Expert Reviews – Hell's Gate NP

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Walk with Giants
Overall rating

Hell’s Gate National Park is one of the more overlooked of Kenyan parks. On a standard two week safari it might, at best, be quickly tacked onto the end of a trip if time allows. This is a real shame because there are plenty of plains game (antelope, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, baboons and vervet monkeys and others), the scenery, a mix of classic savannah landscapes hemmed by impressive cliffs and volcanic plugs, is beautiful and access is quick and easy from Naivasha.

Unfortunately (but sensibly!), in most national parks you’re not allowed to get out of the vehicle and, if you’ve never been on safari before, you might be surprised to hear that spending days in a jeep on bad roads looking at animals can quickly get very tiring. What makes Hell’s Gate special is that this is one of the few parks that allows you to dump the jeep and walk or, better, cycle, with African megafauna. It’s an opportunity not to miss. The first time I went to Hell’s Gate was some twenty years ago. I’d only been in Africa a couple of weeks and so far had only seen animals from the safety of a vehicle. Suddenly here I was on a clanky old bicycle gingerly cycling past buffalo and wondering whether it was safe to cycle through the middle of a group of baboons who were blocking the road. I still recall the excitement and exhilaration of feeling that I was now a part of the food chain (there are very few large predators in the park so it’s highly unlikely that you really will become somebodies lunch). Today I still prefer to walk in the bush rather than view it from a car and so on every Kenyan trip I will always try to make time to visit Hell’s Gate. Other plus points for the park are that it’s an ideal family-friendly park and it’s considerably cheaper than many other parks.

Hike or bicycle through a valley full of wildlife
Overall rating

Don’t come to this small park near Lake Naivasha expecting a full-on Big Five experience. The main attraction here is the opportunity to stretch your legs – whether you walk or bicycle – through a scenic gorge in the heart of the Rift Valley. Buffalo, giraffe and many smaller ungulates are likely to be seen, a far more thrilling experience on foot than from a vehicle, and lion and cheetah are also very occasional visitors. But it is the volcanic landscape that most impresses – ancient volcanic plugs, fuming hot springs and glassy obsidian rocks, all overlooked by the perfect cone of dormant Mount Longonot.

An easy walking and birding safari in an impressive coloured gorge
Overall rating

Named for its pair of massive red-tinged cliffs, scenic Hell’s Gate lies next to Lake Naivasha. As there are no predators, you can explore on foot; I enjoyed the three-hour walk through the gorge which was lined with sheer cliffs patterned by striking and lustrous black and red volcanic sediments. There are numerous plains game in the park and I encountered cute little Thomson’s gazelle skipping through the grass and incredibly tame rock hyrax scrambling among the rocks. Additionally, it’s well-known for birds of prey and the likes of Verreaux’s eagle and Ruppell’s vulture can be seen hovering over the cliffs. It’s a great day excursion from a lakeside lodge but go early to best appreciate the magnificent colours in the rocks (and to avoid the heat).

Good for athletic types but low on big game
Overall rating

I once foolishly tried to mountain bike through Hell’s Gate National Park on a clapped out machine rented at the roadside. Suffice to say the ensuing three hours of aching legs, flat tyres, copious sweating and even more copious swearing is not one of my African travel highlights.

The park itself, though, is pretty impressive for its sheer barrenness, with animal skeletons arranged photogenically at intervals on the dusty earth, and scary-looking vultures wheeling overhead. The park is popular with outdoor enthusiasts for the biking, walking and rock climbing it offers, but game is mostly confined to the smaller stuff and Hell’s Gate is definitely skippable if you’re not hankering for a high-temperature workout.

Cycling between animals – an experience not to be missed
Overall rating

This scenic little park with its impressive cliffs makes for a nice daytrip from Naivasha. Although there are plenty of herbivores around, it doesn’t really compete with some of the more popular parks in Kenya. Aside from some buffalo, the park lacks dangerous animals and you are allowed to walk and cycle throughout. I found it amazingly exciting to cycle unguided through herds of zebra, giraffe and buffalo. You could even take a picnic along and you’ll feel like a character in ‘Out of Africa’.

Hell’s Gate: Canyons and Gorges
Overall rating

You certainly wouldn’t come to Hell’s Gate National Park, not far from the southern shore of Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley, for the wildlife. The occasional buffalo is the only member of the Big Five known to stray within park boundaries, and otherwise you’ll have to be content with zebra, eland and giraffe. But I like Hell’s Gate for the chance to experience a different slant on the Kenyan wild – this is one of the few parks in Kenya where free-range walking or cycling is permitted. That liberating chance to walk upon the carapace of this ancient continent is alone reason enough to visit. But the scenery here is also pretty special, with sheer, red cliffs and sudden volcanic plugs rising starkly from the main valley floor. And if you follow part of the Buffalo Circuit that climbs the hills in the park’s east, you’ll be rewarded by fine views of Mount Longonot, a shapely Rift Valley volcano nearby.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.3/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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