To Hell’s Gate and Back Through the Rift
Upon our return from the East Coast of Kenya, and its myriad of wonders, we did not rest for long, for there was the lure of the areas north of Nairobi, namely Lake Naivasha and its adjacent National Park – Hell’s Gate. I will describe our visit to Lake Naivasha in a later post and will concentrate on its ominously named neighbour here.
Our driver/guide for the day was again Chris Temboh Muriuki, as we had an amazing experience with him in our previous adventures on Mount Kenya. We left Nairobi early in the morning, and after battling its infamous traffic jams, we soon found ourselves driving through gently rolling hills covered with picturesque villages and scattered thickets, with the occasional red-clad Maasai herder appearing amongst the trees.
As we progressed further up the Escarpment Road (B3), originally built by Italian prisoners of war during World War 2, the settlements got sparser and sparser. They were then replaced by a densely forested area. Soon after we drove over a ridge and suddenly appeared to be heading straight into the abyss. That abyss was our first proper sighting of the Great Rift Valley – a sight no one ever forgets. The road here actually hangs onto the very steep mountainside on the right, and only a barrier stands between the cars and an incredible expanse of the Rift on the left. The valley was half covered in thick white fog that crept upwards as we drove, absolutely mesmerised, for a few steep kilometres downhill, until we reached the bottom.
Fancy a Bycicle Ride Through a National Park?
After that, the drive to our first destination for the day, Hell’s Gate National Park, was straight forward and soon we arrived there. At the Elsa Gate, the main entrance to the Park, we bought our tickets and rented bikes for our cycling safari, as strange as it may sound. The main, wildlife oriented, wide expanse of the park starts immediately after the gate.
The size of approximately 70 square kilometres makes Hell’s Gate one of the smallest National Parks in Kenya and beyond. However, it more than makes up for its relative lack of size with its geographical diversity, the accessibility of wildlife, and by being one of the handful of parks in East Africa that you can walk (or cycle) through without any limitations, save for normal caution, that is.
The main bicycle path winds it way through the flat bottom of the wide valley, framed on either side by magnificently tall, vertical cliffs. If you look closer, you may notice white blotches high up on the cliff sides. Those are actually droppings of eagles and vultures that help birdwatchers and park rangers locate their nests, which are always above those splats. Rare lammergeier vultures, better known as bearded vultures, make their home in Hell’s Gorge, and it has played a major role in maintaining their population. They share the park with more than 100 other bird species, making it a prime destination for dedicated birdwatchers from all over the world.
Although we have seen many high flying large birds, we were too far away to actually get a really good look. However, the main attraction for us on this visit were the oh so many wonderful creatures that seemed to be all around. We have not properly cleared the first stretch of the dusty road through the park when a pack of warthogs appeared on our right, just a few metres away. We stopped and got off our bikes, a little apprehensive to be honest, because it was the first time for all of us to get so close to these creatures without any barrier in-between. Our worries were unfounded though, as they seemed both unfazed by our presence and way more interested in the little stream that quenched their thirst on this increasingly hot day.
The animals just kept appearing left, right, ahead and behind us. A dazzle (well, now you know how a group of zebras is called) of zebras lazily grazing in the tall yellow grasses, a herd of gazelles graciously jumping across the road ahead of us, their hooves barely touching the white road dust, a bunch of warthog piglets creating havoc at one of the waterholes, a giraffe elegantly strolling between some acacia trees, it was all there, and much, much more.
Although there are claims that the park does contain some large predators, namely lions, leopards and cheetahs, most rangers and guides we spoke to think that those may as well be marketing ploys. Although an odd predator may wonder into Hell’s Gate, they do not tend to have any permanent presence. After all, not only is walking through the entire park allowed, it is their major selling point, and is highly encouraged, alongside unsupervised camping in three sites in the park. The only animals you should really be aware of are the buffaloes. Do not get close to them as they are notoriously bad tempered, but as long as you keep your distance, they will simply not care about you.
Cycling, even if done at a snail’s pace, for we stopped countless times to admire the wildlife, still took us through this 4 kilometre stretch between the Elsa Gate and the Ranger’s Station on the other end far too quickly. There is an option to leave your bikes at this station and walk back, and I wish we had more time to do that. However, our day was quite packed and we were to drive out after finishing the second half of our Hell’s Gate adventure.
FUN FACT: THE LION KING AND LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER
In case the features of Hell’s Gate may appear familiar, the entire park was used as inspiration for the setting and the environment of The Lion King. So, Pride Rock may just be somewhere out there. Moreover, one of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies featuring Angelina Jolie was shot on location in the Ol Njorowa Gorge.
Off Into the Ol Njorowa Gorge
Ranger’s Station at the other side of the valley features a parking, as well as a picnic area that was packed when we arrived there to drop our bikes off. Apparently a busload of local tourists from Nairobi arrived for a day trip. It was amazing to observe the difference in apparel between us and our picnicking neighbours. We were covered in dust, sporting trekking shoes and various off-road apparel, while they seemed to be dressed in their Sunday best, ladies in high heels and guys in suits.
We did not have any food with us, so we just took a break in the shade there, waiting for Chris to arrive, and enjoyed a wildlife show of sorts. The area was full of monkeys, baboons and vervet monkeys in particular. While the baboons played it cool and general stayed a safe distance from people, the vervet monkeys were a whole other story. They seemingly developed an array of skills aimed at either tricking people into giving them food, or plainly just stealing it whenever possible. It was so amazing to see them dart in and out of the circles of humans at lightning speed, more often with a snatched snack than not.
Chris arrived soon after, having had to fix a tyre puncture, as a matter of fact the only car issue we had on this entire trip. It was time to get down into the Ol Njorowa Gorge, the maze of narrow canyons and steep rock faces. After a short and quite steep descent through sparse bush, we arrived to the bottom, a wide, almost dried, river bed with a vertical wavy cliff on one side and a densely forested gentle slope on the other. It did not look as claustrophobic and dramatic as I expected, to be honest. Well, it was not the gorge proper yet, we were still to walk down an opening in the cliff face to get there. Once we did it though, the story totally changed.
TIP: HIRE A LOCAL GUIDE
We had Chris with us the entire time and I honestly think that there is not a single place in Kenya that he does not know everything about. Thus, we did not need a locally hired guide. Moreover, while the gorge is in places narrow, and does twist and bend every which way, it is ultimately quite straight forward, with only a few forks. Having said all that, we would strongly suggest you hire a local Maasai guide at the Ranger’s Station. They are inexpensive, very knowledgeable and can show you interesting spots you would otherwise likely not simply stumble upon. Also, you would be contributing to the local community in the most direct way possible.
The walls suddenly seemed to close in all around us, turning the sky into a narrow strip of blue somewhere high above. The game of light and shadows started playing tricks with our senses of distance and direction. Ol Njorowa Gorge winds all the time, its vertical cliffs obstructing the view, save for the few metres ahead, until the next sharp corner. The rock faces are generally bare until about half way up, clearly delineating the level the wild waters reach during the rainy season. Above that, they are covered with a lush tapestry of creepers, vines, and small shrubs of all kinds. In a few places, there are also bunches of graffiti, etched into the soft rock, one of those human habits I could never quite comprehend.
I can imagine that the walls of the gorge would be a heaven for any geology buff out there. There are myriad layer of various sediments, providing a direct glimpse into the Earth’s history. For the rest of us, they were not any less amazing though.
As we progressed deeper into the belly of the labyrinth, the walls got ever closer, until the sky was but a thin blue line above us. I could not even spread my arms elbow wide at one point. The feeling was amazing though, being seemingly at the mercy of the unseen earthly forces, able to crush as at a whim. I have been to a number of other gorges, the Siq in Petra springs to mind, but although generally longer and deeper, none of them felt so wild and untamed as this one. I guess that is one of those things that makes Africa what it is – most destinations are made just accessible, but never gentrified, as is the case in many places elsewhere that often feel too tamed.
This extremely narrow stretch of the gorge, ended in a dead end that was absolutely worth the trek. It is named The Devil’s Bedroom and once you get there, you sort of understand the pun. They could have also named it after a cauldron, for its steep, tall sides seem to enclose and encroach you from all sides. I can imagine that it becomes a sort of a circular waterfall during the rainy season, not unlike Gljúfrabúi, the hidden waterfall in Iceland, albeit far more dangerous. We spent a few meditative moments there, everybody seemingly lost in their own thoughts, and then headed back, I think the same way we came in.
WARNING: FLASH FLOODS
While the sandy bottom of the gorge and its steep, almost vertical sides are bone-dry most of the time, do be careful. The extensive network of natural canals and underground channels, combined with the erratic nature of rains in this part of the country, can cause deadly flash floods with little or no warning at all. These are extremely dangerous and the last one, in September 2019, killed 7 people. There are rudimentary escape routes in several spots along the gorge, basically strong ropes attached to the canyon sides. They are almost impossible for anybody not in a good shape to use, but nonetheless do pay attention and remember where the last one you passed by is.
Once we reached the river bed, we turned the other way though, and walked downstream for a while. It was absolutely enchanting, oddly relaxing and exhilarating at the same time. We hopped across the trickling stream, all that was left of the river this late in the dry season, several times, to check out various sulphuric springs, some of which were dangerously hot. At the end, we climbed out of the canyon and headed back to the Ranger’s Station, having successfully navigated our way through yet another pop-up Maasai market, this one actually selling some quite authentic looking trinkets.
Back in the Great Rift Valley
We drove back to Nairobi the same way, via the Escarpment Road. The traffic was extremely dense, but that provided ample opportunities for observing our surroundings in great detail. The sheer amount of unknown species of trees, some in bloom, yet other bearing fruits, Maasai in wonderful garbs tending to their cattle, or just going after some business or another, but also shacks in bad state of repair with kids running all around them, was truly staggering and eye-opening.
However, as we climbed up the steep uphill section and reached the observation point there, it was all quickly forgotten as the Great Rift Valley opened before our eyes. There was no fog is sight this time. The Valley was lit by the warm rays of the setting sun and appeared absolutely enormous. We stopped the car by one of the many souvenir shops dotted along this exposed stretch of the road and stood there in awe for what seemed like hours, although in reality the sunsets in the Equatorial Africa are rapid, if magnificent.
While standing there at the observation deck, we noticed some motion down below, amongst the rocks and, unfortunately, discarded truck tyres. There was a pack of hyraxes there, as cute as the ones we encountered on Mount Kenya. These were tree hyraxes though, a more slender and smaller version of the mountain dwelling rock ones. They were very interesting to observe, running around, seemingly very, very busy and fidgety. I swear they would not stand still for a second – that may be the biggest difference between them and their highland cousins after all.
By the time the Sun set down, the hyraxes went their own ways, and some of our group bargained unsuccessfully for ubiquitous Maasai trinkets, it was time to get back into the car and bring this day to a close.
I can just imagine the shock some of the early explorers must have felt when they stumbled upon sights like the Great Rift Valley, or Hell’s Gate, or any other amazing wonder that Kenya and Africa offer to its visitors. I only wish that their reverence had transformed into respect for Africa and its inhabitants, humans and animals alike, instead of this insatiable hunger for resources, influence and territory that has caused so much suffering to this great continent to date.