Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Welcome to Hell!

When I lived in Nairobi as a junior in college, I was so busy trying not to be a tourist that I never made it to some of the coolest places in Kenya. So when my professor, Dr. Elke de Buhr, proposed that the group go for “a little hike” around Mt. Longonot and then spend a few days at Lake Naivasha, I strapped on my Chacos, called “dibs” on the front seat in the matatu (the only seat with a seatbelt), and headed 2 hours north of Nairobi for the weekend.

I think the rest of the story is best told in pictures:

Mt. Longonot National Park is what remains of a volcano that erupted sometime around the turn of the century. As we were driving to the park’s gate and snapping photographs of the donkeys grazing at the base of the giant crater, it didn’t occur to us that what Elke had described as “a little hike” would involve us climbing straight up the side of a mountain.

Ashley (a friend from Tulane) and I made it up the mountain in about 2 hours. Two sweaty, sun-drenched, exhausting hours. Expecting “a little hike,” I was wearing sandals and SPF 15 sunscreen, and only carrying half a liter of water. We were also ill-prepared for the delightful combination of 30 mph winds and lots of fine volcanic dust, which literally made our teeth muddy. It was rough.

People coming down the mountain, who had already made it to the top and around the crater, kept telling us it was worth it so we forged on. And they were right!

Inside the crater was a completely separate ecosystem, which you could see from the top. (You have to repel to get into the crater, and I wasn’t about to do that…) There are little lakes covered in some sort of bright green vegetation, and lots and lots of birds I couldn’t identify.

The distance around the crater (which was a pretty difficult hike, too) was about 7km. Ashley and I did about 1/3 of it, then turned around and walked back to our starting point. (So, really, we walked about 2/3 of the way around the crater, since we backtracked.) We then sat in the dirt like children (some high schoolers were making fun of us) and took pictures of the view below.

After about an hour up top, we headed back down the steep, steep mountain to the base gate and found some much deserved cold beer and cookies. It was really difficult not to slide down the dusty path, but I managed to make it down without falling down once! (And, judging by the dust on everyone else’s butts, I think I was the only one who didn’t fall down.)

The next morning (on my birthday!), after some much needed R&R and a GIANT buffet dinner at Lake Naivasha’s Fish Eagle Inn, we took a matatu to Hell’s Gate National Park. In the heart of Masaai land, Hell’s Gate was supposedly named such after the eruption of Mt. Longonot created a massive cloud of ash that suffocated plants and animals and rendered the area uninhabitable.

Today, it’s a giant gorge full of baboons (which we didn’t see) and baboon poop (which we tried our best to avoid).

At the main gate, a group of about 8 of us rented dilapidated bikes (for $4 a day) and biked the 8km (4 miles) to the beginning of the hike. (There were no helmets for rent. I asked and they thought I was crazy.) 

The road took us through a game reserve, past herds of zebras, water buffaloes, wildebeest, and a variety of DLCs (deer-like creatures). We biked through pits of volcanic soil, which was so dense and soft that our wheels wouldn’t turn and our bikes would abruptly stop and tip to one side or another. We saw families of eagles who nest high on the rock formation in the park, and heard a Masaai folk tale about the pillars of stone that were once women who were upset about being married off and were turned to stone by the gods for looking back towards their villages as they walked away.

At Hell’s Gate gorge, we took a 2-ish hour hike with a guide whose name I forget. He told us stories of growing up in a Masaai village, about being shunned from his family for letting a cow eat poisonous leaves one day when he was in charge of the herd. As punishment, he was sent to a boarding school, which ended up being the best thing that could have happened to him. When he was 13, he returned to his village for a traditional Masaai right of passage to manhood, where he was trained as a warrior (Moran) and sent with a group of 40 age-mates, all boys, to find and kill a lion. He told us that he threw his spear first and hit the lion’s elbow, so the lion attacked him. He pulled up his pants legs and showed us giant bite and claw marks that he said were from the lion, and told us how the other boys attacked and killed the lion while the lion was busy trying to eat him. He survived and because he was the first to throw his spear, he got to keep the lion’s mane and, when choosing wives from all the eligible ladies in the village, he got to choose first. I’m not sure how much of his story was true, but it was certainly interesting.

Also, Hell’s Gate gorge was apparently the inspiration for the landscape in The Lion King, so we quoted the movie and sang songs all afternoon. It was the best hiking trip ever.

The next morning we hired a boat and boat driver to take us hippo- and bird-watching on Lake Naivasha. We learned about the invasive water hyacinth and Louisiana crawfish that, combined with the massive Italian and Dutch flower plantations, are wrecking the ecosystem in Naivasha.

We saw kingfishers, storks, herons, and a bunch of other birds I can’t identify. We interrupted a hippo family’s morning nap. We watched our friends' boat almost capsize when their driver ran them into a bunch of mangrove trees. A fun time was had by all.

In the afternoon, before heading back to Nairobi, we stopped at Crater Lake National Park, another volcanic area with a variety of wildlife. Members of our group who had gone the previous weekend (before class began) described it as very Jurassic Park-like, and they were absolutely right. We took an hour-long walking safari through the savannah, where we confused zebras, witnessed a duel between male impalas fighting for control of a herd of females, and chased a giraffe through the trees to get a good picture.

Dehydrated, sunburned, and generally exhausted, in the late afternoon we headed back to Nairobi in our private matatu (minibus). We were supposed to stop at the Rift Valley Overlook to take photos, but by the time we got there I was the only person still awake so we continued on back to the hotel. I managed to stay awake long enough to shower and tuck myself into bed before it even got dark out. It was an awesome little vacation, a much needed break from our intense course back in Nairobi, and a great way to spend my 26th birthday.

Now we’re busy conducting and compiling research about water access in Kibera, so sometime this week I’ll update you all about actual school-related things. On the 18th, I’m headed to South Africa/Swaziland to visit some Peace Corps friends, Pasture Valley Children’s Home, and my Swazi family. I’ll keep you posted.


(PS I know this blog post is late, but it's taken me several days to get to internet! I'll update more later, as I'm now done with my project and have moved on to Swaziland!)


African Safaris said...

That is a beautiful caldera! The vegetation looks lush. I wonder if there are game viewing animals there?

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