A trip to Africa – home to the famous Maasai Mara National Reserve in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya – wouldn’t be complete without an encounter with wildlife. However, embarking on a safari tour to really soak in all its glory requires a few days and can be expensive. What if you’re short on time but still want a similar adventure – and for a fraction of the price? And what if you could do it yourself… Well then hello Lake Naivasha & Hell’s Gate!
Also part of the Great Rift Valley but only two hours from Nairobi (as opposed to five hours to the Mara), 13 km wide freshwater Lake Naivasha is home to hundreds of species of birds and hippos, with giraffes, monkeys, zebras, warthogs, antelopes and more wandering through acacia desert trees on the mainland.
I want to share with you how easy it is (with the right plan!) to:
- Travel from Nairobi to Naivasha like the locals using a matatu, i.e. their public mini bus, some decked out with faux leather seats, posters of rap stars and blasting reggae music. It’s fun!
- Explore and see wildlife up close around Lake Naivasha en route to neighbouring Lake Oloidien, as well as Hell’s Gate National Park in one day by yourself on a bicycle – no “game drive” or tour guide needed!
- Spend under AUD$100 (ex. food & drinks) to see some of Kenya’s best nature offerings on a 2-day getaway.
Having just finished some weeks volunteering at a Kenyan orphanage in a not-so-vistor-friendly town, you have no idea how much of a treat this was! I was also amazed to see a much more cordial side of the country.
How To Get Here
- Catch the 1.5-2 hours express matatu from Nairobi to Naivasha town (200 KES). The bus stop is located off River Road towards OTC station, ask a nearby local for the exact location. I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing express. If you hop into an all-stops bus, this can increase your journey by over an hour, and in worse cases, the driver may stop in the middle of nowhere and transfer you to another matatu (which means more waiting time!) to get you to your destination. Express, express, express.
- If you jump into an empty matatu, expect to wait up to an hour (or longer) until it departs as the driver waits until the bus is full, however this means you’ll get first choice on where to sit comfortably. Alternatively, jump into one that’s almost full.
- In Naivasha, cross the main road for regional matatus. Some have signs stating which accommodation sites they’re heading to – otherwise, just ask. If you’re heading to Fisherman’s Camp (see below), the 30-45 minute journey should cost you 70-80 KES. They will ask for more but just be assertive in knowing the real price.
Where To Stay
Fisherman’s Camp is a no-frills, central accommodation site to base yourself while you explore Naivasha. Situated right by the water’s edge umbrellaed by a canopy of thick greenery, the budget hideaway conveniently offers good conditioned bicycles for rent as well as organises boat tours that depart from its own jetty for bird watching and spotting hippos.
They can help set up a fitted tent for you by the lake (1200 KES/pn), or you can stay in a basic bamboo chalet, “banda”, (1000 KES/pn) also by the lake or in the beautifully landscaped Top Camp – a short uphill, scenic hike from the main grounds. In this instance, you can even stay one night in each to change things up a bit – this is what I did!
From the campsite, it’s only 5 km to Hell’s Gate National Park and 10 km to Lake Oloidien.
Mandatory (ex. food & drinks):
- Return public transport between Nairobi to Fisherman’s Camp, Lake Naivasha: 540 KES
- Accommodation (2 nights): 2000-2400 KES
- Bike hire (24 hours): 800 KES
- Hell’s Gate National Park: 3370 KES
- Total cost: 6710-7110 KES – that’s roughly AUD$90!
- Tour guide at The Gorge (Hell’s Gate): 1500 KES for 45 minutes or 2000 KES for 1.5 hours
- Boat tour at Fisherman’s Camp or Lake Oloidien: 3500 KES (Psst – you can negotiate for 2500 KES with other locals around the lake)
- Are you in good shape to pedal a hilly 40 km route, where some sections include soft gravel tracks? If so, follow the anti-clockwise route I completed (see below).
- Alternatively, you can split the ride between two days – one day towards Lake Oloidien, and the other to Hell’s Gate in the opposite direction (enter from Elsa Gate instead of Olkaria).
- The reason I didn’t do the above is because I prefer to enjoy one full day of relaxing and one full day of exploring. You also never know with matatus – one small incident could lead to terrible traffic that will set back your itinerary by hours so it’s best to give yourself that freedom on Day 1.
You’ve made it out of an entertaining matatu ride, seen how the locals go about their lives, and viewed the picturesque Great Rift Valley as well as the Kenyan countryside along the way – that wasn’t so bad, was it? Hooray!
The main purpose of this day is to reach Naivasha, settle into your accommodation and simply relax to start the next full day of exploring early and fresh.
After checking into Fisherman’s Camp (notice all the butterflies at the entrance!), chill out by your own fireplace, embark on a boat tour or head over to the Camp’s surprisingly vibey lounge bar. If you’re camping here, I recommend you hike up to Top Camp anyway to see Lake Naivasha’s incredible vastness, as well as spot exotic African flora – like these cool trees that branch out to cactuses or this other one that I call “spikey-purple-balls” (so poetic, I know).
Today’s the day!
If you can, wake up early to catch a sunrise over the lake. Although I’m sure nature’s hoots, howls and whistles already woke you before your alarm did. Otherwise, 8am is vamos.
Exiting Fisherman’s Camp onto Moi South Lake Road, turn left and pedal for less than five minutes to reach a small town with convenience stores, market stalls and unadorned eateries. On the left at the end of the town along the main road is Hollywood Café. Order simple but tasty fresh, homemade chapatti (like roti, 20 KES) alongside traditional Kenyan tea (25 KES) – with extra sugar! (the real way to drink it, I’m told) – for breakfast like the locals. If the chapatti isn’t warm, the electricity must’ve cut out (it happens in this town) so it’ll taste a little tough. You can otherwise opt for simple eggs and toast. Don’t be afraid to start an English conversation with Mutunga (the owner) and his niece Marcey, they’re incredibly friendly and will charge you the same price as with locals – a wonderful uncommon gesture in Africa.
After the quick meal, stock up on fruit from a nearby stall for snacks along the ride. Bananas (5 KES) will provide the healthy carbs you need!
You’re carbed up, all packed and ready to go.
Pedal towards Lake Oloidien, back in the direction of Fisherman’s Camp. Don’t expect to see anything so soon, just relax and enjoy the scenery.
Then… Soak in all the excitement with your first wildlife sighting!
Throughout the journey, there’ll be narrow passageways from the main road towards open fields with animals roaming freely. Guides have told me it’s fine for you to walk in and view them from a distance. If you’re lucky, you’ll be as little as 5 metres from them if they come close to the car road.
You will pass small, colourful towns – jump off and walk your bike through them to connect with your surroundings. Don’t be alarmed by small groups of men on motorcycles staring you down – their stern facial expressions should immediately soften as soon as you say “jambo!” (“hello”) with a warm smile. Children might be bouncing around shouting “myzungu!” (“white person”) – don’t be offended, it’s the same as when I’m greeted with “ni hao!” whenever I visit foreign countries. For the millionth time, I’m not Chinese, but hey.
Roughly 1 km from the Kogoni Village Centre, turn right at the sign reading “Oloiden Campsite”.
Lake Oloidien is Naivasha’s little secret. Only recently, pink flamingoes have migrated from nearby Lake Nakuru and call this little slice of tranquility home. While boat tours also depart here, note that flamingoes are only seasonally present during low tides.
With or without a tour, Oloiden Camp is a great stopover. Their reasonably priced menu of decent Western and traditional dishes, a well-stocked bar (a cold local Kilimanjaro beer, why not), scattered Victorian patio furniture on soft green grass, along with the most kind, attentive staff will give you strength until your next break.
After lunch, pedal back where you came from but turn right after 6 km onto Olkaria Route.
Once you reach Hell’s Gate National Park at the Olkaria Gate, the entrance fee is 3370 KES. You will finish at Elsa Gate (the main gate), a route that’s actually better for cyclists as it ends downhill.
When you arrive at the gorge, hop off, park your bike and explore by foot! This should take you no longer than 2 hours. You’ll be pushed into buying a tour guide – it’s certainly not a must, however if you’re short on time, I recommend the 45 minutes (1500 KES) or 1.5 hours (2000 KES) pass. My guide was mostly there to direct me in the right way, rather than provide substantial information. The area is not well marked and you can easily get lost – despite enjoyably in a lush wilderness setting.
Continue along the winding isolated gravel track – the only thing that divides you and this animal kingdom – through Hell’s Gate at the perfect time of the day. The majestic cliffs look of a dream as the sun is about to set. 2-3 hours is enough time for you to complete the trek, along with taking photos.
Pedalling as a dazzle of zebras swiftly gallop beside me or watching two antelopes playfully chase each other was simply remarkable and unforgettable. I love the way all these different animals live in harmony – humans, take note, ha.
This just wouldn’t be the same if I was in a car. You need to pedal through – to touch it, taste it, feel it.
The park officially closes at 6pm but don’t fret if you’re a little late, no one will drag you out. Just not too late because being here in the dark is not fun… If you see buffalos and the odd hyena which tend to appear in the late afternoon, don’t stop to take photos, just keep pedalling, just keep pedalling…
Seriously though, they can be dangerous albeit thrilling to encounter.
Return to your accommodation.
After a full day of pedalling, you deserve to devour a good meal and glass of wine. Naivasha isn’t abundant with dining options but luckily, Fisherman’s Camp will provide what you need. Their South African house wines are surprisingly delicious for what it’s worth – even more enjoyable over their African jazz music.
Suggestion? Head back to Hollywood Hotel and order a traditional marinated fish dish that comes with a side of a healthy kale salad and fluffy ugali – a polenta-like staple of African cuisine (250 KES). Although this salty, fishy meal isn’t for everyone, the juicy meat with crispy, spiced skin reminds me of Dad’s home cooking so I absolutely loved it.
As I was by myself, Matunga even arranged for his friend to pedal with me back to the campsite in the evening to make sure I was safe – that’s how sweet they are!
And there you have it. An easy breezy, DIY African safari for under $100.
Go slow and drink plenty of water. Happy pedalling!
- Check your mountain bike to ensure the gears still work and the tyres aren’t too worn out. This will help you a lot to get through steep hills toward Lake Oloidien and through the gravel – sometimes soft sand – tracks of Hell’s Gate.
- Keep a safe distance from animals – especially when riding through Hell’s Gate National Park.
- Listen out for nearby matatus and stick to the side as close as you can. Although it’s overall a safe journey, matatus are notorious for speeding so don’t put yourself in any more danger than you should be in.
- Say “jambo!” with a big, warm smile when you pass locals. They’ll appreciate it.
- Be careful of unexpected speed humps – there are no warning signs for when you need to slow down, and you can easily miss them while you’re admiring the landscape in other directions!
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