Visit the intriging obsidian caves
One of the most intriguing attractions that Hell's Gate has to offer are its obsidian caves ... which, even if you're not a lapsed geologist such as myself, would surely pique your interest?
So, what is obsidian? Well, in simple terms, it's a volcanic glass that is associated with silica-rich magmas - these give rise to volcanoes that tend to blow their tops catastrophically rather than oozing lava placidly to surface. Obsidian is formed when the magma is rapidly forced to surface and cools so quickly that there is no time for crystals to grow, thus creating an amorphous (ie. non-crystalline) solid - often because it comes into contact with water which cools it on impact. Usually obsidian is dark, with its exact colour being dictated by the chemical impurities in the silica: in the Rift Valley, it is so dark a green as to be almost black. (For more on obsidian follow this link to my Crater Lake page).
The obsidian caves are located just off the Buffalo Circuit and comprise continuous bands of obsidian, up to a couple of metres thick, that stand out as shiny licorice bands on the cliff face. There has been preferential erosion of the softer ash bands that separate the obsidian layers, leading to the development of overhangs, although I do think that the term 'caves' is probably overstating the case.
Intriguingly, some of the obsidian bands are contorted (see photo above) which I hadn't seen before.
Explore Hell's Gate by mountain bike!
Kenya's national parks differ from their counterparts in Southern Africa in two significant aspects: one is that they allow people (and their livestock) access to the park, and secondly, in the case of Hell's Gate, they allow tourists to explore by mountain bike.
Bikes are available for hire at the main Elsa Gate, and it looks like loads of fun! The roads are well maintained gravel, and the park is relatively flat for the most part (with a few steeper sections towards the south). I always prefer game viewing options where you are in the open, rather than confined in a vehicle, and this would be a great way to admire the landscape, spot game and get a workout all at the same time! See the website below for up to date entrance fees and ancillary costs - at the time we visited, bike hire for the day was 500 Kshs, which seems very reasonable indeed.
Hell's Gate doesn't have too many large predators (mostly leopard and hyaena, which tend to be shy and solitary), so probably the worst that will befall you (if you'll excuse the pun) is that you will take a tumble off your bike, or you'll get sunburned to a cinder! When we were there, a group of young Americans were just finishing their tour - most of whom were wearing vest tops - and they varied in shade from rosy to lobster! If you choose this option, remember that you're at altitude and pretty well on the equator, so slather on the sunscreen, put on a hat and wear a long sleeved top.
Follow in the footsteps of Angelina Jolie ...
... which is not something that I usually care to do, but as the fact that sequences from "Tomb Raider" were filmed in Ol-Njorowa gorge was perhaps the only piece of information our inept 'tour guide' offered us in over an hour, I thought that I'd share this with you ...
Ol-Njorowa gorge is a highlight of any visit to Hell's Gate National Park, and as there is no viewpoint out over the gorge, the only way to explore it is on foot (see my tip on appropriate footwear under 'Warnings and Dangers'). It's not a long or difficult hike, as the gorge is not deep (probably no deeper than 30m along the section that we explored), but you will need to scramble on sections descending into the gorge and climbing out again, so it's not suitable for anyone with mobility problems.
The gorge has been eroded through volcanic deposits (mostly ash) and is both steeply incised and very narrow - so narrow that in some sections, you can touch both walls with your hands at the same time. Because it's such a confined space, the gorge is subject to flash floods as a result of heavy rain, during which the water can reach a depth of 6m in a very short space of time, so I would suggest that you keep an eye on the weather and avoid hiking in the gorge if heavy rain is in prospect. Please take this seriously, as this is not just an abstract risk: in April 2012, seven members of a church group were swept to their deaths by a flash flood in this gorge.
The gorge is very scenic - the most attractive section being the 'Devil's Bedroom" (pictured), apparently so named by early visitors because monkeys tend to congregate here at night and make an unearthly noise. There are also a number of thermal springs that 'daylight' in the gorge, and are easy to identify because of the lurid green algal colonies that thrive around these seeps. Obviously it will exert a particular fascination for geologists, and in particular, I found the pumice flow of special interest. It's very photogenic, but because the gorge is so narrow, it only receives direct sunlight at certain times of the day, so bear that in mind if you're into photography.
The 'standard' hike will probably take you about an hour, although it is possible to ask the guide to take you on a longer hike to explore the lower sections of the gorge.
It is not quite clear whether it is compulsory or not to take a guide if you intend to hike Ol-Njorowa Gorge - the signage is ambiguous, and there is certainly considerable pressure exerted by the park staff to do so. As the path is not always clear, I would veer on the side of caution and hire a guide just for safety's sake, but if our experience is anything to go by, I wouldn't expect much 'guiding' other than being shown the way.
Sadly I have to report that the areas around the car park and picnic spot is litter strewn and there appears to have been little attempt on the part of park staff to stop plastic being washed down into the gorge itself, which I think is unacceptable.
For more on the litter and the inept tour guides, see my tip under 'Warnings and Dangers'.
An elegant sufficiency of eland!
One of our abiding memories of the Kenyan Rift Valley will be the abundance of eland - seen here in a group at Hell's Gate that probably numbered about 30 individuals.
Eland are the largest antelope in Africa, and we are used to shy 'peek a boo' encounters in Southern African reserves, where they tend to congregate in small groups and frustrate would-be photographers by hiding in thickets. By contrast, in Kenya, we were surprised to come across much larger groups, grazing in the open, and they didn't seem to be as skittish.
For more information on eland - and some gratifying close up shots - have a look at my Crater Lake page.
Admire Mount Logonot from a distance
As you drop down into the Rift Valley from Nairobi, it's impossible to ignore Mount Logonot, probably the largest of the recent volcanic cones in the area. It is currently dormant, and its attractively symmetrical form is a useful point of reference on the landscape.
It is apparently a fairly easy hike to the rim of Logonot's crater - whose highest point is 2,886m above sea level - but it takes about an hour to hike from the parking area. If you've expended all that effort, then it would be a shame not to take advantage of your hard-won altitude and hike around the rim to take advantage of the view, but this will probably take you another three hours, so be sure to slather yourself in sunscreen, don a hat and long sleeves to avoid sunburn and bring enough water to counteract dehydration.
We unfortunately didn't have time to do this when we were in the area, so we could only admire Logonot from a distance ... yet another good reason to return!
A national park that makes power for the nation!
On first consideration, the prospect of having a power station within a national park would seem unlikely ... but then, as we discovered, Hell's Gate is a place with a talent for combining unexpected elements!
The proliferation of hot springs along the Kenyan Rift Valley is evidence of its very recent volcanic past. The Ol-Karia power project has been established to capitalise on this geothermal power resource, and is immensely important in a country like Kenya which has next to no fossil fuel resources of its own.
Development of the Ol-Karia project began in the 1970s, and there are currently two power plants in production. A third - privately funded - plant is currently under construction, and when it is complete (scheduled for 2017), Ol-Karia will provide up to 25% of Kenya's total power requirements and further reduce its reliance on imported oil. Along with the geothermal power station comes all sorts of related infrastructure along the main road, such as the eccentrically named 'Geothermal Guesthouse' (where one would presume that availability of hot water is not a problem).
It is a little unnerving to drive through a landscape punctuated by plumes of smoke, and it's not difficult to see where the name 'Hell's Gate' originated from. When we were there, KenGen was busy testing a new geothermal hole, and the banshee scream as one of the valves was opened to vent steam to the atmosphere just added to the sense of being somewhere 'otherworldly'!
Go rock climbing at Fischer's Tower!
One of the attractions of Hell's Gate is that - unlike many of the other national parks, where game spotting is the main attraction - there are a whole range of outdoor pursuits that you can occupy yourself with ... including rock climbing.
Fischer's Tower is located close to the main Elsa Gate of the park and is a volcanic plug, formed by lava that solidified in the vent of an extinct volcano. The softer surrounding rock has been eroded away over the years, leaving the plug as an isolated 50m 'tower', which offers excellent rock climbing. See the website below for more information on the various routes on Fischer's Tower (and other climbing locations in Hell's Gate).
Fischer's Tower was named after Gustav Fischer, a German explorer, who was tasked by the Hamburg Geographical Society with establishing a route between Mombasa and Lake Victoria. Maasai legend has it that the tower is the petrified form of a young girl who was sent away to get married, but disobeyed her parents' orders and turned around to look back at her home village.
The looming presence of Central Tower
Hell's Gate boasts two free standing pinnacles which are volcanic plugs - lava that solidified in the vent of an extinct volcano and which have withstood erosion better than the surrounding rock.
Central Tower is the larger of the two plugs and dominates the skyline in the vicinity of the Ol-Njorowa Gorge (and is thus quite a useful point of reference). As with Fischer's Tower, it offers excellent rock climbing, although this is much harder and thus, less often climbs (see the website below for details)
This is also apparently known an "Embarta" (The Horse), although goodness knows why!
Vintage farm machinery at Elementaita Weavers
I'll freely admit that I'm a sucker for old farm machinery, so imagine my delight when we drew into Elementaita Weavers (on the southern shore of Lake Naivasha) and were confronted with these beauties!
I have a particular weakness for old bulldozers, so the ancient Caterpillar caught my eye ... although the prospect of a ride on a vehicle with metal tracks and no suspension to speak of is not one that I would have relished!
A very special outcrop of pumice ...
OK, by now you probably know that I'm a lapsed geologist, but usually I try to keep my enthusiasm under control ... until I see outcrops like this!
This is pumice ... yes, the stuff that you diligently buff away callouses and hard skin with. Pumice is probably best described as 'volcanic froth' - essentially all the gases in the lava (which were kept in solution whilst the magma was contained within the earth's crust) expand violently when the confining pressure is released in the volcanic eruption. The rapid expansion of the entrained gases causes the lava to assume its distinctive honeycomb texture, with the abrasive roughness coming from the sharp edges of the chambers created by gas bubbles. The resulting pumice contains so much air in the holes that pumice usually has a density of less than water, which is why it conveniently floats in the bath.
What I like so much about this outcrop is that the bulging tongue (which is slumping over the strata below on the right hand side of the photo) clearly indicates that the pumice has flowed. It reminds me of cake mix spilling out over the top of an undersized cake tin - and for pretty well the same reason (just in the case of cake mix, it's raising agents such as bicarbonate of soda, baking powder or yeast that cause the gases to expand).
Home of the famous author Joy Adamson who wrote the book 'Born Free' that later became a movie, Elsamere is a haven for lovers of nature, set in Acacia forest on the banks of Lake Naivasha, in Kenya's Rift Valley.
Not only that but it also does one of the best afternoon teas in Africa. After checking out the sites around the property, and the museum and paintings and show about Joy and her husband Georges life, there is an amazing array of cakes, cookies, scones and all sorts of treats that can be enjoyed. If you can imagine how delectable sounds, well imagine you have been in Africa and havent seen the sight of a cake for a few weeks and then you can imagine just how much everyone on my tours eyes lit up!!!
Now a conservation centre, the house is open from 3 till 6pm daily and costs 350 Kenyan shillings.
What an unlikely place to find a vineyard!
Of all the things that I expected to find in Kenya's Rift Valley, a vineyard was not one of them!
Actually, to be strictly accurate, we didn't find a vineyard, but we did stumble across its produce ... at in a weaving workshop (Elementaita Weavers) of all places!
We always try to seek out local produce when we travel, and our poor friends have become used to having the spoils of our foraging visited on them when we return (so far, the Madagascan 'champagne' and the Estonian ersatz chocolate have probably been the ones that were most testing to our friendships!)
Leleshwa has only been going for a couple of years, and takes advantage of the volcanic soils and relatively cool Rift Valley climate (see website below for more information). As the owner concedes, his ambitions are modest, and he aims to compete by introducing a more affordable product into the local Kenyan wine market (which currently dominated by South African wine, with some more expensive imports from Europe). I would certainly like to see Kenyan hotels stocking this, if only to support their own industry, but sadly the lodge that we stayed at (probably less than 20km down the road) had never even heard of it!
I can't yet tell you yet how it tastes, as we have been waiting to invite our long suffering guinea pigs - sorry, I meant friends - around to quaff a glass or two ... I will report back in due course!
Brilliant wildlife against a beautiful landscape!
Hell's Gate combines savannah grassland - complete with herds of grazing herbivores - with some more rugged scenery, including the escarpment that forms the backdrop to this family of buffalo on the hoof.
It makes for an excellent opportunity to combine wildlife and landscape photography, so make sure that you come with several camera chips so that you can snap away to your heart's content!
Some algae don't mind being in hot water ...
... in fact, these lurid green algae positively relish it!
With the Ol-Karia geothermal power projects being located within the boundaries of the Hell's Gate National Park, it's no surprise that the park is punctuated with hot springs. These are easiest to identify in the Ol-Njorowa gorge, where the hot water seeping to surface sustains bright green algal colonies that are clearly adapted to the water temperature.
I feel some empathy with these algae, as once upon a time, I had a boss who commented wryly that, "It's not a case of whether Cathy's in hot water or not ... it's just the depth and temperature that varies!"
Wandering quite fearlessly around the lodeg grounds, the storks really set the scene. In Norway, where I grew up, one of the main chocholate producers is called Marabou, with the stork as their logo. I was so excited about seeing them in real life, and amazing at just how big they are.
Marabou storks stand up to 1.5m tall and have a bald head and long spindly legs. They have a reputation for being somewhat unsavoury, with their fondness for carrion and their habit of squirting excrement onto their own legs. It is one of the largest flying birds in the world, with a wingspan of nearly three metres