To Hell & Back

Not everything about "hell" is bad. Such is the case with this little gem in Kenya, all 68 sq kms of it. Called the Hell's Gate National Park, it certainly meets the standard of hotness as not too far beneath my feet lies the source of geothermal power currently being harnessed by the Kenyan government.

But that's not the real draw for me. Hell's Gate is one rare park in Kenya where visitors are allowed to hike, bike and camp despite the presence of wildlife (and the presence of a geothermal power plant). We're talking about cape buffalo, zebra, eland, Thomson's gazelle, warthog, and a variety of bird species.

Towering cliffs, gorges and savannah define the area. There are even two extinct volcanoes within the park. Not to mention hot springs and geysers. It is probably this perception of heat from the vowels of earth that led earlier explorers to name this a part of "hell".

Wildlife even outside the park
A herd of cape buffalo at Hell's Gate National Park

Accompanying me on this day trip to the park was Dan (an Aussie who was also doing an overland journey) and Esther (a Brit temporarily living in Nairobi while writing her novel). Our driver was Mike, the same bucked-toothed Kenyan who drove me to Nairobi National Park.

To get to Hell's Gate, we drove for about 90 kms from Nairobi, past viewpoints along a winding escarpment road leading down to the so-called Great Rift Valley (worth a story of its own actually). It is here in this valley where Kenya is literally being torn geographically apart. Escarpments as high as 3,000 meters flank both its eastern and western sides.

"3rd World Toilets" at the escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley
Mt. Longonot  as seen from the valley

Just before reaching Hell's Gate, Mt. Longonot, rises visibly from the valley floor, a dormant volcano that's part of its namesake national park. Which means two national parks right next to each other! At 2,776 meters above sea level, it does attract hikers to its crater rim while the mountain itself is home to several big mammals.

Mt. Longonot may just have whetted my appetite for hiking but as soon as we got off the car past the park's Ol Karia gate, Mike introduced the three of us to Nampazo, our Maasai guide. We were all set to explore Ol Njorowa Gorge on foot.

Nampazo led us down the gorge. It was a steep descent requiring all hands and legs to work. Water has apparently made its mark here year after year, carving sinuous curves that only Mother Nature can. A small stream was running down the gorge.

We threaded through this natural labyrinth as Nampazo gave us running commentaries. Heavy downpours often result in flash floods - just the kind of scenario we would never want ourselves to be caught in. With nothing but steep walls on our sides, there really is no escape in the event of flooding.

Up above us was a gray sky full of ominous clouds. Thunderclaps could be heard. I reached for my backpack making sure my rain jacket was there. Then it drizzled. Then it stopped. And the clouds eventually parted. November (the month I visited) is considered Kenya's "short rains" season.

About 2 hours later, we finally reached the "exit", a steep climb up an eroded portion of the gorge. There we chanced upon an exposed earth with a rich red hue. Used to paint the Maasai's face, Nampazo grabs a handful of red earth and quickly paints each of us. He then gives me a new name "Kesotho", his brother's name.

Fischer's Tower

After walking back to the ranger's office, Mike drove us through another part of the park with views of surrounding cliffs. We passed by Fischer's Tower, a volcanic plug now popular among rock climbers. Visitors on bikes negotiated dirt roads. In the distance a big herd of buffaloes were grazing. And warthogs. And gazelles.

As we exited Hell's Gate, we all agreed it's one "hell" we wouldn't mind going back.


  1. If that's how hell looks like... I'd
    LOVE to go to hell!

  2. I don't think I'll feel comfortable camping amidst wildlife unless I have a heavy caliber gun by my side; or have a companion I can easily outrun in case a wild animal decided to have us for dinner.

    1. You're basically on your own once there in the bush - which we did days later!

  3. you find the most exciting places. you truly are a trailblazer.

    1. thanks. I can only salute at all the others who've been there before me.

  4. lets go to hell now! btw...merry christmas:)

  5. i miss visiting your site. have a blessed Christmas Dennis! happy travels :)

    1. Hi Gael! missed visiting your blog as well. Merry Christmas too!


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