Named after the narrow break in its tall basaltic cliffs, Hell’s Gate was the outlet for the prehistoric freshwater lake that stretched from here to Nakuru and which, it’s believed, would have supported early human communities on its shores. Today it’s a spectacular and exciting park, the red cliffs and undulating expanse of grassland providing one of the few remaining places in Kenya where you can walk among herds of plains game without having to go a long way off the beaten track. Buffalo, zebra, eland, hartebeest, Thomson’s gazelle and baboons are all usually seen, as (more rarely) are servals – one of the most elegant of cats – and, high on the cliffs, small numbers of klipspringer (“cliffjumper”) antelope. Visitors to Hell’s Gate cannot fail to notice the large numbers of hyrax that scamper about the rocks, resembling large, plump, brown guinea pigs. The birdlife is also good: on the valley floor secretary birds and ostriches are easiest to identify, and look out for vultures, Verreaux’s eagles and augur buzzards on the higher cliffs, which also provide a nesting site for thousands of Nyanza and mottled swifts.
The park is also home to Olkaria Geothermal Power Station, the first productive geothermal installation in Africa. The underground temperature of the super-heated, pressurized water reaches 304°C, making it one of the hottest sources in the world. Although the whole complex is working at full tilt, the impact on the local environment appears to be small, and it certainly doesn’t spoil the landscape.
The best time to arrive is dawn, when most animals are about, and you should try to avoid the midday hours, as the heat away from the lake can be intense. You’ll need to carry plenty of water and some food (the only place to buy anything in the park is a simple staff kiosk in the Olkaria Geothermal Area).