Journey to Hell and Back

This was my last full weekend in Kenya and I wanted to have one last adventure! I have been trying to go Hell’s Gate National Park since I got here because I heard that not only is it beautiful, but its scenery inspired the illustrators of the Lion King! I was really embracing my last adventure and was not even that nervous about taking a matatu (teeny crazy buses) all the way there.

That morning, as we got on the matatu what I thought was going to be a direct trip turned into getting on three matatus. At one point the drive of one escorted us off and into a small van (didn’t look too official to me) and said we were taking this to get the matatu to the park. There was a lot of being herded in and out of buses. On one ride there I sat next to a young Kenyan man who said a lot of Westerners thought it was crazy how squished Kenyans were in the Matatus (I had not yet experienced how bad this could get) so I tried to compare it to the subway. We were chatting for awhile when he told me he liked to keep friends. When he asked for my email I decided not to lie and instead explained, “I already get a lot of email.” He smiled and continued talking.

Finally, we made it to our destination, which was 2kms from Hell’s Gate, where we were supposed to rent bikes and hire a guide. We did not see any bikes in sight. Fifteen minutes later the bike people somehow pulled out four bikes and a guide name Peter (a common Kenyan name, but it is said more like Peet-ar). The ride into the park was my first experience of hell. I could not get comfortable on my bike and kept veering off the road. I took three falls into the ditches on the side of the road. In my head I knew that Phoebe ages 5-18 would have been panicking thinking about how she should have known she can’t bike, she would not be able to get through the day, and the two girls she was with were probably disappointed they brought her. This new 26 year old Phoebe simply laughed and said, “I told you guys I wasn’t that good at biking,” and convinced herself that she would get the hang of it. Walking into the park I got some stares as I was covered in dust and one random guide commented that it would be easier in the park and if I fell again to let him know. He said the road to hell is the hardest part and it was easier in the park. Luckily he was right!

As soon as we got into the park I was cruising! I loved to be at the front of the pack with no one else in sight. I used to think the people at the front were faster and more adventurous, but really it was less scary going a little faster and not worrying about hitting another bike. The scenery was spectacular. It was very dusty and felt almost like the landscape in the Southwest U.S., until you looked to your left and saw a group of zebras. There were not that many other tourists when we first set out and it really felt like we were on this amazing adventure in this park with the animals. It was 7km to the gorge which is the most famous site in the park.




Biker selfie

We got to the entrance of the gorge and sat on a picnic bench eating the sandwiches we brought (finally). Monkeys were eyeing us so I ate quickly before one tried to snatch my food. I also had some sort of red reaction all over my arms, probably from falling into brambles. This was another fact that I just had to not think too much about because I had no way to deal with it. Throughout the trip Peter said practically nothing. When we asked him if he spoke English he said yes, but then would not answer any of our questions in English. J tried speaking to him Swahili which was slightly better, but again he still did not say much. When we asked him how long it takes in the gorge he said 3….we said “3 hours!?” or “3 kms?!” then he changed to “30 minutes.” We were not sure what to expect, probably best that we did not know what was in store for us.

It is almost impossible to describe the trek Peter took us on through the gorge. There is no way this was the usual tourist route. It involved some serious climbing. Frequently when Peter pointed to where we were going I thought he was kidding. He simply plowed ahead with no words and we just had to follow. At one point we were on top of a ledge and I was worried about standing too close because I might fall off, but instead Peter led the way down it. J thought it looked exactly like the movie 127 hours, but I saw her hesitate from saying this out loud before we got out of the place. There were points were things could have gone seriously wrong, but I guess the three of us were pretty fierce climbers. Along the way we were covered in mud as we were climbing along rocks and stepping through streams. J insisted that the mudd on my butt looked like a map of Africa.


The gorge was so high that we could barely see the sunlight. During the rainy season this trek can be very dangerous as the gorge fills with water. Peter’s lack of English (or any communication) was not super comforting, but we simply had no choice, but to follow him down cliffs or into streams. At one point he pointed to a rock with water running down it and said, “Fire, fire.” We were so confused until we felt the water coming out of the rock. It was incredibly hot and I had never felt natural water like this. We bumped into little kids along the way who told J in Swahili that they lived close by. They trailed us for a little telling us that we were in the Devil’s Bedroom. This was followed (after some more intense climbing) by the Devil’s shower. Lots of Devil imagery around Hell’s Gate apparently. After awhile we tried to ask Peter if we were closed, “Karibu? Karibu?” (Also the word for welcome and your welcome). He nodded and we hiked up one last steep path. The view was spectacular and we looked down upon our trek there. We decided that we would not have enjoyed the view nearly as much had we just saw it from this look out point.


The devil’s bedroom






The fact that we had to bike another 7km back after this strenuous journey through the gorge was troubling us. We joked about getting a ride and faking injuries, but we knew we had no choice. We had finished our water bottles a few kilometers into the ride back and I was the thirstiest I may have ever been in my life. It was hot and my lips were chapped. Not to sound melodramatic (even though I often am), but I just kept thinking about refreshing things and how much I needed water. The bike back was also uphill at points so that did not make the situation easier. It hurt to talk so we simply kept moving. Finally we made it to the entrance/exit to Hell’s Gate and I asked where I could buy a water. The gift shop was closed and despite asking every park ranger if he could open it I was out of luck. I wanted to cry and could not think of anything else, but water. J and I already decided we were going to walk our bike back the 2 km bumpy road because our butts (and my pride from falling there earlier) couldn’t handle anymore biking. The safari guide who commented on my fall earlier asked us how we were doing. I said tired and thirsty and he said, “Do you want water?” I thought he was going to pull out some used water bottle, but he took us to a safari vehicle and pulled out two cold bottles of water. I was so happy I wanted to cry. J and I stood there and chugged the bottles of water in one minute. He smiled and said, “Wow you really were thirsty.” I told him he was a lifesaver.

The walk back down the rocky dirt road was beautiful. J and I said it was like the closing credits of a movie. The sky was pink and the path was pretty deserted. It was silent and peaceful. When we got back to return the bikes we had no idea how to get a matatu (as our third friend who lead the way was staying overnight). We bought water from a woman and as we asked her directions she offered to get us on the matatu. This involved waiting on the side of the road together and waving the right one down. The woman told us her name was Lea, what her tribe was, and that she was a born again Christian. She felt like a grandmother who was going to make sure we were okay. As I was speaking with her my messy hair got in my face and Lea gently brushed it back behind my ear. It was such a casual lovely maternal gesture. As we flagged down the right matatu I gave Lea a hug. Our journey was not even close to the end.

We got on a matatu and an elderly lady got off, it turns out that she was getting off to let us on. There were no seats left so she was hunched by the door, I told her she could sit on my lap, and that is what happened. Personal space does not exist in matatus. We finally got to Navaisha town where we were hoping to get our final matatu back to Nairobi. It was not that crowded on the way there and it didn’t stop so we were expecting the same experience. It was just getting dark in Navaisha town and people were starting to get rowdy. J commented on the fact that it was just young men stewing around. We knew we needed to get on a matatu fast and as soon as we got into the town we were sold a ticket and escorted across the street, by a pushy young man who told us this was a good matatu and would take us straight to Nairobi. We approached the mini van and saw that it was called, “Tha Merciful.” I was unsure if this was a good or bad sign. It took forever for the matatu to leave and they turned on a black light in the van and were blasting music. I could not sleep and simply urged the van to move faster in my mind. Instead it stopped so frequently with different types of people in different types of interesting clothing getting on and off. After awhile, rather than try to listen to my ipod to zone out the noise I decided to take my headphones off and embrace whatever was going on inside the matatu. I listened to the music and it was a reggae type beat, but the lyrics of one song were, “Lord please don’t let me cheat on my girlfriend…If you can’t stop me cheating at least don’t let me get caught.” The next song was, “I think my ex-girlfriend is going to murder me.” I giggled to myself at the absurdity of the lyrics in these upbeat songs.

As we got closer to Nairobi they told us we had to switch Matatus AGAIN. We crammed in the back of this one and I saw a guy holding what looked like a drum (covered in some sort of animal skin). This group of men were signing along to songs in Swahili and they sounded really good. Was it possible that we were accidentally in a tour bus for a band? They were the jolliest group and I bobbed my head along to their singing.

Finally, we arrived to Nairobi and David was waiting for us. He scolded us for having traveled back at night. Taking a shower and getting in bed that night has never felt so good. Despite the periods of hell during my trip to Hell’s Gate it could not have been a more perfect last adventure. My whole body hurts in the aftermath of our physical challenge, but it is just a reminder of our journey to hell and back.


Giggling in hell


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