Friday, 6 January 2012

Gate to Hell

After our thrilling boat ride at Lake Naivasha, we decided that we will make do with packed sandwiches (which I had carried from home) for lunch and instead use the time to visit neighbouring Hell’s Gate National Park. We had to reach Lake Nakuru Lodge (where we had the room booking for the night) before the gates of the Nakuru National Park closed; hence the constraint for time.

Going to Hells Gate proved to be a good decision. The vegetation along the road turned drier as we progressed. Once we entered the park, the post volcanic landscape took us completely by surprise. Instead of the jungle greens; wrinkled vertical cliff walls greeted us. It seemed as if we had been transported to a dry red land. Greenery was visible – but only in patches across the area. It was fascinating to see the intricate patterns and crevices in the earthen walls. On display all around us were rocky outcrops.

The African blue sky with the white clouds provided the perfect back drop as usual. We passed by zebras grazing in the greens at the foot of the gorge walls – how can an African park not have zebras? With their painted bodies, they appeared “made up” as always. Keeping the zebras company were staring cape buffaloes and the not so pretty warthogs. After Giraffe Center in Nairobi (where the warthogs are uninvited guests happy to feast on the spill overs from food offered to giraffes), this was our first encounter with pig’s cousin (Kiswahili Ngiri) in the wild. One of them was kneeling on its padded front legs so that he could look out for food with its snout. Their agility comes as a surprise, they can run at speeds of up to 30 miles (48 km) an hour. And they may not look graceful with the two pair of tusks protruding from the mouth and curving upwards, but ivory is harvested from these constantly growing tusks. Trade in warthog ivory is legal.
Warthog at Masai Mara
In the early 1900s, Mount Longonot erupted, and ash can still be felt around Hell's Gate. The terrain is very dusty – the cars scattering the dust as they go by. It was very difficult to keep the windows open. The more adventurous of the tourists had opted for hiking and biking – the only national park in Kenya to allow that due to absence of predators. We could not but help sympathize with the bikers; they had to stop at every passing car shielding their eyes. But it must feel out of the world to experience the wild life on foot or on a bicycle.

We got down at the point from where we could see the Central Tower, one of the volcanic pillars in the park. I marvelled at how destruction can pave way for such creation – structure springing out of the ground made out of cool molten lava. Whistling thorns with their black galls were peeping from the boulders. Adi was very amused to see an olive baboon (Kiswahili nyani) sitting royally on a stone not too far away. He was not too amused when our driver put him on a boulder at a slight elevation. Mister cautious refused to turn daring for the day. Off Central Tower is a gorge which extends to the south and of which a path descends into hot springs. The trek would not have been possible with Adi – so we let it go. We have heard that at some places we can find rocks that can burn and can feel sulphur in the water. Obsidian rocks (hard, dark, glasslike volcanic rocks formed by the rapid solidification of lava without crystallization) are also to be found on that trail. And the guides may have helped us spot the two extinct volcanoes within the park. That said I am not bothered at all about what we missed; it has been a truly rewarding six months in Kenya filled with memories to savour lifetime. Adi thankfully has been a very cooperative baby in all our travels.

We got back to the car and started back. We got down at the second volcanic pillar – Fisher’s Tower. This one was more like a thin pyramid with pointed boulders jutting out. It looked ideal for rock climbing – to be ventured by the more enthusiastic tourists. We satisfied ourselves with a tamer activity – watching hyraxes scurrying by and scraping out earth at the foot of the pillar. It is hard to believe that these small furry creatures actually share a distant ancestor with the elephants! My internet research tells me that hyraxes have similar foot and leg structures and long upper incisors that resemble the tusks of an elephant. Fossil remains indicate there were once hyraxes the size of oxen. This may explain its gestation period of 7 or 8 months, unusually long for an animal of its size. Here is another eye opener about the hyrax: it has sharp eyesight and a unique eye shape. The iris bulges out above the pupil, cutting off light from directly above the head, enabling the animal to look almost directly into the sun and keep watch for birds of prey. Incredible!
Hyrax at Masai Mara
On our journey out of the park, we saw sign boards of a geothermal station, it generates geothermal power underneath Hell's Gate from the area's hot springs and geysers. Google now tells me that we could have probably gone for a tour of the plant – well, some other time.

Some of our photos are available here:

The name Hell’s Gate seemed appropriate for the arid landscape. It was definitely a hell worth visiting though.

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