Hell’s Gate: Caitlin’s perspective

Although field activities are often best conducted early in the morning, before the day gets too hot, we usually don’t keep to extreme a schedule while we’re in Kenya. This rule, however, does have a couple of exceptions, and one of them is our trip to Hell’s Gate National Park. The area is so named for a reason, and it is best to finish any strenuous activity there before the sun rises too high in the sky. This is why we found ourselves rising at 5 AM for a 5:30 breakfast and 6:00 departure. The discomfort associated with awaking so early was soon dissipated by the dramatic sight of a sunrise over Kenyan savannas.

(Sunrise in Hell’s Gate National Park)

(Students wait to hear about the day’s activities in Hell’s Gate National Park.)

Hell’s Gate is the only national park where visitors are allowed to wander around outside of their vehicles in locations other than designated picnic, overlook, and toilet areas. We take advantage of this freedom by hiking along the main road from the Elsa Gate to the gorge; during this walk, our students are asked to undertake an ungulate survey—an activity that not only familiarizes them with the wildlife, but also with some of the techniques that biologists use to learn about these animals.

(Students congregate around the base of Fischer’s Tower)

Shortly after the beginning of the hike, some of us very nearly became more familiarly acquainted with wildlife than we would have liked. A large herd of buffalo came galloping out of the hills and towards our position on the road; after drawing up short and sniffing the air, some of them seemed interested in exploring  us further, while others began to wander off towards the nearest watering hole. Luckily, all of the buffalo eventually chose the latter tactic, but not until after I’d gone a bit weak-kneed after experiencing an intense fight-or-flight response.

(A herd of buffalo that initially seemed interested in making our acquaintance)

Compared with that experience, the rest of the walk was uneventful. In fact, it was a little too calm for my liking; there were many fewer individuals and species than I’d seen last year, and also fewer than had been reported by the other University of Exeter group that had visited Hell’s Gate the day before. Still, we were lucky enough to see a pair of lanner falcons, a dark morph of the augur buzzard, a kettle of African white-backed vultures rising from their cliff, a secretary bird (chased off, at one point, by an irritable impala), and the largest congregation of giraffes that I’ve ever seen in the park. This diversity was made all the more impressive by the fact that the park is awash in construction activity associated with new roads and geothermal facilities for the Olkaria plant.

(One of many zebras encountered during our hike through Hell’s Gate)

(Common thorn apple, which grows prolifically along Kenyan roads–alongside its close relative, bitter apple nightshade. Both plants are part of the nightshade family, and are extremely toxic.)

After a brief rest at the end of the road, some students elected to go for another brief hike through the Hell’s Gate gorge, which is notable for, among other things, having been featured in one of the Tomb Raider films. This rocky journey is a bit hard on my knees, so I went back to the campsite and did some local birding/photography. Once the others returned, we congregated for lunch and a seminar on community conservation. This was followed by a more or less free period during which students could prepare for the evening’s second round of the behavioral ecology/conservation biology discussion, enter their ungulate survey data into the class spreadsheet, explore the diversity of wildlife in our campsite, or catch up on a little sleep.

(A view over the gorge at Hell’s Gate)

The last (unofficial) activity of the day is a tradition that has emerged over the past few years of the field course: Participants in both the conservation and behavior field courses congregate at the lakeside bar in order to drink and be merry before splitting up and going their separate ways—with the behaviorists staying put at Lake Naivasha, and the conservation biologists going on to Lake Nakuru and beyond. One of the beverages of choice is a local concoction known as a Hippo Hurricane, though the bartenders also did their best to energize the crowd by offering a free round of vodka-and-Redbulls. When I left at 11, the bartenders were encouraging everyone—including course leader Brendan Godley—to get up and dance. Music from the bar could be heard all the way up at Top Camp, and it sounded like many people stayed until the bitter end. Still, to their credit, everyone was up at 7 AM the next day in order to break camp and move on to Lake Nakuru!

Hell’s Gate National Park

Location and Biodiversity of Hell’s Gate National Park

  • Hell’s Gate National Park is located approximately 90 kilometers from Nairobi and comprises 68 square kilometers of predominantly savannah habitat.
  • Over 100 bird species can be found at Hell’s Gate, including notable populations of vultures that roost on the park’s high cliffs.
  • Although amphibians may be difficult to locate and view from the road, the park contains many important species; it is ranked 12th out of 44 for amphibian irreplaceability within the ecoregion.
  • Vegetation in Hell’s Gate is dominated by shrubs and short trees, including several species of acacia and euphorbia.

(Gorge at Hell’s Gate National Park. This can be prone to flash flooding and should be avoided on overcast days…just in case. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Potential Threats and Conservation Measures

  • Hell’s Gate is the only national park in Kenya that allows the public full access on foot to any region in the park; this is made possible by the fact that the park is not generally accessible to, or utilized by, predatory cats interested in human meals.
  • Flash floods threaten wildlife and human visitors alike; the last of these occurred in April 2012.
  • Construction of the Olkaria geothermal plant raised various environmental issues, with many different methods adopted to minimize environmental impact: revegetation to minimize soil erosion, construction of artificial water holes, limitation of road traffic, fencing off of dangerous areas, and raising of pipelines to avoid animal migration routes.
  • South Lake Road, associated with the geothermal plant, runs across part of the park and may be disruptive/harmful to wildlife.
  • One of the largest conservation concerns is associated not with biodiversity but with culture–specifically, the culture of the indigenous Masai communities. The Olkaria plant promised economic empowerment to the local community; as of 2002, however, only 1.4% of its workforce was Masai. A proposed solution is for KenGen to assist the Masai community in acquiring electricity and to provide community development opportunities to improve infrastructure and quality of life.

(Cliffs that have been “whitewashed” by roosting vultures. Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Content by: Edward Burrell, Yvette Ehlers, Manuel M. Toro, Kate Owen, Catherine Wiseman, Daniel Wynn (MSc students)

References and further reading:

Lovart, S. and Lucherin, M. (1992) Larger mammals as a tourist attraction: factors influencing their visibility in the Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya. Hystrix 4:51-58.