THE weathered signpost bears a somewhat unexpected inscription: Hell's Gate, a name seemingly more suited to the American wild west than the Kenyan outback. But here in this East African country it fits well. Here, too, there is a history of frontier romanticism. The first white settlers at the beginning of this century sported 10-gallon hats, pistols in their belts, and struggled to pioneer what they regarded as a new, fertile, and largely empty land.
Hell's Gate, known as ol'butot by the Masai herdsmen who have traditionally roamed this wild savanna region, is in fact a cleft in steep ocher cliffs leading through thick bush to an isolated, arenalike canyon. The first Europeans reached here in 1883, notably the German naturalist G. A. Fischer, followed a few months later by the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson.
It was probably some later wit, an early British settler perhaps, who nicknamed the gorge after its abundant thermal activity. Spewing sulphuric jets of steam and bubbling mud from cracks in the ground, the array of hot springs lends the depths of the canyon an atmosphere suggestive (to anyone with a bit of imagination) of Hades.
But the location is hardly as inhospitable as it sounds. Last year, the Kenyan government proclaimed it a national park. But only after much pressure from conservationists, both at home and abroad. Not yet officially opened, its facilities are being privately funded by the (Joy Adamson) Elsa Trust and other voluntary efforts. The idea is to turn it into a ``walking park.''
``This was was the best thing that could happen,'' said Mervyn Carnelly, a former policeman and farmer who knows the region better than most. His family used to own 6,000 acres around Hell's Gate, but he now lives in retirement, running a fishing camp that overlooks Lake Naivasha. ``If they were to do crops in that place during a bad year, a drought year, it would turn into a dustbowl. Besides, there are more animals in the park than ever before.''
A sparse region of natural beauty, Hell's Gate runs west of the ancient lava flows of Mount Longonot, a 9,111 foot high extinct volcano dominating Lake Naivasha and the Rift Valley. Combined with Longonot and Naivasha, the region forms a unique sanctuary for bird and animal life. It has been a longtime favorite of hikers, rock climbers, and nature lovers.
The cliffs of Hell's Gate, for example, are the breeding ground for vultures, in particular the rare lammergeier, or bearded vulture, which has a wingspan second only to the Andean condor. The lakeshore itself is rich in birdlife -- pelicans, grebe, goliath herons, and open-billed storks.
To reach the park takes less than two hours by car from Nairobi. But the road around the lake, one of the most traveled in the country, has been badly neglected. Lack of maintenance has allowed it to deteriorate to the point that it is now regarded as one of the toughest sections of the East African safari ralley.
A uniformed ranger with stiff black walking boots -- James -- was waiting for us at the park entrance at nine in the morning. We immediately set off by foot down the main dirt track toward the hot springs. Scattered groups of kongoni, Thompson gazelle, eland, and zebras grazed only a few hundred yards away.
Formely a member of the anti-poaching unit at Garissa, near the Somali border, James carries a whip made out of hippo hide as his only weapon. This, he explains, is very effective against Masai caught grazing their cattle in protected areas, a restriction the Masai resent.
At Fisher's Tower, a volcanic plug near the ``gate'' itself and a popular scaling wall for climbers, baboons scamper off into the nearby bush. Rock hyrax, groundhog-like creatures always curious to get a closer look, peer with quivering noses from their hideaways. It is hard to belive that the hyrax's closest relative is the elephant.
Hell's Gate is not teeming with animals. But it does have variety ranging from giraffe, ostrich, and ratels, to aardvarks, cheetah, and the occasional elephant. Two water points have made it easier for the animals to survive, especially since last year's drought when many perished.
In the early days, the game was able to wander down to Lake Naivasha to drink. But farm fences along the shore have now blocked their access. When the park was being planned, it was hoped that a land corridor across the main road to the water's edge could be established, but this has not yet been achieved.
For a ``walking park,'' the only real menace is the cape buffalo, not the handful of lions and leopards that call this place home. Recently, explains James, he had to accompany -- with a rifle -- two Canadian biologists on a two-month study of finches. ``They were going all over the place looking for birds, usually early morning or evening when the buffalos come out.''
But it is the lone buffalo that one has to watch out for. ``They're dangerous, tricky animals,'' maintains Mr. Carnelly. ``They killed one African and nailed an American friend of mine to the ground, but he was a hefty fellow and he just put his foot in its face and pushed it off.''
Carnelly admits that this is a bit of a dampener to the ``walking park'' concept. Yet part of the problem, he continues, is that ``these game department people come in and shoot them [for control reasons]. But they're such rotten shots that they just pepper them up. Buffalo have taken a hammering just like the hippos. The point is, you have to put in well-marked trails.''
We descend into the gully leading into the main canyon. We can see the jet of steam rising from the hillside. The riverbed, now only a trickle, is heavily marked with the prints of animals that have come to water. It is also littered with crumbling pumice and fragments of obsidian.
But that, at least, is natural litter.
Junked pieces of scaffolding and twisted pipe lie discarded on the ground, remnants of Coca Cola's joint venture with Columbia Picture's ``Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.''
We stayed at ``Elsameer,'' Joy Adamson's former home and now a beautiful lakeside retreat run by the Elsa trust as a conservation center.
Researchers and members of scientific, wildlife, and natural history societies come to work or use it as a base for fishing, birdwatching, and local exploring.
Staying at Elsamere is like spending a weekend with good friends at an English country house.
There is a good library, tea in the garden, and, at dinner, long discussions about Kenya and wildlife.
But one is definitely in Africa. Fish eagles shriek from the ``fever'' trees and a troop of cheeky colobus monkeys drop by to feast on kitchen scraps, or even better, nip in through the window to steal bread.
But nothing is quite so unnerving as being awakened in the middle of the night by a strange and foreign sound just outside your bedroom window.
Not to worry, it's only a cluster of hippos who have lumbered up onto the lawn from the papyrus-covered lake shore to methodically munch the grass.