Bike vs Buffalo

Tue, 29 Jan 2002 05:48:42 +0800

Last week we spent a couple of nights camped near the shore of Lake Navasha and Hell's Gate National Park.

Now Hell's Gate will never compete with the Masa Mara or Lake Nakuru as far as the abundance of wildlife goes. However, it has one inspiring quality: It is the only game park in Kenya, as far as I know, where it is permitted to walk around amongst the animals with no vehicle.

So, on Friday 4 of us rented mountain bikes at the gate and went out for pedaling and hiking to see what we could see. It was 10:00am by the time we started out. Ideally we would have headed out at dawn but I couldn't convince anyone else to get up that early.

In the morning we pedaled up to the gorge and then hiked around it. It was getting rather warm and, as expected, we didn't see many animals, at least not very close. Hell's Gate has a sort of Grand Canyon kind of feel. Lots of mesas and rock formations.

We got back to the ranger station and our bikes. One had a flat: the same one we had to add air to going in (imagine that). The rangers messed with the tire for a while before determining that a patch was in order. But there was no glue. More messing around before finding another park person who had some glue. Eventually tire was back together and inflated. So we're done, right? No. They wanted money for the drop of glue used to patch the tire. It seems that the glue belonged to an individual and he had already left. So they wanted 100 shillings. They got 50 shillings (~70 cents), which everyone thought was still quite ridiculous.

So we headed out on the Buffalo Trail in the afternoon Mind you, a cape buffalo is not the sort of critter you want to tangle with but we were feeling brave and didn't expect to see much anyway.

Now down in the gorge, we didn't do real well at following the path. On our bikes, we weren't any better. After zooming down one big hill and crawling up the equally big hill on the other side, we flagged down a passing vehicle to find out if we were on the Trail and where to go next.

It seems that we were already outside the park. In fact that last down and up was totally unnecessary except we would have to do it again to get back into the park. Ok, time to turn back. Is everyone here? I'm here. Paul is here. Mike is here. Where's Doug? We called and called. We sent people out both directions. Eventually, we figured out that he had to have gone forward up and over another large an unnecessary hill. So we, reluctantly, slogged up and over the hill, where we found Doug, walking his bike down the next hill and grateful to see us. It seems he had crashed, bloodied his hands and flattened the front tire while escaping some locals with clubs and their dogs.

So we slogged back to the original point where we would have stopped, if not for Doug. And it started to rain. Real stuff. Not what they call rain in California. There was no shelter at all, so we just kept on going. At least it settles the dust and it wasn't cold.

So, we're back on the trail where it's flat. The rain has stopped so the going is easy (never mind Doug and his flat tire). But wait, there's a buffalo on the side of the road. No, make that 5, er, there must be something like 20 buffalo. We beat a hasty retreat after a few mock charges (from the buffalo's not us)

So begins the debate: Do we go forward and hope they don't notice (too quickly)? No, that doesn't look good. They're on the right side of the road. We could give them a wide berth by going far left through the bush. But in the bush, we lose any speed advantage the bikes provide and we're not sure who fast Doug can move anyway. So that left only one option: wait, and hope they go away. After about 10-20 minutes a couple more cyclists pedal up. We warn them that it would be safer to wait with us.

Over the course of about 40 minutes, the buffalo herd crossed the road to the left side. We waited as the main herd got further from the road. Meanwhile, a few buffalo were forming a regular spaced line parallel to the road and were getting rather close to our position. By the time we made our move, they were almost behind us. All six of us pedaled forward as fast as we could. We cleared the herd with little trouble. Well, the 4 of us, at least. The couple we picked up wasn't quite as fast. By the time we felt comfortable enough to look back, they were out of sight.

So we made it back to the gate and back to camp, where a Scottish army medic patched up Doug. (The army was on exercises in Northern Kenya and sending troops down to Navasha for R&R).

That night, we continued the activities of the first night, watching for Africa's second most dangerous animal (after the Cape Buffalo). That being the hippos that come out of the water to graze by the shore.

There's nothing quite like watching hippos graze, in dim light, at close range. Nothing but few dozen feet and a flimsy electric fence between. It's hard to see detail but it feels so much more real than watching habituated lions from a truck in the Mara.

Tomorrow I go out another vehicle safari, into the Serengeti and Ngorongo Crater. But I think it the hippos and the buffalo at Navasha that will stay with me the longest.