Hippos and hartebeests
Updated: Sep 25, 2019
The hippos were uncomfortably close, snorting quietly along the bank as I slept in my mosquito net tent on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The campground manager had assured me that the short electric fence separating the lakeshore from the grounds would keep them out. And to be honest, what kept me awake for most of the night was not the hippos, but the threat of rain. In my haste to leave Nairobi I had grabbed what I thought was a tent-and-fly combination, but what I ended up with was simply a net dome – no rain protection, nothing to ward off the chill in the months that pass for Kenya’s winter, and no privacy from my camping neighbors. Oh well! I made do by draping my sheet over the top of the tent, and rigging it in place by feeding some of the material into the tent pole clips. In the end, it didn’t rain.
And the hippos didn’t trample me. In fact, more mischief was caused by the small troop of vervet monkeys who scampered up and down the nearby parked cars like they were on the world’s best jungle gym. They rummaged around in the garbage cans scattered around, scavenging banana peels, chip wrappers, and my bone-headed deposit of a slightly-too-old chunk of apple chai tea cake I had baked the previous week, which provided ample delight to three munching monkeys approximately five feet away from my tent. Yikes.
I spent my last weekend in Kenya visiting Lake Naivasha and nearby Hell’s Gate National Park for a solo sayonara to this beautiful country. The lake is famous not just for those hippos but for its spectacular birdlife, including aggregations of flamingoes that seem to turn the lake pink. Unfortunately for me I didn’t visit during flamingo season, but I was nonetheless rewarded by an abundance of other birdlife. A group of four ex-pats up from Nairobi graciously allowed me to join their boat tour on the lake, during which we saw sacred ibis, hadada ibis, grey heron, goliath heron, great egret, little egret, giant kingfisher, pied kingfisher, and big flocks of both great white pelican and pink pelican, a species I had never seen before.
Not to mention those hippos, a seemingly placid pod of about 15, including one adorable baby, all snoozing in a giant pile like an oversized litter of puppies.
Back at camp, I sat in the doorway of my tent to journal but was too easily distracted by the humorous antics of the vulturine guinea fowl. I’m more familiar with the helmeted guinea fowl, which I confess is my favorite bird. And I have the guinea fowl coasters, and guinea fowl batik wall hanging, and guinea fowl coffee mug to prove it. I suppose they are called vulturine because they have naked bluish-white heads reminiscent of vultures.
But they also have beautiful plump black and white polka-dotted bodies, funny little wattles, and a tendency to zigzag crazily around the ground like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off in search of tasty insect tidbits to devour.
Speaking of devouring, I was suddenly hungry. Luckily for me Carnelley’s Camp, where I was staying, is home to a sweet café full of cozy seating and picnic tables good for lazing around a fire pit. I spent hours at the café, watching the sky change over the lake while sipping a cold Whitecap lager. One evening I dined on mushroom and spinach pizza from the wood-fired oven. Another evening, early, I snacked on a truly delicious Vietnamese-style spring roll stuffed with bright capsicums (bell peppers), red cabbage, and cucumber to be dipped in a thick, chunkily textured peanut dipping sauce.
The next day I rented a mountain bike and rode 15 minutes through the village, which largely consists of rundown-looking staff housing for the several enormous rose plantations that blanket the shores of Lake Naivasha, to the entrance of Hell’s Gate National Park. This is one of very few parks in Kenya that you can visit on bike or on foot, or even on a rope, as rock-climbing seemed a popular activity. It’s a lovely change of pace from the usual car safari, with an immediacy to the landscape, its colors and shapes and the feel of the wind unbuffered by the protective metal skin of a vehicle.
The wildlife also feel that much more immediate, although fortunately for me this did not mean any close encounters with resident lions or any other carnivores. But it was tantalizingly nervy to step off my bike to observe a napping group of buffalo and recognize that nothing technological mediated the powerful physical presence of these magnificent beasts. I saw zebra and giraffe, gazelle and impala. And many, many warthogs. These amusing gallumphers, with their tails pointing straight up in the air as they trot by, are familiar to many people from the character of Pumbaa in the Lion King (the new release of which I just saw, in 3-D, at the local theater in Nairobi).
What might be less well-known is that Hell’s Gate itself was the inspiration for the scenery in the Lion King, especially the tragic scene of Mufasa’s death at the hands of Scar as he falls into a gorge during a wildebeest stampede.
That gorge is a famous landmark in Hell’s Gate and the end point of my bicycle route, which I then visited on foot with Simon, a Masai elder (below) who works as a community tour guide. The slot canyon, with its undulating river bed and towering sandstone cliff walls dotted with pumice and obsidian remnants of its volcanic history, reminded me of many canyon hikes I’ve taken in Utah.
The geology here is still very active, with views of nearby Mount Longonot, hot springs venting through fissures in the gorge, and an imposing geothermal power station visible on the next slope over. Very sadly, the power of nature was on tragic display just a few weeks after my visit as a group of visitors was swept to their deaths inside the gorge during an unexpected flash flood.
Most bikers stick to the main road circuit for their park visit, but towards the end of the day, I wanted a little bit more alone time with nature, so I turned right onto a secondary road for a few kilometers of laborious climbing up a sandy track. My gasping efforts were rewarded with a solo communion with a field full of hartebeest and gazelle, dotted with the occasional zebra. I watched a male gazelle race back and forth across the field in a fruitless attempt to corner his chosen female. I watched a baby zebra prance playfully around the grazing ground under the watchful eye of its mother. I watched the hartebeest warily watching me. Mostly, I breathed in deeply and absorbed a quiet beauty, marveled at the magnificence of life, and said goodbye.