Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hell's Gate

I am taking a very VERY brief recess from protein translation to share a story.
We didn't get a spring break when we were students in Kenya because there was a State Department Travel Warning issued the previous November after a hotel bombing in Mombasa (a travel warning that is still in effect today, and negatively affecting Kenya, in my opinion, but I digress). This made the school very nervous, plus the US was on the verge of invading Iraq, putting all of us on edge. Because of these circumstances, our spring break was cancelled and we went on one big organized trip.

I hate organized fun. Our family jokes that we all have a genetic predisposition for rebellion, given our Scots/Irish blood. I had dreamed about going down to Gombe in Tanzania to see Jane Godall or heading out to Zanzibar, the Serengeti, or Madagascar on spring break. Now I was going to be forced to do organized activities with the same group of people I'd been hanging around with non-stop for two months. Crud, I thought.

Our organized break was actually a great time. I know I would never have visited most of those places on my own - we went to Marula Game Ranch, which was peaceful. Mary Wykstra, a cheetah conservationist came to visit us one night, giving an absolutely inspirational talk. I bought a wooden cheetah for my wall from her. It hangs above my bed and I think of her every time I look at it. That night, one of the foremen went out on the ranch and shot us an impala, which was delicious. We visited Lake Nakuru and saw our first and only white rhino. I had one of my best days in Kenya visiting Naivasha, wandering in the papyrus that surrounds the lake near the Adamson homestead, finding birds with Alice and Kioko and then having lunch at the Fisherman's Club, getting drunk on vodka and eating bacon and fries for the first time in months. I was so giddy and happy that I went and bought a stack of things on from the roadside vendor and then pranced down the dock that floated on top of tea-colored water and laid there with my friends watching the fish eagles. It turned out to be glorious.

The highlight of that week, however, was our camping trip in Hell's Gate National Park. I didn't really care much about going there - all anyone ever said about it was that it was the last stronghold of the Lammergaier, a rare African vulture, that the movie "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" was filmed there, and that it was the only National Park in Kenya where you could explore on foot, as the big cats didn't live there. Woop-dee-doo I thought. The first time we drove in, I wasn't too impressed:

Fine, the landscape was dramatic, with cliffs and gorges and geothermic vents which spewed steam from the hillside - but where were the animals, the birds, the vast lakes and vibrant sunsets of the Kenya I knew? Here there seemed to be only dust. The only good thing was that here we were promised a bit of freedom. Our student affairs manager announced the second night that despite the fact that the United States invaded Iraq that day, we would not be going home, but on a hike around a lava cone. I slouched. I hate hiking as a rule. I'll do it to see something or to experience that once in a lifetime thing, but hiking up a lava cone to see Hell's Gate? No thanks. Luckily, my tent mates, Kristie and Boma (whose real name is Kim, but let's call her Boma, it makes me nostalgic) didn't want to go hiking either, so we approached our SAM. She was a great woman from New Zealand with a quirky sense of humor and an adventurer. She said "I'll print you some maps of Hell's Gate and you can go off alone tomorrow." Sweet.The Triangle of Trouble (Kristie, Boma and I had a reputation. We called ourselve the triangle of trouble and even had a sign. Believe it) plus Sally, a sweetheart of a girl from Signal Mountain Tennessee whom we were determined to CORRUPT, set out after sunrise the next morning with two liters of water apiece and a hearty lunch, a compass and our map, as well as cameras, binoculars and field guides. We were going to EXPLORE! We plotted our route on the map: we'd head towards the geothermic hills, then around the rock tower, and up to some rolling hills where we could look out over the park. Our SAM approved the route. "Just watch for buffalo," she reminded us "remember to run, split up, and climb a tree if you get charged." Heh, buffalo schmuffalo I thought.
For about an hour, we dallied along the main dirt road in the park. Eventually it split into a bushy area, so we took that smaller road. Midway up a hill I pause. "Guys? Do you hear....something like....a herd of...um?" "BUFFALO" someone screamed and we booked it up the hill. After about a minute I looked behind us. There was nothing there, nothing. We flopped down on the ground, sweat pouring off of us. We sit in silence. There's a sound from the forest. "WHO's THERE?" demands Sally. We wait, then collapse into giggles "A cape buffalo isn't gonna answer" I say. We all cackle, and of course, I laugh so hard I have to pee. I run to the trees and whip down my shants, and as I'm peeing, I see cattle through the trees. I return to tell the group about the "fierce buffalo." We laugh about our stupidity and joke that if we really lived in Kenya, we'd surely die from stupidity, then press on up the hill.

After walking a while, we encounter a Maasai woman. "Jambo," we say brightly. "Sijambo," she answers politely. Then she says "alskdjflaweoiausofjslakd ;als jfo;aweiurcoiaweur oaisjflaskdjf;laskdk fh;laskd f has;ldkhf " aka a whole bunch of Swahili we don't understand. We look at her and say "Habari!" (basically, how are you? literally "news") "Mzuri sana, asante" she says, and then breaks into more Swahili. She looks at our perplexed expressions and switches to Maa. She shakes her head at us. "Um ok, bye, kwaheri!" we wave. She stares at us and sort of lifts her hand to wave. We trek on.
Around noon we get a hankering for lunch. We wander into a sandy bottomed canyon littered with bones. "Shit" says Boma, "the elephant graveyard." We all laugh, but all I can think of is the elephant graveyard in the Lion King and how Simba gets cornered by the hyenas there. I look around the canyon walls, which rise higher as we progress into the canyon. Finally Kristie stops us so we can give the map a glance. "Oh shit" she says, "we've hiked a kilometer out of the park." "Surely not," I say. Then as I look at the map, it all makes sense, seeing someone herding cows on the park edge, the Maasai woman trying to tell us something - probably that we were leaving the park, the canyon not marked on the map. We stand in the canyon, the sun beating down on us. "I think I can get my bearings if I climb the hill. Then we can cut over it and climb down and cut off a couple of miles/kilometers" I say, nodding towards a canyon wall. I start to hike through the brush, Kristie, Sally and Boma follow. The bushes are impenetrable though, and the canyon "hill" soon becomes verticle. We battle it for a few minutes, the sweat pouring off of us. "Al," says Kristie, "we can't do this, we're gonna have to walk out." We agree to take a rest, we have miles ahead of us. We seek the shade of a tree in the canyon and get out our lunches, now warm and soggy. We eat in silence. I had to do something to lighten the mood. It was then I picked up the bone.

"Take my picture!" I demanded, picking up the bone. Thus started the bone photo shoot. It was reviving:

The photo shoot was precisely what we needed. It killed the hottest part of the day, and when the sun had started its move to the west, we packed up our limited water and headed for camp. This part of the trip was particularly difficult. We didn't anticipate hiking that far from camp, and our water had run very low. We knew where we could get water, but that was out of the way, plus we weren't too sure about our purification tablets. We chose to press on. We told stories to keep our spirits up, I told Sally about one of my favorite books/movies "A Town Like Alice" for inspiration. As we hiked towards the final hill, the one upon which our tiny camp was set, we separated out into a straight line, Kristie pumping her arms up the hill, me, determined in my shants, Boma, thirsty and pale, and finally Sally, her cheeks aflame. We came to rest by the water pump, and held it in the on position with a rock while we crawled under it.
"where've you been today?" asks Michelle. "All over" we reply.

Not long after we returned to an empty camp (everyone else had gone to the lava cone) the sun began to set. I was grateful we had made it back before sunset, as navigating in the dark would have been more than difficult, nevermind the worry we would've put everyone through. I sat quietly on our picnic bench rehydrating. I looked out over our tent on the edge of the cliff, to the vast expanse of dry grass and rolling hills. This place wasn't so bad, I thought.

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