As our group of seven walked along the road lining the lake recounting our first interaction with the African wildlife we were all so eager to see, the rest of the girls wandered ahead again while the boys and I discussed their consistent need to hurry in a place where everything else moves so slowly. The walkie-talkies Justin brought in tow were relatively useless when the Bijelic girls had them as they seldom answered them, other than sporadically, and often they didn’t even keep them turned on at all. It was a long walk which we spent mostly in silence absorbing the unfamiliar surroundings, breaking occasionally to return a friendly jambo to the many small children we passed. The single road from the lake to the town of Naivasha is dusty and littered with what seems to be years worth of trash. Women in traditional kangas carrying baskets on their heads in that way they do, children in school uniforms, and barefooted teenagers in dirty clothes made their way along the skinny dirt path following the broken pavement. As there is clearly no city maintenance out here I wonder if people ever think about that fact when they see a cigarette pack they dropped on their walk to work three years earlier. Apparently not.
We finally arrived at Fisherman’s Camp where we intended to rent bikes for the ride through Hell’s Gate National Park for the following day. Once we got there and got the bikes in order we headed to their restaurant for dinner and drinks. The seven of us sat down on a large wooden porch wrapped around the main building of the camp, ready for a cold beer and anything that might dilute our memories of that debacle that Crayfish Camp called our lunch. Our table on the deck overlooked an expansive yard with old, tall trees that were home to wild Colobus monkeys (resembling some bastard combination of monkey, skunk, and crazy old man) and a dock jutting out into the lake. About fifty feet in from the lake, the restaurant was surrounded by an electrical fence and a sign apparently warning of us of cartoon polka-dot hippos.
We each ordered our dinner and a Tusker and struck up a casual conversation with the owner, a friendly American man seated next to us, joking about the electric fence keeping out the hippos. Apparently, based on the sudden (and very ominous) warning we received from him, joking about death-by-hippo is not, in fact, funny. He proceeded to inform us that it actually happens somewhat frequently. Though these massive and lethargic mammals can outrun humans, they tend to spend their days mostly under water enjoying immersion in the cool lake and minding their own. But at dusk, when they come up out of the water to graze, you best not get in their way or they will kill you. Literally. One of the local men who guards the camp at night took us down and let us walk out to the end of the dock before the fences were electrified at sundown. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the deceptively violent (yet completely adorable) beasts, we ended up enjoying our beers and the sunset from the edge of the lake. When we inquired of the guard as to when the last time someone got killed by a hippo he flatly replied, “last week.”
After a few minutes by the water scoping the hippo scene, we exchanged the Kiswahili toast “hungera” and headed back up to the deck for dinner. Though we weren’t all friends before this trip, there was a certain ease between the seven of us. It was as though we had traveled often before together and knew the delicate rhythm of each other’s moods, the gives and takes necessary to keep from creating incurable tensions and divides on trips like this. Our dinner was loud and delicious and full of booze and for the first time since we arrived in Africa the seven of us truly enjoyed each other, notably lacking the pressure of the next hostel or bus to catch. We stuffed ourselves with curries and meats and libations, peering out towards the lake every so often in hopes of finding a wandering hippo. And then, during that most enjoyable period of any meal when the plates have been cleaned, everyone is full with food, lightened with booze, and the conversation is flowing with more ease than the Kenya King we were drinking, we were approached by one of the guards. The sun had set on the restaurant and he came to inform us that a hippo had been spotted grazing just on the other side of the electric fence. Ecstatic, but silencing our excitement, we got up from the table and followed the lone illumination of the lanky guard’s flashlight down into the darkness. As we approached the fence we strained our eyes, our pupils adjusting and finally the great animal came into focus. Not but ten feet from where we were standing, a fully-grown hippopotamus grazed calmly on the green lawn, completely oblivious to our presence. It was hard to reconcile this seemingly friendly creature with a horrific and bloody mauling, but if you try really hard, you can do it. We stayed for a minute trying to capture the moment in pictures, but unfortunately the blurry mess you see below is the best we could do in the darkness.
Excited over our hippo experience, we headed back up to the deck and let our boisterous evening continue a while longer. A few hours and and a few more drinks later, as everyone finished their beers and began winding down, we were struck with a most unfortunate realization. It was 10PM. It was pitch black. We were several miles from our camp, and between the seven of us and our seven bicycles we had one headlamp. Fuck. Despite our initial concern over the stickiness of our situation, seeing as we didn’t have much of a choice, we heaved our drunk asses on to our bicycles and headed up the steep, rocky hill towards the thick, dark, nothing.
Despite that old adage about never forgetting how to ride a bike, I can assure you there is certainly a period of re-acclimation that is required. Both Barbara and I, somewhat awkward and clumsy to begin with, struggled to even get going, and much more so to keep up with the group. The road was narrow and shoddily paved and either side was lined by a drop-off ditch that was several feet deep in some places. Every few minutes someone would yell out “BUMP!” as a warning to those following behind, and even more often than that you would hear the yelp of nervous surprise coming from someone unprepared for what they just hit. The whole ride was a comedy act of sorts, each of us taking our turns falling, narrowly avoiding ditches, or not avoiding ditches at all. But if you could forget for just one second that there might be a five-foot deep ditch ahead of you and look up – a billion ancient stars looked back down, painting the sky in every direction. It was perfect.