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Exploring Hell's Gate National Park, One Pedal-Push at a Time

A visit to Hell’s Gate National Park is always guaranteed to inspire guests to express themselves in different ways, whether by adding a few paragraphs to their travel journals, or sharing a few photos on Instagram, or even volunteer their time and become destination ambassadors. The experience of just walking through the park is enough to illicit a request for permanent residency; much to the detriment of the wildlife of course.

Located 90 kilometers from Nairobi via Naivasha Town, Hell’s Gate is within easy reach of Nairobi. My longtime friend David and I rose early to evade the all too common traffic snarls in Nairobi. Despite the mild mist along the way, we were energized by the buzz of activities taking place in a small market in Uplands, a few kilometers past Limuru. Driving along, the magnificent view of Mount Longonot added to our already heightened enthusiasm.  A few minutes later, we were surrounded by holiday homes, flower farms and a flurry of hotels. We continued along Moi South Lake Road until we arrived at the entrance of our destination. 

On this particular day we chose to explore Hell’s Gate National Park while riding on bicycles - mountain bikes to be precise.  Don’t be fooled by the descriptive name of the bikes as there are no mountains in Hell’s Gate, only raised mounds that ants would consider mountains.  We exchanged pleasantries with the ticketing staff, paid an entry fee and a bike rental charge of 850 Kenyan Shillings – 350 for entry and 500 for the bikes. We choose our bikes for the day and off we go.

At 9:36 am, the sun was gentle and the road was dusty. Having been here before, we cycled at a slow pace keeping in mind the distance we had to cover. After all, there is no hurry in Africa.  Barely five minutes into the park, we spotted a sounder of warthogs crossing the weathered road.  They had their tails raised like flags in a presidential motorcade. “What a joy for these animals to be living in such a place,” I think out loud.

Like all other national parks in Kenya, Hell’s Gate falls under the jurisdiction of The Kenya Wildlife Service. The protected area was established in 1984 and was named after a narrow break in the cliffs in the park that was once a tributary of a prehistoric lake in the Rift Valley. Hell’s Gate is well known for its wilderness, breathtaking scenery, variety of wildlife, and geothermal hot springs and geysers.  On an ordinary day at the park, visitors are most likely to see African buffaloes, zebras, baboons, elands, Thomson’s gazelle, and a variety of birds.

Cycling through relatively rough terrain can be a tricky affair. Like any other manmade machine, bikes are prone to damage, especially when exposed to harsh environments. The further away we rode into the park, the higher the chances of spoiling our bikes. But luck was on our side. With little traffic on the road within the park, cyclists who encounter mechanical problems have two options: either walk the bike to the gate or wait for a passing vehicle and ask for assistance. With an assortment of landscapes and wildlife on both sides of the road, you aren’t bound to get bored in the process.  For safety purposes however, it would be wise to stick to the road.

At last we reached the Fischer’s tower, a popular pit stop within the park. The Fischer’s Tower is a raised basalt rock that is great for training rock climbers. Named after German explorer Gustav Fischer, the tower became a remnant of an altercation that took place between the Maasai Community and Fischer, who was searching for a route from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. According to the Maasai, the 25 meter tower used to be a girl who was turned into stone for disobeying her family before her wedding. The Maasai put Fischer’s expedition to an end by spearing his whole entourage. 

Along the road, we met couples teaching each other how to cycle in the rough terrain. Yes, that beats me too. Fatigue started to finally creep in and we stopped to take photos of the escarpment and the herds of buffalo grouping together as if to discuss politics. We were passed by a patrol vehicle that we signaled to show that we are fine. After a few minutes of rest, we set out to cover the remaining distance to the Hell’s Gate Gorge – our midway point.

At the Ol Njorowa Gorge entry we quenched our thirst in readiness for the journey back.  A gorge is a narrow valley with steep and rocky walls located between hills.  We could have explored the gorge but since we had taken so much time just cycling to it, its exploration was a mission for another day. Most visitors drive or are driven to the gorge. The parking area is usually crowded as this is the top attraction within the Hell’s Gate National Park. Visitors can walk through the gorge to the Central Tower. Walking through the Ol Njorowa Gorge is not for the faint hearted as  a full study of the area requires at least two hours through an assortment of challenging trail conditions, from dry and sandy to wet and slippery. The gorge is picturesque with a few hot and cold water springs and a pathway leading to a dead end popularly known as “The Devil’s Bedroom.”  The Ol Njorowa Gorge is closed to the public during rainy seasons due to the risk of flash floods.

We started back on the road hoping the distance had mysteriously shortened. Having finished the contents of our water bottles, we “Lance Armstrong-ed” our way through the park back to the main gate. Feeling a sense of achievement, we passed zebras feeding on grass and elands lapping up water. An hour later, we reached the Elsa Gate exhausted and short of breath. We handed over our bikes and left for Nairobi, but not before promising to return to Hell’s Gate.

Photos courtesy of: Billy Oyaro

March 19, 2014

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