Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bicycling at Hell's Gate

So they say on most African safaris, you spend the whole time hoping to see dangerous animals, while on a safari in Hell’s Gate National Park in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, you spend the whole time hoping not to see dangerous animals. You see, safari in this park is different. There is no safari truck. There is no safari guide. Hell, you don’t even get a map. After paying your exorbitant entry fee and acknowledging that the Kenyan Wildlife Service is not liable if guests get eaten, you get a crappy bike and a pat on the back. And off you pedal.

Given all the bikes are poorly maintained, but the selection is particularly shite if you show up later in the day because you drove from Nairobi that morning. Mine had the Fred Flintsone brake package. Even better, the gears were also permanently rusted into the lowest setting. This would be perfect on the Alpine leg of the Tour de France, but here it just succeeded in making sure that I was expending maximum energy to be the slowest thing on the savanna. Now I know how the gimpy wildebeest feels.

Still it is hard to describe the feeling of just tooling around on a bike with no one to tell you that you can’t ride into the middle of the zebra herd. Or that you are getting too close to the giraffe. Or to explain just what one should do when barreling down a hill with no brakes dead at a warthog hog that thinks you are going to blink first in this bizarre-o game of chicken. (Should this ever come up for anyone reading this, I don’t know what the optimal solution is, but yelling like a lion seems to be sufficiently effective.) Let me sum it up as Really Bloody Cool.

At the end of the standard five mile trail ride is Hell’s Gate Gorge. It is a narrow chasm cut into the rock which eventually winds down to a slippery channel to a billowing sulfur pit and even narrower passage out of the gorge. How did I know it was slippery? Because, for just a bargain $8 more, you can hire a guide to lead you down the road to Hell. It starts out easy enough, but towards the end you get to hear such memorable phrases as “here you should be flexible” (referring to dexterity not disposition), “it is best to put a leg on each side of the rock,” and, my personal favorite while toting around my new Nikon, “oh yes, here you get the small shower.” He was right. It was only a little waterfall that one had to jump through. Plus, the wool sweater I am wearing because it is the dead middle of winter here in Kenya, that will probably dry quickly in the setting sun.

All and all, it was fun though, and none of our party even got maimed.

My group and I spent the night at the Crater Lake Campground, on the shores of Crater Lake. It apparently used to be one of the poshest tented camps in Lake Naivasha region of Kenya. Then the manager got murdered in 2005 and things sort of went downhill a bit. By the time we rolled up this weekend, the tents had mosquitoes, the food was questionable, and the place was empty. Fortunately, mismanagement could in no way screw up the location on the edge of the strange green lake filled with bright pink flamingos (and a couple ducks oddly enough). Flamingos swim around kind of like weird swans. And when they take off to fly, they flap their wings and run across the surface of the water until they have enough umpth to get airborne. One of the guys I was traveling with and I decided to get a closer look, so we rowed the leaky rowboat out to take pictures. All we succeeded in doing was very slowly chasing the pink flock around the lake. The pictures represent as close as we could get.

After a peaceful night in my tent, we set out on our morning walking safari and crater climb. The walking safari involved wandering into the next-door natural sanctuary and trying to sneak up on giraffes. And zebras. And warthogs. And Thompson’s gazelles. And Waterbock. Nothing was afraid of us at all because there were no natural predators in the sanctuary.

It was way more fun that it probably sounds.

I also now have a new favorite shrub, the whistling acacia. It has these weird bulby things on it when it is young, which provide the perfect home for biting red ants. When the giraffe comes to nibble the leaves around the bulbs, the red ants come out to defend their turf. They bite the giraffe’s tongue and the giraffe goes away. Brilliant!

After the walking safari, it was back to Nairobi, and back to work tomorrow. The schedule looks a little packed so I don’t know if I will get to any more adventures before I had head out, but I am going on vacation for most of July so it is tough to tell the boss that I need a day off to go back out on safari…


Drumnakilly said...

We got zee lionz, we got zee tigers...

Looks like fun

The bicycle is just the 2 wheeled version of your 4 wheeled car.

Kristen Himelein said...

My car is a quality piece of Japanese craftsmanship. And really, when you can't go faster than 50 mph anyway, you don't really need brakes.

Mohamed said...

That sounded awesome! Glad you had fun!
Where will you be in July?