Nairobi gives visitors close-up of nature

Posted February 20, 2009

— Standing on a two-story high wooden balcony at the Giraffe Center in Nairobi, I attempted to pose for a photograph with my back to a Rothschild Giraffe, which quickly swung its stately head firmly into my shoulder, nearly knocking me down.

The message was clear: No photographs without feeding, as the giraffes habitually lean over the balcony railing, using 8-inch-long tongues to grab compacted molasses food pellets from awestruck tourists. They tolerate hugs of their muscular long necks – only while being fed – and will even pluck a pellet from a tourist’s teeth. They don’t like to be ignored.

It was the first day of a six-day African adventure in Kenya that would include an outdoor breakfast at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, with baboons and warthogs watching curiously from nearby bushes.

Two days later, we would be on a photographic safari roaming the Serengeti/Masai Mara Plains aboard a Land Rover watching lions, elephants, Cape buffalo, zebra, topaki, giraffes, leopards, crocodiles, wildebeest, cheetahs and even a hideous-looking hyena. They were often as close as a pedestrian on a city sidewalk.

Nairobi, capital and home to one-third of Kenya’s 31 million people, resembles most African cities, with plenty of speed bumps, roundabouts, aggressive pedestrians walking boldly among slow-moving vehicles and a cacophony of horns – red lights are not a signal to stop but to keep on going in an amazing dance of nerves and steel.

Our base of operations was the Norfolk Hotel, built in 1904 when Kenya was known as British East Africa and now owned by the Fairmont Hotel chain. The 168-room hotel has hosted thousands of famous guests – actors, royalty, politicians, celebrities, etc.

Our first sightseeing visit was to the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife’s Giraffe Center, home to 10 endangered giraffes and five warthogs. Situated in a rare indigenous forest on 60 acres near Nairobi’s western border, this is where Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville wrote a 1977 book about their personal rescue from extinction – one sweet-tempered Rothschild giraffe.

Today, Rothschild Giraffes – they have five horns – and their three-horned Reticulated Giraffe relatives reside in this protected preserve, helping create awareness of diminishing habitat due to farming that is endangering the species. The preserve has helped increase the number of giraffes in Kenya from 120 to 300.

Another Nairobi sightseeing lure is the former home of Karen Blixen, the heroine in the 1985 Oscar-winning movie “Out of Africa,” with Meryl Streep as Karen and Robert Redford as Denys Finch-Hatton, the white hunter and her lover who subsequently died in a crash of his single-engine plane.

Blixen, who wrote the book upon which the movie was based using the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, lived here from 1914 to 1931 before returning home to Denmark after the failure of her marriage to a baron, the economic collapse of the coffee plantation she was in charge of and the death of Finch-Hatton.

On the two-hour drive from Nairobi to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, the country’s poverty and entrepreneurship were evident, with tended cattle or sheep feeding on grassy areas next to the road because it’s government property and free.

Vendors stood roadside beside white bags of charcoal selling for $3 to $10 a bag to combat the altitude chill, and roadside markets were littered with hundreds of white cloths laid on the ground topped with clothes, crafts, produce and other goods for sale. People mingled at bus stops or squatted outside roadside shanties.

At the Safari Club, comfort and luxury amidst African wildlife are key attractions for world-class visitors, as it sits 7,000 feet above sea level in pristine air and is bisected through the exact middle of the hotel by the equator.

And in a demonstration worthy of Houdini – but not a trick – we watched water poured in a bowl with a hole in the bottom swirl counter clockwise south of the equatorial line and water in a similar bowl on the northern side swirl clockwise as it emptied.

As we checked into a two-bedroom cabin overlooking a forest alive with colorful, chirping birds, it was easy to see why movie star William Holden was able to convince a pair of wealthy friends in 1959 to buy the property – there are 120 acres of landscaped gardens and a 1,000-acre wildlife preserve – and create an exclusive club.

Members have included Bing Crosby, Winston Churchill, the Aga Khan, Bob Hope, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Ruark and Lord Louis Mountbatten. Oil sheiks, movie stars and country presidents are among current members.

All no doubt were impressed with the natural setting – views of snow-capped Mount Kenya (the Safari Club sits at the base), hundreds of different bird species, peacocks walking the grounds like decorated princesses, the elegance of the grounds and the world-class attention to service.

Following an afternoon tour of the grounds, we were indulged with a two-hour catered dinner in one of the cottages that gave us an exclusive glimpse into the pampered world of the rich and famous.

The next morning, we awoke early for a bush breakfast in a meadow on the slopes of Mount Kenya in the midst of the wildlife preserve, where elephants, cheetahs, foxes, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, mountain bongos, Cape buffaloes and dozens of different types of hoofed stock roam freely.

I climbed to the meadow with a guide and ranger armed with an M-15 rifle, while my wife took a different route on horseback, also with an armed ranger riding shotgun. Kenya’s beauty can be disarming, but its wildlife are not pets.

We arrived without incident and sat down to a linen tablecloth breakfast, as we watched bushbucks graze in the distance while baboons and warthogs eyed us curiously from a couple hundred feet away as we ate eggs, English bacon, yogurt, orange juice with champagne, coffee and fresh pastries.

Before departing the next day to the Serengeti, we walked to the nearby animal orphanage operated by the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. The conservancy has been instrumental in breeding endangered Mountain Bongos – white-striped and circularly horned – and releasing them into the wild.

The orphanage takes young animals orphaned in the wild by poachers or predators and raises them.

Visitors engage in close-up experiences with Colombus monkeys eating food pellets from their hand, see a Suni antelope – it's the smallest on earth at 12 to 17 inches high – scamper freely about inside the enclosed grassy campus compound with you and a baby Cape buffalo named “Betsy,” a baby warthog, a llama, pygmy hippo, ostrich, aldabra tortoise and baby wildebeest.

They all get along – no predators in the group – and see humans as a potential source of free food pellets outside normal feeding times. Touching and feeding animals unapproachable in the wild was the perfect preview to our upcoming flight to Masai Mara, where we would see hundreds of animals and birds in their natural habitat. No touching there, however.


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