The wildest side of Nairobi

Forget the Maasai Mara – it’s in the polluted, congested three million-strong capital where you really understand how wild Africa can be.

I had not expected to see a giraffe at the breakfast buffet. The 6m-tall herbivore had bent its elongated, spotted neck through the open conservatory-style windows of Giraffe Manor, a luxury guesthouse in Nairobi’s Karen suburb, and was hoovering up nuts and food pellets from pots placed next to the jam and marmalade jars. Its tongue was blue-black with a rough, sandpaper-like texture, and it rolled out to half a metre – nearly the same length as my arm.

“If you’re really lucky,” joked Cosmos, the guesthouse’s head waiter and self-proclaimed ‘giraffe whisperer’, “one of them may even kiss you.” Seeing the gooey mess of saliva and cereal on the cheek of one of my fellow diners – who had received a sloppy kiss from the long-legged lord of the manor before he could finish buttering his toast – I decided to give it a miss. It would have been a rude awakening, especially as I was still adjusting to Kenyan ‘city life’.

It’s true that Nairobi has a formidable reputation. When visitors to Kenya talk about the wilder side of the capital, they could be forgiven for focussing on the crime levels, the sprawling slums or the matatus: the overcrowded, dilapidated minibuses that tear around the streets causing accidents by the dozen. But what many don’t realise is that a number of animal welfare initiatives make it as easy to see an elephant or zebra within the city limits as on an open savannah plain. I had come for a safari on the Maasai Mara, but it was in the polluted, congested three million-strong capital that I really began to get a sense of how wild Africa can be.

This all made my first morning at the Out of Africa-style lodge a revelation. Originally owned by the late, self-confessed giraffe enthusiasts Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville, whose lifetime work was the preservation of the threatened Rothschild’s giraffe species, the manor is home to a free-roaming herd of a dozen giraffes. The 140-acre colonial ranch also shelters healthy populations of snuffling, whiskered warthog families, sharp-horned bushbucks, skittish dik-dik antelopes and around 180 bird species. The latest addition to the extended brood is a baby giraffe born in March to Lynn, the matriarch of the herd. On the very rare occasion, those with eagle eyes may be lucky enough to spot a solitary hyena or leopard scavenging in the thick scrub of the neighbouring forests.

As well as the reserve, the Leslie-Melvilles set up the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW), supported by celebrity admirers Marlon Brando, Ewan McGregor,  Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall; the latter two stayed at the manor in 1982. The number of wild Rothschild’s giraffes has now peaked at more than 500 and the work of the AFEW can be seen at the manor’s Nairobi Giraffe Center, a captive breeding programme with a mission to expand the gene pool in the wild. Seeing the giraffes’ 2m-long necks poke out of the trees, in line with the skyscrapers of the downtown skyline, could be Africa’s ultimate contradiction.

The main attraction at the centre is the tree-high platforms from which visitors can get nose-to-nose with the giraffes. It’s also possible to take one-hour guided walks through the 95-acre sanctuary of indigenous dry upland forest – the remnant of the natural woodland that once surrounded Nairobi. “The city seems to grow closer to the centre, but I see something new every day,” my guide Godfrey said as he pointed out butterflies, dragonflies and dozens of bird species. “Darters, swifts, herons, kites... you name it. It’s surprising how sheltered they are here from all the development.”

Just 6km to the east is Nairobi’s second most popular animal attraction – the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. Established in 1977, the inner-city shelter was set up for orphaned pachyderms and rhinos by David Shekdrick, the former head warden of Tsavo East National Park, and his wife Dame Daphne, a long-standing conservation campaigner. The first person in the world to successfully rear newborn African elephant orphans by hand, Daphne’s dedication has helped the trust save more than 100 young orphaned elephants. Entry to the centre is by voluntary donation, and if you’re really keen, it’s possible to help the volunteers wash the elephants during their daily “shower hour”.

Inspired by what I had seen so far, I opted to squeeze in a last-minute jeep tour of the tiny Nairobi National Park that borders the runways of the domestic Wilson Airport. Just 7km south of downtown, it gives those with limited time a front-row seat to a spectacular wildlife show. On the three-hour whirlwind tour, I spotted zebra, ostrich, baboons, sweaty hippopotamuses and a number of startled wildebeest – animals that constantly look like they are about to run head-first into a tree.

The following day I departed Nairobi bound for the Indian Ocean coast, riding the slow, winding train to Mombasa. Affectionately known as the “Lunatic Express”, the train criss-crosses a number of Kenya’s most beautiful grasslands and national parks, making it one of the world’s rarest city commutes: from the left window, I could see gangly-legged giraffe, zebra and East African oryx; from the right, gangs of playful baboons and – my personal favourite – the russet-red warthogs. Nairobi may be one of the world’s most crowded cities, but it still felt like one of the wildest places I am ever likely to see.