Not so the Maasai, who noted the steam hissing and boiling from thermal vents in the Rift Valley and concluded that a spiritual underworld literally broke through the earth in this area.
Friday Caleb left with three classmates on a cross-country trek, sleeping under the stars on the ridge of the Rift near Kijabe Hill then descending into the dusty valley. Saturday by noon we had loaded up the rest of the family and the usual camping paraphernalia (which is similar if you go for one night or one week, pans and a skillet and tents and tarps, firewood and axe and water and binoculars, food and more food and flashlights and books) and set out to catch up with the boys. We found them waiting in the shade where the railroad track they had followed intersects the highway, and they all crammed into our car and we made our way to Naivasha for lunch. Where we happened upon half of RVA and found out where the "under-five" crowd goes on midterm weekend, to a resort with a pool where they can pay a reasonable day rate and swim! Thankfully the two boys who wanted to go back to RVA got a ride with them, and we proceeded on to the nearby national park with our family of five plus one senior boy (which comfortably brought us back to our family of six).
Ironically, we typed "Hell" in the GPS to find the park gate. Probably the first and only time we've set our destination for Hell, though biblically it is "Hades" or "Death" and certainly a place where Jesus would go for a rescue raid.
This is a tiny park, and as we set up camp and watched the sunset, glows of Naivasha and Mai Mahu and Narok were discernible on the horizons of the hills all around. But in the crater-like plain which is protected we could see, from our campsite on a ridge, zebra (MANY), impala, Thompson gazelle, eland, warthogs, giraffe, Cape buffalo. And after dark, we heard the eerie laughing wail of hyenas. It reminded us of Ngorongoro in TZ, a pocket of wildlife and serenity.
Unfortunately, just at sunset, it reminded us of Ngorongoro even more. We had seen no campers anywhere, just lots of day visitors. We were gathered around our campfire cooking Naan over the coals and spooning up a hot rich Indian chicken and vegetable curry. We had hiked to the top of the ridge and scrambled over rocks, we had watched animals and talked. We were content. When suddenly a group of ten American college students arrived. In force. In volume. Though there was a wide area available for camping, they pitched their tents within ten feet of us and proceeded to giggle and shout and carry on as if they were the only people in the world. Sigh. At nine, feeling rather old, we asked them to tone down a bit . . . I cringe to think of this group blazing their way across Africa as if they were at a frat party . .
But besides the noisy neighbors, the park was great. Mostly we felt that "Hell's Gate" was an unfair rap, a focus on the exception rather than the rule. After a leisurely camp breakfast we went to the gorge to hike, and though we tried to look what we were doing we didn't find the right path until we were rescued. We had successfully avoided the 20-ish hustlers at the park headquarters who wanted to be our guides, but when a middle-aged Maasai man in a DQ shirt, plastic sandals, and well-worn walking stick with greying hair offered we gave in. And were glad we did. Caleb's classmate won his friendship with his excellent Swahili, and he took us well past the end of the normal gorge hike to see the "talking water", a larger thermal vent further down a wide valley. He painted our faces with the ochre clay in warrior patterns, and found a local plant to treat Jack's cut finger he got collecting shards of obsidian. We ended the afternoon with a picnic at a high lookout over Lake Naivasha.
So where are the gates of Hell? An idyllic park with grazing animals and rough beauty, yet punctuated by steaming sulfurous vents. A wonderful 36 hours away with the kids in the restoration of wilderness, yet the peace was broken into by obnoxious revelers. Place is important, everywhere in Scripture. But rather than turning the passage between earth and hell into an abstract unreality, this park reminded me that the portals of problems are concrete and frequent, reaching everywhere. The unseen breaks into the seen, evil breaks in on love, loss bubbles up through the shell of stability.
Let us live then, in the real world, absorbing the beauty and not fearing the intermittent gates of hell that we encounter. Let us not run away from the bubbling vents or think we can ignore or avoid them. And let us remember that at least one portal opens in our own hearts, and the first battle is there.