Nairobi is a fascinating east African city to explore but few take the time to experience the city before running off to the Serengeti. On a recent visit I decided to maximize the little time that I had. I was staying in the nice part of town near all the Embassies and arranged with the Norfolk Hotel to have a driver/guide for the day. Together we set out to explore this sprawling city of three million people.
My first stop of the day was the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust: A Haven for Elephants and Rhinos. As we entered the park urban Nairobi with its pollution and people vanished and suddenly we were driving on dirt roads that looked like they could be an African movie set complete with absolutely abysmal roads that had no business hosting cars. Once we finally arrived, the “parking lot” at the trust was even worse! It was like driving on the moon and killed every last bit of suspension that Toyota had left. I left my driver and walked into the trust area where I was told to continue down the path into the bush. I had expected this place to be a shiny and expensive tourist machine but it was anything but. Two seconds off the trail and you would have thought yourself hopelessly lost in the African bush. So I walk through the trees following the narrow muddy path and soon I came to a clearing.
The rain had stopped a bit earlier and the sun was now out shining down onto five baby elephants!! They were pretty much the cutest things you could imagine and it was a surreal experience coming across them in the bush like that. One of the keepers was giving a talk about the elephants and he was just overflowing with information. The whole staff of keepers seems very dedicated to the orphaned elephant babies. Elephants are really amazing animals with near human-like emotions. The keeper told us about how female adult elephants will adopt babies in the wild and how it takes nearly 10 years before they can release the elephants back into the bush. They have to be careful not to overexpose the animals to civilization which is why their public interaction is strictly capped at an hour a day. They feed the elephants baby formula out of giant bottles maybe about 2 liters in size. The elephants totally devour them downing three bottles in just minutes and even holding them with their own trunks.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues elephants from all over Kenya and around Africa often flying orphaned elephant babies to the center after they’ve lost their parents to poaching or natural causes. The experience of visiting the center lets you not only see the elephants first hand, but get a sense of their personalities and how lovable they are. I got to touch them and feel their skin. The level of interaction allowed is set only by the elephant. When they want to walk away interaction time is over. I left the Wildlife Trust in awe over these animals and of this place. This national park is not fenced and animals come and go as they please through a passage to the Rift Valley.
My next stop was the Langata Giraffe Center not too far away, but outside the national park. The giraffe center is home to 14 giraffes that roam around freely. The focal point of the center is a large round elevated hut that is roughly giraffe height. You stand on the platform and giraffes converge on you eager to enjoy the handfuls of giraffe treats you are given when you arrive. It seemed all very touristy and very unlike the elephant trust but it was actually a TON of fun. At one point I had my hands crossed in front of me, each full of giraffe treats and a giraffe eating out of each hand with me laughing in the middle as i was covered in giraffe slobber. There were also a ton of adorable little African kids from local schools there so it was basically a sea of cute kids and giant giraffe heads! Off in the distance I recognized the famous Giraffe Manor – the super expensive hotel where giraffes wake you up in the morning by sticking their heads through your windows! Sadly I wouldn’t have time to visit on this trip. After taking FAR too many photos of the giraffes from every possible angle and feeding them a weeks worth of giraffe treats, it was time to move on to our next stop.
Next stop was Karen Blixen’s house and museum. I stopped in first at the Karen Blixen Cottages and Coffee Fields where I had a light lunch on the beautiful lawn outside surrounded by English cottages. As Karen Blixen was the inspiration for “Out of Africa” this place basically feels exactly as you’d imagine English-Africa. After some food it was over to the Karen Blixen estate just 500m down the road. The estate used to cover 6,000 acres and today only 16 make up the museum and surroundings. It’s roughly a $10 fee to enter the house but free tour guides (a must) are then provided to talk you through the early 19th century estate. As I explored the house I learned of Karen’s life and how she founded a hostpital and a school and gave a tremendous amount back to the Kenyan community. When she finally left Africa, she employed 700 workers that would have lost their jobs if it weren’t for her purchasing a parcel of land and relocating them at her expense. It was a move that solidified her place in history and explains why the suburb where her house is currently located is actually called “Karen”.
Out of the suburbs and back into central Nairobi my next stop was the Nairobi Central Market. The market is a huge covered building but really doesn’t have all that many stalls. They are mostly all the same souvenirs along with a fruit and vegetable market, a meat market and a fish market. As far as markets I have visited around the world, this was definitely one of the smallest ones. It was Friday late afternoon and rainy out so there weren’t many tourists at the market. Unfortunately this meant I was being harassed non-stop and could not take a single step without someone insisting I come look in their shop. I was sad to see that everyone sold almost the exact same stuff. I didn’t end up buying much, however I have always wanted to buy one of those African masks. I did ultimately pick up a beautiful carved cheetah mask. Overall the market was enjoyable, but also a huge pain in the ass. You have to be on guard constantly and it’s especially difficult being alone because at least with a partner you can bounce off each other and move more easily. Once piece of advice however – bargain bargain bargain! If you don’t end up paying 1/3 of the stated price you did a poor job.
Next up I headed over to the American Embassy Memorial Garden on the site of the former American Embassy that was destroyed by terrorist bombings in 1998. The garden is right in downtown Nairobi (nowhere near where the current US Embassy is located). I paid 40 schillings to get in and passed from bustling noisy Nairobi into a haven of silence and serenity. Mostly I just enjoyed sitting on a bench in the shade and looking through my guidebook after examining the small exhibit inside. For the most part the exhibit was what you’d expect – photos from the attack, testimonials and information. Only one part struck me as extremely odd. Off in one corner there was a glass display case maybe about 6-7 feet high and inside the display were small glass vials. Next to each vial was a small card with first person writing on it that would say something like…”I was on Kenyan Transit bus 112 on Mui road when the bomb went off. I sustained injuries to my left side, cuts on my upper leg and arms and damage to my eyes. Six months later during a routine chest X-ray doctor’s discovered a standard sized nail logged in my pelvis which was subsequently removed with surgery”. And guess what was in the glass vial that accompanied that card? Yes, of course, the nail. It wasn’t so much gross as it was totally bizarre a thing to put in an exhibit. A small poster with the same information would have seemed more appropriate but who has a nail removed from their pelvis and not only keeps it…but sends it to a museum? Very odd. Definitely a peaceful spot to take a rest though.
Dinner was at a Nairobi legend – Carnivore. Carnivore is all you can eat and “carvers” walk around with huge meat of all varieties on skewers. If you like what they have, they cut you a piece on to your plate. I’m talking HUGE pieces of meat, like picture an entire thanksgiving turkey on a sword. I ate far too much pork, beef, chicken, lamb, ostrich, crocodile, turkey etc all washed down with far too many Tusker beers. Carnivore was definitely a really fun experience and I would highly recommend it. It was a wonderful end to an action-packed day in Nairobi!