Pedaling into the Gates of Hell
After a rather drawn out period of time stranded in Nairobi, there was something magical about standing on the edge of the Rift Valley looking into a place I had dreamed of seeing since I was little. You see it is here the Lions live and, should you believe those sorts of things, it is supposedly the oldest inhabited place on earth. For me, gazing into the southern end of the Rift, the realisation that the Africa I had been living was only the sad reality of the city. In Nairobi's case, it looks like it was designed by the same architect (incidentally, he was savaged to death by his guide dog) who also was responsible for the town planning of Croydon in the '70's. It has few redeeming qualities, but the locals are friendly enough.
But here is the real Africa. Standing on the edge of a few thousand foot drop, the plains below Gavin and I roll into forever. Now for Gavin, this is old hat, having driven this route to the Masai Mara, so the road side peddlers that were accosting us were happily batted away by kindly pointing out that he had already bought all that they were offering. Me, on the other hand, had to resort to taking pictures and playing hungover. The later of which, was not really an act, thanks to slipping the Dawa man 500 schillings at Carnivore the night before. Anyways, the road we traveled was cut into the edge of the valley side. Now, for those who have not experienced Kenyan driving, this is like running blindfolded across a motorway. They are the most fearless drivers I've ever seen. They live by the Lewis Hamilton rules of driving, is if there is a gap, its first come, first served. And everyone wants to get it! Now when being driven down a mountain road, with a sheer drop, and the remains of cars and trucks smoldering at the bottom of the drop, it is both terrifying and rather invigorating. So, as I'm writing these words, you'll be please to know we made it down the hill. The drive across the valley floor, 7000' above sea level, takes you through another dark reminder of what this continent holds. Following the violence of the 2007 elections, thousands of people were chased from their homes and land. They were the luckier ones from these troubles that cost the lives of around 800 people. They call them IDPs or Internally Displaced People. They have lived in tents for years on land that has only just been granted them, and having houses built for them. Its a stark reminder of the true reality of life in Africa, when you traveling through a country that portrays itself as a tourists dream.
Which way to the bikes?
Our destination was the Lake Naivasha Country Club, on the edge of Hell's Gate National Park. The Country Club has been around since the 30's and for two airline/airplane geeks, it has a special history. The Lake Naivasha Country Club was a stop on the London-Durban Imperial Airways Flying Boat Service. Shorts S23 Empire class flying boats would stop here for the night before flying over to Lake Victoria and then south to South Africa. So despite some lackluster reviews on Tripadviser, we booked up and we arrived at a very colonial villa next to a lake that is a helluva lot smaller than it was 70 years ago. The Country Club, which hasn't been updated much since Britannia loosened her grip on Kenya, sits on the edge of the lake and has cottages running off each side into the trees, that are inhabited by many, many families of noisy monkeys. Walking down to the lake, you pass a wonderful sign, advising you that the hotel will not be liable for any injuries caused by animals. We laughed about that until we came upon a family of Hippos bathing at the end of the pier.
So we gathered ourselves together, grabbed our lunch boxes and headed up the hill to the park. Hell's Gate National Park one of the few parks you can walk, cycle and camp amongst the animals. We opted to cycle. So Gav and I rented a couple of mountain bikes and hired a guide. From the cycle shack to the entrance to the park is about 2km, uphill. So we got the guys at the hire place to take the bikes up, while we got driven up. The ultimate in laziness, but from what we were about to learn, probably a good idea. So we get to the top of the hill, have lunch and ride to the gift shop to load up on water.
"So how much water do you think we'll need?" Gavin asked me.
"Enough for a couple hours i reckon." Was my naive response. So we grabbed George, our guide and asked how long we would be out for. "The ride and the hike will take 4-5 hours."
The Gates of Hell.
Now, having worked with Gav for a while, I've grown rather accustomed to his despairing looks at me during meetings when I say something, shall we say, a tad too frank. This look was a new one. It was one of shock at being outside in 30 plus degrees, on a bike, being chased by baboons etc for 5 hours. Well, we'd bought our ticket, as the good Doctor said, we'd take the ride. And what a ride it is. A formerly volcanic area, Hell's Gate is renowned for its climbing on the plugs of long eroded away volcanoes. These impressive plugs soar into the air, making for spectacular views and difficult climbing. Granted we skipped that activity, looking forward and into the increasingly dusty distance we cycled on.
There used to be a volcano around this. True story...
Riding through your first herd of Zebras is quite something. They are rather funny looking in person, as in my mind they always seemed much bigger on the telly. Nonetheless, its breath taking seeing them so close, plus it was nice to stop! Not because at this point we were knackered, but due to the dust. In places the road disappeared and was replaced with the finest dust imaginable, hard enough to ride through, worse when someone drove past. Its gets everywhere, and I mean the in every sense of the word!
My favorite part of the ride, was seeing the looks on the "proper" cyclists in all the gear, going the other way, looking down their dust covered noses at us "amateurs". But, if I had to dress like them to ride a push bike, I'd kick my own ass. There are limits people, just enjoy the scenery. Which is what Gav and I did, with the aid of George our intrepid guide, who kept the pace easy so these two hungover white boys could keep up.
Gavin modeling safari wear by Nakamat Mega, with our patient saviour, George.
As you get deeper into the Gates, you start to realise your on a valley floor and the walls are slowly closing in and the foliage gets denser around you, and so does the wildlife. Baboons, boar, antelopes and gazelle of all shapes and descriptions come out to mock your slow progress past their homes. But progress, despite pace, is progress. Plus if your going too fast, you miss the view. As you climb up to the start of the gorge, the view over the ground you have peddled is stunning, the road stretching off to the horizon and beyond. So when you arrive at the car park of a geothermal power station, it's a bit of an anticlimax, but they had a loo, which for me, was worth the ride alone! So after that important visit, we set off on foot, for a 15 km hike in Hell's Gorge. This stretch is the start of an even more epic hike which leads right into the Masai Mara. That needs to be done one day. Anyways, Flight Lieutenant Leadbetter, much accustomed to field exercises with his cadets leads the way, for all of about 27 whole yards, where you have to literally jump into the gorge, down a meter or two drop. Queue much mocking from me as for the first time on the day, and sadly not the last, we wait for Gav. As soon as you descend into the gorge, your struck by the power of water. The smooth carved walls meander and drop in gentle curves and the happily quiet torrent, bubbles at your feet. In my case in £200 special edition trainers, another reminder of just how much of a spur of the moment trip this was!
Do I jump on Three or after?
The gorge winds it way down, and us along with it. When you get a few clicks in your hit by steam. Hot springs crack open the rocks all around and very hot water bubbles out, the sulphur content turning the rocks all shade of green and yellow. Climbing up to investigate this with George, I stick my hand into the cracks to feel the heat of the earth below our feet. I take pictures, tell Gav to climb up and join us, when George, like he was mentioning a passing cloud, says "its a good spot to see snakes in those cracks too. Cobras and adders like warming themselves in those things." Its a hot day, so at this moment I'm praying that that really is just sweat running down my leg. Trying to look as nonchalant as possible as I pull my hand out of the black, steaming crack that has gone from fascinating to utterly terrifying in exactly 1.3 seconds. Being the good mate I am, I don't mention the snakes until after he goes and does exactly what I had. Needless to say, we giggled. Well, I did anyways.
Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?
The hike is amazing, the trees wedged into the walls, the colours of the sandstone and granite walls, the locals on a Saturday out literally throwing a 4 or 5 month old baby down a 4 meter drop. It was a days of firsts in so many ways! When you reach the end out the gorge, you have to start a proper climb to get back to the edge of the gorge and the hike back to the bikes, but once at the top, Kenya once more spreads herself out before you, and if you weren't puffed out by the climb, it would take your breath away with the Masai Mara stretching out in all directions. The walk along the top of the gorge is fun to see what you've fought your way through, but ahead of you is the knowledge of the 20-odd km ride back to the gate and the rental shack for the bikes.
Sod the view, we're half way!
The first part is blessedly downhill and around 5 km's in you start to realise something terrible. The ride in was downhill... You would never notice it, but it is true. all the way back the road climbs a few degrees here, a few degrees there and each degree makes itself felt. But despite stops to "take photo's", Gav and I noticed something, a determination was arising in each of us, unspoken, as we counted down the kilometers, "we are going to do this, all the way back, no stops no excuses." Heads down against the dust and baboons, we went for it. With the sun at our backs, grim looks to each other, the ocasional curse as another dust puddle threw one of us off course, peddled like mad, we were doing it. Until, all of a sudden, we started a climb that we didn't notice, got to the top and found ourselves at the main gate, with a few shocked guards, who tell us they never thought we were going to make it back! But we're not done yet, telling the driver to meet us at the road, we have 4 km's to go, down a road "paved" by satan himself. Potholes that would win awards appearing at random as we two properly knackered, yet determined, dust covered idiots slalomed our way to the rental shack, where we were met with much hilarity from the guys who rented us the bikes. We didn't care, we'd cycled into Hell, put our hands in its mouth and cycled out, alive, just.