My trip to Hell’s Gate National Park was a bit of a last-minute decision, and I’m so glad I went – it was incredible!
Originally on my weekend trip to Lake Naivasha I had planned to stay at Carnelley’s and just take a boat trip to Crescent Island which, while not breaking the bank, was still going to add up to around $300 altogether (in case you’re wondering, it was $80 taxi to get from Nairobi to Naivasha, $60 for 2 nights in a twin room, $70 for the boat to the island and back, $30 entrance to Crescent Island and $80 for the taxi home again – plus food etc), – and as I’m also planning a trip to the Maasai Mara next weekend, which won’t be cheap, I hadn’t intended to go anywhere else on that weekend – as frankly need to watch the cash a little bit!
However, some nice women I met at Carnelley’s had both been to Hell’s Gate, and mentioned how great it was, and that it actually wasn’t all that expensive. The entrance to Hell’s Gate was only $29 and to rent a bike from Carnelley’s was only $8 so I figured I may as well try to stretch out my weekend and make the absolute most of it.
Which is how I found myself getting up before 7am voluntarily on a Sunday morning, choosing one of the least uncomfortable bikes I could find (spoiler alert, they were all REALLY uncomfortable) and heading off to the park entrance.
Here’s a picture of the lovely hand-drawn map at Carnelley’s that shows the park in relation to the lake and the camp. I headed east from Carnelley’s along the lake road to Elsa Gate, approx 5km away, and from there decided to head to the gorge, which seemed to be the main attraction at the park. Based on the look of the map, I figured by the time I got to the gorge, I’d be more than halfway round, and it’d be quicker to keep going and come out by the western gate (Olkaria) and continue around back to Camp, making a large circuit through the whole park and back along the lake.
I was a little bit worried that it might be too much for me (I’ve only been cycling regularly for a year, and mostly just to and from work, which is barely 2km!). I think the most I have cycled in Oxford might be around 10km, and I was a little worried that I might get halfway round and not have the energy to get back again, but the girls I had spoken to assured me it wasn’t so bad, and it was mostly very flat, and I figured if it all got too much I could always just get off the bike and walk the rest of the way.
At first, it was very uncomfortable, as the bike had no gears to speak of, and although the seat was adjustable the handlebars weren’t – they were way too low (especially when compared to my lovely bike Clarissa at home) so I was hunched over forward in a very uncomfortable way, putting most of my weight onto my palms on the very rough handlebars. Also the seat was very hard and sore! Here’s a picture of my poor uncomfortable steed:
Here’s a small baboon who greeted me just outside the gate to the park.
And a rather fine buffalo skull at the Elsa Gate tea shop
Anyhoo, the first 5km to get to the gate wasn’t too bad, and once I got into the park, I was soon so blown away by the scenery that it was easy to forget about the cycling. In fact, being able to cycle alone through these incredible valleys and rock formations, surrounded by animals in a vast and silent landscape was a truly spectacular experience.
There were plenty of other cyclists, mostly in small groups but they spread out quickly, turning off on different routes, so I was on my own for the most part, enjoying the quiet solitude and breathing it all in (although I kept another little group of cyclists in my eyeline further up ahead, as it’s nice to know that you’re not completely alone in such a vast place!). You can just make out three other cyclists in the distance here:
I don’t know if I can really explain how it felt to be there. The stillness, and the silence was really striking. There were occasional cars, but very few, and mostly just long, dusty roads and animals quietly watching you while grazing in the distance, and the occasional shriek from an eagle circling the cliffs was the only sound for miles. It was majestic, and magical, and indescribable all at once.
The animals here were shyer than on Crescent Island, so you couldn’t get as close to them, but also here the vast space and the ambience really makes you feel that the land belongs to them and that you are the trespasser. A stark contrast to Crescent Island, which felt a bit more like an interactive attraction – somehow staged for the tourists.
Some rather fine warthogs with surprisingly large tusks!
And again, there are no real predators here – no big cats to worry about, although cycling alone past a group of Cape Buffalo when they stop and stare at you certainly made me pedal faster until I was a safe distance away! (Cape Buffalo are the deadliest animals in Africa – very large and aggressive!).
Another pleasant surprise was that once inside the park, although the road was bumpy and sandy and somewhat hard to cycle on in places, the first 7km or so to reach the gorge was ever so gently downhill, so I was able to coast along with minimal effort and just take in all the sights as I rolled along.
And here are some more lovely giraffes by the roadside
Once again enjoying playing hide and seek with them – giraffes are rubbish at hiding!
Upon arriving at the gorge, a couple of security guards told me a bit about the rock formations that can be found at the bottom, and the importance of taking a a guide down with me to show me the way and help on the steep bits. I explained that I couldn’t afford the guide, having used up the last of my cash on the entrance fee, and so they made me sign in their book, with my name and passport details, presumably to show proof that I willingly went off like a mad person by myself in case I didn’t reappear again…
Once I went and had a look at the gorge, I immediately decided not to go down it, as it was VERY steep, and
a) I’ve got bad knees that would not have enjoyed it much
b) Having just cycled around 13km, and aware I’d have to do another 15km or so, the idea of clambering down into a steep gorge meant having to climb all the way back UP a steep gorge, and I was rather inclined to conserve my energy.
c) A woman who cycles off alone into a remote Kenyan national park, decides to descend into a clearly dangerous gorge by herself without a guide, trips, falls, dies of exposure and is subsequently eaten by hyenas is SUCH a cliché way to die.
So instead I opted for having a rest on a bench while looking at the gorge, and eating a small snack I’d picked up near the entry (A Mandasi – sort of weird local donut-type fried dough). Here’s a picture of the gorge
Once I was done observing, I went to get back on my bike and continue, when the nice guards told me there was a good look-out point where you could get a much better view of the gorge nearby, so off I went in search of that instead. I found it, and it was well worth it!
Now, this is the point where I assume most tourists would turn back and cycle back along the same route to Elsa Gate, while I in my idiocy was convinced it was shorter to keep going westwards. According to my map there were a lot of geothermal springs ahead, which you could see in the distance spouting huge columns of steam. Also I reasoned that as the route so far had been mostly flat, but gently downhill, then turning back would mean a longish stretch of mostly uphill, which was not ideal.
My first problem was that from the gorge, the road to the west went SHARPLY uphill and took considerable energy just for me to walk up it. By this point it was around 11am and getting pretty hot – I’d been out in the sun since 8am, and although I did bring my hat, had sadly only minimal sunscreen on, as my full bottle of the stuff had exploded in my backpack on Crescent Island.
I managed to get up to a vaguely flatter bit (though still uphill), but noticed almost immediately the total lack of other people or animals and the very industrial nature of the geothermal springs became apparent. I had naively assumed that as it was a national park, these would be nice hot springs that people bathed in, but instead it was a maze of huge pipes, massive factory-type buildings and what looked like turbines. Plus the stench of sulphur, which it hadn’t occurred to me to expect…
Anyway, I continued on, as I’d come that far, and already made it up the enormous hill – which in retrospect was obviously the side of the volcano (Hobley’s Volcano according to the map). There was an abundance of fantastically shiny, black, volcanic glass scattered about everywhere (is it called Obsidian?). Anyway, it was significantly less pretty than the other route, and I realised instantly why no-one else came through this way – it became apparent that the Olkaria gate to the west was more like a service entrance to the massive industrial complex on that side of the mountain. Silly me for not researching the park properly, but that’s what you get for making last-minute impulsive decisions!
In any case, at this point, I was trudging, still vaguely uphill, through a massive industrial complex, a tourist alone and quite possibly lost, getting hotter and hotter and suddenly feeling exhausted after plodding up the very steep bit of the hill. My fears about not having the energy to actually get home again were getting worryingly real, and I was torn between the need to sit down and rest, and the knowledge that there was no shade anywhere, I was already overheated, dehydrated, and sunburnt and really really wanted to get back to the camp. Part of me worried that I might not get up again if I sat down, and I as I plodded on ever-more slowly up the hill I started to fantasise about flagging down a passing car and asking for help – except it dawned on me there weren’t any passing cars… It didn’t occur to me until much later that I was also exerting myself at altitude, which probably doesn’t help (it was around 2100m above sea level, give or take).
Luckily, though mostly sheer willpower, and the knowledge that, as a lone traveller, when I get myself into a mess I have a responsibility to power through and get myself out of it, (as no-one is coming to help me), I was able to keep going. I genuinely think had I been with someone else I’d had collapsed on the grass and made them go and get help. Being alone and not feeling well while stranded in a massive national park has a remarkable motivating effect. And damn was I glad I didn’t stop for a 2-hour hike down that gorge!
At last I rounded a corner and the road tilted downhill again, and so I got back on the bike (to objections from my now very sore arse!) and coasted down towards the gate, realising that a) rolling without having to pedal is basically like sitting down and having a rest while conveniently getting closer to home at the same time, and b) the breeze as I started to move faster down the hill was helping to cool me down a bit.
I coasted all the way down to the main gate, where I had a little sit-down to rest on the bench in the shade, (and was met by shocked guards who clearly didn’t see many tourists on their side of the park!), before clambering back on and cycling the rest of the way back to the camp. Here’s a baboon at the Olkaria gate – for some reason holding a bottle of fanta!
Here I am resting at Olkaria gate, hot, sweaty, exhausted, sunburnt, and generally feeling wrecked, but pretty chuffed with myself for making it this far!
Here’s the view of the Lake as I coasted back to Camp Carnelley’s along the lake road.
By the time I got back it was nearly 1pm, and had been a gruelling and exhausting trip – almost 5 hours and close to 30km in the end, which is more than I think I’ve ever cycled in my life. Nevertheless I think I would do it again (though possibly via a different route!) – it was still an incredible experience and worth every minute.
The bad news is that by the time I’d eaten, drunk gallons of water, and got my taxi back to Nairobi again, the sunburn had made my face feel all crunchy, my head was pounding and, as I discovered later on that night and the next day, I was really quite unwell in the stomach department (I suspect it was a bit of mild heat exhaustion or sunstroke/dehydration) – I’m totally fine now obviously, but I definitely pushed myself to my physical limits that day!