Friday, October 14, 2011

Kissing giraffes in Kenya: Country # 89

People often ask me if I get nervous traveling on my own.  My answer is usually not.  I try to do research beforehand so that I don't find myself staying at the intersection of Murderer's Alley and Pickpocket Place.  I try to exercise 'city sense'.  I try not to look like I'm packing a ton of cash (this one comes really easy, somehow).  And I always try to look like I know where I am going (this is one: not so easy.)  Yet none of these made me feel 100% confident heading into a city, affectionately known by friend and foe alike as "Nairobbery".  Tales of general lawlessness abounded and seeing as  I was set to start a safari in two weeks, one that required a large cash payment, I felt like a veritable walking ATM.

To allay these concerns, I initially based myself in the 'burbs.  I went straight from Kenyatta Airport to the Bush House and Camp, a lovely guesthouse located in the Karen district. This area, named after Karen Blixen, the author of Out of Africa, is where affluent Kenyans and ex-pats live in massive gated mansions with ever-present armed guards keeping watch.  It is not the most exciting part of town but it is the safest.
Fortunately, there were a couple of choice spots in the area to keep me entertained.  First on the agenda was The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  I saw that TripAdvisor ranked this as the #1 attraction in all of Nairobi but the description itself did not do much to sell it.  For one hour each day, visitors can watch as caretakers feed and interact with orphaned elephants. Um, ok.  Doesn't sound bad but this is a city that has a wildlife park within its city limits, a museum that houses some of the most important archeological finds regarding early man in the entire world and a center where you can kiss a giraffe.  I would expect you'd have to do more to hit the #1 spot than simply parading around some cute elephants.  And then I went to the orphanage.  It is not just the elephants that are remarkable but the people responsible for their well-being.  They take on the role of mother and care giver to over 40 baby elephants, who have been injured or orphaned, usually as a result to poaching.  These calves, who are fully dependent on mother's milk for the first two years of their lives, would have 0% chance of survival in the wild.  At the orphanage, they are fed and nurtured 24 hours a day. This includes having a care giver sleep in a hammock in the elephant's stall in order to give him or her with the sense of security that the mother would normally provide.  The humans rotate from stall to stall so that the elephants don't form a bond with a specific caretaker as that would cause the animal to suffer and probably refuse to eat if that person ever had a day off. By the time the orphans reach the age of three, the process of reintroducing them into the wild begins.  They are relocated to Tsavo National Park, where another set of care givers watches over them until they are fully integrated into a wild family, a process that can take up to ten years.

During the hour-long visit, guests are arranged into a circle while the volunteers bring out the first group of the orphans, those 2 years of age and under.  Listening to the volunteers explain the circumstances the led to each individuals' arrival is heart-breaking and makes the sight of these obviously happy and playful youngsters enough to bring a tear to the most stoic eye. (Note: I'm not all that stoic, I was on the verge of open sobbing for the duration of the hour).

Next up was the 2-3 years old.  By this age, they are beginning to develop tusks and if this particular afternoon was representative of the norm, they tend to be a bit rowdier, kicking over milk bottles, spraying dirt at anyone and everyone, and rough-housing with both the caretakers and each other.

On the way out of the center, there is a desk where it is possible to foster an orphan for $50 a yr. After witnessing the work done at this center, guests were lined up to donate all the way to the far gate. It was now clear why so many TripAdvisor reviewers had voted this place #1. Watching the love and respect that is lavished on these vulnerable creatures is beautiful beyond words.

As for #2 on that list, the Kazuri Beads Factory, no. Just no. What is wrong with you people? It is a frigging bead factory and jewelry shop! It is the mandatory stop on an organized tour that you grin and bear, not the #2 attraction in Nairobi.

Also probably not worthy of that title, yet way better, was my next stop, the Giraffe Center, a giraffe conservation and breeding center on same grounds as the famous (and stupid expensive) Giraffe Manor hotel, the one where curious giraffes poke their heads into guest rooms.

My reason for coming here was simple.  I wanted to kiss a giraffe.  Thanks to a platform that puts you eye to eye with the resident Rothschild giraffes, I felt this was as good a place as any to check this particular item off the bucket list.  Upon reaching the platform, visitors are given a handful of giraffe chow and warned about their propensity for head butting. I watched as people hand fed Daisy, a notorious head-butter,  and her younger (and shorter) friend but no one was going tongue to excessively long black tongue with the giraffes.

I was not sure about the etiquette involved so I approached a volunteer and asked (1) how does one get to first base with a giraffe and (2) would he be willing to take over my camera and record this magic moment.  The answer to the first question was obvious.  You stick a food pellet between your lips and wait.  It was the second part of my inquiry that proved more troublesome.  Daisy was too quick to snatch the pellets out of my mouth causing the poor volunteer to repeatedly miss 'the' shot.  I would place the pellet just so, get a face full of slobber and look over to find the photographer shaking his head and suggesting I try it again.  This must have happened, no exaggeration, at least a half dozen times before he got both myself and Daisy in the frame.  In the meantime, the coarse hair around her mouth was beginning to give me an itchy rash.

This alone should have been reason to be happy with my one good photo and simply walk away.  But, for reasons that I can not explain, I decided I wanted a shot from the other angle.  Another 5-6 tongue baths later, I got my photo and a case of whisker burn that stayed with me for the next couple of days.  Imagine having to explain that to a dermatologist...

After such a friendly and fulfilling first day in Nairobi, I began to think that perhaps the dangers of the city had been exaggerated.  That is, until day 2, when the country declared war on its neighbor to the north, Somalia and military tanks paraded through downtown  streets (but stayed clear of the Karen district so I only saw them on tv).  I took this as a cue to get out of town and hopped on a southbound train to Mombasa.

But instead of talking about Mombasa right now, I want to do like they do in those cool non-linear films where they play fast and loose with the chronology of events, the ones where you are not sure what happened when.  I want to jump to one month later, when I have already done an overland trip through Tanzania and (spoiler alert) seen four of the 'big five' animals.   I am now back in Nairobi, but am no longer carrying stacks of cash and after a couple of weeks camping in small villages, am craving the conveniences of city life.  Despite a State Dept. warning that had been issued due to the ongoing conflict,  Nairobi did not seem so scary anymore.  I checked into Milimani Backpackers, walking distance from the center of town.

From here, I was able to explore the surprisingly compact downtown area, visit the very impressive Nairobi National Museum (a must see for any budding creationist), watch a spirited performance of tribal dances at Bomas (where I had the 'honor' of being the token muzungo who gets pulled onto the stage and 'asked' to join in)  and take a tour Karen Blixen house (small and seeing as she sold off most of her things before leaving Africa, not really worth the cost of admission).

But, undoubtably, the highlight and strongest contender for the #2 spot, was the Nairobi National Park.  This wildlife preserve is only 7 kilometers from the city center, meaning that you could, in theory, be watching lions hunt down a herd of buffalo while still taking in the downtown skyline.  According to their website, the park is home to '400 species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 40 species of reptiles, and amphibians, and over 500 plant species. '  More amazingly, it is not completely fenced in, so I had a couple of cab drivers tell me of seeing giraffes grazing by the side of the road leading to the nearby domestic airport.

At first I was a bit put off by the price.  It is $40 for non-residents to enter the park and most tour agencies charge over $100 to drive you around the park.  With some haggling, you can get a cab to take you around for around $70, but sitting in a small sedan is hardly the ideal scenario for spotting wildlife.  This is why I was stunned to learn that there is such a better option available that gets no mention in any of the travel sites and boards I visited.

If this blog post does nothing else, I want it to convey this very important information:  If you go to the front gate of the park, you can pay $50- total- and this will get you both admission to the park and a seat in an open safari vehicle, driven by the park's own wardens, the people who know it best, for a 2 1/2- 3 hour game drive.  The only catch is that they need a minimum of 2 people to run the tour and as I was by myself and this fantastic service is not advertised, not even on the park's own website, there are not many walk-ups.  On my last day in Nairobi, I still had not found anyone else willing to join me but I decided to show up and hope for the best.  I arrived around 4pm, hoping for a late afternoon drive (note: if you go, try for either for sunrise or sunset since the animals will be hiding from the heat during all the in between hours and you won't see squat.)  I planted myself by the front gate and waited for about 10- 15 minutes until a guard took pity on me.  She heard my plight and took it upon herself to find another body to stick in that jeep.  I saw as she approached everyone who neared the gate until eventually she convinced a family of 4 Kenyans (who pay $5 for adults, $2 for children) that what they wanted more than anything was to do a safari on this day.

Right off the bat, we saw the 5th of the Big Five animals, the only one that had eluded me all month.  The "big five" was a designation coined by hunters (aka assholes) for the five animals that were most difficult to hunt on foot:  the lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhinoceros.  Nowadays, the goal is to try to spot and photograph all five on a safari.  And with that in mind, I present, not one but two rhinos:

Note the city skyline in the background.  How cool is that?

Shortly after the rhino spotting, the rains rolled in and the animals rolled out.  We did see some spectacular landscapes as well as buffalo, hartebeests  impala, zebras and giraffes that allowed to get quite close.

We searched in vain for lions and leopards, creatures that are difficult to spot in the best of circumstances, much lest in the midst of a torrential downpour, prompting our guide to issue an unnecessary apology at the end of the drive and lament that the animals "had been naughty".  

But the animals had just shown the sense to get out of the rain.  And regardless of all the warnings and admonitions I'd heard, no one else in Nairobi had been 'naughty', either.  As a matter of fact the only crime I experienced during my time in East Africa was outside the Ngorongoro Crater, when a felonious hawk swooped in and swiped the sandwich I was about to take a bite out of.  But now I'm getting ahead of myself...

1 comment:

  1. MAGNIFICENT pictures! Thanks for the park entrance tip that will come in very handy some day.