You don’t know how many times you said, “This is unreal” today, but definitely higher than the average day. In fact, out of the past two weeks, today was filled with more “What is this life” moments than any other day. You were not expecting to see zebras or giraffes or insanely beautiful views of an expansive valley, but today all three of these things happen and it’s incredible.
You wake at 7 in your comfortable (lol but far from luxurious) Airbnb and help yourself to some communal instant coffee in the kitchen. You greet the whole crew as they wake up, one by one, before sharing some yogurt-muesli breakfast. The crew is comprised of 7 others from McGill who are dispersed all over Kenya doing internships. You all met this weekend for a rockin' time in Naivasha province. Somebody calls Morris (the gatekeeper/hero) to help arrange a taxi to bring you to Hell’s Gate National Park, and one hour later you’re riding in the back of a matatu, which is a packed van-bus. Morris somehow convinced the matatu driver to bring you 8 keeners to the park. Thanks Morris.
As if the views weren’t already phenomenal from the house on the hill, the beauty is somehow accentuated riding in the third row of this van along Lake Naivasha. You particularly enjoy seeing the fog lifting from the blue mountains in the distance, foregrounded by tall grass and acacia trees. You love the cactus trees. At one point, your matatu turns off the main road and into in a field of yellow flowers as a shortcut. You think about how most North Americans imagine poor slums when they think of Kenya, yet this is the farthest image from poverty you can imagine. The land is rich, the views are rich, the conversations with everyone you meet are rich, and life is as full here as it is anywhere.
After a bumpy 40-minute ride to the entrance road leading to the main gate of Hell’s Gate National Park, your matatu stops and asks if you want to rent bicycles for the day or if you’d rather drive through the park. Duh. Bikes. You all rent some clunky bicycles, helmets nowhere in sight, and you love every moment of the short 2-kilometer ride towards the gates. The guy at the bike shack agrees to let me take a photo. He's a goof.
When you see baboons, you stop your bike. You’ve seen them before in Cambodia, but they are fun this time too. The best part is seeing a baby clinging to its mother’s chest upside down as it walks across the dusty road in front of you. The baboons stop, and you see one picking bugs off the back of the other. The baby starts drinking its mother’s milk, and the human-like expressions on their faces is crazy to see. Their hands are like yours. You remember learning from a National Geographic magazine that your DNA is 99% the same as a chimp. These aren’t chimps, but the similarities are there nonetheless.
You pay your entrance fee and soon the movie set for “The Land Before Time” unfolds in front of you. Then, as if on cue, you see three zebras in the distance. The smile already on your face breaks out into laughter as you shuffle through your backpack for your camera. They look like painted donkeys and there are three of them just wandering around about 500 meters to your right. What is this life?
Over the next hour, you see antelope, gazelle, and warthogs. The grass is green and looks fairly lush. You see another three zebras. At this point the sun is out and it’s getting warm, so one of them rolls on its back in a pile of dust to cool off. You take many, many pictures, but these pictures don’t capture the indescribable feeling of biking alongside wild zebras. You weren’t even expecting to see any animals today. Anoushka, one of the McGilligans, told you last night that she had been here before and not seen anything. You feel like a little kid waking up to find out it’s your birthday, and then mom lets you eat chocolate cake for breakfast. It’s unthinkable.
The giraffes come into view as you pedal farther. Forget chocolate cake. You just got a chocolate fountain, and your family threw you a surprise birthday party. You don’t just see one giraffe, but three of them. One is fully grown, the second is maybe a teenager, and there is a tiny baby (well, still bigger than you) who just recently got out of the stage where walking was difficult on such wobbly long legs. You don’t believe in heaven, but you hear yourself utter that that’s where you are. You throw your bike to the ground and watch them for 15 minutes before the others drag you to continue pedaling. You could sit there for hours.
The whole crew comes together to eat lunch at a rest area for the second main attraction, the Hell’s Gate Gorge. A monkey scrambles closer and closer to your table, and everyone reaches instinctively for their sunglasses and their phones. The monkey hops on the picnic table faster than you’d believe and runs away with two green apples in hand. You were going to eat those apples!
You figured that you had seen all the beauty you were going to see today, but you’re happy to know you’re mistaken. With a Maasai tour guide, whose English name is Dennis, the eight of you descend into the gorge. You have no clue what to expect, because as is common with you, you didn’t know what the plan was until you woke up this morning.
The mouth of the gorge opens up into a wider expanse, and soon you’re seeing walls of 30 meters climbing on either side of you. At some points, the spaces close until you’re walking in single file climbing over mini-waterfalls, and it seems less colorful but longer and taller version of Antelope Canyon. You enjoy seeing the obsidian rock fragments shining, naturally polished, on the ground.
The gorge fills up during the wet season, and you can imagine how powerful the current must be. Dennis shows you some natural hot springs, which the others really enjoy, but you’re a snob and saw geysers in Iceland so you’re not as impressed as them. You are, however, impressed with the magnificent view which comes next. You all climb out of the gorge and walk to the “viewpoint’ which inspired the creators of the Disney movie “The Lion King.” Although you enjoy the artistry behind Disney Animations, the creators absolutely did not live up to the magnificence of the natural beauty before your eyes. Wow. You try to take a panoramic to capture the view, but very few camera settings can depict the true vastness of such scenery.
You walk through a jewelry market. You ask a woman selling jewelry if you can take a picture of her. She says that if you buy something, you can have a picture. You decide it's a fair trade. Like a sailor lured by sirens, you cave in and buy a beautiful beaded bracelet. You see Dennis take a cell phone out of his traditional outfit and wonder if he only wears it for tourists, or if he wears it all the time. Regardless, he's a bro. You buy a cold water bottle and immediately feel refreshed.
It’s about 4 PM at this point, so you and your seven pals take a matatu to Camp Carnelley, a campground next to Lake Naivasha. It’s one of the nicest campgrounds you’ve seen, considering the tall bonsai-like trees providing a comfortable canopy of shade for the tents below. The view of the lake is gorgeous, but strangely all too familiar. With kayaks as the foreground to a blue lake with blue mountains in the distance, you could easily be in Vermont or Ontario. You let the others continue to the campground’s restaurant as you sit on a tree trunk and write a poem about how time is temporal, and so are experiences. Whoa, Laurence. That's deep.
The sounds of the waves lapping the shore of the lake bring you peace of mind. You hop up from the tree trunk and admire an egret before joining the others.
The restaurant is way too nice to be in a campground, probably because the area is next to a boat launch, attracting both international campers and local Kenyans. When you get to the table, you chuckle to yourself when you see everyone has ordered some kind of mixed drink to celebrate the day. It’s even funnier when you see the menu, and the drinks are under the subtitle heading, “Sexy Gin & Tonic.”
The ride back to the little house on the hill is dark and bumpy. Everyone is tired, yourself included. You type as many words as you can on your dad’s itty bitty keyboard attached to his iPad your mom encouraged you to bring. You’re glad you brought it. It has allowed you to document the whole weekend. Your parents are actually the best. When you get to the house, you boil some water, take a bucket shower, and enjoying every second of scrubbing the dust off your skin. You grab your phone and see three bars. Gold. You call mom and dad, and tell them you saw a baby giraffe. The call only breaks a few times. You head to bed, as tomorrow you have to wake up at 5:00 AM to hike Mount Longonot. Another adventure awaits.
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