The Kenyan capital of Nairobi is the natural gateway for Australians travelling to East Africa for a safari, to meet a mountain gorilla, or to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. However, the 2017 elections have seen the city feature too prominently on the news for the cautious traveller to feel completely comfortable about visiting.
I recently found myself needing to spend a day in Nairobi while the election furore was at its peak. Here’s how I planned a perfect, stress-free day.
Avoiding any city hotspots was high on our list and happily, a little research highlighted that much of what we wanted from Nairobi — to visit wildlife trusts and explore some of the city’s history — was centred around the upmarket suburb of Karen.
The suburb takes its name from Karen Blixen, who owned the farm that became the suburb. You may recall she began her book, Out of Africa — originally penned as Isak Dinesen — with the immortal line “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”. So too began the 1985 film of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
Investigating accommodation options around Karen produces some interesting options including Giraffe Manor, where rescued giraffes from the adjoining Giraffe Centre call in for breakfast and afternoon tea, often sticking their heads through the window to join you. There’s also a Hemingways, an equally expensive hotel popular with guests.
I found Karen Gables, virtually next door to Hemingways and considerably more affordable. In fact, it was the perfect stay — Cape-Dutch meets Rudyard Kipling with spacious grounds, outside bar and pool, huge bedroom with a vaulted ceiling, and excellent security including two very large but friendly, well-trained dogs. We had meals with Chris, our host, and learned a lot about Kenya. For once, all the glowing reviews on Trip Advisor were accurate: the location could not have been better.
Karen Gables provides a relaxed oasis to stay in Nairobi
Our day of Nairobi discovery began when a car and driver provided by Karen Gables picked us up at 9am. It was a short drive to the Giraffe Centre where we were told to first wash our hands. We were allocated a friendly guide who shared knowledge about the endangered Rothschild giraffes while they ate food pellets out of our hands. “Don’t approach Daisy from the side — she head-butts.”
Some young giraffes had to stretch their necks to reach the verandah and weren’t very dexterous with their tongues so we had to place pellets between their teeth.
The star of the show was gentle Betty. Place a pellet between your lips and Betty would extract it with her long blue tongue in a sloppy kiss. It was such a unique experience to smooch a giraffe that we repeated it several times. The hand-washing facility was very handy for rinsing off afterwards.
If you are in Kenya for wildlife, as most visitors are, the highlight of Nairobi will likely be the David Sheldrick Trust for orphaned elephants. It’s best visited after a bit of research on its comprehensive website. Besides learning how each baby ended up here — through poaching, famine, or a surprising number rescued from wells — you can adopt a baby elephant for $US50 for a year. Why you should, apart from the worthy donation, will soon become clear.
The David Sheldrick Trust does fantastic conservation work helping orphaned elephants
The young elephants have to be bottle-fed every three hours so they each have a personal keeper. Visits are only allowed between 11am and noon each day. It’s quite a show as the babies troop in, get their two giant bottles (of human milk formula) and then either wander over to see the crowds behind the ropes or go for a messy mud bath before being sent away. It’s all exceedingly heartwarming.
We needed to buy a local Safaricom phone SIM so we visited the Galleria shopping mall in Bomas, but just long enough to leave with enough data and call credit to get through our visit.
Our chosen lunch venue was outside at Tamambo where Karen Blixen had her storehouse. The food was very good and the garden setting superb. It looked as if Blixen and her dashing pilot lover had just left.
The Karen Blixen Museum featured in the film, but only the exteriors — the house was too dark inside. Again, we were given a guide and she told us a lot that the film didn’t. The knuckles of the Ngong Hills rose behind the solid stone homestead.
By now, we were on a strict schedule to return to the Sheldrick Trust: when you adopt a baby elephant, you are given the opportunity to visit between 5pm and 6pm to put your baby to bed.
The Karen Blixen museum perfectly preserves her old stone homestead
The babies come charging out of the forest where they have spent the day, keen for a bedtime feed. Soon each is in his or her own stall, covered in a blanket and, in some cases, sound asleep. Others eat the leaves and branches in their stalls. Soon they are all settled and it’s time to leave. Maktao, my elephant, is one of the smallest but engaged in a tug of war over a branch with the elephant in the adjoining stall. It was a rewarding end to a very nature-filled day.
As we headed back to Karen Gables, we pondered what we didn’t see. When street protests aren’t imminent, Anthony, our driver, said to visit the Nairobi National Museum and the 1902 Sarova Stanley Hotel (around which the city was built). There is also a national park within the city where you can see lions, giraffe and hippos but you should find all those on safari anyway.
Back at our lodge, it was time for a Tusker beer by the pool before dinner. Between giraffe kisses and elephant cuddles, Nairobi had been a great primer for the Maasai Mara to come.
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Image credits: IndustryAndTravel / Shutterstock.com, LMspencer / Shutterstock.com.