Cycling through Hell’s Gate park

Saturday January 7 2017

Visitors cycle in Hell's Gate National Park, Kenya. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

Visitors cycle in Hell's Gate National Park, Kenya. PHOTO | KARI MUTU 

By Kari Mutu

Hell’s Gate National Park in the Great Rift Valley is well known for hiking through the river gorges. But I recently discovered that another adventurous way to tour the park is by bicycle.

This one of the few national parks where cycling, horseback riding and hiking are permitted. You can either bring your own bicycle or you can rent one upon arrival at the gate.

It’s about 18km from the main gate to the Hell’s Gate gorge along a murram road. The early mornings are cool, but towards midday it gets hot so one should pack enough drinking water.

On our ride, we passed by lots of wildlife including zebras, eland, buffaloes, giraffes and many types of birds. We watched a group of impala bucks pronking high into the air with rounded backs, an evolutionary trait by some types of antelope to dissuade potential predators.

There are also leopards and hyenas in the park, but we didn’t come across any. Occasionally, the odd lion is spotted, but this is a rare occurrence as there are no resident prides in Hell’s Gate.

For me, the scenery and not the animals, was the real attraction. The savannah plains are surrounded by beautiful wooded hills. The main road passes through an impressive, grass-covered valley, on either side of which are red-rock cliffs favoured by klipspringers and rock hyraxes.

This valley was the inspiration for the Disney movie Lion King, after a team of animators visited the park in the early 1990s. The valley used to be a tributary that was linked to other lakes in the Rift Valley.

We passed by a group of visitors rock climbing up the cliffs. If you don’t have your own equipment, there is climbing gear for hire and a relatively easy rock tower you can tackle even as a beginner.

Fisher’s Tower and Central Tower are part of the park’s unique attractions. They are volcanic plugs of hard igneous rock that resisted erosion to form rocky columns.

Fisher's Tower at the Hell's Gate National Park, Kenya. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

Fisher's Tower at the Hell's Gate National Park, Kenya. PHOTO | KARI MUTU

Moving along, our guide pointed to a tall rock face with a patch of dark grey about halfway up. “The nest of a Verreaux’s eagle-owl,” he said, to our astonishment.

These large grey owls with prominent ear tufts build their homes of twigs on narrow ledges in rocks. Their nests are almost impossible for a predator to reach.

Further on, we saw another craggy cliff with white streaks. Vulture droppings, our guide informed us. This sounded improbable until we noticed a large bird gliding high above the cliff. Then in came another and another.

We happened to be in the park in the mid-afternoon, just in time to witness the large Ruppell’s Griffon vultures returning for the night. Each bird circled and soared lazily on the hot air thermals before landing smoothly into its rocky roost. This is where the vultures lay their eggs and raise their young.

Every morning the vultures take off on the mid-morning thermals that rise from the rocks, and go to forage. They find food in places as far away as the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, more than 150km southwest.

Today, vultures are considered endangered because of habitat loss due to human activity.

At Hell’s Gate, another threat to vultures is extraction of geothermal energy from underground geysers at the nearby Ol Karia power plant. The park gets its name from the geothermal activity in the ecosystem. Not far from the vulture cliffs, we came across several white plumes of steam spouting noisily out of the ground.

Incidents have been reported of hot hydrothermal waste being disposed of over the vulture cliffs, destroying their habitat and killing them.

At just 90km northwest of Nairobi, Hell’s Gate is an ideal destination for a day trip. There are a number of campsites in the park in case you want to stay overnight.
Alternatively, you can stay one of several hotels in the nearby Lake Naivasha area and visit Hell’s Gate for the day.