Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hell's Gate National Park: A Malaysian's Tale

Looking at the name of this National Park in Kenya, one would easily mistake the place to be dotted with cauldrons of molten lava spewing forth from the bowels of the Earth. Perhaps it was like this millions of years ago, but today it is somewhat geologically stable, it’s volcanic past evident but no longer threatening.

Hell’s Gate National Park is one of the smallest national parks in Kenya. Located 90km from Nairobi, it is in the Nakuru District near the shores of Lake Navaisha.

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The unique thing about this place is that one can take a bicycle and ride out into the bush, without having the worry of ‘putting the pedal to the metal’ should a lion, leopard or a cheetah decides to divert from the regular menu of antelopes, gazelles and buffaloes and go after you. That’s because in this park, the big predators are caught at the borders and sent back to stalk in the Maara, providing a ‘sanctuary’ for the prey animals and adventurous bikers to roam the vast countryside. You might see some hyenas but only in the very early mornings and more likely hear them during the night, should you opt to camp there.

The experience of riding a bicycle thru the park, at close proximity to the wildlife is at once liberating and exhilarating. You no longer feel cooped up in one of those safari bus, jeeps or vans, rather you can actually feel now what the animals are feeling, the gusts of wind blowing at your face, the warmth of the afternoon sun and the soft crunch of tall grass beneath your feet (watch out for the stray animal poo though). You can try to get as close as you can to the wildlife as they allow you to, but don’t make sudden movements or do anything threatening lest you start a stampede.

The rental for the bicycle, guide and accompanying park fees cost me USD50 through arrangement by Africa Travel Co. Separately, the fees (accurate as per 2012) are broken down as…

a) Adult Non Resident Pass - USD25
b) Cycling Pass - KSH100 ~ USD1
c) Bicycle Rental - USD15
d) Guide Fee - USD9
Tickets to enter the park... visitor pass and bike entry pass

It’s the last day of my sojourn through Africa and many of us were tired (and perhaps running out of cash), so for this biking outing into the bush, 3 others from our group decided to go; the Linus couple, Ping and myself. The rest decided to stay back in camp.

The bike ride started at 8:00am just outside the camp we were staying for the night, Crayfish Camp, located on the shores of Lake Navaisha. Here, we met our guide, Peter, a young man 24 years of age.

The place we were staying, Crayfish Camp, offers rather decent housing with the option of camping out on the field as I did the night before. For this last night of the trip, I am planning to stay in one of the twin bed chalets for about KSH3,200 (USD40). 
The Twin Bed Chalet at Crayfish Camp, I must say it is pretty good... ;)

The bike ride to the park from the start point took about 20 minutes, a short stint on the main road (watch out for the cars and matutus) before a right turn at the junction leading to a gravel road that connects to the park entrance.

At the junction there appears to be some shops offering more bicycle rentals as well as guides for hire. If you had not done so already, perhaps it is a good place to check out prices.

We stopped at the park entrance for our guide to do the proper formalities. Large signboards displaying park instructions and maps are placed strategically around for the idle biker to browse.
Front office for the Hell's Gate National Park, please register here... ;)
After a brief rest of about 15 minutes, it’s back on the road into the park proper.

The first major land feature we encountered was the tall rock spire known as ‘Fisher’s Tower’. Formed by cooled magma millions of years ago, it is actually the stack that we see today after it's volcanic sides eroded away ages ago. As to it's namesake, legend has it that a certain Englishmen named Fisher, climbed this ‘tower’ after one of his encounters with the native Maasai. Today and at the time of visit, it is still being climbed by ‘muzungus’ for a decent fee (USD15) of course. Ropes, cables and harnesses are provided. We paused here to catch our breath before continuing down the road towards the next office inside the park.
Fisher's Tower... watch out for crawling 'muzungus'... ;)
High rock cliffs flank the left and right side of the road as we move in. At the same time, animals such as zebra, Thompson gazelle and wilderbeast along with the occasional wild boar make an appearance. I am told by our guide, that during World War II, Kenyan soldiers were made to climb the rock cliffs as part of combat training, today it is the home for vultures and eagles, centuries of bird droppings forming patches of white on the limestone walls.
Pausing by the road to view the limestone cliffs.

A giraffe up close!
We paused a few times, stepping onto the side of the road and walking into the bush to get close to the animals to grab some pictures. At least you get to be in the same picture frame as the animals.

However, there are times that you do need to stop by the side of the road but this time not to take photos of the wild life but rather to avoid being run over by those huge tractors that seem to ply the dirt roads in the mornings. Judging by the big ploughs attached to the underbellies of these metallic monsters, I would surmise that they are for leveling the roads.
There be large tractors plying the roads... beware lest you get run over!
Also, you have to watch out for the one or two land rovers driven by muzungu tourists… looks cool and all but, the fact that they drive on the other side of the road in their home countries requires one to be a little bit cautious.

The view around is spectacular. The classical view of Africa, that lone acacia tree, growing by the dirt road in the savannah flanked by tall cliffs is HERE! Not for the first time, the sight of it knocked the sense back into me that I am really in AFRICA! :D
The iconic acacia tree, the hills, the dirt road, the grasslands and my bicycle... This is truly AFRICA! :D
Along the way we were joined by this girl from Canada. I thought it was a ‘passing’ phenomenon but Linus, being the chatty person that he is, invited her to ‘join’ us, conveniently leaving out the fact that our guide was PAID by us. The girl tagged along, firing questions at our seemingly friendly guide.

The park is also home to a Geothermal Power Station, we passed by a branch on the road leading to it.

At length, we arrived at the other office within the park where we have to leave our bicycles. This is where we commence our next section of the journey, the hike into Hell’s Gate Gorge. Of course formalities need to be observed and Peter did the necessary by identifying us to the rangers stationed at the office.

The Ranger's Office

Group photo at the Ranger's Office close to the start of hiking trail. Our Canadian tag-along in green.
The rangers are very friendly. One of them introduced himself as Jackson. Sadly, he has only a vauge idea of where my beloved country, Malaysia, is on the world map. :)

There is a decent looking toilet located outside the office and I took the liberty to peruse it finding it not bad by African standards.

With necessary arrangements complete, the guide motioned us to follow him, although I was initially puzzled as to why we were diverting from the noticeably obvious arch that should signify the start of the trail. Instead we plunged into a creek, negotiating between tall grass and rocks in the process. When asked, I was told by the guide that this is the ‘start’ of the trail and the one with the arch was the ‘end’. Well, he is the guide after all.
The arch that I thought was the entrance, turns out we made it into the exit... ;)

 We followed him soon finding ourselves flanked by high rock walls on both sides.
Millions of years of geological data can be found here in them walls...
If the scenes here look somewhat familiar, it is because these are the inspiration for the artists that drew the gorge in the Lion King, where the villain Mufasa gets trampled by a horde of wilderbeast fleeing from a flood (so I am told). :p
Tis here is where Mufasa was trampled... ;)
And mind you, the threat of drowning in a sudden surge of water is very real, despite the seemingly dry surroundings. Peter told us that a few years ago, a couple of children drowned within the gorge when rain water further up suddenly flooded it, the children having no ability to scale up the high rock walls.

Halfway into the side gorge, we saw what was labeled as a ‘volcanic plug’ which is really solidified magma that has formed in the shape of the shaft that contained it. Over millions of years, the surrounding crust that formed the shaft eroded away, leaving only a long ‘thin’ cylinder-like shape that is now the volcanic plug. A smiliar process is what formed Fisher's Tower as well.
The Volcanic Plug...
It is somewhere around this area that Ping, lugging his two HUGE DSLR cameras somehow lost his footing and scratched himself on his knee while miraculously protecting his very expensive cameras from damage. After expressing concerns that he ‘might not be able to walk(?)’ or ‘pedal(?)’, his wounds were administered by none other than our provocateur director, Linus, in which after a generous application of H2O2, we continued on the journey to the Devil’s Bedroom at the end of this side gorge.

The Devil’s Bedroom was basically a dead end. Surrounded on all three sides by high rock walls and shaded by the sun, it appeared as a rather nice place to take a rest. At least until the flood waters come and there is nowhere else to escape. Perhaps that’s why the ‘bedroom’ earned the word ‘Devil’s’. There is however this conspicuously looking rope dangling by the side of a rock wall when we arrived. Peter said, it is possible to climb up over the rock wall but from my reckoning it you'd really have to be EXTREMELY FIT and AGILE to do that. Linus had that glint in his eye that told me he was very tempted to do just that, fortunately for us, that glint 'faded' almost immediately. :)  
Sleeping in the Devil's Bedroom, hope the 'host' is not home...
We lingered around taking some pictures not missing the prominent signage proclaiming the place’s name before we head back to the main gorge.

We returned to the volcanic plug where we paused to take pictures of the ‘Central Rock’, now somewhat prominently featured on the return journey.
The impressive looking Central Rock

Yes, it's a somewhat 'bent' sun warrior... ;)
As we trekked back, the wind brought whispers of a language I have not heard since I left Malaysia almost 2 weeks ago, CANTONESE! Three middle aged Chinese women, along with their guide were negotiating their way through a small gap in the rocks and reflexively, I greeted them ‘Zou San’ (Good Morning in Cantonese). ;)
Negotiating thru the small 'gap' in the rocks... and no, that's not the 'aunties' from Hong Kong, It's Ping. :)
Hearing a familiar greeting made them light up and I paused for a while to chat with the ladies who are on a holiday from Hong Kong. On hearing that they’d be going to the Maasai Mara next, I gave them a friendly heads up, that is to watch out for the ‘souvenir selling segment’ of the Maasai Village visit. That’s where they will separate us into the different huts and then ram down our throats VERY EXPENSIVE trinkets (opening price up to USD50/each) for us to buy on pain of ‘insulting’ the hospitality of our hosts. Well, it's really up you but if I want to do a 'donation' at least, I'd prefer to do it sincerely, instead of being coerced. :p

Bidding them goodbye, I joined the rest at the intersection between the side gorge and the main gorge. 
The view of the main gorge... hot water flows under our feet...
Here, sulphur laced hot water flowed from between stones, heated by volcanic magma deep beneath the earth.

Feeling the hot water... and yes, I couldn't resist the temptation to wash my face with it... ;) 
A herd of goats skirted along the sides to avoid the afternoon sun. We paused for pictures before Peter urged us to move on.

A little ways down the gorge, Peter motioned us to move to the side, climbing up one of the ‘emergency’ escapes to the top of a rocky outcrop.

The view up here was stunning. A good section of the park can be viewed along with the gorge below. Another tower of rock loomed in the distance and Peter pointed out the outlines of a ‘cave’ on a far distant rock face. Apparently, that cave can also be visited although it would take a few more hours to trek from the place we stood to the cave and back.
Stunning view of the gorge
The sun was already at its zenith and the heat was starting to build up. The locals have somewhat anticipated the regular arrival of tourists at this viewing point and have set up makeshift stalls to sell trinkets and Africa’s favorite drink, Coca Cola.
Finally! Coca Cola, Africa and ME! ;)
Giving up to the urge to quench my thirst, I resorted to getting me a bottle. Having bought my souvenirs earlier on in Nakuru, I skipped the trinkets.

Going 'native' at one of the trinket shops, after the locals have left.
After taking our fill of the view as well as the photos, Linus forwarded a rather halfhearted case to proceed to the cave at the far end of the valley. Feeling a little tired from the heat I suggested we skip that in which he surprisingly agreed. He however, descended back down to the gorge floor along with his girlfriend and our Canadian tag-along. Our guide, Peter followed while Ping and I remained up at the outcrop.

A short while later, our Canadian friend suddenly returned, hastily bidding us goodbye and saying that she is heading back by herself. I was somewhat surprised until Linus returned to tell us that the guide asked her for some money for what she thought must be a ‘free’ tag-along. Her abrupt haste meant she refused to give any.

From this point, we headed back but not before Linus decided to ‘paint’ my face with some ochre which he found at the base of the gorge.

On this day, the 31st of August 2012, is the 55th anniversary of Malaysia’s national day, and Linus and girlfriend did not miss the chance to make a political statement. Selamat Hari Merdeka! :D
Selamat Hari Merdeka!
The walk back took us to that arch which I had thought was the start of the trek. We skipped moving through the gorge and walked along a dirt road back to the ranger’s office. Along the way, I picked up some obsidian stones, that were scattered conveniently all over the place.

I took the opportunity to bite into some cheese I had brought from the plane as we stopped at the park to catch our breath. We also decided to give our guide a USD3/each tip for services rendered.

After this, we reclaimed our bicycles and rode into the grasslands.

If you want to get a tan, now is the best time. All along the way there is nary any shade and the bicycle ride took us about 45 minutes to reach the front office, inclusive of time pausing again to take pictures of the animal herds that dot the landscape. Thankfully, those menacing tractors that plied the roads in the morning were now gone although there were still a dogged group of muzungus clambering up Fisher’s Tower in the fierce afternoon sun, seemingly oblivious of the heat.

Laying in the grass on the vast plains of Africa! What a dream!
The front office has a souvenir shop which we visited, finding once again very expensive souvenirs. Postcards here costed KSH50 while T-shirt prices range from KSH600-KSH1000. We did not buy any but instead settled for another round of drinks again. I avoided Coca-Cola, settling for a pack of Lucozade (KSH50) instead. Linus had another swig of Coca Cola and Ping had Africa's own Tangawizi for KSH50/each.
Need Buffalo?
Outside there was this huge skull of a buffalo mounted on the wall. I took a picture of it before heading out back to Crayfish camp and the promise of a warm, cozy bed for the night! 
Sitting outside the verandah after a long bike ride... now this is the life... :)

Overall the trip to Hell’s Gate National Park was wonderful! It was a great experience finally freeing oneself from the confines of the safari bus. The bike ride through the park makes it all the more unique and for me, wading through the tall grass, feeling the rush of wind in through my hair, makes this African experience all the more REAL. A definite recommend for anyone visiting Kenya! :D The relatively short distance (90km) from Nairobi also makes it easily accessible as well.

Until next time, Safari Njema! ;)
A Bike Safari is definitely a recommend! :D

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