Naivasha is a small Kenyan town on the shores of a lake it shares its name with. It was early in the morning, before 6AM. I woke up in a small unit of the Young Men Christian Association, or YMCA. Catching a glimpse of the fine dew over the leaves and for the fact that we were in Africa, I put on a coat. I grabbed a quick bite I had bought the day before, packed a bag for the day, and out I went.
Twenty minutes later, I arrived on foot to the access of Hell’s Gate National Park. What a suggestive name, the reader might think. Imagine yourself entering a park called Hell’s Gate. Now, imagine coming in on your own. Oh, but you’re going to get on a jeep right? Yeah, sure won’t. On board a rented bike, me and my fear entered a wildlife reserve full of wild animals. It was just after half-past six. “But son, what about the lions and the leopards?!” my mom would have thought…
At first, flocks of gazelles were looking at me suspiciously and hid shyly in some bushes. The African savanna is like a factory of them – bushes, not gazelles. I didn’t even get see so many of the little bouncers that day. Some large-horned deer, a bit more separate from the groups, couldn’t disguise their bulges. I looked back and the access was already lost at about 500 meters from me. Inside was a human – which writes you these words. And only that.
Me, myself and the bike
I rode for two hours absolutely on my own. By the side of the road, an immensity of life was showing itself. First came some huge ostriches. I had only seen rheas in the wild, but the ostriches are much larger. Flocks of eight to ten individuals stalked me without looking to be afraid. I stared at them expecting them to stick their heads in the earth – I always thought this was kinda the superpower of this guys. But no, it didn’t happen.
The ones that didn’t stand on the slightest ceremony with me were the monkeys. Or rather, the baboons. Scattered around but very curious and interested, they approached me during a brief snack. I innocently even though they were posing for the camera, but it was my food they wanted. When it became obvious that all they’d get out of it would be a smile and some few clicks, the alpha male stepped out of the four-legged stance. With determined strides he came towards me, chest inflated, every inch the empowered biped, wanting satisfaction.
I got reminded of those guys who think they need to defend their girlfriend’s honor after someone tries to pick them up on a bar. Check it out, you alpha baboon, I can scowl too. For a few seconds, we faced each other in an inter-species challenge, with some difference in height. He stopped at about 5 meters from me. Without turning my back, I got on the bike and said some bad words. All settled, I went my way.
Great companies on the horizon
After a few lonely hours, and almost completely convinced that if something went wrong I’d be on my own, I found a young Czech couple. With poor but very kind English, I realized that they’d be good company, even if only for a short time. They came in after me and the guy at the gate warned them that there was another “muzungu” (white man in Swahili, the most widely spoken language in East Africa).
They pedaled harder than me and were little concerned with taking pictures. I looked like a madman, trying to balance myself on the bike and frame the landscapes. A savanna full of animals, but with cliffs in the background; the whole place looked like the wide part of a canyon. Soon we came across the first giraffes. Wow, and how amazing to be so close to them and so far from a circus or a zoo!
Although they usually mind their own business, they came to graze very close to the road. How awesome it was to be able to see them so closely, to perceive the details on the skin, patterns, and shapes of the spots. But what struck me most was the brief prank that one of them, with a neck more than 4 meters high, did right next to me. Simply magical. When she crossed the road, ten feet from me, the sound of its paws hitting the dirt matched a horse galloping rhythm. Something absolutely surreal. Mom, I rode a dozen yards side by side with a giraffe! You should’ve seen my happy face.
It would get even more amazing
We followed for a few miles to a security cabin. There was Seret, a native guide who would guide us through the Ol Njorowa Canyon to a spring. We left the bike there and followed him. It was now after eleven in the morning, and hot like hell itself. I was drinking water left, right, and center, and as I saw that the guide didn’t even have a backpack (for a two-hour walk -both ways), I offered him a sip several times.
That was, until he explained to me that he was from the Maasai people and that in his village they had very little drinking water so they’re all used to drink little. So, he preferred to eat – he accepted some carrots and peanuts that I offered him – and get the water he needs from the food. Oh, and he was wearing a shirt and pants in a heat of over 104F degrees, easy. On his badge, a photo revealed the “true Seret,” with his ethnic earrings and chains on his face and the colorful tunic that covered him.
We crossed some narrow canyons until we came to a place that was quite bizarre. It was on top of a little hill, no biggie. There was a tiny flow of water there. Before he could say anything, I asked Seret if I could fill my bottle there. He laughed and said “noooo!”. The spring was, in fact, a boiler, from which sprang sulfur water over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Suddenly, Seret pulls a raw egg (!) from his shirt pocket and throws it into the small pit.
Half amazed and half very scared, a few minutes later I saw him pull the egg out with a couple of sticks. After tapping it on a stone next to him, he peeled and broke in half, offering half to me and half to the Czechs. Mom, I ate an egg boiled in the waters of Mother Nature!
Surprised and fascinated with that man, I talked with him for a long time. A slew of unending curiosities about his way of life, about the traditions of his tribe – how each boy has to kill a lion to gain an adult status – and about his worldviews. It was fascinating to hang around with a Maasai for a couple of hours, because during my 3 months there I lived mostly with Luo natives, much shorter and plump, and adherents of other values and beliefs.
We said our goodbyes on the security cabin on the way back, took our bikes and headed for the exit. There was still some time left for the park to close. The Czechs wanted to leave, but I still had some energy left and went to explore a corner of the park where we hadn’t gone to. We said goodbye, they going their way and I going mine. I ran into a herd of buffalo grazing. Apart from lions, elephants, and rhinos, these are the most dangerous animals in the savanna. None of these others live in the park, according to the Seret, because the water contains too much iron and they can’t tolerate it.
Anyway, so here I am, looking at the animals, about 50 feet from me. I was on top of my bike, real quiet. And behold, the chief of the flock is coming my way to check me up. It came very close, measured me up and down. I had a déjà-vu from a few hours earlier with the alpha baboon. I just made eye contact. He, defender of the honor of those twenty-so buffaloes, was kidding me. He made as if was going to attack and took two swift steps in my direction. I was terrified out of my mind, fell off my bike and he just stood there, looking at me. Wide-eyed, I got on my bike and raced towards the gate. On my face, a fearful smile mixed with an immense euphoria for having lived one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil)