Tragic end to fun weekend as Hell’s Gate claims seven lives

Police officers carry the body of one of the seven victims of a flash flood at the Hell's Gate National Park in Naivasha on Sunday. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

Ivraj Hayer, his wife, a niece, a nephew and three cousins were looking forward to ending their exciting weekend excursion to Naivasha with a visit to Hell’s Gate National Park.

But a few minutes after 4pm on Sunday, they were trapped in Ol-Jorwa gorge by a flash flood that swept his loved ones and put the park in the news for the wrong reasons.

“For over one hour, we held tight with my driver and niece before the water subsided, and we managed to walk to safety,” narrated Hayer.

The family had travelled from Nairobi and Kisumu for a weekend getaway in Naivasha.

According to Hayer, the park’s management had assured them of their safety, saying guides would advise them in case of an emergency.

He said although it had begun to drizzle, they were told it had last rained in April, and so there was no cause for alarm.

“We did not see any problem going down to the gorges. We met others on their way out, so it was all safe until the unthinkable happened.”

Hayer said when the waters started rising, they started climbing higher, looking for a safe location to shelter.

“At one point the guide was trying to save my nephew and they both slipped and were swept by the floods,” said Hayer, amid tears.

Two other park visitors, Daniel Ohola and Claire Munai, arrived at the park in the afternoon seeking adventure in the gorges.

They were lucky to survive.

“We arrived at the park at around 3pm and paid the requisite fees. We were assigned a guide who led us into the gorges. We were optimistic that our Sunday would be fun before returning to Nairobi.

Ohola said they were exploring one of the gorges called the Devil’s Bedroom when it started drizzling.

After some time, there was a loud roar, which they thought was coming from a nearby geothermal plant.

“We started hearing noise from the upper side of the gorges and thought it was from the geothermal wells. It grew louder and our guide instructed us to climb the walls of the gorge because he suspected it was a flash flood.

“Less than two minutes later, water started flowing through the dry gorge. A minute later, our feet were next to a furious river flowing at furious speed. We climbed higher and prayed that the water wouldn’t rise to where we were,” said Ohola.

He recalled walking past Hayer and his relatives earlier before it started drizzling.

“We found a group of around eight Indians who were accompanied by their tour guide and driver. They appeared to be from one family,” said Ohola.

He added that as rains started pounding the park, Hayer’s kin joined them as they took shelter under a rock canopy.

“We were taking shelter in a very uncomfortable position. There wasn’t enough ground to step on. Though we didn’t know each other, we held hands to avoid falling into the waters.”

As the water levels continued to rise, the group started moving towards an escape route. Then tragedy struck.

“All of us were terrified and were trembling as we walked towards an exit. A woman who was at the tail end slipped and fell into the waters. The next minute, I saw people being washed away by the waters. It happened so fast that we couldn’t save them,” Ohola said.

Raging river

The rest of the group stopped moving, fearing they would also slip into the raging river beneath their feet.

“Among those who joined us, only a man, a girl and their driver survived. The man told us his wife was among those swept away. We stayed trapped in one location for more than an hour until the waters subsided,” said Ohola.

Hayer’s family pointed an accusing finger at the park management for failing to act after they sent several SOS messages before tragedy struck.

A statement from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) confirmed that seven people were swept away.

KWS Central Rift assistant director Aggrey Maumo led a search team from KWS, Kenya Red Cross and police as they combed the vast Suswa Hills. The bodies were retrieved from deep mud in neighbouring Narok County on Monday morning.

KWS communication officer Paul Udoto said they had closed the gorge to the public due to continuing rains.

Hell’s Gate, which received its name from European explorers in the 19th Century, is around 100 kilometres northwest of Nairobi and just south of Lake Naivasha.

The site’s awe-inspiring scenery attracts thousands of visitors every year.

Sunday’s tragedy rekindled memories of 2012 when seven youths on a church excursion were swept away by flash floods.

Maenka ole Kisotu, a community leader, regretted the incident and blamed it on environmental degradation.

“There is no vegetation here. Once it rains, the floods sweep anything on their way. We suffer casualties and our animals are not spared,” he said.