The day is clear and warm. On the lee of the escarpment and under the canopy of tall trees the humidity is a light flush on the forehead but no more. A perfect day no less. By the time we reach Naivasha, an hour out of town we have left the cosy climate of Nairobi and find ourselves in a different world, one that hints of drought and laced with flies and dust, small hot twisters and litter scampering ahead of squalling winds. The tress are now tall, flat topped acacias, their light coloured yellowish trunks lithe and pleasing lines against the arid backdrop. The country is gearing up for its second and minor wet season but the clouds that have piled up this morning have quickly burned away. I dodge pedestrians, crawling matatus, oncoming overladen trucks and goods slowly wheeling to or from a market on a bicycle. Sometimes I can see the rider.
We are gently channeled into the park across open grasslands by dominating cliffs that are striking for their vertical and folded strata, the second hint that we are in a dynamic landscape. The first hint was the glimpse into the top of the Longonot crater as we crested the escarpment. It last blew in the 1860s apparently. We are going to see more clues to this volcanic backdrop as we go but the lines of standing rock in the cliffs distract my eye the whole time we are here. We pass a distinctive cone of rock on which I see ropes and people climbing. It has the appearance of an old volcanic plug and the park proves to be marked by a few of these. From this point until we arrive at the gorge the grasslands are dotted by any number of zebra, large mobs of antelope and warthogs by the pork barrel. These pumbas are amusing things. I am told their memory is short, forgetting they are being pursued by carnivores, and stopping to feed in mid flight. That seems to be the case when we get out to try and walk up on some. Their tusks look fearsome but they are flighty and skitter away into the scrub. But not too far before they put their heads down and forget you are there. Until the breeze or snapped twig gives me away and they flit off again, tails high, manes flowing (they are well groomed piggies) and whiskers on the old boys flagging in the breeze.
At the top of the gorge we park under a sketchy little acacia among a colony of Skyes Monkeys watching a clutch of humans comprised of two groups. The first, and fortunately most numerous are the Maasai men dressed in the dark green uniform of the Kenyan Wildlife Service. Some have promoted themselves by adopting various sorts of camouflage uniform. The second group is a small clutch of visitors of which about half are local folk firing up BBQ. The rest are Dutch or German or American and are quietly recovering from their walk, watching the Skyes watching them and all very peaceably and quiet. Up the hill a handful of children scamper and shout around and jump off a rock. Their Skye counterparts, tiny things not much bigger than your fist, leap around in the canopy above us while their parents lie about.
David looks sixteen but tells me he is twenty four. I can scarce believe it but for a small sum we purchase a ticket and his guiding services. He doesn’t introduce himself but flips his hand at us, says ‘Come” and leads off into the thorns, and down a dusty path into the gorge. I’m enjoying myself already. David warms up as we go. We climb down into a narrow gorge where two piddling streams meet, one falling twenty feet down a narrow tube of sandstone rock, the other bubbling out of the ground. One is clear and hot, the other milky blue and cool. They join and burble away for a short distance before vanishing into the ground. David tells me the milky blue effect is courtesy of the Ol-Karia tree through which the water leaches. Olkaria is actually the name of the region so I am none the wiser. David can tell me no more though he points out both streams cannot be drunk – they are too salty. So they are and it’s hardly surprising for the walls of the gorge are streaked with salt crystals where the earth is damp.
The skinny green uniform stops and indulges our exploring. We ask David lots of questions but it quickly becomes apparent he is a guide, not an expert on the flora and fauna. But he does know where Tomb Raider was filmed and speaks in awe of ‘the Angelina Jolie’, pointing out the various sections where they filmed. I don’t have the heart to ask him if he has seen the movie least it embarrass him. This arm of the gorge ends in a large bell chamber scoured out by raging floodwater. It’s nicknamed Hell’s Bathroom. Or Kitchen. Or something. Now I can’t recall. I start up a fissure in the rock where a waterfall might drop in the wet season. I could climb up and out but am not convinced I could safely climb down without a rope so back off. We head back the way we have come, and marvel at the cutting. Fourteen school kids drowned in here a couple of years ago, caught on a clear day by a flash flood that hammered down here. It’s a sobering revelation but I console myself that we are not in a wet season. David is not happy that we climb up to explore a small cave, the habitat of some animal or another and he wrings his hands and waits.
As we swing back onto the main gorge we kick the sand an uncover chips of obsidian, that glassy volcanic rock that makes you wonder if you have not found a broken beer bottle rather than something more natural. Soon the track is marked by thousands of the pieces, some blocks as large as a car, other pieces no larger than a five cent piece. Some are lodged in clumps of sedimentary rock. There are two sorts. The bright shiny smooth pieces that catch my magpie eye, while the other is grey and more dull but often folded in remarkable shapes. In the same section of the gorge hot springs leak out of the walls, some too hot to handle, others cool enough to be used to wash the dust from our faces. We later see the power plant which generates (25% of Kenya’s) electricity from the steam that thunders out of numerous fissures in the rock and are not surprised at the hot water leaks we have found. Butterflies scamper around our feet searching for water and salt. Birds down in this hot knife cut in the rock are few and far between and sing up high and out of sight. The occasional bleat of a goat drifts down, no doubt being twitched along through the bush by a small boy with a long stick.
Our climb out of the gorge is gentle and short and very easy but at the second last step a small brown hand is extended. I look up into the very earnest face of Dominique and accept his offer of help. He beams at me and we have a chat. He tells me in very accentuated English that his name is Dom-in-ique and that he wants to be a guide here one day. He pulls a coin out and asks if I can tell him what it is. It’s an English twenty pence piece and he wants to know if he can use it. Around here, no. I hand him a pile of shillings he can use. If it’s a ploy it’s a very good one but I have seen ploys in my time and I don’t get a sense he was duping me. A handful of his family have set up small stalls of bead and other jewelry and I am attracted to their bracelets. But they are made for men as skinny as David and I have to walk away having purchased nothing. No one hassles me and once we have told them we are not purchasing they wander off and sit in the shade of the thorn bushes with their babies. Dominique joins them and they quietly chatter to each other in the heat of the afternoon. We head back to the start point to complete our little loop of a tour.
We pause to eat and drink and watch the Skye Monkeys watching us. They are placid beasts, still and calm though ever watchful through those dark masks they wear, orange eyes fixed on you if you move too close. They seem content to watch and wait and unlike many other monkeys I have encountered don’t seem to want to chase our food. We head out into the late afternoon, back onto the grassy plains under those dramatic cliffs. We spot gazelle in the scrub and, having learned the lesson with zebra that the wind on our back works against us, moved upwind and snuck back. They were oblivious to us until the last moment but while we didn’t move they were content to watch us and graze, only twenty metres or so from us. No other animal allowed us this close and I enjoyed the moments of stillness in the scrub with them.
The drive home in the dark was something else. The highway is unmarked and unlit and its used by pedestrians as well as vehicles of every shape and size. We pulled into teaming markets on the outskirts of the city, and I wind down the window to be greeted by the hum of thousands of voices. But it is completely dark. No street lighting, or even electric lights in the stalls. Lanterns maybe, but most seem to be unlit. How do they trade? By the lights of passing vehicles I suppose. Hundreds of shadows mill about us and I am careful about where I point the car as I dodge vehicles without lights as well as pedestrians who are out shopping. It’s a shadowy, humming, smoking underworld and I think of Dante. It’s as if we have never left Hell’s Gate at all.
Diary 13 October 2013
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