Close encounters with giraffes, elephants, birds, flip flops, history and exotic meats
12.05.2016 - 12.05.2016 24 °C
As we are enjoying breakfast in the hotel, Tillya (owner of Calabash Adventures) arrives and greets us from behind a huge smile. He has come up from Arusha to personally show us Nairobi today.
Our first port of call today is the Giraffe Centre, and we arrive nearly half an hour before they open. They kindly let us in early, and we have the place to ourselves apart from one other family.
Betty Melville founded the Centre in 1979 with the main objective being the breeding of the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe whose habitat had been reduced to an 18,000-acre ranch that was slowly being subdivided to resettle squatters. Only 130 animals remained at that time. Betty rescued two of them and founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, a Non-Profit making organisation.
Following fundraising efforts, 26 breeding giraffes were rescued, rehabilitated and relocated to other parks within Kenya. Since then, the programme has had huge successes, having rescued, hand-reared and released around 500 orphaned giraffes back into the wild since opening.
The Giraffe Centre is now one of the top tourist attractions in Nairobi, where visitors can come to hand feed the giraffes. And that is exactly what we are doing this morning! Tillya recommended that we arrive at the centre first thing in the morning in order to successfully feed the giraffes – apparently the giraffes are often too full to be bothered to come out for the tourists later in the day!
Our first close encounter is a pregnant female who is quite happy to be fed but doesn’t like being petted.
We are encouraged to place specially formulated food pellets in our mouths for the giraffes to grab them with their long tongues, making for some hilarious reactions.
No one seems to have told the giraffes that it is not 'proper' to do 'tongues on a first date'.
I am a little concerned that Chris appears to be enjoying the kissing a little too much…
David, on the other hand, isn’t quite so sure.
He soon gets into the swing of it, however.
The ranger assures us that giraffe saliva is antiseptic. That’s OK then…
It's all good fun!
After a lovely long snogging session, it’s time for some education. In 1983, conservation also became part of the organisation’s agenda when they opened the environmental education centre. The primary objective here is to provide conservation education for school children and the youth of Kenya and they offer all sorts of free programmes to schools and other youth groups. They also give an interesting and numerous presentation to us tourists about all things giraffe, where we are treated to a very hands-on experience.
Wild warthogs run freely around the grounds and have a symbiotic relationship with the giraffes – apparently they like to hang out underneath their tall friends in order to snack on giraffe droppings. That brings a whole new meaning to the expression 'friends with benefits'.
Warthogs are said to have small brains, a simple mind and a bad memory. As soon as the giraffes start to run, the warthogs follow; but they will soon forget why they are running.
They also seem to have a high sex drive...
A naturalist guide named Moses takes us on a short nature trail, and explains about the medicinal, poisonous and other plants we see along the way.
The bark of this tree produces a milky substance, which – if you get it in your eye – will make you go blind. I like Moses' logic: “If you get the milk into your eye, you have two options – you look for running water. If you cannot find running water, you go blind. If you cannot find running water, you look for a lactating mother; and it’s very hard to spot a breastfeeding mother on safari…”
The Alaeodendron treats syphilis, diarrhoea and bloody cough, but the leaves are poisonous to cattle.
The sap from the Acokanthera schimperi tree is collected to produce the poison used on hunting arrows. It can also be used to treat syphilis.
Before we left home, I created a wish list of animals and birds I would like to see on this trip, and one of the items is a chameleon. I'm off to a good start, being able to one tick off on the first day!
These termite mounds appear to have been evacuated, probably because an anteater appeared on the scene, and a snake has moved in. Both aardvark and python are on my wish list, but we see neither.
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
We are early for the Elephant Orphanage too, and end up waiting outside for a while.
Daphne Sheldrick set up David Sheldrick’s Wildlife Trust in memory of her husband after his death in 1977. The trust has played a significant and important role in Kenya's conservation effort, something the Sheldricks had both been heavily involved in prior to the creation of the trust.
Orphaned baby elephants are brought to the centre and are hand raised using Daphne's special baby milk formula - not an easy job. Armed with enormous patience, the staff take on the role of the elephants' mothers, teaching them how to suckle, use their trunks and ears, roll in the dust and bathe.
The baby elephants are fed every three hours and continue to be mothered up until the age of two, when they are able to feed for themselves; at which stage the slow process of reintegration into the wild begins. This could take up to ten years.
For an hour each day, the public are allowed in to the orphanage to see the elephants being brought out to feed.
We stand at the rope waiting for the elephants to arrive, while looking around for other wildlife. A herd of impala wander past, a pin-tailed whydah flitters about and an inquisitive serval causes a bit of a stir.
One by one the baby elephants start arriving. Slowly at first, then the anticipation of food gets the better of them and the excitement is palpable.
The baby elephants are adorable, and watching them drink, play and being generally mischievous is an enchanting experience.
Lyn fosters a baby elephant called Alamaya (a Mother's Day gift from her daughter Kelly). Ravaged by hyenas, Alamaya had lost her tail and suffered severe trauma in the attack, and it wasn't until three months after her rescue, when an operation was performed to help cut away scar tissue which was inhibiting her from urinating, that they discovered that Alamaya was in fact a he. So severe was his injuries when he was rescued from the Masai Mara in neighbouring Kenya two years ago that nothing remained to give the vets any evidence of his genitalia or indication of gender.
Lyn at the entrance to the sanctuary, showing off her adoption certificate
Kelly chose Alamaya in particular, because the lack of a tail would make him easier for us to spot in amongst all the frolicking baby elephants. His name Alamaya is the Maa (local language) word for 'brave'.
You can read all about Alamaya here and even see the video of her/his rescue.
So, here we stand, looking at the backside of every elephant as they appear from the forest. They all have tails. A little disappointed, we resign ourselves to the fact that Alamaya is one of the elephants not making a public appearance today.
The last elephant saunters in to the arena, and much to our delight, he is tail-less! This is Lyn's transgender immigrant foster child.
Seeing Alamaya now, it is hard to imagine what a tough start in life he had!
We have some amazing close encounters with the elephants as they wander up to the single rope fence that divides us from them. What an experience!
An African Love Story
If you have an interest in African animals and elephants in particular, I would wholeheartedly recommend reading Daphne Sheldrick's autobiography 'An African Love story: Love, Life and Elephants'. I read the book very recently and absolutely loved it. It is an extraordinary story of unconditional love of animals and enormous dedication to conservation. Well worth a read.
As we leave the centre, Tillya decides he wants to do his bit and become a foster parent to a baby elephant. Here he is with the certificate for his adopted child. Congratulations on your latest offspring Tillya!
Utamaduni Craft Centre
Utamaduni, which means “culture, tradition and folklore”, consists of a number of individual craft shops, where a portion of the profits supports charities including Street Boys.
Our main reason for visiting Utamaduni is to have lunch in its peaceful restaurant on a shaded patio.
I don't want to fill up too much at lunchtime today, as we are going to Carnivore for an early dinner tonight, so I settle for the melted steak and cheese sandwich.
After my disappointment finding a lack of birds in our hotel gardens yesterday, the grounds here at Utamaduni more than makes up for it. I spend the entire lunchtime jumping up and down from my seat trying capture some of the feathered inhabitants that flit around the feeders and bird baths.
Red Billed Firefinch
White Browed Sparrow Weaver
Large Golden Weaver
Dusky Turtle Dove
Red Billed Firefinch
White Browed Sparrow Weaver
In most parts of Africa recycling is not a modern environmentally friendly feel-good concept; it has long been a necessity:
over the years we have seen petrol sold in used glass bottles along the side of the road, children's toys created from whatever is available, old car tyres becoming sandals or a toy for the kids, jewellery made from seeds or ring-pulls, cement sacks turned into clothing, sardine tins reappearing as oil lamps... you get the picture.
The concept of recycling and upcycling has been taken one step further here at Marula Studios. Started by Julie Johnston after seeing the creative toys produced from plastic waste by the children of Lamu Island off the Kenyan coast; stuff which would otherwise have been an environmental hazard to birds, turtles and other marine life.
From its humble beginnings in 2005, the enterprise now employs over one hundred women to collect discarded flip-flops (and the now more ubiquitous Crocs - Homer, take note!) dumped or washed up on Kenya's beach resorts.
Truckloads of odd sandals are transported to the workshop here in Nairobi where the flip-flops are washed, sun-dried, sorted into colour schemes and then glued together to form bigger shapes.
We are given a private tour of the workshops, with each stage explained to us in detail.
Using ordinary kitchen knives, the resulting blocks are carved into all sorts of shapes such as animals, toys, ornaments, photo frames, coasters, key chains, Christmas decorations, bottle holders and much more.
Larger pieces start life with a core of Styrofoam before the flip-flops are affixed.
Sanding machines add the finishing touches.
The end products become stunning works of art and are sold here at Marula Studios and exported all over the world.
To complete the recycling loop, any off-cuts left over from the carving is used for the creation of the soft mats found in children's playgrounds.
The concept is a simple one, but it benefits the society in many ways:
· Cleaning up the beaches, making them more appealing to locals and tourists
· Preventing birds and marine life from getting sick or dying from ingesting waste
· Creating local employment on the coast as well as in the workshops and studio
· Reducing the amount of waste
· Offering domestic and foreign visitors unique souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home
These two pieces now happily coexist in their new home in Bristol.
Naturally, exit is through the shop.
Karen Blixen House
For those of you old enough to remember the book Out of Africa and subsequent award-winning film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the name Karen Blixen will be familiar. The film provides a vivid snapshot of life in the last decades of the British Empire and some breathtaking scenery shots, although not a true version of Karen's memoirs of the 17 years she spent in Africa.
On a private tour of the house, the guide tells us all about the history of the house, pointing out the original pieces of furniture from Karen's time and the movie; as well as recounting Karen's Blixen's personal life story.
History of the House
Karen and her husband Bror von Blixen bought the house in 1917 as part of a coffee farm venture in Kenya, which was then called British East Africa. Karen called the house 'Bogani' or 'Mbogani' meaning a house in the woods. When their marriage failed after eight years, Karen continued to run the farm on her own until she returned to Denmark in 1931.
Later the farm was broken into 20 acre parcels for development by its next owner Remy Marin, who is said to have named the subsequent residential Nairobi suburb Karen after the farm's famous resident.
For a time the house was only sporadically occupied until the Danish government purchased it in 1964 and presented it to the Kenyan government as an independence gift. After the success of the Out of Africa film in 1985, the government opened the house as a museum. Many pieces of furniture that Karen Blixen sold on her departure were acquired for the shooting of the Out of Africa film, and are now part of the exhibition in the Museum. The architecture is typical of late 19th century, which includes the spacious rooms, verandas, tiled roof and stone construction typical of this period.
The grounds contain old farm equipment, and from the terrace we can see the famed Ngong Hills, as mentioned in the opening scene from the Out of Africa film:
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills...”
Karen Blixen's life
Born in Denmark in 1885, Karen entered into a marriage of convenience with her half-cousin Bror van Blixen who promised to buy her a dairy farm in Africa. Bror, however, developed their farm as a coffee plantation instead. The farm fared little better than their marriage - which ended in divorce after hard-drinking womanising Bror infected Karen with syphilis (funnily enough, the guide omits the bit about syphilis in her story) - and was plagued by a number of disasters including fire, repeatedly bad harvests and falling market price for coffee.
After her divorce, Karen fell in love with an English man, Denys Finch Hatton. Tragedies were to follow Karen, however, and after Finch Hatton died in a plane crash in 1930 (he is buried in the Ngong Hills we can see beyond the house), she was forced to return to Denmark where she pursued a career in writing.
Denys Finch Hatton
Karen died on her family estate in Denmark in 1962 at the age of 77.
We go back to the hotel for a quick shower and change before Peter – Tillya’s driver – takes us to Carnivore Restaurant for dinner, where we again arrive early, nearly half an hour before they open for dinner. This means we have to sit and have a drink in the bar, oh the horror of it!
The well-fed and very expectant cat follows us in to the restaurant when we are seated.
The Carnivore opened its doors in 1980 to instant success as a strikingly different dining experience to anything previously seen in Kenya. Voted by UK magazine Restaurant to be among the 50 best restaurants in the world in 2002 and 2003 in recognition of the fact that you could dine here on exotic game meats. When we first came here in 2001 (and later in 2006) we were told that they had their own farm where they bred exotic game for the BBQ, and we were served meat such as zebra, warthog and even giraffe!
In recent years, however, strict new laws mean that zebra, hartebeest, kudu and the like are now off the menu, which is quite ironic as I can buy all those and others in a store less than 20 miles from where we live in Bristol, UK (OK, I have never seen giraffe meat in the shop, but certainly all the others). Exotic meats or not, this is NOT the place to visit with a vegetarian – the Carnivore is a meat speciality restaurant whose motto is 'The Ultimate Beast of a Feast'; not dissimilar to a medieval banquet.
This certainly is a BBQ with a difference and not for the light eater – hence my choice of a small lunch earlier. The Carnivore is a rather indulgent ‘Nyama Choma’ (barbecued meat) dining venue where we can sample a variety of local meats roasted over a charcoal fire. Dominating the entrance to the dining room is the spectacular fire pit, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else on our travels. Whole joints of meat – legs of lamb and pork, ostrich, sausages, rumps of beef, spare ribs, chicken wings, kidneys and crocodile steaks are skewered on traditional Maasai spears and roasted over the fire.
We are shown to our table and the movable feast can begin. Knowing from experience what is about to come, I urge the others not to eat the soup for starters but dive straight into the feeding frenzy of grilled meats.
When the meat has reached a perfect temperature, an army of carvers carry the full skewers from table to table, carving slices of meat on to our sizzling cast iron plates for as long as we want and as much as we can handle.
As long as the little white flag on the table is still flying the meats continue to arrive.
As I said earlier, most of the meat these days is of the more mainstream type, but that does not mean there is a lack of variety:
Roast leg of lamb
Honey glazed pork ribs
Some of the ‘speciality meats' are brought out in little taster-sized morsel on a tray.
There are chicken livers, spicy lamb sausages, rabbit and bulls’ testicles.
Yes, you read that right: bull’s testicles. That’s what the small half-an-egg-shaped item is at the front of the plate. Not a strong taste, but it has a somewhat odd texture. Not unpleasant, but not something I would be in a rush to order again. At least I have the balls to try it!
The food is piled on our plates until our stomachs are over-full and the lurking (ever-expanding) cat has devoured any 'accidentally' dropped leftovers. Something tells me we won’t be sleeping well tonight – such an enormous amount of meat on top of this morning’s Larium*** tablets doesn't bode well!
- ***Larium is a malaria prophylaxis known for its rather unpleasant side effect of psychotic nightmares.
When we reach the point in this gastronomic overload that even just one more mouthful will send us over the top – we declare defeat and lower the white flag in capitulation.
Yes, it is fairly pricey; and yes, it is most certainly touristy, with the zebra-aproned waiters’ theatrical ‘performances’ giving it an almost Disneyesque feel; but Carnivore has been an icon amongst tourists, ex-pats and wealthier locals for the last 25 years for a reason. Love it or hate it, I do think visitors to Nairobi should experience this circus-like dining adventure at least once.
Peter takes us back to our hotel for an early night as we have an early start tomorrow.
Thank you Tillya and Calabash Adventures for a great first day in Africa!