Published: December 2007
Above: A boulder blocks the slot canyon at Hells Gate National Park, Kenya. by Heyandrewhyde
Fiery mountains spitting out red-hot molten lava, earth-shattering forces from deep in the earth’s belly and floods have shaped what is a trip to ‘hell’.
‘Let’s go to hell,” says our local Maasai guide from the Olkaria Maasai clan living in and around Hell’s Gate National Park, an hour’s drive from Kenya’s capital city Nairobi.
The trip to hell sounds funny for we’re in a very picturesque setting with the scent of the leleshwa, a shrub of the dry lands used by the Maasai as a deodorant by sticking the leaves under their underarms.
“Okay, let’s go to hell,” replies the group of well-fed women.
The steep slope down belies what hell is. It’s stunning if that’s what you can call hell.
“You know, Anjelina Jolie was here when they were making the film ‘Tomb Raider’ and l am in it too.”
We’re suitably impressed to be guided by a movie star and badger him for a photo shoot.
“Okay, l’ll take you to the exact place where they shot that part,” replies the Maasai.
After the scramble down, we step into a thin strip of the gorge with a rivulet of water flowing along the contours. There’s nowhere else to go but to follow the narrow strip of the gorge with high walls allowing for a single file to walk along its tall walls.
The gorge widens with more stunning sculptures of rocks in the deep gorge. If there is a park with a dramatic setting than Hell’s Gate is it.
Gorges or canyons are deep valleys between cliffs carved by the water’s flow. The walls or the cliffs, resistant to erosion and weathering are hard rock strata. We follow the flow of the gentle running streams so clear and cool stepping over boulders and scraping our way past the narrow corridor of the gorge. Finally we get to a cross road where our jovial star guide points to the spot that the shooting of Tomb Raider took place. “Here,” he says and we scramble around our hero for our own shoot.
“Okay, we go to where the where the water comes down and then we return because it is getting dark and just yesterday we saw a leopard here.’
I don’t know if the leopard is thrown in for good measure to make us hurry our steps but in any case the idea of scrambling around in the earth’s jaws doesn’t look appealing once the light’s out.
From a high wall, water flows down and our guide prompts us to wash our faces if we like because the water is medicinal. Vanity takes charge and we rush to have a dose of a beauty session. The water is hot, not scalding and we frolic like teenagers until our star guide announces we must hurry back.
“Next time, l will take you to the hot springs but they are far away. You need to walk for long.”
In the fading light we reach the Central Tower.
There are two columns of tall volcanic plugs in the park – Central and Fisher’s Tower rising to heights of 75 feet. The rocky towers were formed eons ago by semi-molten rocks belched out of a crack in the crust and cooled into the twin towers.
Not far away is another interesting feature – there are so many in the park that you need more than one visit to go through the gamut. It’s the Obsidian Caves aptly called because the caves are fashioned out of the black glass like rock which forms as a result of rapid cooling of molten lava coming in contact with water. Thick veins of the black glass rock shine in the evening light and a meal has been made of a zorilla in the cervix by a predator. All that remains of the tiny creature not to be confused with the gorilla, are scraps of skin and bone.
The grassland becomes animated with herds of kongoni (Coke’s hartebeest), Grant’s gazelles, impalas, zebras and cute funny families of warthogs running helter-skelter with their skinny tails held high like aerial sticks.
At every turn and twist of the way, dramatic scenarios open like the flick of a page. Lake Naivasha is in the distance, once much bigger than today. Then with the tilt of the land, its water poured out through the park shaping it as we see it today. Tall cliffs strewn with the white of the calcium laden rock-hyrax droppings, wall parts of the park. Thick white smoke funnels into the darkening skies, the steam from as far down as 4500 feet churning the turbines of the Ol karia geothermal station providing 25 percent of Kenya’s electricity.
Hell’s Gate National Park is a naturalist’s delight, a fitness enthusiast’s arena and a geologist’s picture book.
Until the 1960s, the cliffs were the nesting grounds of the lammergeier or the bearded vulture, which used the cliffs to break the bones of their prey by dropping them from high above. An attempt was made to rehabilitate a pair from Ethiopia at the start of the millennium but it proved not so successful. The bearded vulture has disappeared from most of its range in Kenya because of habitat loss. Most are found in Ethiopia.
Hell’s Gate National Park is 90 kilometers northwest of Nairobi. On your way there, if you’re the intrepid type, you can stop at Mount Longonot and rush up its lava vents to reach the crater.
There’s tons to do around Hell’s Gate National Park. You can visit Elsamere (firstname.lastname@example.org the home of world acclaimed artist, writer and conservationist, Joy Adamson of the ‘Born Free’ fame who brought up Elsa the lioness and returned her successfully to the wild – something never done before and subsequently did the same with Pippa the cheetah and was working with Penny the leopard upon her murder in 1980. You can stay there or spend a leisurely afternoon where the house has a room dedicated to Joy’s memorabilia.
You can also go boating on the lake – there are many places along the shore advertising boat rides – just make sure to wear your life jacket.
Or you can take a leisurely cup of tea on the verandah of La Belle Inn originally called The Bell Inn built in 1928 and watch the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Naivasha.
Or stay in one of the luxury domains of the private wildlife sanctuaries around the highest freshwater lake in the Kenyan Rift Valley famous for its bird life with over 400 species recorded, including the pretty pink bird, the flamingo