What a journey we had Saturday (6/24). Woke up in a tent in a vast Tanzanian wilderness. Went to bed in downtown Nairobi (Kenya) — home to 6 million, famed for terrorist turmoil and more plebeian crime. Traveling from Point A to B began with two short flights in a Cessna designed to seat 12 but in practice seating 13, the extra space being the one next to the pilot. (I loved the Safety Instruction that directed any passenger in it “not to step on or interfere with the pedals on the floor.”)
At the Arusha airport, we were picked up by a pre-arranged driver who took us through insane Saturday morning traffic to the bus-shuttle depot. The subsequent bus ride took 5.5 hours, including the stop at the Tanzania/Kenya border crossing (reminiscent of San Diego/TJ’s maybe 75 years ago.) It was twilight by the time we reached the outskirts of Nairobi, and the sights out the windows were grim: decrepit buildings; more insane car and pedestrian traffic, choking diesel fumes, squalor. Full-on dark had descended when we finally pulled into the bus terminus, where another pre-arranged driver met us with our names on a hand-held whiteboard and transported us to our hotel. It occurred to me that we’d done a disservice to Kenya by planning to spend barely 50 hours in it, and all of that in its ominous capital. We would probably leave with unpleasant memories, vowing never to return.
But good impressions of Kenya started to accrue as soon as we checked into the Kahama Hotel. Spotless and stylish, it included an excellent breakfast buffet for the $50/day tab. The clientele looked to be mostly African businessmen with a sprinkling of white readers of Lonely Planet East Africa (where it’s a “TOP Choice!”). The free wifi was excellent, the customer service even better, the water in the shower hot and plentiful. One drawback was the noisy adjacent highway, but, eh, I had my lion’s-roar-blocking earplugs. And Steve sleeps like the dead.
Our full day in Nairobi Sunday (6/25) piled on more pleasures. We drove out to the suburb of Karen, home to posh private academies and mansions, and lunched at the sophisticated restaurant that today operates on the land that Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixon) once farmed. After lunch, we visited a nearby center celebrating Rothschild’s giraffes. In 1979, when the Kenyan grandson of a Scottish earl and his American wife began raising a baby giraffe in their home, the number of these animals in the wild had sunk to 120. Thanks in part to the subsequent work of the couple, the population of wild Rothschild’s has now climbed to 700 or so, and the center is devoted to both conservation and educational work. It combines this with the huge fun of giving visitors the chance to place tasty pellets on the amazingly long, liver-colored giraffe tongues from a raised platform that literally brings the humans nose to nose with the leggy beauties.
All this was great. But our experience earlier that morning at the Sheldrick center for orphaned elephants was phenomenal. The trust that runs the center was started in 1979, shortly after the death of David Sheldrick, who served as the anti-poaching warden at Tsavo National Park. His formidable wife Daphne (and, now, their children) have carried on the work of rearing baby elephants whose mothers have been killed for their ivory (or, less commonly, by irritated farmers).
Killing elephants for their tusks continues to be a huge problem, perhaps worse today than it’s been for a while (because of corrupt officials in Kenya and Tanzania who turn a blind eye to this hideous trade). There are a lot of elephant orphans to care for. The Sheldricks years ago solved one huge problem by developing a formula the animals could tolerate (cow’s milk gives them fatal diarrhea), but they can thrive on a variant of human baby formula. Each animal needs a lot of it: about 6-12 pints every 3 hours, around the clock. During the days, each baby, under the watchful eye of a tender, is free to range into the wilds of Nairobi National Park, on which the Sheldrick trust leases land. When the youngsters get to be about 5, they move to an an advanced facility where they can venture out to begin spending time with various groups of wild elephants. Eventually, they find a group that’s a good fit and begin their independent lives in the wild. But it’s the elephants who decide when they’re ready to make this move, and with whom.
Until each orphan reaches that stage (some time between the ages of 5 and 10), it costs about $900 (per animal per month) to support this ambitious operation. All the money is privately raised. (In fact the trust has to pay the Kenyan government a hefty rent for the property it occupies, I was appalled to learn.) One source of income comes from the 500 shilling ($6) entry fee for visitors to the facility. It’s open daily, but for one hour only — from 11 to noon.
Steve and I arrived about 45 minutes early, and that was lucky. We sat waiting next to the rope admissions barrier, and almost immediately other tourists streamed in behind us. When the guards finally released the rope, a crowd of several hundred people had massed. We led the way down a path to a clearing with a small muddy pool in the center. Around the pool, giant milk bottles were positioned. We stood next to the encircling rope barrier, a prime position for watching an attendant emerge from the thick bush, walking next to a tiny elephant — just 2 and a half months old, we later learned. A bright red Maasai blanket covered the sensitive skin on her back.
I think human babies are cute and puppies give them a run for their money. But I’m sorry. In the Cosmic Cuteness competition, baby elephants leave them both in the dust. Tiny, hairy, with oversized ears, and long, long eyelashes, this little female was named Mystery (in Swahili) because she’d been found when she was just 3 days old, in good health but lying down in the middle of an airstrip with no trace of her mother.
She guzzled down the milk from the bottle held by her human attendant, then stroked him delicately with her trusting little trunk, provoking a concert of cooing. I felt almost as tickled by the reactions of the crowd: kids, women, and men from all over the globe, all enraptured.
The pachyderm-human love fest continued as more attendants led in a dozen more of the big babies for their feeding. There were comic moments, as when one little guy rushed up to his bottles, knocked them over, then trumpeted with amazing volume in his impatience to be fed. Another rambunctious character thought it funny when he or she bumped into the crowd pressing up against the rope, provoking shrieks and howls of laughter. Another baby, after feeding, played with a shovel in the enclosure, balancing the tool on its hairy head. There was pathos too, as a narrator/attendant introduced each orphan, detailing what had brought each to the center. So much murder and heartache — for the sake of tchotchkes.
Steve and I think with education and public pressure, the Asian appetite will dry up (and maybe sooner rather than later; Dame Daphne’s new autobiography is being translated into Mandarin and Cantonese). But other forces also threaten the world’s elephants and other great wild animals, most prominently the ravenous human appetite to exploit the wildernesses needed to support wildlife. When you see warriors like the Sheldricks fighting to protect and nurture the elephants, the battle feels epic.
Compared to that, our other final activities in Nairobi, while pleasant, were anticlimactic. We dined Sunday night at Carnivore, once legendary for serving up grilled zebra, giraffe, eland, and other antelope, but since 2004 restricted to more familiar meats (plus crocodile, which I found to combine the texture of chicken with a vaguely piscine taste.) Monday morning we toured an interesting enterprise that’s recycling old flip-flops into charming art. And for our final lunch in Africa, we had our taxi take us to the Stanley Hotel. We had to park several blocks away, but our taxi driver, Washira, guided us on foot, and we both enjoyed the chance to walk a bit in the center city. It’s run-down, but bustling with purposeful pedestrians, despite the strangling vehicular traffic. Happily, we never got robbed. (Surprisingly, Steve didn’t get his pocket picked.)
The Stanley is said to be the oldest hotel in the city. I wanted to eat there because of the thorn tree that grows in a courtyard. A predecessor tree was planted there in the late 50s, and travelers used to pin notes to it seeking rides, praising this hotel or that, and generally sharing information as they journeyed from Cairo to Capetown or elsewhere on the Dark Continent. Later this practice inspired the Lonely Planet guidesters to start the Thorn Tree online bulletin board. In recent years, I’ve increasingly turned to it in planning our travels. It helped me to organize the amazing African journey we’ve just completed. I feel grateful, and I wanted to give it my regards.