to go that 18km. When we finally got past the construction we stopped for a late morning breakfast/early lunch at the roadside Nyama Choma restaurant/convenience shop/club. It was a nice and airy place, constructed as a series of terraces and winding passageways to more terraces, with a large bathroom in the back that all of the girls took advantage of since it had an actual toilet (minus the seat, of course, because toilet seats always get stolen). Another interesting feature of the public restroom here is the one roll of toilet paper that will hang outside the actual stalls, to prevent the stealing of toilet paper. So you must make a game estimate as to the amount of TP you will need before actually going to the bathroom. I think we all have just learned to over estimate at this point, for safety's sake.
We all ordered large breakfasts because we wouldn't be eating again until dinner, and Don and I both enjoyed the full breakfast of eggs, three slices of bread, a sausage, tomatoes and fried cabbage. We have learned that in most areas around Eldoret, when you order coffee or tea what you get is a cup of hot milk and a tea bag or package of instant coffee. This, it also seems, was the custom in Nakuru - people are fond of their dairy! However, the milk here is much stronger than in the US. It is boiled, but it seems to retain a much gamier flavor (I claim it tastes more like corn than American milk, but Don thinks I am crazy) so the liberal addition of raw sugar is called for. Around the IU House there is always a huge pot of chai being made for the guards at night which involves boiling water, milk and adding huge amounts of sugar and spices to keep them awake all night.
Since our driver, Ashley, knows the manager of the restaurant (shocking) we are able to buy a case of Tusker to take with us, and will drop off the bottles on our way back to Eldoret. I think Don and Matt end up paying for about half of the case between them, but eventually after a huge to-do over the bill (it is impossible for a group of 12 people to pay a bill easily. It's just not possible) we load up in the cars again and head to Lake Naivasha. I was shocked to see that the highway to Lake Naivasha is complete with an actual overpass. With the surrounding hills covered in scrub and brush, and a few fields with an actual sprinkler system and some greenhouses, I was incredibly disoriented. The surrounding area looked just like Southern California off the Toll Road, and it took me a few minutes to adjust!
We learned that the Lake Naivasha area is a huge center for the production of flowers. There are acres and acres of fields and greenhouses growing roses and other blooms, and huge compounds that house the field workers and their families. We also passed by a stronghold of the former president, Moi, in which he has constructed a University and several other smaller schools. On the road the whole way there were numerous police check-points, and we were stopped at least four times. Don had it from Joe Mamlin that these police checkpoints were a complete scam, and the number of "problems" the police gave you depended on how much money the local supervisor needed to collect that month to fill his own bank account. The supervisor just squeezed the money out of his underlings, who in turn squeezed it out of motorists. If you couldn't collect the money, then the job would go to someone who could, and it had nothing to do with protecting drivers from attack by bandits (this happens more in the Nairobi area than around Eldoret).
We finally arrived at the Fisherman's Camp where we were to stay for the night, and thus began the confusion about fees and rates! Unlike the Masai Mara trip, which was one payment, everything included, this was pay as you go for every little bit. Most of the trips are like this, with different sums going to the driver, the guides, the hotel, each restaurant, park fees, bike rental fees, etc. Some of us got a little shafted because no one knew how much money to bring. However, I always bring several thousand extra shillings anyway, so there was enough to go around and no one would go hungry. We paid for our rooms, and then drove up to the upper camp, which was across the main road and up a hill from the lower camp. There were three bandas for our use, but two of the bandas had two rooms each, so Don and I had our own room in a banda with Matt, Andy and Kelvin. Everything seemed in good order when we got there, and so we all changed quickly into shorts and boots to hike around Lake Naivasha.
Back down at the lower camp we piled into two boats with our guide, Muwengi (not the same Muwengi who lives at IU House and is Benson's brother) and started off across the Lake. Lake Naivasha is a fresh water lake with an inlet and a subterranean outlet. It's a huge lake, but only 18 meters deep at the lowers point, and surrounded on all sides by thick papyrus beds and water lilies. We kept close to the banks for a bit, to see a herd of hippos wallowing near our dock, and then motored across the lake to the large peninsula that is sometimes an island when the rains are heavy. Muwengi pointed out some fish eagles to us, and then we ran ashore on the peninsula near where we had seen a herd of giraffe. We all jumped out, and just started to hike up toward the giraffe.
There are no lions in that area, but there are leopards and cheetah occasionally, so we were pretty excited to be allowed to walk around! We got incredibly close to a group of giraffe, which was amazing. They way they run, with their front and back legs articulated in different directions, has a kind of hypnotic affect. The ground was very hard, and covered with this creeping grass that kept tripping up everyone, so we were not the quietest of observers. As it sloped upwards toward a hill, you could see the lake in the background and hear the cries of the fish eagles.
After scaring the giraffes off we circled up the hill in the other direction to see what we would find. The hill was relatively steep, and I have to admit I was pretty winded as we were climbing, because we were still at around 6,000 feet. Don and I always stay toward the front with the guide so we can ask questions, but mostly because if you are going to see something you are going to see it toward the front before it gets scared away. This principle was evidences by the herds of eland, zebra, and impala that we saw run across the path to flee from us, not to mention the two separate groups of buffalo that ran from us. The people in the back didn't see any of this, and so I use this as an excuse for my clearly selfish behavior. It is something to see a group of buffalo stare straight at you, sniffing for your scent on the air (bad eyesight, good sense of smell). To see them catch your scent and then wheel and run away from you, all the while you are half hoping that they will stay a little longer and half thankful that they have run away from you and not taken into their heads to charge because you are on foot and there is no way you could outrun them. The few buffs we saw were cows and calves, and so at least there wasn't an ill tempered (do they come in any other temper?) bull among them.
When we got to the top of the hill we saw the group of giraffes again, and this time they ran down the other side with all of the other beasties to the plain below. Before us was an inlet of Lake Naivasha, and then Crater Lake, which is a small salt lake with no inlet or outlet that is sometimes connected to Lake Naivasha when it rains heavily. You could see smears of pink along the shores of Crater Lake, evidence of its high flamingo population at certain times of the year. The breeze at the top was very welcome, and although it was cloudy, it was still very hot and the brief times the sun peeked through were searing. We all made our way down the other side of the hill on a wide game trail that ran into thick sand in some spots, and Don and I were both glad we had decided on boots instead of sandals. Of course, being the paranoid person that I am, I had ruled in favor of boots in case we needed to either run from something, chase something, or climb something. And of course I had brought my sandals with the bottle openers on the bottoms, which always come in great demand when there are Tusker's to be had.
We didn't see any more animals on the rest of the walk, unless you count the warped cactus that I thought was a turkey from 100 yards away. Instead we made out way back to the other side of the lake to get picked up by the boats, where we spent several minutes watching the birds and giving Keith time to pursue one of his favorite pastimes - throwing rocks in water. This pursuit is actually quite nuanced, and can be varied to suit nearly any situation. If actual water is unavailable, then throwing rocks down a slope, at a tree, or at a larger rock will suffice. However, as there was a lake available he made very good sport of it, and was in fact doubly blessed with the addition of solid and porous rocks of lava. Which rock is going to float? The mystery must be solved!!
On the boat ride back we stopped in another small inlet to see another herd of hippos, and got rather close. I was hoping they would feel threatened and attack the sacrifice boat (the boat that did not have Don and I in it), but no such luck! Our guide stopped the boat off the shore of the camp, and called down several Fish Eagles by whistling and throwing fish out into the water. The eagles would fly over once, and then swoop down and snatch the fish up in their claws - we got an awesome video of the last eagle feeding.
After we docked we got right into the vans and headed over to Crater lake to see the flamingos up close. The sun was just setting as we got there, and the colors were brilliant reflecting off the lake, and made the pinks of the flamingos seem much brighter. There were also a bunch of hippos dotted around the lake about ready to come out and feed for the evening, and we could see their mud ponds all around the edge of the lake where they had scooped out holes to wallow in. In keeping with his MO, Don immediately attracted a group of kids who were dancing and playing around the lake. One of the older girls was making faces at him, and when she was turned away he made a run for the group and all of the other kids ran screaming. When the older girl turned to see what they were running from, and saw this muscled, bearded mazungu running at her she screamed at the top of her lungs and fled!
We drove back to the Fisherman's camp and had a really nice dinner at the restaurant overlooking the lake. We got a piece of chocolate cake for Andy, as it was his birthday, and refrained from indulging in the traditional Kenyan birthday celebration of pouring our beverages all over him. As we all got ready to leave, Ashley our driver came and got us to see a hippo feeding right outside the fence. All of the lodges and camps along the lake have an electric fence to keep the hippos out of the camp at night, because, as we all know, hippos kill more people every year than lions. In fact several weeks ago a woman was killed in Masai Mara when she got in between a hippo and the water. Squishified. The hippo was a young male that had to separate from the herd at night to avoid being killed by its father until it gets strong enough to challenge the father and beat him. We walked along the fence line looking for the other hippos, but they were not in our camp, so Don and I settled for getting bitten by ants on our toes.
We finally headed up to the top camp for the night to clean up and indulge in the case of Tusker. I made an expedition into the bathroom (anything involving an unknown bathroom in Kenya is an expedition until proven otherwise) and was pleased to find the showers burning hot, and the toilet in existence (once again, sans toilet seat). I was just beginning to think "hey, while scrappy and rough around the edges, these bandas aren't that bad" when someone pointed out the first in a series of observances that was to haunt us all the entire night. No mosquito nets. This may not be that bad in Eldoret, but we were right by a lake here, and had already felt evidence of the huge mosquito population that called Naivasha and its surrounding tributaries home. No mosquito nets means trouble. No mosquito nets and unsealed doorways, windows and roofs means a lot of trouble.
We had though that we would not be entering Hell's Gate until the next day's bike ride, but we were mistaken. The journey to hell began that night in earnest, as we all lay awake listening to the bugs buzz past our faces. Don had three Tusker's and two Benadryl before bed, and he didn't sleep a wink. He only had a light blanket from our room at IU to cover him, and was eaten alive! Matt and Andy were plagued not only by the existence of a very large, six legged spider, but also the nighttime chorus of Kelvin's coughing and sneezing. For my part, I had my light Marmot sleeping bag, which thankfully is a foot longer than I am, so I slept with the sleeping bag zipped up past my head. But every time I would peek my head out to breathe I would hear that telltale buzzing of the mosquito by my head, and would recoil back into the inferno in horror of waking to find bites all over my eyes and cheeks.
Needless to say we were a grumpy group the next morning, waking before dawn to be ready for breakfast by 6:15 am mazungu time. This was at the insistence of Ashley, to make sure that we were on the road with bikes by 7 am, back to the camp by 1 pm, and on the road to be back to IU House before dark. However, 6:15 am, and then 6:30 am came and went, and no Ashley. A very irate Kelvin called Ashley and exchanged some heated words with him in Swahili, hanging up and then telling us he would be right there. 20 minutes later Ashley arrived, and it was clear that Kelvin's call had woken him up. Fair enough, God knows where they were sleeping! We had ordered our breakfasts the night before, and they were brought out in good time, and everyone's humor improved with the liberal addition of coffee and eggs to their systems.
We then began the process of picking our mountain bikes for the days ride through Hell's Gate National Park. And by "process of picking" I mean that someone would ride up to you on a bike, get off, and then press it into your hands assuring you of the excellent quality of the machine. You would get on it, ride around, try out the brakes and the gears, and then, finding the back brake not working, the gears unshiftable, and the seat too short you would look for another one. The first man would then try desperate to fix the brakes/seat/gears before you made another selection. I finally found one about the right height, with front brakes that worked well and back brakes that worked a tiny bit if I squeezed them with all of my power, and gears that mostly shifted. Fair enough, lets not be picky, I thought.
I was incredibly wrong.
Dearest friends, if ever you have the chance to go on this amazing bike ride, or really any bike ride, be the pickiest damn bike rider there is. Do NOT get on that bike unless you are satisfied with every aspect of it, because you have no idea what lies ahead! Let me lay it out for you: it is 5k from the camp to the entrance to Hell's Gate, 7k from the gate to the gorge, and then a 2k hike around the gorge. So, 24k on the bike and 2k on your feet. Halfway from the camp to the gate, I was in serious pain. Was it the brake wire digging into my shin? No, that was a mere annoyance. Was it the awkward way I had to hold my hands to avoid skinning my pinkie on the rusted edges of the handlebars? Surely not, that was only a trifle. Was it the terror that had been ingrained in me of riding bikes on Kenyan roads knowing that almost all cases seen in the casualty wards (ER) were some form of motor vehicle versus pedestrian or bicyclist? Surely not. No, dear friends, it was the utter agony of the bicycle seat pole digging into my pubic bone with every bump, rock, and movement. The seat, while seeming well padded at first, is in fact not. In fact, it is not padded at all when you really sit down on it - its mere springs and steel pole. Having been blessed with a rather large pelvic bone, which I am told will make the birthing process rather easy, I found that these bones are rather intensely painful when they come into jarring contact with metal.
Needless to say once we got to the gate I took my jacket out of our backpack and fashioned it into a seat cushion. This alleviated some pain, but the initial damage was done. Luckily for me Hell's Gate offered some extraordinarily distracting scenery as we biked into the first part of the canyon, surrounded by giraffes and zebras on all sides, without fences. The group in back stopped to take pictures and a baboon crossed the path a few feet behind them. Don and I were in front, holding our breath as the baboon crossed, while I calculated how long it would take me to bike back to them, get the knife out of my pack, and the best way to dispatch a baboon while keeping clear of its fangs. Happily for us, and unhappily for YouTube viewers, it did not attack.
There was a small finger of rock jutting up out of the canyon, formed by volcanic activity, that offered climbers some sport. There was a top rope bolted in, and a group of Kenyans gathered around the base watching someone climb. I would have loved to stop, but we were already short on time and shillings as it was. We made our way through the park to the gorge and the ranger's station, once negotiating a hill on which I was unable to slow down at all, a process made terrifying by hidden pockets of deep sand in the road the were liable to skid you out at any time. Fortunately there were no ROUS! Unfortunately the road had reduced my improvised padding to nothing, and I was looking forward to a break when we stopped at the entrance to the gorge.
We followed Muwengi down into Njorowa gorge, through some narrow rocky passages still flowing with water. The walls grew up around us, deep orange and dusky sand colored, as the waterway cut deep into the earth. After scrambling down several slick spots we came out into a larger river bed, with only a small stream running through it at this time of year. There was a recent high water mark on the side of the gorge that indicated it had been filled up at least 3 feet at some recent time. Muwengi led us back into a branch of the gorge that quickly narrowed off, and told us that this was the drainage pathway for the nearest mountain, about 200k away. We backed out and started exploring the other fork.
Right away Don and I noticed a dark emerald algae on the walls of the gorge at certain spots, where the hot springs would run out. While the water in the stream was cool, the water pouring out of these natural springs in the rock was very hot, and is a source of a huge thermal power plant in that area. The water comes from Lake Naivasha, and is heated by volcanic activity underground, coming up as hot springs all around the area. KenGen, a Kenyan power company, uses the steam to power several plants.
At one point, as the gorge got narrower, we had to shimmy down a 7 foot drop and then jump and twist to avoid a pretty good sized waterfall of hot water. Don and I were once again thankful that we had worn our boots, as we scrambled up and down the gorge. Excepting the Acacia trees and the archaeabacteria (not to mention zebra, giraffes, etc), we might have been at the Falls in Southern California! As we climbed up out of the gorge again I thought about how much my Dad would love it here, with the combination of two of his favorite pastimes: climbing and hunting. Of course, hunting is illegal in Kenya except for population control by rangers, but you get the picture.
The view from the top of the gorge was amazing, and we made good mazungu sport of taking pictures near the edge. Kelvin was very dubious of the American affinity for taking pictures as close to the edge of a cliff as possible, but we managed to get him in a few pictures as long as he was in front. I was sad to leave the gorge, and not just because I was really not looking forward to getting back on hell's bike, but because I could have followed its winding path all day. Its been a while since I have climbed or bouldered at all, and my palms felt itchy all day. Nothing is quite as satisfying as the good rock burn you get on your palms and fingers from a day climbing some nice JTree pink granite, and the cliffs in Hell's Gate canyon and Njorowa gorge looked like they had a nice burn to offer anyone willing to try.
But, as I have said, we were pressed for time, and so to the bikes we went. Don shed his capiline for the Crocodile Dundee vest only look, and so I added his shirt to my seat padding, hoping to achieve, if not comfort, then a minimal level of discomfort. The sun was high in the sky, the clouds were gone, most of the animals had retreated to some shady spot away from the road, and it was mostly uphill. As we biked, Don and I had a discussion on whether or not one could have fun while being simultaneously in pain. I argued that pain and fun were not necessarily mutually exclusive, as evidenced by how awesome it was to see a leopard while suffering fever, chills and aches. Similarly, I could enjoy biking uphill through sand and gravel with my pelvic bone being slowly ground down bump my bump as long as I was biking through such inspiring scenery. In Africa. Which is awesome. Don felt that one feeling alone must be predominant, and was insisting that I decide whether I was predominantly having fun or predominantly in pain. However, I am much to wily for his tricks and I know him too well to be trapped into making a statement that will give him fodder for attack, and so I just demurred until he was distracted by something else.
Soon enough the road took us by one of the watering holes, and Don, forgetting his attack on my logic, swerved off the main road onto a small game trail in pursuit of a giraffe and to ride closer to the zebra at the watering hole. Not wanting him to be in danger of attack alone (the road crossing baboon had gone to that watering hole an hour before), I followed him, but was soon chagrined to see that one of the attractions of the watering hole was a large sandy area that offered zebra and giraffe the chance to roll off their ticks. It also offered me the chance to get stuck in the sand, unable to move forward, forcing me to get off my bike and walk it the next 50 yards back to the road. When I finally made it back to the road I had lost the lead pack of bikers, and had to huff it to catch up to Don, who was riding his bike up and down the bank in fits of Don-on-a-bike joyous frenzy. He saw me coming from so far behind him and said "Oohh, did you follow me?! Wasn't that sand hard to bike through?! Isn't this awesome!? Did you smell the zebras?!" Mission accomplished: distraction achieved, attack averted.
We all made it back to the park entrance, where Don and I finally ran out of our delicious cold water. The previous night I had put our camelback in the freezer, and then added more water to the ice this morning, so we had been running on amazing cold water all day. However, we had finally sucked down to just the ice, and had to wait for more to thaw. Once everyone caught up to the gate we began our final 5k ride to the camp, all of the ladies in significant discomfort due to the pelvic bone meets bike seat phenomenon.
A note on the road from the gate to the main road: it is downhill, and all sand and gravel. In combination with dubious brakes, this makes for a very dangerous situation. Lisa, one of the Purdue pharmacy students, and no sissy, had just passed me calling "at least this is much better than going uphill!" when her bike slid out on a patch of sand and she went face first into the dirt. I clamped down on the back brake and hopped off beside her as she stood up, caked in dirt and sporting some pretty good road rash on her side, both palms and her chin. The rest of the group that was behind us caught up and between us all we managed to wash everything off and cover her palms in Band-Aids to tide her over until we got back to camp. As we got ready to set off again, Lisa being a trooper and refusing to get picked up by the vans, I saw Don hauling ass back up the hill. He looked pretty scared when he reached me, and I assured him I was fine and had just stopped to help Lisa. Everyone else had been at the bottom of the hill and hadn't been able to see who was hurt, so all he knew was that someone had fallen. We rode back down the hill together, going slow, until we all got to the main road.
Once out of the park, I was pretty ready to just skip the whole rest of the biking and teleport back to the camp. Biking along Kenyan roads, with matatus stopping in front of you every few yards and disgorging people, forcing you to bike out into the middle of the road, and around Sunday shoppers, is not very fun. I was glad to get back to the entrance to the camp, get off my bike, and walk it down the last gravel/sand hill to the camp. Once back to the camp we all washed off in the bathrooms, and gave Lisa some time to properly wash off her wounds and bandage them before getting into the car. Everyone else made good use of this time by cracking the remaining Tusker's (once again my reefs coming in handy) and discussing the mysterious disappearance of four of the Tuskers. Mystery solved: our drivers had helped themselves to an early tip while we were out.
We finally loaded up the vans, losing Serena to the other van which had a TV and a DVD player currently playing Predator. Don was finishing his Tusker in the car, and was given another by Kelvin who bought it when we stopped in Naivasha town. Why did we stop? Ashley, our driver, had paid a couple of guys to hunt some cormorants for him to take back home, so we stopped by the side of the road to get the birds. He was a pretty happy kid by the time we got to the restaurant for lunch in Nakuru. Don + bike ride + hiking + animals + 2 Tuskers = happy husband. After a very efficient lunch, we were back on the road, knowing that we wouldn't make it back before dark. We gambled anyway, against the express wishes of our betters, who had always said never to travel after dark on a long trip. But the danger of robbery and highjacking outside of Eldoret is much lower than Nairobi, and we were only going to be a half hour or so in the dark. That said we made it home by 7:30 pm or so, all happy to get out of the bouncy cars after such a long bouncy bike ride that morning.
A note on returning from weekend trips: urge your driver to make it a competition with the other van, so that your van gets back first. When you get to IU house, leave your husband to gather the non-wearable items, while you take your bag of clothes directly to the laundry room. As it is Sunday night, the chances of people that stayed at IU House having already done their laundry are high, thus so are the chances that if you get there first, the washer will be free. However, if you get back in the second van, the chance that someone else who was returning from your same trip will already be throwing their clothes in is also high, so you must be devious. Do not go to your room first. Do not stop to collect loose items from the car. Do not check to see if you left your sleeping bag in the back. Just take you blankets, pillow covers, and all clothing that came in contact with the dirty banda right to the machine and throw it in with two scoops of detergent. Worry about hanging it up tomorrow morning. Yes, this is selfish and devious, and when your husband asks where you ran off to and you tell him, he will shake his head at you. But when you remind him that you were raised by militant libertarians whose motto was the law of the jungle "kill or be killed, eat or be eaten" then he will see that you are operating on ingrained survival mechanisms that you cannot hope to combat without more than a few years of his gentling influence. At least, in your case, you have somewhat mollified this law to be "wash, or be washed." Or something like that.