Go to Kenya, kiss a giraffe


Go to Kenya, kiss a giraffe

Arica is everything Disney said it would be, and more

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  June 13th, 2016

Nairobi can be a moist handshake for anyone who comes to Kenya, head full of Disney stardust. 

I had planned to touch down on Pride Rock itself, alighting directly onto the molten brown savannahs, which would be dotted with billions of fauna, grazing and chasing and migrating, cinematically embracing their roles on the food chain. Circle of Life would thrum in all our souls. This is exactly the case, my guide Eric Omenda assures me, right after we get through visa-on-arrival and Nairobi. 

The capital city is stiltingly modern, not especially good-looking or friendly, and with traffic jams that make Mumbai’s rush hour feel like highway cruising. Here the game is of moments and details: flashes of beauty, warmth and discovery that leave you moved if you’re willing to stay open. Like the scavenging marabou storks that perch atop the city’s highest billboards like haggard sentinels. Like the delicious indigenous AA blend coffee at the local Java House that you’d be wise to spend at least half your shopping budget on. Like how a national air of spiffiness asserts itself everywhere you look, in the teetering heels, gleaming suits, complicated hairdos and confident accessorising. 

The notorious matatu, a public minivan which forms the country’s chief transport, is another everyday wonder and often shoulders the blame for Kenya’s excessively high road-death toll. Funny, because they’re the only thing keeping me from killing myself as we spend three static hours in traffic trying to get to dinner a mere eight km away. Drenched in schizophrenic iconography that goes from crucifixes to Coca-Cola logos and the Canadian flag – and fitted with sub-woofers that make your bones vibrate – these former death-wishes-on-wheels were regulated a decade ago but you still get the sense that you need to be at least 10 years younger to fully appreciate the cultural experience of getting on one. Luckily, they crowd the roads and are freely available for a game of crane-blatantly-to-look-inside-but-quickly-avert-gaze-when-caught.

My favourite Nairobi moment still comes courtesy the wild. We miss our chartered flight to the bush the next morning (thank you, rush hour traffic) but Omenda promises to make it up to us with a trip to Karen. The well-heeled south-western suburb is named for its most famous inhabitant, Danish author Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, who would later write about her Kenyan experiences in the iconic Out of Africa. The author’s farmhouse is now The Karen Blixen Museum and offers an affecting insight into a sensitive, melancholic woman. We’re here, however, for the Giraffe Centre, a breeding facility working to conserve the highly endangered Rothschild’s species, only a few hundreds of which remain.

How does the giraffe endure when extinction has claimed far less absurd creatures? Even science is weird about it, awkwardly calling it giraffa camelopardalis or a camel that’s marked like a leopard. The ones at the centre lurch unsteadily towards the snack pellets in our outstretched palms, necks moving slowly through the air like mechanically operated cranes, baleful eyes scoping out the competition, before leaning in too close and washing off the food with their warm, grey, antiseptic tongues. Later, at the adjoining education centre, we learn that giraffes are actually pretty bad-ass. They need only two hours’ sleep, drink water once every few days, have a prehensile tongue and can decapitate a grown lion with a kick. I guess what I’m saying is, Melman was a lie. As we bid goodbye to the giant freaks, I realise Omenda’s little preview has worked. I am no longer grumpy about our missed flight; we’re merely hours away from the real deal. 

Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in Northern Kenya’s Lewa Downs and that is the least interesting fact about this wildlife conservancy. Our tiny plane lands in the middle of nowhere just like I’d hoped, we get in a waiting jeep, and our first safari begins immediately. The driver Steven, an old park hand, gives us the primer: these 60,000 acres of ethereal savannah revolutionised rhino conservation in East Africa in the ’70s by enlisting the local communities’ support and rewarding them with employment and infrastructure. They’ve also raised a conservation militia, which patrols the park, and uses snipers to kill poachers on sight, which is great for the animals but cause for some human rights debates. 

Having never been on a safari before, I am not familiar with the etiquette at all, but somehow shouting and pointing at the animals doesn’t seem kosher. This becomes difficult when we spot the first of the Big Five: a lone black rhino, the conservancy’s founding species, desperately endangered because of the supposed cancer-curing properties of its horn. He barely acknowledges us—this will be the trend in the bush—but his 1000kg figure and proximity invite us to imagine him charging towards our exposed vehicle if we antagonise him. I silence my phone camera and begin to take picture after picture, because I want to really live in this moment but definitely also want to show off later.

Over the next half hour, we spot Another Three in quick succession—the lion, the elephant and the cape buffalo. Our guide tells us the elephants are the ones to be in awe of. Besides their obvious grace and antiquity, their massive brains store all kinds of nifty facts, like the specific smells of each family member’s urine, exactly what route they took to a water cove ten years ago and which twit on a jeep scared their calf. 

I wonder if driving through this incredible topography of windswept hills and plateaus with the snow-spotted Mount Kenya in the distance, and animals roaming wild if not exactly free, is now tedious for the serious, polite Steven. After staring stupidly as a single file of Grevy’s zebras sprint across the horizon, we come upon a couple of lazy lions (there is no other kind). We stop breathing as a group, as one of them lifts himself off the warm dirt track, takes a leisurely piss and then walks around our jeep to the tall grass on the other side before collapses in a heap. “Shall we go, then?” Steven asks in the middle of our out-of-body experience. 

We spend the night at the austere-luxe Lewa Safari Camp, a good example of how tourism can be an enjoyable, relaxing form of conservation. The tented resort is owned by the conservancy, managed by naturalists and employs some of the country’s most highly trained guides and guards, all from surrounding villages. Almost all earnings go into maintaining the conservancy’s expensive security systems and multiple community programmes. But none of this effort is apparent as you lounge in front of the fireplace, cut into a perfectly medium-rare steak or get a spa treatment. When dinner is over, we’re escorted to our suites by armed guards who fasten the door flaps with locks once we’re in. If you’re the imaginative sort, you’ll stay as still as you can under the sheets with your personal walkie-talkie clutched to your chest.

In the morning we fly to the Maasai Mara at long last. The national reserve in southwest Kenya was voted Africa’s best game sanctuary, beating out South Africa’s Kruger National Park and the Serengeti in Tanzania—we’re talking the home of The Lion King here—for its sheer awesomeness. The Mara, as it is called locally, forms the northern outpost of the Great Migration, that most stupefying wildlife spectacle in which two million animals, including wildebeest, gazelle, elands and zebras, chase the rain and greener grass over 2,000km, from the Serengeti upwards into the Mara, crossing the crocodile-infested Mara river. 

There is a magic here replicable only with good CGI. The grasslands are like low, swaying flames; Maasai, the semi-nomadic, pastoral inhabitants wend their way elegantly across the plains, their fiery red shukas catching the sun and intimidating deadly predators. (Later at their manyatta, a village with no real barricades since the Maasai are a warrior tribe and therefore XXL of cojones, I ask about their bright, handcrafted accessories of beads and chains and medallions: Are they a social and political marker?  Or totems to their animistic deities? No, they just look great, a young tribesman tells me, before reapplying his RayBans.) 

The sound of our jeep coming down the red dirt track sends herds of skittish Thomson’s gazelle scampering. Harteebeest headbutt each other like pre-teen boys and a family of warthogs wriggle their fat butts at us as we halt and let them cross, knowing full well they have right of way here. We work ourselves into a frenzy every time we spot that commonplace species, the “ALT” our jocular guide tells us wheezing with laughter, “Animal Looking Thing”. When a young lion turns on his back, blinking in the sun and showing us his round belly, I almost disintegrate. We chase the elusive Fifth—the leopard—but only catch glimpses of it, draped on the high branches of distant trees. 

Our base in the reserve is the Sand River Camp. It sits on the banks of its namesake river, which the migrating herds also cross on their way in from the Serengeti.  Four bored lions greet us at the gate, where we notice the absence of any electric fencing. The staff don’t seem perturbed and so we let ourselves relax into the luxury of this 1920s-hunting-lodge-style dig. As the tents begin to be pelted at night by sudden torrential rain and the river hisses urgently, I sip sherry, suffused with the glow of good fortune.

A good way to see the Mara for the potboiler it is, is from a hot air balloon, at the break of dawn. Wafting silently over the plains that are slowly waking, with only vultures in the tops of acacias for conspirators, is going to be a life experience, less ordinary. When you’re allowed into such beauty you must also bear the terror for its fragility. The Great Migration is under threat from human encroachment, we’re systematically decimating entire species of weird, wonderful animals, and our grandkids may never get to be kissed full and wet in the face by a frisky giraffe.

I clicked for all I was worth.

Nairobi can be a moist handshake for anyone who comes to Kenya, head full of Disney stardust. 

I had planned to touch down on Pride Rock itself, alighting directly onto the molten brown savannahs, which would be dotted with billions of fauna, grazing and chasing and migrating, cinematically embracing their roles on the food chain. Circle of Life would thrum in all our souls. This is exactly the case, my guide Eric Omenda assures me, right after we get through visa-on-arrival and Nairobi. 

The capital city is stiltingly modern, not especially good-looking or friendly, and with traffic jams that make Mumbai’s rush hour feel like highway cruising. Here the game is of moments and details: flashes of beauty, warmth and discovery that leave you moved if you’re willing to stay open. Like the scavenging marabou storks that perch atop the city’s highest billboards like haggard sentinels. Like the delicious indigenous AA blend coffee at the local Java House that you’d be wise to spend at least half your shopping budget on. Like how a national air of spiffiness asserts itself everywhere you look, in the teetering heels, gleaming suits, complicated hairdos and confident accessorising. 

The notorious matatu, a public minivan which forms the country’s chief transport, is another everyday wonder and often shoulders the blame for Kenya’s excessively high road-death toll. Funny, because they’re the only thing keeping me from killing myself as we spend three static hours in traffic trying to get to dinner a mere eight km away. Drenched in schizophrenic iconography that goes from crucifixes to Coca-Cola logos and the Canadian flag – and fitted with sub-woofers that make your bones vibrate – these former death-wishes-on-wheels were regulated a decade ago but you still get the sense that you need to be at least 10 years younger to fully appreciate the cultural experience of getting on one. Luckily, they crowd the roads and are freely available for a game of crane-blatantly-to-look-inside-but-quickly-avert-gaze-when-caught.

My favourite Nairobi moment still comes courtesy the wild. We miss our chartered flight to the bush the next morning (thank you, rush hour traffic) but Omenda promises to make it up to us with a trip to Karen. The well-heeled south-western suburb is named for its most famous inhabitant, Danish author Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke, who would later write about her Kenyan experiences in the iconic Out of Africa. The author’s farmhouse is now The Karen Blixen Museum and offers an affecting insight into a sensitive, melancholic woman. We’re here, however, for the Giraffe Centre, a breeding facility working to conserve the highly endangered Rothschild’s species, only a few hundreds of which remain.

How does the giraffe endure when extinction has claimed far less absurd creatures? Even science is weird about it, awkwardly calling it giraffa camelopardalis or a camel that’s marked like a leopard. The ones at the centre lurch unsteadily towards the snack pellets in our outstretched palms, necks moving slowly through the air like mechanically operated cranes, baleful eyes scoping out the competition, before leaning in too close and washing off the food with their warm, grey, antiseptic tongues. Later, at the adjoining education centre, we learn that giraffes are actually pretty bad-ass. They need only two hours’ sleep, drink water once every few days, have a prehensile tongue and can decapitate a grown lion with a kick. I guess what I’m saying is, Melman was a lie. As we bid goodbye to the giant freaks, I realise Omenda’s little preview has worked. I am no longer grumpy about our missed flight; we’re merely hours away from the real deal. 

Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in Northern Kenya’s Lewa Downs and that is the least interesting fact about this wildlife conservancy. Our tiny plane lands in the middle of nowhere just like I’d hoped, we get in a waiting jeep, and our first safari begins immediately. The driver Steven, an old park hand, gives us the primer: these 60,000 acres of ethereal savannah revolutionised rhino conservation in East Africa in the ’70s by enlisting the local communities’ support and rewarding them with employment and infrastructure. They’ve also raised a conservation militia, which patrols the park, and uses snipers to kill poachers on sight, which is great for the animals but cause for some human rights debates. 

Having never been on a safari before, I am not familiar with the etiquette at all, but somehow shouting and pointing at the animals doesn’t seem kosher. This becomes difficult when we spot the first of the Big Five: a lone black rhino, the conservancy’s founding species, desperately endangered because of the supposed cancer-curing properties of its horn. He barely acknowledges us—this will be the trend in the bush—but his 1000kg figure and proximity invite us to imagine him charging towards our exposed vehicle if we antagonise him. I silence my phone camera and begin to take picture after picture, because I want to really live in this moment but definitely also want to show off later.

Over the next half hour, we spot Another Three in quick succession—the lion, the elephant and the cape buffalo. Our guide tells us the elephants are the ones to be in awe of. Besides their obvious grace and antiquity, their massive brains store all kinds of nifty facts, like the specific smells of each family member’s urine, exactly what route they took to a water cove ten years ago and which twit on a jeep scared their calf. 

I wonder if driving through this incredible topography of windswept hills and plateaus with the snow-spotted Mount Kenya in the distance, and animals roaming wild if not exactly free, is now tedious for the serious, polite Steven. After staring stupidly as a single file of Grevy’s zebras sprint across the horizon, we come upon a couple of lazy lions (there is no other kind). We stop breathing as a group, as one of them lifts himself off the warm dirt track, takes a leisurely piss and then walks around our jeep to the tall grass on the other side before collapses in a heap. “Shall we go, then?” Steven asks in the middle of our out-of-body experience. 

We spend the night at the austere-luxe Lewa Safari Camp, a good example of how tourism can be an enjoyable, relaxing form of conservation. The tented resort is owned by the conservancy, managed by naturalists and employs some of the country’s most highly trained guides and guards, all from surrounding villages. Almost all earnings go into maintaining the conservancy’s expensive security systems and multiple community programmes. But none of this effort is apparent as you lounge in front of the fireplace, cut into a perfectly medium-rare steak or get a spa treatment. When dinner is over, we’re escorted to our suites by armed guards who fasten the door flaps with locks once we’re in. If you’re the imaginative sort, you’ll stay as still as you can under the sheets with your personal walkie-talkie clutched to your chest.

In the morning we fly to the Maasai Mara at long last. The national reserve in southwest Kenya was voted Africa’s best game sanctuary, beating out South Africa’s Kruger National Park and the Serengeti in Tanzania—we’re talking the home of The Lion King here—for its sheer awesomeness. The Mara, as it is called locally, forms the northern outpost of the Great Migration, that most stupefying wildlife spectacle in which two million animals, including wildebeest, gazelle, elands and zebras, chase the rain and greener grass over 2,000km, from the Serengeti upwards into the Mara, crossing the crocodile-infested Mara river. 

There is a magic here replicable only with good CGI. The grasslands are like low, swaying flames; Maasai, the semi-nomadic, pastoral inhabitants wend their way elegantly across the plains, their fiery red shukas catching the sun and intimidating deadly predators. (Later at their manyatta, a village with no real barricades since the Maasai are a warrior tribe and therefore XXL of cojones, I ask about their bright, handcrafted accessories of beads and chains and medallions: Are they a social and political marker?  Or totems to their animistic deities? No, they just look great, a young tribesman tells me, before reapplying his RayBans.) 

The sound of our jeep coming down the red dirt track sends herds of skittish Thomson’s gazelle scampering. Harteebeest headbutt each other like pre-teen boys and a family of warthogs wriggle their fat butts at us as we halt and let them cross, knowing full well they have right of way here. We work ourselves into a frenzy every time we spot that commonplace species, the “ALT” our jocular guide tells us wheezing with laughter, “Animal Looking Thing”. When a young lion turns on his back, blinking in the sun and showing us his round belly, I almost disintegrate. We chase the elusive Fifth—the leopard—but only catch glimpses of it, draped on the high branches of distant trees. 

Our base in the reserve is the Sand River Camp. It sits on the banks of its namesake river, which the migrating herds also cross on their way in from the Serengeti.  Four bored lions greet us at the gate, where we notice the absence of any electric fencing. The staff don’t seem perturbed and so we let ourselves relax into the luxury of this 1920s-hunting-lodge-style dig. As the tents begin to be pelted at night by sudden torrential rain and the river hisses urgently, I sip sherry, suffused with the glow of good fortune.

A good way to see the Mara for the potboiler it is, is from a hot air balloon, at the break of dawn. Wafting silently over the plains that are slowly waking, with only vultures in the tops of acacias for conspirators, is going to be a life experience, less ordinary. When you’re allowed into such beauty you must also bear the terror for its fragility. The Great Migration is under threat from human encroachment, we’re systematically decimating entire species of weird, wonderful animals, and our grandkids may never get to be kissed full and wet in the face by a frisky giraffe.

I clicked for all I was worth.