Game drives are all every well, but for a closer look at Kenya’s world-famous wildlife it’s worth switching off the engine. WORDS: Elise Rana
It’s no news that Africa is a vast place – or that unless you have several decades and a dedicated support team, you need wheels to see it. But when every yawning vista or exotic beast you’ve passed has been seen from the inside of a rattling truck, popping out the top of a minivan or from behind the tinted glass of a 4WD, there comes a point when the words ‘game drive’ stop sounding like fun. At this point in the safari, it’s better to get out and walk.
Lying just south along the Rift Valley floor from the hippos and flower farms of Lake Naivasha, it’s easy to overlook Hell’s Gate as one of Kenya’s smaller National Parks – at 68km_, it’s a fraction of the size of nearby Aberdares. Yet this is one of the few parks in the country and indeed the continent that can be explored on foot – on your own.
While other walking safaris often require the presence of an armed ranger, Hell’s Gate is anything but the menacing place it sounds. Leopard, lion and cheetah do pass through but so occasionally that the only accompaniment we need is our guide Bernard. And the only thing he’s packing is a big bottle of water.
As we enter the park through the Elsa gate, it’s clear we’re not the only ones enjoying the relatively predator-free environment. With the volcanic cone of Mount Longonut looming up in the distance beyond, we drink in the view: herds of Grant’s gazelle and Coke hartebeest galloping ahead of us in a blur of orange fur.
A plodding train of zebra moving slowly towards a waterhole watch us calmly, yawning and grooming themselves.
Dust clouds puffing down from the trees on the valley wall announce more zebra joining them for a drink – we crouch still and watch in delight as one by one they cross the road right in front of us, each pausing to glance in our direction, sizing us up. Around the next corner, we come upon a warthog snuffling around in a patch of low trees, his long curved tusks glinting white in the brush. It turns and sprints off.
With all the action happening at eye level and nothing to come between you and it, a walking safari reawakens the sense of exploration and discovery that can be dulled by too many hours of game driving through the dust. Like scouts on an adventure, we learn about the animals around us through their tracks and traces (giraffe poos: waaay bigger than you’d imagine. Efficient stomachs,” says Bernard).
Being on foot also gives you the opportunity to stop to smell the flowers, so to speak.
Among the distinctive flat-topped acacia lining our path through the grassland, the spiky ‘whistling thorn’ emit an eerie cry. Bernard shows us the reason: holes in the seed pods drilled by ants. He picks a furry leaf from a lelechwa plant, giving us a sniff of its invigorating scent to see why it’s otherwise known as ‘Maasai deodorant’. A white-fronted bee-eater flits from the bushes, one of some 103 species of bird recorded in the park that include griffon vultures, bustards and eagles.
If it’s a delight close-up, the backdrop is no less spectacular. Soaring, angular cliffs glow a sandy red in the sun, the volcanic plug of Fischer’s Tower speckled with rock-climbers getting a closer look at the resident hyrax. A group of cyclists whizz past on their way to the park’s centrepiece, Hell’s Gate Gorge. By comparison, we’re taking it easy.
Up ahead, a corps of Masai giraffe are cantering across the road, their necks and limbs moving in what seems like slow-motion until suddenly, they decide to stop and observe our approach. We draw closer and closer, breath held and eyes wide as the animals don’t flee but stare right back at us: gawky and graceful at the same time, long-lashed eyes blinking and Shrek-like plug ears flapping, jaws rotating in a rhythmic chew.
Transfixed by the giraffes’ wonderful weirdness, we don’t notice the herd of zebra passing behind us until they’re so close, we’re among them.
The sun warms our grinning faces, the dry scent of the grass wafts past on the breeze and with no engines running, we can hear every sound: the soft snorts, the muffled clop of hooves in the dust, and the click of cameras as we try to capture at least part of the experience.
When the animals move on, it’s time for us to do the same. Only now does the road back start to seem long. The cyclists glide back past us. It’s been well worth the walk, but I start to consider that maybe wheels aren’t such a bad idea after all.
• Elise Rana travelled to Kenya with Guerba (01373-826 611; www.guerba.co.uk). Their seven-day Kenya Wildlife Safari taking in Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru and Masai Mara costs £355 including transport and camping accommodation (US$95 local payment and flights extra).”