As I gazed out across the Great Rift Valley with friends by my side, I was gripped by a surreal feeling. A harmonious mixer of Swahili and English words floated in the air around us, accompanied by the smokey aroma of a nearby cooking fire. Dimly lit souvenir shops surrounded us, inviting us in to poke around at wooden carvings, sheep skin rugs, and woven blankets, but the vast valley expanding toward the horizon dwarfed all of these human happenings with its commanding presence.
It had been a year and half since I’d experienced something like this. A year and half since I’d set foot outside of American soil (save for a couple of weekends spent ice climbing in Ontario shortly before the border closed indefinitely). That’s why it took me all of two seconds to answer a decisive “YES!” when our friends, Jared and Rachel of Percussive Tours asked if we wanted to go to Kenya. Vince and I had already been talking with friends, Amy and Andrew about someday going to Tanzania together, so we were quick to extend the invite to them as well, and our group of six was formed. The next couple of months was spent planning, preparing, and eventually self-quarantining leading up to the trip. After two weeks of isolation, we got tested for Covid (a first for me and Vince, and honestly much less horrible than I was led to believe). Our negative test results were our last barrier to entering Kenya, and we celebrated when they arrived, but I still didn’t believe the trip was happening until we made it through customs in Nairobi and met up with our guide, Fred of Kenya Tour Budget Safari. Even as we started our first day tour, I felt like pinching myself (partly in disbelief and partly because of jet-lag induced exhaustion).
The Great Rift Valley overlook was just the beginning of what would be a long day trip to Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate Canyon, and our next stop was at Sanctuary Farm to kick the trip off with a horseback safari. Upon our arrival at the farm, we were given helmets and paired with horses. I was matched with a tall thoroughbred named Fabergé, and I was the first to get to climb into my saddle. This meant I had plenty of time for my excitement to grow as the others were given their horses one by one. By the time we set out on the trail, I was practically bouncing out of my saddle in anticipation. This excursion had been my pick. A friend of a friend tipped me off to it, and I immediately fell in love with idea of riding a horse alongside zebras and giraffes (one of my all-time favorite animals).
Our first animal encounter came in the form of a dazzle of zebras mingling with a few impalas. Not long after that, we came upon a group of wildebeest, and then some beautiful waterbuck. We even caught a glimpse of a tiny dik dik darting alongside the trail!
But the most exciting moment for me was when we rode within feet of two lumbering giraffes who were eating the bark of an acacia tree.
We rode uphill where the verdant acacias were replaced by massive euphorbia trees, and the landscape became more dry and barren. From that vantage, we could see different stages of vegetation stretching towards Lake Naivasha. The land faded from brilliant green near the lake to dusty beige atop the hill. Eventually we made it back down to the lake where we caught a glimpse of our first hippo of the trip, then we retreated to the farm where we dismounted our horses and met back up with Fred.
Our next destination was Hell’s Gate National Park and Fred told us we had the option to either drive, bike, or walk through the game reserve. We opted to walk since we felt like stretching our legs after a couple of long days of travel.
I thought riding horses alongside dazzles of zebras had been exciting enough, but now we were happily tromping along a dusty road as zebras grazed in front of cliffs of towering basalt columns.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves standing below a tall volcanic plug called Fischer’s Tower. There was a top rope set up on it, a pile of climbing gear on a shaded picnic table, and a climber ready to rent out gear and belay anyone interested in climbing the pillar. Vince and I talked to him about what routes were there, and he agreed to set a 5.10 for us to follow. I hadn’t climbed a single thing since October (the climbing gym didn’t exactly seem appealing during the holiday Covid surge), so I wasn’t overly confident that I would have the strength to do a two-pitch 5.10, but I definitely wanted to give it a try. Vince went first, and made it to the top fairly easily after a bit of a slow start, and I enjoyed the company of a hoard of rock hyraxes who clearly hoped I had food to offer them.
When it was my turn, I found that I also struggled with the start, but the climb got easier as I ascended. Unfortunately I did decide to give up about six feet below the top because I suddenly had intense nausea that just wouldn’t go away even after taking a rest. It kind of felt like the screaming barfies, minus the intense hand pain that comes with those. I think the heat combined with my exhaustion from jet lag and probable dehydration did me in, and I ended up feeling like I had to quit even though the last few feet were perfectly baggable. Despite the slight disappointment, it still felt good to have done something active after sitting through two eight hour flights.
Once I was done, Amy did a route on the other side of the pillar, and then we met back up with Fred who drove us the rest of the way through the park, stopping for animal sightings along the way. We saw a bunch of buffalo, which was cool after having only seen one on our safari in Chobe National Park a few years back. Then there were warthogs, zebras, and of course giraffes.
The short drive landed us at a trailhead to hike down into Ol Njorowa, the Lower Gorge. Fred set us up with another guide to take us into the canyon, and he led us on a fun, downhill hike. Once we reached the canyon floor we hiked along a riverbed, hopping back and forth across a small creek as we walked until we reached a cool viewpoint where the gorge’s walls towered above us on either side. This area is rumored to have been used as inspiration for The Lion King, but I can’t seem to find any legitimate confirmation of that. I will say, the gorge in the wildebeest scene in the “live action” Lion King does look incredibly similar to this spot.
Our guide pointed out a small waterfall trickling down a nearby rock face, and we felt the water to discover it was a hot spring. He also showed us that the canyon floor was littered with chunks of obsidian, and broke some of it to demonstrate how sharp it can be. He said he was from the Maasai tribe, and that they use obsidian to make spears and knives.
We didn’t stay down in the canyon for too long because apparently they’ve been having a problem with hikers getting swept away by flash floods down there. A short, but steep hike us brought us back to the car park and Fred, but I managed to get distracted by a handful of adorable vervet monkeys before getting back in our van.
I couldn’t watch the monkeys for too long because we still needed to have time for one last tour, so we hopped in the van and drove back out of Hell’s Gate. As we neared the entrance, Fred made a sudden stop, and I jumped to my feet in excitement when I saw what he was looking at. Two secretary birds were promenading through the dried grasses. As an amateur birder, I have a somewhat extensive list of birds that I would love to see, and the secretary bird was one that I had specifically hoped to see while we were in Kenya. I couldn’t believe that I was getting my wish on the first day of the trip!
We watched the birds until they were nearly out of sight, and then Fred drove us the couple of kilometers to Lake Naivasha where he set us up with a boat tour. This was what Jared was most excited for because hippos are amongst his favorite animals, and the tour did not disappoint in this department. When we first started off, there was plenty to see in the form of beautiful scenery. The lake was like glass, a far cry from matching its name which is derived from the Maasai word “Nai’posha” which means “Rough Water.” The water was surrounded by gentle hills and lined with acacia trees. Many of the trees had been overtaken by the lake and turned to ghostly skeletons where cormorants perched.
In almost no time, we found a large raft of hippos, and even got to witness a brief but dramatic moment in which two of them challenged each other over a patch of water plants.
Shortly after the hippo sighting, we found even more spectacular birds. First there were a couple of pied kingfishers perched in a thorny tree, and then we discovered a gorgeous giant kingfisher near a fluffly papyrus plant.
Other notable birds included a slew of African weavers, and many up-close sightings of African fish eagles. Our guide/boat driver had caught a couple of fish earlier that day and he put on a bit of a show by whistling at the eagles and then tossing a fish into the water. When the fish hit, an eagle would swoop down and grab it and then retreat into a tree to enjoy its meal.
By now, the sun was beginning to set, which caused heavenly rays of light to pierce through the thick clouds. Our guide steered the boat across the lake, and I enjoyed a pleasant breeze as we floated through the calm water.
We made on last stop to scan the shoreline of a peninsula called Crescent Island. The shore looked more wild and untamed than the other side of the lake, and just as the sun neared the horizon, we spotted more giraffes. We watched them stride along through the trees until they were no longer in sight, and then it was time to return to shore where Fred was waiting for us.
Back on land, we were able to get a much needed dinner at a nearby restaurant. This was our first real meal of the day, and we all tried a local dish called ugali, a type of porridge that you can dip in a variety of other foods and sauces. In this case, it was paired with sukuma wiki which is sautéed collard greens mixed with onions and spices.
By the time we finished dinner, it was late enough that Fred worried we wouldn’t make it back to Nairobi before ten pm curfew (one of Kenya’s Covid rules), but with his expert driving we were back at our Airbnb with enough time for him to get himself home before ten too. I was thoroughly tired, which was good because it meant I would actually sleep through the night. And I needed the sleep because the next day we would be setting out early to begin our three-day safari in Maasai Mara National Reserve.