Nairobi National Treasure

Nairobi National Treasure

Big Game by a Big City.
Yesterday a leopard was photographed multiple times in Nairobi National Park. It’s been years since there has been such positive news about the wilderness park that lies immediately adjacent the mega-metropolis of Nairobi.

Is this positively Green, or is it just a temporary reflection of heavy rains?

This adds to the carnivore resurgence here. An estimated 35-40 lion have been found in the park recently.

The park is diligently surveyed by members of Richard Leakey’s Wildlife Direct organization.

These are environmental activists who live in Nairobi and have as much a stake in the health of the park as we do at home with our county reserves.

The actual park is pretty small, 46 sq. miles and is located only 4 miles from the city center! There are more than 100 species of mammals and 400 species of birds. But before you get too excited about reducing your time on safari, it’s often difficult to find much without a real park advocate/guide.

With little effort you’re likely to see buffalo, giraffe, hartebeest and impala. These are animals which don’t suffer from the bushmeat trade, because buffalo is too aggressive, giraffe is too hard to poach, people don’t like hartebeest, and impala is too quick and nimble and has a strong set of defensive horns.

The park is fenced on three sides and open to the Athi River wilderness, an area that still has a good number of pastoralists. Including this dispersal area, the animal numbers increase substantially and there is hope that one day they will be a regular attraction from the park tracks.

Rhinos are contained a patrolled and fenced area that you will see, and unfortunately, that’s how rhinos are viewed throughout East Africa today. (There are real efforts to nurture the few free-ranging ones in the Mara and the Serengeti, but that’s till an unfilled dream.)

The lion numbers have increased during this last period, first because of the drought and the fact that the wetlands and Langata Dam attracted herbivores. It’s uncertain this number will remain, but it’s a definite opportunity right now.

If you’re a birder, then the park is sure day trip winner. Patrick Lhoir and Brian Finch have been birding the park for years, and they report it better than ever!

I remember Kathleen and my first safari… in Nairobi National Park! I rented a car which promptly died about ten feet from a rhino. Up close and personal.

It is truly a phenomenon this park. The news is good, today. I hope it lasts.

Nairobi Landing

Nairobi Landing

My Cleveland Zoo safari began with nine people arriving a day early and enjoying Nairobi and environs.

Nairobi’s climate this year has been strange but fortunate. While most of the rest of the country suffers from serious drought, it has rained steadily on the city for nearly 9 months. The last several months have been hardly more than drizzle, but it has brought with it a cold that would normally have been gone by the third week of July.

So it was cold and drizzly. But that didn’t stop anyone from getting right into touring.

After dinner at the excellent Tamarind seafood restaurant, the Wagners and Gilberts were joined by the Chelms and Antonaccis and Cheryl Steris the next morning on an excursion to Karen. It was a Saturday so I figured the traffic would be lighter, but I guess that’s no longer the case.

They did manage to squeeze the three attractions into a long morning: Kazuri Beads, Karen Blixen’s homestead and Giraffe Manor, but a good hunk of that morning was spent driving back and forth from the city.

In the afternoon the Kaspers and Wagners joined us all for my walking tour of Nairobi. The sun came out and we started at the Memorial to the August 7, 1998, bombing of the American embassy. I often start here because of where it’s located, rather than for what it is.

I consider the Memorial a bit too ideological. To begin with, it costs to get into the little park, albeit only Ksh 20/. If you want to use the john, that costs another Ksh 10/. The video, which costs Ksh 100/ to see, is packed with propaganda of how successful America is waging its war against terrorism. That so?

We walk from there down the government street past the Department of Education, Foreign Affairs and finally the Office of the President. This gives me the opportunity to discuss the top-heavy, convoluted and failing Kenyan government, a government which is currently stale-mated by the forced coalition that ended the violence after the last election.

But I don’t blame East Africans or East African culture as much as the failed colonial period. The British thrust a form of government on the East African countries that simply isn’t working; and the world powers entrenched corruption by vapid unaccounted “aid” as they sought favorable alliances during the Cold War.

From there we turn down towards Parliament, past the Kenyatta Memorial and then turn past the Basilica to City Hall. This gives me the opportunity to praise Kenyan youth, who I just wish would somehow own up to the fact that it is they alone who can bring Kenya out of the mess it currently finds itself. This is where the students often rioted.

We enjoyed tea at the Stanley beside the modern version of the Thorn Tree message center, and visited the Exchange Bar with its original 19th Century furnishings. This is the perfect setting to describe the era of White Mischief which defined colonial Kenya as a somewhat renegade somewhat rebel white civilization.

And the few nearby art galleries let me once again praise Kenyan youth, who in places as established as New York and Tokyo are defining contemporary art.

We walked past the city mosque, and I explained how East African societies were becoming more and more Muslim as the western world is perceived to be abandoning them.

I suppose I began my walking tours of Nairobi when it became ridiculously impossible to drive, because of the traffic. But it’s a great way for people adjusting to a new time zone to keep active and learn a lot of new stuff. It’s something I think everyone really enjoyed.

WHICH AFRICA?

WHICH AFRICA?

This morning the breakfast hall of the Norfolk was quite full. The hotel is being used by many attending a very large conference in Nairobi.

The buffet breakfast was robust as usual: one side table was filled with fresh cut fruits: grapefruit, watermelon, oranges, mangoes, several kinds of passion fruits, placed next to a tub of various kinds of yoghurt with attractive little bowls of almonds, walnuts, and various Indian nuts and spices.

The long 25′ buffet table began with cheeses, smoked salmon, a dozen different kinds of pastries, a dozen different kinds of breads, and cold meats. There was then the cooking station where a friendly chef whipped up any kind of omelette or pancake or waffle, and there were six kinds of syrups and heavy creams for garnish. The rest of the table was laden with hot tubs of bacon, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, several kinds of sausage, eggs benedict, the “chef’s special” and ended with a huge tub of appropriately altered “ugali” or (very delicious) corn porridge.

More than a thousand delegates were attending the World Congress of Agroforestry at the UN Headquarters in Gigiri, during which they predicted widespread famine in Africa. Today, the Kenyan Government announced up to 10,000,000 Kenyans were starving because of the drought.

It was a damn shame that I didn’t bring an umbrella, yesterday, because all morning long it rained in Nairobi. About half of all the Kenyan livestock in the country is dead because of the drought.

Many of us went for a quick swim in the Olympic-sized pool before going to work this morning. The Norfolk is my favorite hotel in Nairobi, and they heat the pool very nicely, wonderful in this cold season.

A third of Kenya’s population must now buy water to survive. Kenyans living in the city slums with a per capita of less than $300 per year must now spend $5/day for enough water to drink and cook. In the residential areas of central Nairobi, every other day is now without water.

Several of Nairobi’s popular discos – thought off limits to foreigners only a few years ago – are now popular with conference goers, tourists and foreign workers. The Simba Saloon is a popular suburban disco and Gypsy’s is very popular in the city. Every night, loud contemporary music, strobes and sometimes floor shows. Throughout most of Nairobi and the country, electricity is now turned off during the day, because of poor hydroelectric power. In many places, night rationing is beginning.

Schools can’t use computers. Refrigerators are useless. No one knows the news, because radios and televisions are quiet.

So goes the paradigm of heart-breaking Africa. Tomorrow, the first of my 22 clients arrive for a fabulous safari.

Nairobi Museum

Nairobi Museum

For all the stress of Nairobi, the city, its stellar museum makes it all worthwhile.

My second safari of the season, the Howard and Godfrey families, arrived unusually altogether on Saturday night. Like most travelers to East Africa, what they wanted to do was see animals, so I’d been unsuccessful suggesting a two-night stay in Nairobi to begin.

Two nights gives you a full day to see all of the city’s attractions, and they’re really nice: in order of my preference: the museum, walking downtown and visiting contemporary art galleries, the Karen Blixen Homestead, Giraffe Manor and Kazuri Beads. There’s also the elephant feeding at Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage which is wonderful, but the 11 a.m. schedule in the Langata area often makes any other additional option then difficult.

So I made the decision that on our first day out of Nairobi, hardly 12 hours after everyone arrived, that we would visit the museum and the city, have lunch, and then bee-line it down to Tsavo. After all, it was a Sunday, the quietest day of the week, and I knew traffic would be manageable. I was … sort of right.

But the morning in the museum was a hit. I start with Ahmed, the huge (“hugest” according to Dillon) elephant ever found in Kenya. Guarded until its death a generation ago, it is now fiberglassed for eternity, and provides an excellent place to begin the fascinating discussion of elephants.

We then visit the gourd pyramid, where gourds from ethnic groups around Kenya are beautifully linked together as a demonstration of how varied the people of East Africa are.

But my favorite room is the early man exhibit, including what I really believe is one of the most phenomenally valuable exhibits of any museum in the world.

There are a number of excellent early man exhibits in museums around the world, and South Africa’s Sterkfontein Cradle of Mankind museum is probably the overall best. But what I find so wonderful about Nairobi’s exhibit is that they seem to keep it contemporary. When Michel Brunet published finding Toumai, what may be the earliest hominid ever discovered (6 mya), the display in Nairobi was changed pretty quickly to reflect this possibility.

The long glass display case of casts of early hominids is excellent arranged, with perfect, concise description. And it all begins with a hands-on exhibit of what a fossil is.

But the gem is the smaller, square and often sealed-off room that displays the original skulls of 7 early hominids including both Nutcracker Man and Turkana Boy. These are two of the most important finds ever made, certainly vying with Lucy for the most important ever. I think of the protection that Lucy received during her recent world tour, versus the trust that museum officials in Nairobi accord their visitors who stick their noses up to the glass of these invaluable fossils.

I think everyone was pretty pleased with the tour. We followed it with a walking tour of Nairobi and lunch at the Stanley’s Thorntree café.

I hope they were, anyway. The subsequent drive into Tsavo on the “new” Mombasa road was a nightmare. The truck traffic was unbelievable. More on this in a later blog.

Kids on Safari

Kids on Safari

Children will make just as big an effort to get on safari as adults!

Traditionally, American family safaris operate almost exclusively within the summer school vacation window, July and August. I try to push mine a bit earlier, since the game is better and the veld not quite as dusty and dry.

The Addington family really pushed themselves to meet this opportunity. Nicholas and Phoebe, 9 and 7 years old, with little sister Jane (4 yo) and Mom and Dad left school Thursday afternoon on its last day and a few hours later were on a plane from New York to London, and arrived Nairobi Saturday night!

The teenager triplets, Alex, India and Ellery (16 yo), and their little sister Emma (9 yo), crammed all their finals at school into one day (it was usually three), so they could be in Nairobi Thursday night to be able to sightsee in Nairobi, Friday.

We spent all of Friday touring Nairobi and environs. My Nairobi entry activities are all optional, because some people really need to wind down. So Saturday was split in two: morning and afternoon sightseeing. The morning sightseeing began at 9 a.m. Everyone was there, after having not hit the sack the night before until 10:30p.

We started at the national museum. A wonderful, unexpected attraction was to see the lines and lines of Nairobi school children on an important field outing. I explained to the kids on my safari that most Kenyan children never see a wild animal. One of the main attractions for them is the central exhibition hall with its huge display of stuffed big game.

We raced through the museum, noting the brilliant exhibit of the different gourds from around Kenya, representing the different cultures, tribes and languages. The floor-to-ceiling pyramid of more than 150 beautifully decorated gourds is an impressive lesson on how diverse the people of Kenya are.

It was then to the Early Man Hall. As I’ve written before, this is one of the finest exhibits in any museum in the world. The Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg gets close, but Nairobi actually displays for the public seven of the most important original early hominid fossils, including Turkana Boy.

We then went into the city and walked the streets from Parliament to the Stanley Hotel. I’m able to describe history, politics and relay many funny stories on this section of the trip. We were really lucky to have such a beautiful, fresh day, too. At the Stanley we enjoyed their famous coffees, pastries and Stony Tangowizi for the kids, and took some time to look at the beautifully restored early colonial bar on the second floor.

An unexpected bit of excitement was when Ellery was stopped on the stairs of the New Stanley by a reporter from Nairobi’s hip talk radio, 91.5. Ellery is a soccer star at school, and the reporter wanted to know his impressions of the recent sale of Ronaldo from Manchester United. (Ellery thought the transaction was a bit excessive.)

The afternoon began at 2 p.m., with hardly an hour free time in between, and once again everyone was there. We traveled to the suburb of Karen and started at the Kazuri Beads Womens Cooperative before visiting Giraffe Manor. Even smaller Phoebe was photographed stroking the giraffe head which was easily twice her entire size!

I feel very strongly that visitors to East Africa need to see more than just animals, and this first day in Nairobi opens many eyes and hearts to the hopes and miseries of this wonderful place. You can’t drive to Karen from Nairobi without driving past some slums. And the traffic — what locally we call the “jam” – is an unbelievable reality of modern life in Africa. One porter at the Norfolk Hotel told me it takes him nearly 2 hours each way to commute to work, when five years ago it was only 30 minutes.

Needless to say, everyone was exhausted. Great way, I think, to attack jetlag!

Must-Do Nairobi

Must-Do Nairobi

A safari without Nairobi misses a lot. But don’t arrive during the day on a weekday!

I know that a lot of people come to East Africa just to see the animals. There are many safaris that do little else. But never mine.

My 60th birthday safari began with three days in Nairobi. And we didn’t have enough time. There are attractions that personally I could do without, but which I realize are so famous that someone investing in seeing Nairobi probably expects to see.

Giraffe Manor is where the endangered Rothschild Giraffe is protected, in the nearby suburb of Karen. Beverly Settle-Flores was the first to hold an animal food pellet in her mouth which the oldest giraffe there, Daisy, dutifully plucks out with her elongated tongue. Sandy and Ken Winge both saddled up behind Daisy and got their photographs taken as if rocking Daisy’s enormous head.

I use the fun and games to explain the miracles of a giraffe’s anatomy: the remarkable tongue which has evolved through millennia to not just strip tiny acacia leaves from their branches, but to tolerate the impressive acacia thorns; the “second heart”, or two-chamber stop valve that exists halfway up their neck so that the blood pumped up doesn’t sink down; and the unusual gate, unique to camels and giraffe.

Nearby is the Kazuri Beads Womens Cooperative. Kazuri is one of the most successful Kenyan “Harambee” or self-help projects, and its remarkable success has truly freed more than 100 single moms from the constraints of slum poverty. My wife, Kathleen, doesn’t only proudly wear a variety of Kazuri jewelry, but one of dinner sets is Kazuri. It’s great fun to see the process, including the long tables in the main workroom filled with women working and chatting, dressed as colorfully as the beads they’re making.

East African curios and other art work is definitely spectacular, and no wonder given that the earning margin is so high and opportunities for more traditional employment so limited. A typical Kazuri beads necklace sells for $20-30. As much as half of that gets back in total to the women who produced it. (The other half is for direct administrative and material costs.) That’s far higher, for example, than what an artisan selling in the bush gets for his work, where usually 80-90% of what the tourists pays never gets past the middle men. (The chain of sale includes the original collector who scours the countryside, then the shop owner who inventories the items, and finally the actually person who sells it.)

Nearby is the single attraction in Karen that I would make mandatory: the Karen Blixen homestead and museum. But I concede that it really depends upon getting a good guide, or alternatively, having done your own homework well before.

This is Karen Blixen’s original (second) home in Kenya. It is the setting for her famous book Out of Africa. It isn’t just the wonder of stepping back almost a century into old kitchens and steel bathtubs; it’s the much broader history and anecdotes of the time that bring to life colonial Kenya.

We ended our time in Kenya at a welcome cocktail party at the Exchange Bar of the Stanley Hotel. Two out of every five pieces of furniture in this beautifully restored colonial bar are original. This is where the colonists played during the weekend, and it was a pretty rough crowd! (Read White Mischief.)

And my favorite attraction of all is the newly renovated National Museum. I always used the museum — even in its most decrepit days — as a foundation for numerous topics including elephant poaching, cultural diversity and especially, early man. The new early man exhibit is stellar.

I don’t think there is another museum in the world that would put on display 6 actual hominid fossils, including its star attraction, Turkana Boy, which is one of only three nearly complete hominid skeleton fossils in existence. The room gives me goose bumps every time I enter it. Steve and Maren Coates both remarked that they could spend an entire day in the museum.

And there is much more. I wish we could have scheduled the 11 a.m. feeding of the orphaned elephants at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage near the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters. Just walking down Nairobi’s streets is a feast for the eyes. From grand Kenyatta Avenue with its skyscrapers to Biashara Lane at the old city market where the early traders shouted out commodity prices before there was a Nairobi stock exchange, the recognition that Nairobi is a mixture of the very old and very new is ever present.

Get a shoe shine for $5 opposite the beautiful city mosque. Get any book you’ve ever wanted about Africa at the Stanley Bookshop. Have the finest seafood dinner at the extraordinary Tamarind restaurant. And if you’ve forgotten anything essential, like toothpaste or writing paper or a cell phone, walk through the 24-7 super Nakumat, Nairobi’s unbelievably giant superstore. Yes, they take credit cards!

But as I’ve written before, don’t arrive during the day of a weekday. Nairobi traffic is also unbelievable. A normal 20-minute journey from the airport to the city center could take you two hours! Make sure you arrive at night or during the weekend. Fortunately, everyone on my safari except Judd and Blair Devermont did so. They arrived at Saturday noon. That wasn’t as bad as during a weekday, but it still took us nearly an hour!

Safari Traffic Jam

Safari Traffic Jam

Never start your safari in Nairobi on a weekday morning.

I estimate there are 120-140,000 cars that try to get into Nairobi’s downtown area each morning, on only four roads into the city. The west and north sides aren’t impossible, but the east and south sides which include access to the international airport, are horrible.

It’s not a good way to begin a safari vacation. From about 6:15a to 10:30a, what should be a 20-minute, 10-12 mile journey, becomes a 90-120 minute, 10-12 mile journey.

The fumes are horrendous. The road, although newly built from the airport, is inadequate, with many parts not totally completed, cars and road rage vying for supremacy. I’ve spoken to hotel staff at the Norfolk who must leave home at 3 a.m. to begin work at 8 a.m.

And if you’re a tourist looking forward to a super safari, it’s hardly the best way to begin. I haven’t usually recommended certain air carriers over others, but whatever difference may exist, it doesn’t matter. You want to arrive at night, or during the weekend. Anything else is unmitigated disaster. Nothing else matters.

The poor workers who must get into Nairobi and who can drive must now pay Ksh 1400/- per day to park anywhere in the city center. That’s around $15-17 per day that goes straight to the Nairobi City Council. For a typical business office worker, that’s a quarter to a half of the entire salary.

So it goes to show that there are rich people in this society, but even speculating that there are as many as 3 people per private vehicle parked in the city center, it’s a small if fractional percentage of the millions of poor and unemployed.

But for visitors coming on safari, avoid the horror of being a part of this. Make sure you arrange to arrive only at night or during Saturday or Sunday.