Continuing where we left off on our budget self-guided bicycle safari in Hells Gate National Park — descending into the Depths of Hell (of course).
We spent nine days in Kenya as part of a four-month backpacking trip through Southern and Eastern Africa. While staying on Lake Naivasha outside of Nairobi, we rented a couple of mountain bikes from Camp Carnelley and took to the gravel for a memorable, self-guided safari through Hells Gate National Park.
After a quick lunch fending off baboons in a small rain shelter, we parked our bikes in a covered area near the Ranger station and followed our National Park guide into the depths of HELL (a.k.a. Ol Njorowa or the Lower Gorge).
Like Goldilocks, the guide presented us with three options: the short trail, a medium-sized “long trail,” and the much longer “very long trail.” Owing to the weather and time, we opted for the medium option, which turned out to be just right. In November 2014, the cost to hire one of the very knowledgable Massai park guides was 2000Ksh (US$20), which we were able to divide amongst another visitor who was interested in going on the same hike.
We had been told that the hike can be quite steep and difficult, especially in the rain. It had rained fairly heavily during lunch, but even so we found the hike not to be very taxing at all. The rain kept the temperatures down, which made the walk very pleasant.
In the rainy season (November is the “short rainy” compared with April/May, which is the “heavy rainy”) there is always the danger of flash floods through the canyon. As a result, we didn’t linger long in the depths of the canyon, and only continued on provided that the conditions remained dry. If a heavy rain were to start, we’d have a very narrow window of opportunity to escape the canyon before the rushing waters. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, and the huge logs jammed into various sections of the canyon (or suspended above) are testaments to that. It remained dry, so we continued walking.
Hells Gate N.P. has long served as the inspiration and setting for literature and films. Perhaps most notable, the Upper gorge inspired the landscape of Disney’s The Lion King, while the Lower Gorge served as the setting for a key scene in Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life. Apparently, I’m standing in the “Devil’s Bedroom,” which appears prominently in the movie. I wouldn’t know since I’ve never seen it, but it was pretty amazing nonetheless. Our guide was quick to point out that the circular patterns in the “Bedroom” were carved from thousands of years of water rushing through here creating a whirlpool from which there is no escape. On that sober note, we turned around and quickly made our way out of the gorge.
In my previous post about Hells Gate, I called it “one of Africa’s most dramatic, and most endangered, landscapes.” By now, the dramatic part of that is probably pretty evident, but the endangered part may not be.
You see, Hells Gate is home to a diversity of wild animals and a particularly stunning portion of the Rift Valley, but it is also sitting upon one of the country’s most significant sources of geothermal activity.
To date, this valley has become host to three geothermal power stations producing a combined 280 megawatts of power, enough to provide electricity for 500,000 homes. Production is expected to be increased to 5,000 megawatts by 2030. Such numbers make it easy to see why some Kenyans believe that the host of geothermal power under the Rift Valley is the answer to Kenya’s energy needs.
But unfortunately, most of the drilling areas are in Kenya’s National Parks.
But geothermal energy is “green” energy, right? It relies on the earth’s own energy and does not produce harmful pollutants like carbon dioxide, right? Well, yes and no. The problem with the plants aren’t the extraction process, necessarily, but their location and the infrastructure needed to make efficient use of the energy. Roads, heavy machinery and other infrastructure are rarely compatible with wildlife habitat, especially with regards to birds. The National Park is known for its variety of birds species, particularly its raptors who thrive in cliff habitats. Since the completion of the plants and heavy infrastructure, the park has seen a number of significant losses, including Lammergier, white-backed vulture, and others. Some are calling Hells Gate more of an industrial area than a national park.
As we approached the end of our hike, the deep rumbling of industrial vehicles and the swoosh of escaping air and gas cut through the tranquility of the park. Perhaps not coincidentally, our Massai guide ended the trek high up on a hill affording a commanding view of the park, the awe-inspiring Rift Valley splayed out before us, and, in the middle of it all, the towering geothermal drill (above), laboring away.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a big deal if the power plants were somewhere else far away from a protected wildlife refuge — out of sight, out of mind. But it is no coincidence that Kenya’s most stunning and diverse places also sit upon these vast reserves of energy, as these very forces shaped the landscape and provided habitat to a diversity of species. And Kenya, like so many nations across the world, is struggling to find cleaner ways to meet the increasing power needs of their industrial growth and growing populations.
All in all, our day biking through Hells Gate was a pretty amazing experience. Most of the time there wasn’t another person in sight. At times it felt like we had this stunning place with all its inhabitants all to ourselves. Often, we would pull up even with a gazelle or zebra in the distance and watch them graze, or listen to the silence.
When we returned from our biking safari, we took advantage of the charcoal-powered hot shower huts (heated only a few hours a day), changed into clean clothes and took a short walk to visit the hippos.
It also happened to be Thanksgiving, and we marked the occasion by splurging on a gourmet hamburger, Greek salad with feta and avocados (both we split), and wine — all of which we had only tasted a handful of times in the past 18 months. We reflected on a memorable day and gave thanks for all of the things we had to be thankful for this year — which indeed, were many.