Lake Naivasha, about 90 minutes’ drive from Nairobi (or less in a wildly driven matatu) is a predictably popular stop for those who want to get out of town. And Nairobi is the kind of town from which regular respites are a key to maintaining sanity.
What’s amazing is that it took me nearly a year of hot, dusty, sulphur emission-choked Nairobi life to make the trip myself. Thankfully two friends from my regular Thursday night hockey club set — German Rasmus, and Canadian Matt — were heading there a few Saturdays ago, and provided the transport.
Matt’s girlfriend, Wangari (aka Kare), came along, and in keeping with the general rule that you can’t just invite “a few” Kenyans to anything she came with about five friends, a visiting brother and sister and some assorted hangers on.
The tone for the weekend was set as we sat on the patio of a popular gas station / pizza place in Westlands waiting for latecomers to arrive. A group of Kenyans led by Janet, a hard-drinking lady in mirror shades were busy plowing through a 2-4 of local brew. They also had an extra large jug of brandy (they love this stuff here) that didn’t survive to the car as someone decided to drop the bottle. Flies swarmed over the river of booze as it spilled out over the asphalt.
By the time the latecomers arrived and we left Westlands it was late afternoon, and we were at least 15 people in three cars. We formed a loose caravan, along the dramatic route west out of Nairobi. The highway is good by Kenyan standards, and as it climbs and skirts the edge of the Great Rift Valley, the view from the ridge – a massive expanse of lush green farm-land and forest below – is awe-inspiring, and enough to make you wonder why anyone in this country ever goes hungry.
Passing the green crater of Longonot, an extinct volcano popular for day hikers, we could see the shimmer of Naivasha in the distance. We descended to Naivasha town: a typically ragged and dusty one-road-wonder of banks with long line-ups and ramshackle garages doing a brisk business in tire repairs and diesel sales. After a brief water-stop, we took a much less well-maintained road to destination. Fisherman’s Camp, right on the shore of the lake, is not much more than a field, sprinkled with trees and semi-ringed by a low electric wire fence to keep out the lake’s testy leviathans – the hippos.
It’s a cliché to mention that these comically proportioned herbivores cause more human deaths in Africa per year than any other animal. But as we stood on the shore and watched three pairs of ears skirt across the lake, zig-zagging ever-closer to the shore, I was reminded of a tale about a German woman who had been mauled by one just up the road from our camp. The little electric wire fence we’d easily stepped over to get to the shore didn’t seem very protective.
Naivasha is also famous for its diverse avian population. From the little mud-and-sticks jetty I stood on, I watched huge pelicans taxiing in for splash landings, stoic cormorants perched on submerged trees’ branches and kingfishers doing their impressive hover and dive-bomb routine.
Although we’d been told there were cabins and tents to choose from, it turned out that was only half-true. The camp rented us decent tents and basic sleeping gear, and even put them up for us, thankfully spoiling my boyscout ambitions. They even built our fire, and by the time darkness rolled around we were feeling nice and warm, and were soon joined by a threesome who had traveled from Eldoret in northern Kenya by matatu, and a mixed American-Kenyan married couple that had arrived earlier in the day.
The fire roared, and a few guys drove into nearby village to get some mbuzi choma – roast goat meat. I classed things up by whipping out some Edam cheese and Milanese salami I bought in Nairobi, with crusty bread and very cheap red wine. One of our Kenyan mates, Milly, insisted it was breakfast food (save for the wine, I guess). But in the end it all got devoured.
We needed some tunes, and being resourceful campers, turned a few cars into mobile stereo-systems. The meat finally arrived, and was chopped up by a guy who came with it, and served it up with cakes of boiled maize-meal ugali. Soon, meat grease on our hands and faces, and alcohol in our bloodstream dancing didn’t seem too difficult. The Kenyan ladies led the way, as always, grinding and “going down” in our impromptu dance floor encircled by cars and tents.
With all the action around the campfire, we nearly missed the large shape moving through the darkness behind the tents. Some other campers noticed it however, and a small group of us headed over towards what turned out to be a huge hippo, obliviously grazing about 10 feet from the tiny – supposedly protective – fence.
I grabbed my camera and made some vain attempts at capturing the dark scene. The hippo browsed just out of range of my flash and my too-high tech camera refused to take pictures in auto-mode. Rasmus, the German, got worked up and wanted to jump the fence to get some close up shots. I demurred. Who knows how fast a disturbed hippo can move. Anyways, by photo-shopping the image extensively I even managed to get a semblance of a grainy hippo form.
The campfire dance-party continued to rage, but casualties were starting to mount. First was Matt’s girlfriend Kare, whose secretarial duties of money collecting from a bunch of drunks, combined with her own quota of Kenya cane liquor conspired to send her stumbling to her tent. Next was Kare’s brother Marvin (Marvo) who actually fell backwards off his fire-side log in a rigor mortis-esque position, and had to be carried to his tent by the girls.
One by one people fell. And then we lost the music to ebbing car batteries. Finally it was just Rasmus, me and Matthew – a scruffy Aussie who spent six months working for a sex-worker NGO in Nigeria and played us some self-written tunes about his travels in Ethiopia with an acoustic guitar.
It was time to sleep. But Rasmus and I found that all the tents had been taken, or had at least one pair of smelly feet sticking out. From the feet I saw, oddly, most of the tents, which had been same-sex earlier on, had become mixed-gender. Must have been the confusion of the evening. Or blame the hippo.
Sputtering about selfish tent-stealing Kenyans, Rasmus decided to sleep in his car and stomped off to brush his teeth. Not having a car to sleep in I made up my mind to join one of the tents with room. But after unzipping about five tents and disturbing as many happy couples I realized there must have been one empty tent. I found it, on the edge of our territory next to a strange car. Apparently we had all assumed it belonged to someone else.
Rasmus stuck with his Suzuki, converting it in typically Teutonic engineering fashion into a four-wheeled palace with blankets and sheets covering the windows. So in the end I had a tent to myself. Not that I slept much though. Images of lurking hippos kept coming to mind every time I heard a twig snap. I stayed still, sure that if the hippo hordes heard the sound of a waking human, they would not hesitate to crush me under foot.
The next day after an extended breakfast of leftover baguette, processed meat slices, cheese and a big old pot of boiled Kenyan milky tea, we embarked with our many vehicles to a small lake in the crater of an extinct volcano nearby.
The road started out OK, as many do in Kenya, but soon became a sandy, rocky nightmare for anything less than a 4×4. Rasmus’s Indian-made Suzuki performed admirably, though, and I spent much of the ride trying to take shots of our caravan careening down the narrow road with a plume of sand and dust in our wake.
We stopped briefly at a small lake on the way, where the flamingoes, and a few hippos, were out in force. For a reason that I later learned was a water toxicity issue, there were may dead pink feathery corpses littering the shoreline. The thousands of live pink birds didn’t seem to mind much.
An hour of skillful driving got us to the entrance to the Crater Lake reserve where we divided into those who wanted to walk a short trail to the lake and those who were too tired (lazy) who drove. The lake itself was small, and pretty. Once again covered in flamingoes. Nicest of all was the tented camp and lodge on the shore, where I ordered possibly the sourest cocktail I have ever puckered at. Refreshing though after the late night and dusty drive there.
Some walked around the small, circular lake. A few even took out a dubiously floatational boat, going in circles for a while, until they figured out that their paddling had to be coordinated. But most of us sat on a grassy hill in the shade, taking turns pushing people out of hammocks, chasing each other around like naughty schoolchildren and taking the occasional photo.
Eventually our hunger overcame our lazitude, and we made time to stop for kuku choma (roast chicken) at a club for employees of the local KenGen thermal power station. Thermal power, harnessed from the volcanic activity in the Great Rift provides nearly 15 per cent of Kenya’s electricity needs. But as we witnessed, even more interesting was the amount of booze KenGen workers could put back on a Sunday afternoon.