Cycling through Kenya’s Hell’s Gate National Park

Picture this:

You’re standing in the baking midday sun on a narrow, sandy road, at the entrance to Kenya’s Hell’s Gate National Park, so called partly after its deep gorge, but also partly because of the extreme temperatures and geothermal activity inside it.  Your rented bicycle is upside down on the ground beside you, while a Kenyan man helpfully tries to fix its chain, which came off toward the end of the 5km you cycled from your campsite at Lake Naivasha.  Fresh blood sits on your knee, embedded with sand, from when you came off the bike while swerving to avoid a car that suddenly overtook on the wrong side of the road.  The skin around it is blossoming purple.  You step into the shelter of the canopy guarding the entrance to the park.  Your Kenyan friend exclaims, smiling, and your bike is the right way up again, as good as new.

“Oh, thank you!”, you cry.

“Hakuna matata”, he says, ambling away with a wave.  No worries.

This is where I found myself, the day after arriving in Kenya by plane from Uganda.  My friend and I had taken a taxi directly from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi to Lake Naivasha, a three hour drive for the sum of US $60, where we had booked a twin banda – a small, one-room chalet – at Camp Carnelley’s campsite for two nights.  The accommodation was basic and quite adorable, with two single beds under mosquito nets inside the tiny room.

camp-carnelley-s

Showers were shared, with cold water in the morning which heated up as the sun shone on the tank over the day.  The campsite had an excellent open-air bar and restaurant, and was situated directly on the beautiful Lake Naivasha, known for the hippos that live in it.

naivasha

The following morning we had hired bikes at the campsite and set off for Hell’s Gate National Park.  The park is small enough to cover half of it by bike in a day.  It’s also possible to walk through the park.  This is the closest you can get to the wildlife in Kenya – compared with seeing animals from the safety of a safari vehicle in the Masai Mara, cycling or walking alongside them here is a surreal experience.

The gorge that is the main attraction near the centre of the park lies just under 8km from its entrance, and it is reasonable to expect to get that far and back within a day.  The road is really only a dirt track, which gets very sandy in parts, and it’s sometimes necessary to get off the bike and walk.  However, it’s all downhill from the entrance, which makes for an easy ride to the gorge, but a much harder one back up.

Not far from the entrance stands Fischer’s Tower, a tall volcanic plug of rock that looms high over the park.  From there, we passed zebra, giraffes, gazelles and endless buffalo along our ride.  Some animals eyed us curiously, most completely ignored us.

hells gate

Fischer’s Tower

It is advised that visitors who want to hike into the gorge take a guide, so when we arrived at its mouth we called into the ranger’s office and paid the fee.  We were then taken on a breathtaking hour-long walk downward into the rock, along paths cut by water over many, many years.  The water’s flow is visible along the now dry cliff sides, where long waving lines lead the way.

Our guide was knowledgeable about the local flora.  He pointed out numerous plants and, with his little English and our total lack of Swahili, managed to tell us what many of them are used for.  He noticed my knee, which had by now begun to scab over in the dry heat, and pointing at it, he picked a succulent leaf from what turned out to be an aloe vera plant.  Picking carefully at the edges of the leaf, he pulled it open to reveal a rich juice inside, which he then squeezed onto my bloody knee.

“Disinfectant”, he said, smiling.

So this is what it is to be close to nature, I thought.  When you have all of nature’s substances nearby, why would you need the man-made ones containing their extracts?

We noticed knotted ropes hanging down the sides of each cliff at intervals, and asked our guide about them.  He told us that in wetter seasons there had been flash flooding in the gorge.  Once, he said, a group of children from a nearby school had been down there on a walk when the floods came.  The rangers got them all out in time and none were hurt.  Despite it being dry season and the chance of a single drop of rain let alone a flood being slim to none, I shuddered as I imagined being trapped down there when the water came.

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Toward the end of our walk, as we climbed uphill again, the gorge opened out on the top of a large mound to reveal amazing views over the park.  We could see for miles.  The thick greenery was beginning to turn brown in places from the dry heat, and we could see Central Tower, the park’s second volcanic plug, in the distance.

It was nearing 4pm, and knowing that we had an uphill cycle ahead, we needed to get moving back if we wanted to be back at the campsite before nightfall.  We took a short break at the ranger’s station, where we thanked and tipped our guide and drank sugary soft drinks for energy, and then we were on our way.

The ride back to the gate of the park was gruelling, as my quads pushed against the sandy hills.  Again, the animals ignored us or eyed us lazily as we passed by so close to them.  Eventually we were back on the road outside the gate, where the ground was at least flat but where we had to carefully avoid reckless drivers.  Nervous after my earlier fall, once we reached the final 2km stretch of main road, I got off my bike and walked it most of the way while traffic whizzed past.

We arrived back at Camp Carnelley’s as dusk was approaching, sunburnt and used up, but invigorated from our wonderful day.  Without even going to our banda first, we headed straight for the outdoor bar and each ordered a large pizza and a cold beer – the perfect reward after our 26km cycle.  As the sun set over the lake, we inhaled the pizzas and slowly sipped the beers, marvelling at all we had seen.  Although we would later see a much wider variety of wildlife, and rarer animals, in the Masai Mara, this day in Hell’s Gate National Park was my favourite one in Kenya.  The endorphins released by all the exercise probably had something to do with that, but so did the closeness with nature that we had experienced as well as the satisfaction that came from doing it all for ourselves.

That night, I slept like the dead, unconscious from the moment I crawled into bed at midnight, not waking until the banda was already flooded with sunlight at nine the next morning.  This is the best memory I have from Kenya.

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