Day 359: Dice Fail Leads To Hippo Heaven
This big fella was acting very strange by spending all day in the muck, instead of finding cooler living in the water during the heat of the day. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
A HIPPO laughs along the bank of Naivasha Lake. It's a deep chuckle like the boss in a Nintendo game. Farther down the shoreline, thick with vegetation, comes another laugh, which is passed to another hippo and then to another.
The laughter rumbles out across the flat gray lake. Then, it stops.
Linda wakes up before me this morning at her house. Shes spent much of the night in the guest bed in the other room, after struggling to fall asleep.
We delay as long as we can after breakfast of homemade preserves and heavy bread. However, Linda isn't able to get hold of the guy who was going to loan her a motorcycle helmet for the trip.
Too worried about getting nabbed up by police, I don't offer her my helmet. Instead, she puts on a pair of sunglasses and pulls a scarf up around her face to at least help keep her warm, as the morning air carries a slight chill unhindered by the sunlight cutting through the clear sky.
“I'll be right back,” I say, slipping outside to check on Rafiki. There's a small puddle of oil below the engine, which isn't a good sign. Though she protests, she does come to life when I start her. There was a not-so-small portion of me that expected Rafiki to decided that the dice were wrong and that we had to go back to Nairobi. Of course, that's not what would have happened. Rafiki would simply have been heavily cursed at for the better part of an hour and then left locked up at Linda's place, while we took public transport to the lake.
Why are we going to Lake Naivasha? It's not until nearly a week later, when my heart jumps into my mouth and I'm swept up in a feeling of total failure that I even realized I fucked something up. Before wooden die was cast, but after Linda and I settled on our options, I addressed the camera.
The name of the lake didn't seem to stick in my head, leading to the biggest Dice Travels fail. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“This is our last big roll for Dice Travels... I mean we'll have more, but this is like a defining one because after this, I'll have to take the bike back to Kilifi to get it sold, and it's just close to being a disaster anyways,” I said.
“Anyways, so we got: Climbing at Hell's Gate, Visit Lake Victoria, Dairy Fair with German – it turns out the German is coming on all of them – Lake Bogoria, the Kara Forest [sic], and Fourteen Falls.”
The was cast. Four black pips blink up at us.
“Lake Bogoria was really high on my to-do list when I came to Kenya. I had like 100 things to do but it was like two, like top three,” I say, not even sure where or what the lake is.
Linda looked up how to get there and then, somehow, the lines between what lake was what lake and what lake we were going to ended up getting so muddled that I would have bet Rafiki that the die had demanded we go to Naivasha. It wasn't even a point of contention – we both knew that the dice said that we were going to Naivasha.
So, inadvertently, in the final stretch, my guard came down and the Will of the Die was misinterpreted.
Cruising on A 104, I'm in familiar territory. This was the same two-lane highway Rafiki and I took our first jaunt down when headed to Mount Elgon.
A terrible clacking comes from the back wheel as we start to descend down a pine tree-dotted rolling hill.
I step on the back brake, but nothing happens. Gently slowing with the front brake, we come to a stop on the side of the road.
“Here, get off really quickly,” I tell Linda. “Something's wrong.”
The connecting rod between the pedal and back drum brake is bent, mangled by the spokes of the wheel.
“God, he's such a worthless piece of shit,” I mutter.
“What?” Linda asks.
I explain that the old mechanic, the one who took forever to break more than he fixed, was the one who must have failed to put the locking bolt back on the rod. I remember watching him tighten up the brake, feeling my heart soften a little toward him as he attempted to be helpful once Wicky took charge. However, it appears is incompetence knows no limits.
“Anyway, it's fine. The front brake is good enough. I'll just have to be careful,” I say.
I gently wrap the rod around part of Rafiki's frame to keep it from getting caught in the spokes and possibly throwing us from the bike.
About fifteen minutes later, we crest a hill and enter the Great Rift Valley.
“Look at these trees. Aren't they amazing?” I ask.
No matter how many times I see a landscape decorated by these strange candelabra succulents, their woody trunks giving birth dozens of thick arms as if they are some sort of giant sea fan, they will always conjure up the magical knowledge that we live in a strange and beautiful world.
“I like that about you. I like that you see these and you're interested,” Linda says, noting her boyfriend back in Germany has lost his ability to spot the wonders of the world.
We pull off on the side of the road, to peel of several layers of clothing now that we're in the Great Rift Valley and the sun is high overhead. While Linda wiggles out of her long-sleeve shirt, I stomp down a steep incline into some bushes to piss. This close to a town, the land in front of me is cultivated, clumps of dirt turned for planting.
A lorry comes humming down the hill, then another and another. The A104 is a well-traveled road.
With Linda calling out directions, we turn off the road I know so well and bend toward Hell's Gate and Naivasha. We follow B3 to the Old Naivasha Road.
Wide green fields open up on either side of us, looking more neither fertile or destitute. The dome of Longonot National Park, which bulges from the plains like a bubble slowly being blown out of green soap. The extinct volcano is thought to have last erupted in the 1860s, which in geological terms is pretty much only a couple of moments ago. Yet already it's been taken back into the fold by thick forests.
“Here?” I ask Linda as we approach Moi S Lake Road, ahead of Naivasha.
“Yeah, I think so,” she says.
Still not able to see the lake, we work our way into the shabby town of Karagita, a string of cement buildings with dusty lawns separating them from the main road.
While having someone fill up Rafiki's tank, I'm forced to start unpacking half of our gear to access my zip ties in order to fix the luggage rake.
I'd noticed it starting to drag on the back wheel right before we pulled in. Because the frame was already in bad shape, Linda's weight from putting her feet on it was more than enough to break the welds holding the thin metal bars together.
“Sorry about that,” Linda says.
“It's fine. You didn't know. I knew it was a possibility, but didn't mention anything,” I say. “So it's really not your fault at all.”
With the custom rack somewhat secure we inch our way out of Karagita, which gives way to more impressive succulents as we skirt around the lake toward Camp Carnelley. Despite the fix, I can feel the rake dragging against the tire.
“Please don't let this cause any serious damage,” I silently beg.
We're so close. Only a kilometer or so away.
“How you holding up back there?” I ask.
Linda is miserable. Her bladder is about to burst and her menstrual cramping – despite her period not starting – is twisting her insides.
We're forced to gently take speed bump after speed bump to prevent the quick fix for the panniers from snapping.
A wooden sign across a bridge littered with broken glass marks the turnoff down a sandy road to Camp Carnelley.
A small cabin-style building stands at the entrance, next to rental bicycles.
“You go ahead and find a bathroom. I'll get the room sorted out,” I say.
Unable to talk the man into giving us a free upgrade to a private room, I settle the bill for a pair of beds in a dorm room.
Once we're unpacked, we decided to explore the sprawling campground.
Down from the dorm room is a grove of mature yellow acacia trees. Their smooth, stout trunks hold hues of yellow and green as they create a tangled roof of tiny leaves and branches high above those who arrived with their own camping gear. There are dozens of campers up from Nairobi with their elaborate tents. I'd forgotten it was a Saturday. The slew of red license plates on shiny vehicles confirms my suspension that most of the people next to the lake are from one embassy or another. In fact, a large group of them is from the Disease Prevention and Control Department at the U.S. Embassy.
On the other side of the campground is a cluster of tents around a school bus. A number of beautiful, young American women, most likely still in university, are also up for the weekend. Hand-in-hand, as we often walk, Linda and I make our way down to the bank.
Each lodge and campground had their own signs posted about hippo dangers. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A sign at the gate of an unobtrusive electric fence that runs the length of the lakeside property line reads:
All animals here are wild.
Do Not Approach.
Below it is another sign:
Beware of Hippos. Go Beyond The Fence at Your Own Risk. Children Must Be Accompanied by Adults.
Below it is another sign, but unlike the two wooden signs above it, this one is a small laminated piece of paper with the picture of a giraffe on it.
Beware of Giraffe as he is wild. Do not approach.
Soft grass runs into the muddy bank. Tall papyrus plants stretch up into the sky, their heads bursting like green fireworks. It's as if we've shrunk and are now wandering among seeding dandelions. A section of the tall vegetation in front of the campground has been cleared to reveal Lake Naivasha, which stretches out into a gray horizon. Liming the cool waters is a thick ban of common water hyacinth, their thick rounded leaves clustered together over small green bulbs.
A hippo the size of a table you'd serve Christmas dinner on is motionless in the dark black muck and waxy leaves of the water hyacinth. Rolled onto one side, his tiny ears occasionally spin in circles like a lackadaisical dreidel.
Linda nearly rushes the beast, unaware of the real danger.
“Hold on! You know they are the deadliest animal in Africa, right?” I say.
She thinks I'm messing with her, which is understandable, as there is nothing remotely threatening about the lazy, rotund animal. In fact, it is hard to think of another creature in the Animal Kingdom that is better described as rotund, which is simply not a word one regularly associates with deadline outside of the context of heart failure.
“I'm serious, they kill more people than any other animal,” I say. It's estimated that hippos kill about 500 people a year in Africa.
Though Linda still doesn't believe me, she seems in no rush to give the big fella a kiss anymore. Even knowing that this motionless blob is as swift as a center on an American football field, I kind of want to see how he feels about cuddles.
We inch closer and closer.
At first we didn't know how unusual the hippo's behavior was. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
He's watching us, but not moving. His short legs have been sucked deep into the muck.
“I should get my camera,” I say, as we come to a stop about four meters away.
“He'll be here. You don't have to go get it now,” Linda says.
Instead, we walk back through the campers, making our way to the open restaurant area: a beautiful multi-level place with cement floors shored up by enormous meandering logs. The corrugated roof is held up by more tree trunks, while low tables and long organic couches with enormous pillows cascade down the levels toward a grassy yard out front.
We lounge and cuddle in an alcove of pillows, sipping on a coffee and watching the gray day drift by us.
I start in on some theatrical remark, downplaying some accomplishment of mine.
“I don't like the bullshit,” she says, shutting me down.
“I know. I like that about you,” I say, pulling her close.
Performing, joking, wordplay, all of it has become such an essential part of my character. And yet, there is something beautiful, about having someone cut through all the cheap meat. It does means we spend a lot of time in silence. Even after sex (which apparently her boyfriend has signed off on), when I usually start tickling or joking or anything to break the mood, I let the silence sit. It's rarely an uncomfortable silence. It's simply something that doesn't need to be filled.
As the sun gets lower, we expect the hippos to be coming closer to shore, preparing to graze on the short grass just beyond the papyrus and water hyacinth. Grabbing our cameras, we make our way back down to the lake.
Dig that hairdo. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A hoopoe trots in the grass in front of us. The little bird's legs move rapidly, like a businesswoman in a pencil skirt and 4-inch heels running late to a vital meeting. When we get too close, the mohawk that crests it's tiny woodpecker-like head bristles.
A number of these white egrets can be found on the shores of Lake Naivasha. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Not far from our lazy hippo and the campground's dock, a slender white egret stands poised among the water hyacinth like a ballerina waiting for the music to start. Motionless, it watches the watery world wrapped around its spindly yellow legs. We silently watch it watch the water. Minutes pass, as we wait for it to strike, plucking some small, living morsel out of existence.
A cormorant dries its wings. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A cormorant sits in the branches of a dead tree, its trunk sunk deep into the water. The bird's wings are held out, away from its body, like Christ's outstretched arms. When the bird is facing directly away it is a crooked cross drying in the sun.
Silently, hand-in-hand, we walk the shoreline, pointing out the birds, waiting for the hippos to appear. Often the lake is completely obscured by a wall of papyrus. Hippo trails, strangely small and muddy, cut through the tall stalks from time to time.
We fell in love with all the beauty of the lake. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
When the papyrus clears again a view of the lake brings us face to face with a crash of hippos. A half dozen or more of the beasts are in the water in front of us. Their heads float on the surface, their wide nostrils taking in air before silently submerging, completely disappearing despite their mass.
“Oh, look! It's a baby hippo,” I say, pointing out the tiny head laid upon its mother's back.
Falling back into silence, we watch the crash, listening to them occasionally blasting water from their nostrils like a geyser or starting a cascade of laughter down the lake shore.
“This is hippo heaven,” I think, grateful the dice sent me here and still unaware of the fact that they hadn't.