Biking Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya

By July 16, 2009Africa, National Parks

We awakened on our third morning in Kenya and started packing the bikes we had barely gotten back to the camp the night before for our day trip out to Hell’s Gate National Park. Lee and Barbara had stored their bikes in my room for the night and as I rolled Lee’s out into the light it quickly became apparent that her front tire was flat. After Mladen’s numerous attempts at resuscitation, we came to the conclusion that Lee needed a new bike. The question of who would accompany Lee the miles back to Fisherman’s Camp in the wrong direction sat stiff in the air as everyone waited for someone else to volunteer. I decided it wasn’t that big a deal and agreed to go with her. We split up the walkie-talkies, the rest of the crew headed in the direction of Hell’s Gate, and we agreed to catch up with them once we exchanged the bikes.

The ride out there was slow going as I rode next to Lee, steadily pushing her bike with each step. We chatted and offered a jambo to those passing while the sun burned ever hotter in the barren sky. The exchange at the camp was quick and in no time Lee and I were back on the road in the direction of the park. In even less time, Lee’s replacement bike started grinding like a screwdriver jammed in a pencil sharper. Trying to press on through it she forced the pedals through each revolution, hoping the gear would catch and we could keep going. When pieces of the gears starting popping off the bike onto the road, we decided it was time to go back for bike number three. Luckily we hadn’t gotten very far from the camp before we had to turn around yet again.

hell's gate national park kenya

climbing the volcanic plug

Finally, we were on our way to Hell’s Gate.

The time we spent heading in the wrong direction had burned through precious hours of weaker sun and relief sank through us as we approached the sign indicating the turn-in for the park. We increased our pace, excited to have arrived. We made the turn through the rust-colored metal gate and came to an abrupt stop. Ahead, the straight, treeless dirt road stretched infinitely on, disappearing only in that watery haze of intense heat on the horizon. For lack of any other option we pushed our thirsty bodies on down the scorched and rocky path, alternating brief spurts of energy with ragged attempts to keep pace. When we finally arrived at the point where the road turned, the ride became easier, trees provided some shade, and in no time we made it to the entrance of the park. We immediately stopped and purchased two extra large bottles of icy cold water. Lee and I headed on into the park, curious as to how we would locate the rest of the crew. Almost immediately, we found them perched high in tiny caves spotting a volcanic plug, formed by semi-molten rock forced up through a fissure, cooling and solidifying as it is extruded from the earth.

We climbed to meet them, hot and tired, and rested for a few minutes before beginning the incredible trek to the gorge. As we all began to regroup I suddenly heard Justin yell, “GIRAAAAFFE!” Immediately we ripped ourselves from the rocks and ran out into the clearing to see her. Our very first giraffe. At first she was hidden a bit by the trees, the strength of her pattern peeking out only with with movement, but after a few moments, she began to walk, exposing her lackadaisical gait and the sharp and vibrant puzzle pieces of her coat.

hells gate park giraffee

meet elsa!

We decided to name her Elsa, after the name of the entrance to the park. All alone, Elsa stood chewing leaves from the surrounding trees and then started slowly making her way out into the open and across the volcanic plain. The seven of us stood, mesmerized and following her movements as close as we could without disturbing her. She walked across the road, moving on into distance until she finally disappeared from our sight. It was at that very moment the seven of us collectively realized just how amazing this trip was going to be. And this was only our third day. None of us had any idea what the next ten days would bring.

giraffe hells gate

Elsa on the volcanic horizon

The riding was long to my unexercised body, and felt like longer still in the strong Kenyan sun, but the giraffe and scores of zebra, gazelle, and warthogs along the way were certainly worth it. The horizon was devastating; surrounding the savannah as far as the dusty dirt road could be seen.

biking hells gate gorge

biking towards the gorge

As one of only two parks in Kenya that allow walking or biking we stopped frequently, excited yet cautious in our first close encounters with these strange and exotic animals. We saw herds of zebra drinking from a man-made watering hole, families of warthogs trouncing along, the babies following always in neat little lines, and graceful gazelles imposing their gentle yet demanding posture on the horizon.

hells gate kenya zebra

zebra at the watering hole

The conversation was focused only on our surroundings. Everything else tended to disappear in the expansive nature. It was magnificent. After a few hours of riding, stopping, and more riding we reached the picnic site marking the entrance to Olduvai Gorge. As we approached, what I decided was a particularly judgmental Olive baboon, sat staring at us from the first picnic bench, clearly attempting to intimidate.

hells gate kenya baboon

Judgemental Olive baboon who wanted to steal our lunch

I am pretty sure I speak for the entire group when I say it worked. Despite the feeling that he was already plotting an attack on our picnic, we walked slowly past him, bought a few relatively cold cokes being sold by a man with a cooler posted outside of the small office, and settled down for a makeshift picnic lunch of mangos, peanuts, plain bread, and some cookies the girls purchased in town. Enjoying our fresh mangos and a little rest in the shade of the picnic area, we suddenly realized that our our newly acquired nemesis actually was plotting to steal our lunch. Apparently all of our instincts about his suspect character were correct. Upon the recommendation of one of the locals, Mladen jumped up on a nearby rock and proceeded to wave a large stick around in what was supposed to be an authoritative manner. We can only assume the ridiculous establishment of dominance worked as we finished the remainder of our lunch unscathed.

After washing our hands of the sticky sweet mango juice and taking what we needed from our bikes, we began the descent into the gorge. While our original (and idiotic) plan was to explore it on our own, luckily enough for us, one of the local men waiting in the picnic area perceived our utter lack of any kind of direction and followed us down the steep and rocky path, volunteering to guide us through the treacherous, winding gorge (for a price, of course).

hells gate gorge

Climbing along the twisted gorge

The towering cleft through which we walked was created by ancient volcanic activity, and was once home to the powerful waters of Lake Naivasha. During the rainy season flash floods overwhelm this narrow crevasse, sweeping with them everything in their path from rooted plants to seemingly immovable boulders. But on this early March afternoon, the gorge was quiet as we walked in awe along the floor of the great structure.

Peter, the obviously fabricated Western name of our guide, pointed out various curiosities along the way as we climbed and crawled and slid our way along and between the ridged walls through hot geothermal showers and steaming pools of water hot enough to boil an egg. Literally.

hells gate egg boiler

the egg boiler

The dusty floor of the gorge was littered with chunks of obsidian, a black volcanic glass formed by the rapid cooling of molten lava and the curved walls were carved with graffiti from the many who had preceded us.

the gorge wall

hell’s gate gorge wall

We walked along the floor of the gorge, straining our necks up at the narrow winding slit of sky above. The grooved walls are smooth (save for the graffiti, of course) and it is incredible to imagine the power of the water molecules as they pushed and surged, grinding ever deeper into the stone, wearing it away with time and pressure.

hells gate gorge guide

Our guide, Peter, in the gorge

My sense of amazement certainly did not stop there. Peter took us through several showers pouring from the stone, some too hot to touch, and other refreshingly cool. In some places the ground is so hot you can literally feel it melting your shoes. Once we came to the end of maze-like walk along the floor, it was time to climb. Peter led the way up a dangerously steep incline, lacking any noticeable path. The warm mud slid beneath our feet, impossible to gain any traction, we slipped, grasped, and heaved our way to the top. When we reached it, out of breath and panting like a pack of horny dogs, we doubled over, resting our hands on our knees trying to reclaim the air we had managed to lose. And then we looked up.

View from the top of the Gorge Hell's Gate

View from the top of the Gorge Hell’s Gate

We were on the top of the gorge. On top of Africa. In every direction the plateau of volcanic rock stretched, the wide crevasse of the gorge etched into it for eternity. It was truly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, making the taxing climb up the muddy rock all the more satisfying. Every day we spent in Africa I felt a calmness growing inside of me, a closeness to the earth that I now yearn every day to feel again.

We had but a few fleeting moments to absorb the awesome sight of the gorge as we had planned to catch a matatu back to Nairobi by three that afternoon. Hurriedly, we headed back to the picnic site. Dirty, exhausted, and mostly dehydrated, we chugged our bath-warm water as if it were icy cold, then took a look at the map. As I covered most of the planning we did state-side, I tended to leave myself out of any decision-making process that could lead to some kind of argument. I figured between six other opinions, mine was probably unnecessary.

We had two options: either double back on Elsa trail the way we came in, or head down the other way out and explore something new. After a few minutes of discussion, we decided to explore new territory. There was no way we could have known just how terrible a decision this would end up being, especially considering the shoddy condition of the gears on most of our bikes. I was lucky and had at least three functioning gears, but I don’t even want to imagine trying to climb those painfully steep and rocky inclines, one after another, as your bike grinded and cracked itself with each revolution like a blender of rusty screws, never finding a lower gear.

Needless to say, we walked our bikes most of the way up the road back to the camp. Up and down the volcanic formations following the road were miles of pipe, carrying steam energy from inside the earth, powering the geothermal plant. Noxious odors were emitted from the massive structure, and the giraffe, gazelle, and zebra we saw on the way in were replaced by dump trucks, and straggling workers, traveling in and out of the massive complex of the power plant. It is still unclear to all of us how this expansive structure ended up inside the boundaries of the National Park, but at the time we were all too focused on getting rid of those god-forsaken bikes to discuss it.

Making it back to Fisherman’s Camp we happily dropped off the bikes and settled in for the most refreshing beer of our lives. By the end of the trip, this would actually come to be the fourth most refreshing beer of our lives, but don’t let that belittle the imagery of deliciousness one bit. We sat on the same lawn onto which that hippo had wandered just the night before and attempted to shower the grime of the gorge from our skin with face wipes. It was time to head back to Nairobi.

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