After three weeks of volunteering in Githurai we decided to head north to Naivasha for a long weekend break. We had chosen Naivasha randomly due to the fact it was close to a large lake and that we had found an awesome CS host online that was living there. Finding the matatus that went to Naivasha took a bit of extra walking around but we managed to get a spot with our luggage in the 12 seater minivan without being too cramped for the two hour ride. Knowing we would return to help wrap things up with the organization, we only took one bag, which ended up being a huge advantage during our travels there and back since most of it was done in small matatus (the size of minivans or smaller) that were filled with as many people they could fit. Once we arrived to the town we got the typical greeting for any muzungu (and especially muzungu backpacker) which was a minimum of ten touts trying to get us in their ‘taxi’ (which was just a car owner trying to make money) or show us to a hotel. Once we escaped the thick swarm of ‘come with me’ and ‘right here, this is what you want’, we found some air and space to call our CS host Emily for our final directions. Ten minutes and one miniature and very cramped matatu ride later we arrived at her paradise of a home.
Emily and her roommate/co-worker Hanna were both from the US but had been in Naivasha for about a year. They were working on a grant from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to study and try to implement more eco-friendly toilet systems that would address sanitation and sewage problems that haunt so many parts of East Africa (www.sanivation.com is the place to read more about their project). Many places in East Africa (like in Githurai for example) have the pour flush system. This is usually a porcelain urinal style toilet built in the ground around a hole or perhaps just a hole itself. The hole then connects to the ‘sewage system,’ which is often the large gutters just outside the tenements and along the roads. You use a bucket and water to pour water down the hole to flush after using the bathroom. This often affects the community and creates problems as dirty water gathering and stagnates in the gutters (which do not flow easily) around the neighborhoods and streets, where mosquitoes fester. Emily and Hanna were trying to design and install low cost, simple sit-style toilets that collected the liquids and solids separately. They were then testing ways to make the solids into briquettes for cooking with (as many locals use coal right now) and surveying how to improve the briquettes to get them to a point where locals would be happy using them. Their work was very meaningful, interesting and also inspiring to us. They had also found a mini-paradise of a spot to live. They shared a cozy cottage that was behind Dea’s Garden Bed and Breakfast. In their little cottage alcove they had a couple hammocks up and a fire pit almost begging to be used for some drinks around the fire at night. On the larger grounds there were beautiful trees, flowers, home grown veggie gardens (which we used produce from ever day to make salads), and monkeys that would play and scavenge the compost. All of this was located only 200 meters from the lake’s edge where you would watch the wildlife and see an occasional hippo sleeping in the water. Doesn’t sound so bad, right?
A couple hours after arriving the girls were off to play touch Rugby. They invited us to join and we accepted, eager to start exploring the area and hopefully grabbing a view of the sunset. We were in luck because the location of the field for this game was new and on the top of a hill that overlooked the lake. Once there, we were invited to join the game since we weren’t the only newbies there that night. After a two minute crash course on the rules, we began. For us the most important thing was to tag the offense and to run to the end field without being tagged if we got thrown the ball. Since it was a full moon we pushed the play time as long as we could, all of us running around in the dust (Ben and I in jeans and a t-shirt) playing rugby on a hill overlooking the lake until the moon was above our heads.
Afterwards we all gathered together for a quick tailgate refresher and then headed to Fisherman’s Camp for some pizza and beer. The guy who headed the touch rugby games is also the manager of the bar so we got a special treat of samplers on the house. Pizza and nachos tasted soooo good to us, especially after working up an appetite. Arriving back at the cabin at 10pm we had a good feeling the next few days here in Naivasha were going to be good ones.
Our second day in Naivasha we decided to spend the day in Hell’s Gate National Park. We had read about Hells Gate and it had been on our to-do list. This park is different from many of the others because it allows visitors to walk or ride bikes through the park. It is the perfect place to go when you get an urge to truly become one with nature (that means ditching the safety of a car) and re-enter the food chain. But really this park is relatively safe and actually encourages people to walk and bike through the vast area that has mostly tame wildlife.
We entered the park in mid-morning equipped with bikes we rented from the street corner before you turn on the road entering the park. As we passed the park gates there must have been about five buses full of school children entering as well. Apparently it was a popular destination for the private schools to take field trips to. Once in the park we biked down the dusty main road headed to the opposite end of the park where Hell’s Gate Gorge was located. About a kilometer into the park we passed the famous marker of Fisher’s Tower, a unique rock structure formed by volcanic basalt rock. From this point it didn’t take long before we found ourselves surrounded by wildlife. On one side various types of gazelles would be grazing while on the other side packs of zebras with their babies would be rolling around in the dirt and taking naps in the grass. We were stunned we could get off our bikes and walk fairly close to the zebras. During our morning ride through the park we saw zebras, monkeys, gazelles, warthogs, giraffes, water buffalo and antelope. Other than the occasional dust traps that our bikes got stuck in on the road, we enjoyed the freedom of the wind in our hair surrounded by beauty and wildlife. We took our time crossing the park to Hell’s Gate Gorge and arrived at the ranger post about mid-day. Emily had advised us that if we enter this portion on our own we could probably find a local Masai kid who would be happy to guide us through the gorge and show us all the cool things to see. So this is exactly what we did. First we had to sign a book giving a phone number of a cell we would carry with us and basicly signing our life away if for some reason we got lost in the gorge. Which was exactly what we did pretty much right after we entered. Well, ok maybe we weren’t lost but apparently we were going the wrong way. It didn’t take long for a local kid (actually he was more of a young adult at the age of 20) to tell us this. He followed us for a bit and eventually it became clear in unspoken language we had accepted him as our unofficial guide.
He showed us all the neat parts of the gorge including the Devil’s Bedroom, the Devil’s Bathroom, and Hell’s Kitchen. There were many areas where a freezing cold stream would come from one side and another sizzling hot stream (formed from the hot springs bubbling up) would come from another. Together the two streams would mix to a perfect warm balance. In Hell’s Kitchen you could see the hot water bubbling up from the ground and the steam rising. We experienced first hand the scalding hotness of this area where you could cook a meal from the heat on the ground (hence the name). We also indulged in a hot shower (which are hard to find in Africa) in the Devil’s Bathroom. As we exited the gorge we had amazing views of the valley. We took a moment to stop, breath, and enjoy the natural beauty that seemed to stretch on for miles. Once finally out of the gorge we signed the same book at the ranger’s station stating we had made it out alive. Monkeys greeted us at our bikes and tried to steal our lunch of bananas. Trying to save her lunch from robbery, Amanda tossed the peel at the monkey’s feet. Surprisingly he accepted this offer and munched away at the peel while we made our getaway on our bikes.
Since it was only 1pm we thought we would get some new scenery and take the longer Buffalo Circuit 14km loop that would lead back to the gate. What we thought would be an easy detour soon turned into a full blown workout and adventure. We got lost a couple times, found ourselves riding through the geothermal plant, engulfed in huge plumes of steam in air filled with what sounded like airplane jets, and then eventually ended up in a small village that was within the park limits. There we witnessed a group of school children signing the Kenyan pledge of allegiance while taking down the flag for the weekend. The school master was able to point us in the right direction up the hill behind her. After an hour and lots of huffing and puffing we did finally reach the top. The view was nice but probably not worth the man effort to ride a bike up the dusty hill. But the reward of riding downhill for the next 30 minutes was sweet. It was on this downhill part we saw more wildlife and almost got chased by a giraffe. Eventually we found our way to the exit gate, dropped off our bikes, and were on our way home. The day was rewarding and we were tired and satisfied with our first actual real wild animal experience.
Our First East African Nightlife Experience
Saturday we awoke and began to prepare food and sangria for a large Mexican lunch we would be sharing with the girls and their friends. The plan had been people would come over, enjoy some good food and drink, then we would all go together to the local annual fashion show (which was quite a big deal in the area). Unfortunately mother nature wasn’t in cooperation with our plans. What was light morning showers soon turned into heavier rains. This deterred most people from making the journey to our lakeside haven. Alisha, one of the guys from the rugby game, was the sole person who managed to show up. So what was supposed to be a group of estimated eight or nine ended up only being us five super troopers. This ended up working out fine since lunch was pretty amazing and less people meant more food for each of us. Together while sipping on sangria we managed to make homemade tortillas, guacamole, black beans, stir fried spicy pineapple, grilled chicken, and garnishes – together these harmonized into beautiful tacos that filled our bellies and our souls with complete happiness. However, by the time we finished lunch the group of us came to the realization that the fashion show was actually an afternoon event ending at 6pm. Since the time was already almost 4pm we decided to save the money (tickets were roughly $15) and instead head to an ‘after party’ in the evening.
Already juiced up on sangria we played a couple hands of cards, made sure the afternoon showers had truly passed over, and then prepared to head out for the night around 8pm. Emily had already found her sweet spot for the night in her bed, having recently returned from back to back evening and morning rugby workouts with the Kenyan national women’s team in Nairobi. So as a quad of Ben, Amanda, Hanna, and Alisha we headed to the Crayfish to get our Naivasha groove on. Amanda insisted we would be able to find a ride for cheap on the side of the road. And with the help of Alisha we soon found ourselves riding in the back of a pickup truck for a total of 300 ksh. The nice thing about the area we were staying in was that there was only one road – so you are either going one way or the other.
Crayfish is actually a campsite. They have a small bar and seating area as well as a swimming pool located across the way. For this particular event they had actually put up large tented (much like those at festivals) with bars and seating. The DJ stage was right in front of the pool. This made for interesting people watching as many of those who were brave enough (or had a lot of liquid courage) would jump into the cold pool and continue the party from there. The party really got going shortly after midnight, but by 2:30am we had had our fill, and Hana and us had both managed to lose our phones during the night. So while Alisha wanted to stay, he made sure we figured out a ride back before he went in to the party again. The ride would have to be by motorcycle taxi at this hour, so we shared one, and Hana was on another. Shortly after getting on, her motorcycle guy ran out of gas. We agreed to stop and wait while he went to replace his motor with one he could borrow from a friend (at 3am). While we waited, we could hear singing and music. Sure enough, at 3am on Saturday night (or Sunday morning depending on your perspective) there was a church group signing their praises to Jesus as loud as they could – and would be until sunrise. We were impressed.
Eventually Hana’s driver came back with a second bike, and we were back on our way. But then within another couple kilometers her motorcycle stopped again. At this point, it was getting really late, and we didn’t want to get stuck, so the three of us shoved onto the back of the motorcycle we were currently riding and as a ball of arms and bodies we went the final 5km back to Hana’s place, where we arrived all in one piece and proceeded to sleep like logs.
Kayaking and the Kenyan Cowboys
On Sunday, after having gotten our party out for the first time in about two months, we were definitely ready to take it a little slowly. Emily was recharged after taking the night off, and we went to meet their friend Mikey and see if they would be going out on his boat, or if we should rent kayaks at Fisherman’s Camp. When we arrived at Mikey’s place, we learned what was meant by the term Kenyan Cowboy.
Mikey and his 10 or so friends were all hanging out when we arrived. When we entered his property, the first thing we saw were two off-road vehicles covered in decals that were being worked on in between competitions. We walked through most of his large, 6 bedroom house wondering what one person did with so much space. The space and vibe felt like we were countries away from Kenya. Mikey and all his friends were hanging out on the back patio with some chillout music playing, and it was apparent that most of them were in recovery mode from the night before. They offered us some beers and we sat around and talked for a while, meeting the other local muzungu Kenyans that were there. Mikey and most of his friends were born in Africa but of UK descent. We were told by our hosts that most of these ‘cowboys’ were the jack of all trades types of guys who liked getting their hands dirty and were often adrenaline junkies. These so-described Kenyan Cowboys would go to the UK for university; and then return to Kenya or other East African countries and get good upper-management jobs or start their own businesses, and live a comfortable life and enjoying being on the upper crust. Seeing that the group was not moving any time soon, we headed to get the kayaks at Fisherman’s. After getting there, we found out the site only had 3 kayaks. As Emily wanted to see her friends and was less interested in kayaking, she went over to her friends’ place nearby and we took the kayaks out with Hana. Kayaking is apparently a white person’s activity. The kayaks go incredibly long without being used, and when we told the staff we wanted all three, they had to figure out how to fix one of the paddles that has probably been broken for several years. Eventually after some hammering and a few people helping, the employee had us all set and we went out onto Lake Naivasha. This was further enforced when multiple boats for hippo watching came by and Kenyan tourists got really close and took many photos of us muzungus in the kayaks.
Despite this, which we found rather funny, it was refreshing to be right on the water, and get a new perspective of the land. We passed little islands of papyrus plants, and could see the airport that is almost on the water on the edge of town. The reason the airport is so close to town is because Naivasha is a major hub for flower growing. All around us were greenhouses filled with all kinds of plants and flowers, and when they were ready the flowers went out the same day they were picked and would be in Amsterdam by the evening. Due to the sensitivity of the flowers and the narrow margin of the industry, the companies managed to make something work extremely efficiently in Kenya. Too bad it wasn’t something essential or useful to Kenyans that worked so well. We kayaked a bit further toward Hippo Island, which gets its name for the shape of the land coming out from the lake, which looks like the mouth, head and ears of a partially submerged hippo. After kayaking for almost 2 hours we made our way back, and walked over to meet Emily with the Kenyan Cowboys. She was still having a good time hanging out with them, so we went back and made an early dinner and watched a movie while listening to the intermittent spatterings of rain on the tin roof of the cottage.
On our last day in Naivasha we decided we wanted to check out more of the lake, and try to see some flamingos. We had been told that the flamingos start migrating to the lake in October usually, so we were just in time. We took a minibus down the road away from town as far as it would go, then started walking. We walked for a couple kilometers when we saw two cars pulled over on the side of the road. An Asian couple was helping two other European women change their flat tire. We stopped to talk with them for a while to see if we could help in any way. They seemed to have everything under control. After chatting for a few minutes we saw a giraffe on the other side of the road, and went to explore. There were a couple of giraffes quite close by as well as zebra munching near the waterside when we went into the field by the road. Ben tested his luck and tried to get pretty close up to the giraffe. At about 15 feet the giraffe seemed to get just as curious about Ben and started to approach him. Since the giraffe was about 50 times that size of Ben we both decided it would be better to move on and leave the giraffe to his lunch – just in case the greeting wasn’t a friendly one.
A few minutes later as we were walking, the ladies passed us in their car, and shortly after the Asian couple pulled over and offered us a ride. Ming and his wife were from China, and had been living in Nairobi for 7 years. Ming worked for a client of Cisco, and ended up liking Kenya as much as he liked his job (which is a good amount since he had only originally planned to be there for two years). The two of them were just driving around the lake to see what they would find. They invited us to join them and as neither of us had set plans, we spent the next couple hours exploring with them. We followed the one road around the lake which got pretty rough at times but we managed to make it without any flat tires and breakdowns. We were surprised by how much wildlife you could see just from the road. We enjoyed our afternoon getting to know the couple while getting what we thought would be our final fill of baboons, zebras, giraffes, gazelles and flamingos before we headed back toward the city.
Little did we know we would actually get one final wildlife surprise that night. At about 3am, Amanda awoke to a loud strange sound. Ben told her he would go outside with the flashlight and check but she told him they should look through the window and try to see first. It was definitely the better choice. After having her eyes adjest to the dark she tried to examine the front yard to see what was causing the noise. It took about five minutes for both her eyes to adjust and her brain to register that a ginormous hippo was only about 20 feet from the house chowing down on the grass. Pretty shocked by the huge size of the hippo and not fully knowing how they react to noise, light, etc. we both sat pretty petrified and just watched the hippo maneuver it’s way around the yard brushing by the hammocks that we were supposed to sleep in that night. As it was from watching the hippo within the house through the window Amanda was almost peeing her pants from fright. Had we been in the hammock she would have surely had a heart attack if she survived the hippo encounter. Luckily we were safe. We sat quietly and watched for almost thirty minutes. The dogs must have caught on to the hippo’s location though because after some barking a guard eventually came and made a loud noise (and probably flashed his light and machete to ward off the large creature, although we didn’t witness his exact actions). Just like that the hippo took off in a flash leaving behind a mini earthquake with the sound of a stampede. And there was our cherry on top of the sunday. A real-life-scare-the shit-out-of-you hippo encounter. Unfortunately since it was 3am and we were reluctant to use flash (not knowing if it would entice the hippo to charge at the house) we were unable to document our friend’s little visit. But rest assured… when people tell you that you really do not want to encounter a hippo (especially on ground) that what they say is true. There is a reason the hippopotamus is a top-two killer in Africa along with the mosquito. After a refreshing, fun and inspiring four days in Naivasha, we knew it was time to head back to Githurai to wrap up some loose ends with the Fountain Youth Initiative, then get back on the road. Being in the lush area of Kenya gave us renewed energy and we’ll be taking that with us as we bring our next blog post from a lush area in Tanzania — Arusha.
Check out or photos from Naivasha here!