Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Hell's Gate

On our next Kenyan walkabout, our day began even earlier, but our destination was much closer to home. For the first (and only) time during our visit, our morning drive lasted less than half an hour. We arrived at the Hell's Gate gate before the sun had fully risen, and in the murky morning light we were greeted with this sign:

(Confidence-inspiring sign at the entrance to Hell's Gate National Park.)

We saw several versions of this sort of sign during our time in Kenya; they ensure that you never grow complacent about sharing your space with (potentially) deadly creatures.

We had several goals during our trip to Hell's Gate. The first, and most basic, was to walk from one side of the park to the other in order to enjoy the wildlife. The second was to give the students a chance to conduct a population survey so that they could gain experience with the technique. The third was to "test drive," so to speak, the physical fitness of the students in order to get an idea of how they would fare when we made the much longer, more vertical, and higher-elevation trek up Mt. Kenya a couple days later.

In order to prepare the students for the wildlife survey, we first had to teach them the basic techniques, then explain what the goals and protocols were for the day's efforts. We did all this by the side of the road under a fairly spectacular sunrise over quite dramatic terrain:

(Students awaiting their herbivore sampling instructions at Hell's Gate.)

Needless to say, it was not easy to concentrate on what the instructors were saying. Luckily, I didn't need to do any lecturing, myself, so I was able to spend my time identifying three new bird species to add to my trip list. Looking back, I would say that this day marked the turning point of my birding in Kenya. By this point, we'd spent almost a week in the country and I'd flipped through my entire bird book several times each day; I was finally feeling a bit more acquainted with the different avian families, what they looked like, and where they might be found. When I identified the Hell's Gate species--two wheatears and one canary, for the record--I was feeling much more confident in my assessments, and didn't feel the need to double-check with someone else. This was a very good stage to reach, as it made birdwatching during the rest of the trip much more fun (and successful).

While the students continued to receive information from the other instructors, I sneaked off to use the toilet, which was a newly-installed flush toilet (!) in a little shack off a dirt track. As I walked, I looked down and noticed some very interesting footprints in the soil: several separate sets of canine feet pointed in the same direction I was going. The only canines likely to be in Hell's Gate were jackals (which are fairly smallish) and hyenas, who were probably the animals responsible for the tracks I was seeing. We hadn't yet seen any hyenas, so the tracks gave me hope that we might run across some during our long walk across the park. I also saw the prints of decent-sized birds, but those probably belonged to guineafowl, which seemed to pop up everywhere we went:

(A flock of guineafowl on the run. When they're moving quickly, they look like 2D cardboard cutouts of birds, rather than actual living animals. They have brilliantly blue heads and beautiful speckled plumage, which the lighting in this picture fails to capture.)

The trip across the park was 7 km (about 4.5 miles), which isn't really that long. When I walk for exercise, I manage about 3 miles an hour, which means that one could easily cross Hell's Gate within 2 hours. Unfortunately, the animal survey slowed things down incredibly--we took almost 5 hours to get to our destination at the far side of the park. This was partly because we encountered many groups of animals that needed counting, but also partly because the students were a little overzealous about being "correct." The quotation marks are there because it is never possible to be certain that you are accurately identifying and counting all animals, but the students were determined to achieve perfection. Crawling along at a snail's pace wouldn't have been so bad if there had been other exciting things to look at, but the park was fairly still and quiet; aside from the large groups of herbivores being counted, there wasn't much abroad. For not the first time during the trip, I heard from the other instructors that the avian diversity, if nothing else, was a bit lacking in comparison to that observed in previous years.

We nearly had an interesting encounter early on when we approached one of the park's big watering holes, to which the animals make daily treks, and around which they congregate in large numbers. A big male buffalo was snacking on the shrubbery on the near side of the waterhole, approximately 100 m off the side of the road. When you are on foot, with nowhere to hide, 100 m is much closer than you'd normally want to be to an animal that large and grumpy. Unfortunately for us, the wind was blowing from the buffalo towards us, meaning that, while he could see us, he was not able to smell us; this perplexed and disturbed him, so he couldn't really relax and, instead, seemed to be inching his way closer to us in an attempt to figure out what was going on. One of the other instructors and I rounded up the nearest students in order to form a single large unit, waited until the buffalo seemed a bit more relaxed, and pressed the pedal to the metal until we were around the bend and out of view. Luckily, as far as the buffalo was concerned, out of sight was out of mind, and we didn't have any further drama.

The one thing that Hell's Gate seemed to have no shortage of--other than blazing sunlight--was baby warthogs. Warthogs, like domestic pigs, have several young at once, and most of the time we saw at least 3 or 4 young trotting around with each set of parents; occasionally, multiple families appeared to combine forces, so we'd spy a couple sets of adults chaperoning an unruly group of the rambunctious youngsters. At one point, we saw a group of warthogs charging out of the trees, surrounded by equally anxious-looking zebras and gazelles. This seemed to be evidence of a nearby leopard, but we could never spot one anywhere (which is pretty standard, as far as leopards are concerned).

Perhaps the most notable feature of Hell's Gate is its dramatic topography, including towering cliff faces. One of these is much beloved by the local vultures, probably because the cliff receives the first rays of sun in the morning and is therefore a great place to sit and warm up before taking first flight. By the time we reached the cliff, most of the vultures had taken off, but a couple were sitting with outstretched wings and enjoying the view; I enjoyed my view, also, since it was the first time I was able to stop and really study the massive birds (my other encounter with them having been a bit of a blur on our way to see the lions). Even if there hadn't been any vultures left on the ledges, we would have known that it was their normal hangout--they'd left plenty of "whitewash" behind to mark their territory.

After what seemed like ages, we finally arrived at the picnic area on the far side of Hell's Gate. One of my colleagues who'd arrived a bit earlier had bought each of the instructors a cold bottle of Coke, and it tasted absolutely wonderful. I'd already eaten all my snacks during my walk, and I was absolutely starving. Those cold, fizzy calories definitely revived me and gave me the energy to begin the second phase of our visit to the park--walking the gorge. My husband's group had opted not to do the gorge walk, as they'd had a terrible time the previous year after serious flooding had made the path practically impassable. Although most of the walk was fine, there were some places that were a bit challenging, to say the least:

(Ascending a makeshift stick ladder. Imagine our dismay when we discovered that this path was not circular, but a dead end--meaning that we'd need to climb back down this rickety contraption.)

Towards the end, there were a couple places where two or more tall, strong guys were required to help hold, guide, or boost the rest of us. It certainly was a good way to become much more familiar with my male students and colleagues.

To be honest, I found the gorge walk to be a bit of a disappointment. We were able to see vents where underground pressure is periodically released (in the form of steam and water), stick our hands in the incredibly hot springs welling up from deep underground, and look up the gorge walls to the impressively high high-water marks. Also, not least of the attractions was a steel ring in one of the boulders, left behind by the crew of one of the Tomb Raider movies that had been shot in the gorge:

(Boldly going where Lara Croft has gone before: walking towards the "Devil's Bedroom" at Hell's Gate National Park.)

As excited as I was to be walking in Angelina Jolie's footsteps, I couldn't help but compare the gorge to other gorges I have walked and found to be much prettier and more engaging (notably, those in my beloved Hocking Hills region back home in Ohio).

As you might expect with a walk through a gorge, we had to descend at the beginning of the hike, then ascend at the end. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves in the midst of a little herd of goats, two of whom popped out of a gap in the rocks ahead of me and proceeded to bound up the path in front of me as though it was flat ground. It made me feel very plodding to proceed in their wake at my much slower pace.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the picnic site we discovered that our buses had not yet arrived to pick us up and take us home to camp, where a nice warm lunch was waiting. At this point it was almost 2:30 PM, and we had last eaten at 5:30 AM. After 9 hours of walking in the sun, I was absolutely famished (regardless of the recent Coke break). As the hypoglycemia set in, my body began to completely shut down. My doctoral adviser used to call me "the hummingbird" because I was constantly complaining about being hungry and needing a snack, and on this afternoon the metaphor was continued as one of my fellow instructors described me as "going into torpor." Whatever you want to call it, I certainly was not feeling well, and this probably marks the beginning of the mystery malady that was to plague me for the remainder of the trip.

It turned out that there had been a complex bureaucratic issue involving additional paperwork that needed to be completed, as well as (of course) additional fees that needed to be paid, in order to make it possible for our bus drivers to enter the park to come retrieve us. After much pleading and cajoling, we were finally able to finagle entry for our drivers, and then head home. Not surprisingly, I immediately loaded up a massive plate of food and took it back to my banda so I could eat on the porch with my husband, who was deeply absorbed in an iPhone game. Leaving him to continue playing, I headed inside for an incredibly deep, much-needed nap.

I awoke feeling much more positive about life and headed back out to sit and enjoy the last few hours of the evening. As we lounged, a small herd of goats, including a couple of kids, wandered into our front yard area to graze. My husband made very convincing goat noises toward them, piquing the interest of one of the kids. It trotted over in our direction, encouraging my husband to repeat his bleating. In response, the kid put its front hooves up on my husband's leg, just like a puppy working up the courage to jump in someone's lap. Of course, this is the next thing it did, though it soon hopped down and went back to join its herd--but not before I got in a little snuggling, because even if it will be someone's food someday, it was a cute, soft animal, and my animal mothering instincts had kicked in. After my husband performed one last bit of goat mimicry, the kid turned around, ran, then launched itself straight into my husband's lap like an overexcited child. This final stage of the interaction was observed by the shepherdess, who had wandered into view moments before. She burst out laughing at the unexpected and unusual sight of a baby goat clambering up for a cuddle in the lap of a mzungu. I'm glad to know that, wherever my husband and I go, we can always do something to elicit laughter from the locals.

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