The Big 5 in Kenya has drawn animal and photography lovers for decades. I’d been to the country 4 times on safari and loved every minute of it, but on my most recent trip, I explored facets of the country’s culture and wildlife I’d never experienced before. Over 5 days, I spent time in Nairobi, Mount Kenya, and the Masai Mara. Below are highlights from my adventure and information on how you can enjoy one too.
The Giraffe Center
Mpingo lunged for the treat. Inches away, his tongue shot out like a serpent’s, wrapping itself around the bullet-sized nugget resting on my palm. For an instant, I felt his fuzzy upper lip, soft as a marshmallow.
The towering 13-month-old was one of 10 Rothschild giraffes at the Giraffe Center, a 40-minute drive from downtown Nairobi and The Norfolk where I was staying. A 3-foot wide, waist-high stone wall separated us but his nearly 5-foot-long neck easily reached the snacks he craved with room to spare. A two-story platform for visitors catered to a few of the center’s tallest residents.
I wanted desperately to pet Mpingo but bobbing and weaving was too quick for me. Two-year-old Nandi, a female with soft black eyes and inch-long lashes that would make Bambi jealous, was far more accommodating. She let me steal a kiss on her cheek in exchange for a handful of nibbles.
It’s crazy that I’d never been to the Giraffe Center before, I’d known about it for years and was thrilled to finally see it in person. Travelers from around the world come to feed the goofy/beautiful creatures while learning about giraffes and, hopefully, support the organization’s conservation efforts. In 1979 when the center first opened, 130 wild Rothschild giraffes were alive in Kenya. But as a result of the organization’s rescue efforts, over 300 Rothschild now live in a variety of national parks.
The center offers free visits and educational programs to local schools with the hope of instilling Kenya’s youth and by extension their families, with the desire to protect the country’s wildlife. As one staff member explained, they’ve learned the most successful way to reach the hearts and minds of adults is through their children.
Next door to the center is the famed Giraffe Manor, the much talked about ultra-lux hotel which offers guests the opportunity to feed its “resident giraffes” through its many windows and doors during breakfast. The manor is so popular it’s booked six to eight months in advance, even though the rooms come with a hefty price tag, starting at $1000 per night.
Tip: The giraffes at Giraffe Manor are the same as the center’s and it’s only $10.00. You do the math.
DETAILS: The Giraffe Center is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day including weekends and all public holidays. $10.00/USD per person for non-locals.
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David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
When we arrived at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust it was packed with people. Every day from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm, Sheldrick opens its doors to the public, allowing visitors to watch the elephants drink from their over-sized morning bottles and play in a giant red mud bath. Precious doesn’t begin to cover it.
The organization is renowned for its dedication to the protection and preservation of wildlife, in particular, elephant and rhino. In the last two decades, the trust has reintroduced over 200 elephants back into the wild—more than any other organization.
The first group of three was the youngest orphans. They ran in a single file line eager to find their green-smocked handlers who fed them. A few elephants needed help holding their bottles while others wrapped their trunks around the base and drank themselves. Afterward, tummies full, they rolled over the dirt and each other like eager puppies, covering their bodies with vibrant mud paste. The ritual isn’t only fun, the muck on their skin provides sun protection and relief from biting insects.
As a member of the Sheldrick’s fostering program, I am an adoptive mommy to a sweetie named Sana Sana. She was rescued at three months old in northern Kenya after being spotted by herself. Emaciated and suffering from a tushy wound from overly zealous hyena, she wouldn’t have lasted long. Three years later, she’s the largest of her group. I couldn’t wait to see her in person.
I was on a mission to capture a decent photograph. Sinking to my knees, I squirmed between the sea of legs crowding the rope separating us from the babies. As if on cue, Sana Sana threw mud on her back and in doing so covered me too. My hair, my camera, my white top, were spotted with wet red soil. I looked as if I’d been shot. The good news: I gave the 50 or so people near me a good laugh.
As a foster parent, I could have returned (by appointment) to see Sana Sana and the other ellies at 5:00 pm in a less crowded setting. It’s a nice perk for a $50 per year minimum donation per elephant. Five hundred dollars would have earned me a private audience with the mini pachyderms. Alas, my schedule didn’t permit it. Next time.
DETAILS: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is open from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm every day excluding December 25. There is a $7.00/USD minimum donation (500 Kenya Shilling) per person. Cash only.
Fairmont: The Norfolk
While in Nairobi I stayed at The Norfolk, a colonial-era respite in the center of town. Built in 1904, it’s older than most of the city with British colonial architecture that surrounds an expansive tropical courtyard with palm trees and flowers. Though I knew Nairobi’s frenetic streets were nearby, the hotel had the sensibility of a countryside oasis.
Here’s a peek at my room.
Tip: Try the Basil Dawa, the hotel’s signature drink, a twist on the popular Kenyan libation (by way of Argentina) called the Dawa meaning medicine in Swahili. It’s made with a double shot of vodka, crushed basil, honey, brown sugar, lime juice, and crushed ice. It’s delicious and refreshing on a hot night but beware, it’ll creep up on you.
Crossing the Equator
A half hour small plane flight north of Nairobi near the town of Nanyuki, I straddled the equator — literally. The imaginary zero-degree line not only bisects the world but the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safar Club as well. The age-old question of whether water drains in different directions on either side of the equator was confirmed—in short, it’s true.
To prove it, the hotel placed two large lily pad-shaped iron bowls at either end of a lawn a few hundred feet apart with the equator in the middle. In the northern half, water sprinkled with leaf fragments drained in a clockwise direction, at the southern end, counterclockwise. It was a little trippy.
The demonstration came to a close with a kitschy ceremony requiring me to dance down a stone path to drum beats and tribal yells. Kikuyu staff wearing traditional dress waited at the far end to hand me a certificate signifying my crossing the equator. My first reaction to this rite of passage was Hell no! But other guests did it and not wanting to be labeled a party-pooper, I chose to own it.
Take a look! (Full disclosure: It was kind of fun)
Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club
The storied past of the Mount Kenya Safari Club is an interesting tale. Originally built in 1938, it was once a beautiful private estate called Mawingo (Swahili for “the clouds”). Imagine The Great Gatsby and you’ll get a sense of what I am talking about. It was eventually bought, rooms added and converted into a hotel.
In 1959, William Holden the movie star (millennials ask your parents), bought the hotel, turning it into an invitation-only hunt club with a twelve-hundred-acre game reserve (now the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy) stocked with more than 800 species. (Hunting is no longer permitted, though old trophies pepper the common areas of the building).
Holden added 12 private cottages—one of which he lived in and still bears his name. Dignitaries, movie stars, royalty, and captains of industry flocked to Mount Kenya making it the destination for the world’s elite.
Today, the Fairmont Hotels & Resort Group is the proprietor and after a 15-million-dollar renovation, the club evokes the glamour of a Hollywood manor. There are 120 luxury rooms, a pool, golf course, tennis courts, stable, 100 acres of landscaped grounds, a curved marble staircase, and two very hoity-toity peacocks that saunter around the property as if they own it.
I stayed in cottage number 6 with a friend; our bedrooms bookended a lovely living room with a working fireplace. You can see it below.
Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage and Sanctuary
A five-minute drive from the Safari Club, the Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage and Sanctuary’s (established under the umbrella of the Mount Kenya Conservancy) mission is to rescue and rehabilitate needy wildlife with the goal of reintroducing them back into the wild. Its efforts to save the mountain bongo is world-renowned.
Admittedly, I’d never heard of a bongo. (Full disclosure #2: I thought our guide was making it up) but the joke was on me. It’s a stunning creature and the largest of the antelopes. It has a beautiful chestnut coat painted with spectacular black and white markings on its face and lower legs, thin cream-colored stripes on its side, and impressive spiral horns.
Years of hunting, habitat encroachment and disease have reduced the mountain bongo to critically endangered status; only 108 adults are left in the wild. In an effort to restore the species, the orphanage began a breeding program with a handful of Kenyan bongos previously showcased in American zoos. Today, 67 bongos call the orphanage home, and if all goes well their offspring will be released into the protected sanctuary in the next few years.
During my tour of the orphanage, I discovered several species of primates, a leopard, two cheetahs, a mix of antelopes, warthogs, and a shy caracal, among other animals. Some surprises too: the world’s only Mangaboon (the unique offspring of a baboon mother and a male golden-bellied mangaby), and giant walking sausages known as pygmy hippos.
Some of the life-long tenants ( the permanently injured or those too habituated for release back into the wild), were given free rein of the compound. We weren’t allowed to touch but it was exciting to have them walk around us.
Patricia, a disheveled ostrich with a mangled right foot was the first to approach. She walked up to our little group with a prim and proper Dickensonian school teacher vibe that promptly disintegrated as soon as she began to preen the silver-grey feathers on her backside.
A small group of bongos and an eland named Catherine grazed close by while a mischievous baby Sykes monkey delivered a good 15 minutes’ worth of photo ops.
At the tours end, a boy’s school group arrived; their excitement was palpable. As with the Giraffe Center, the orphanage believes the best long-term strategy to promote conservation is to inspire the local children. If the looks of awe and wonder were any indication, the animals just might have a chance.
The Horse and Bull Breakfast
I hadn’t been on a horse since my stay in Darby, Montana two years ago and I was eager for another ride. The stable manager gave me Kerry, a diminutive chestnut mare with a lively temperament that made up for what she lacked in inches. In a single file line, bookended by professional guides from the club, other guests and I set out on a one-hour morning ride through the conservancy.
Our journey was scenic and varied, though the weather—all grey skies and occasional drizzle—was less than ideal. We walked at a leisurely pace through a dense forest, up and down steep hills, and crossed a narrow stream. Near the end of our journey, we found ourselves in a wide meadow flanked by tall brush on either side.
As we drank in the experience, a hundred yards ahead two giant white pointy things broke through the trees on our left. It took me a second to process. Tusks! No sooner had I realized when the head of a giant bull emerged. Moments later, another bull appeared. The males seemed oblivious to the dozen giddy travelers on horseback gawking at them. Elephants are not blessed with the best sight or hearing, they rely most on their sense of smell. Since they didn’t raise their trunks to sniff the air I assumed we were downwind. It’s possible they didn’t know we were there.
Careful not to attract attention, we stopped and gaped at the house-sized pachyderms crossing our path. Then as silently as they arrived, the bushes swallowed them on the other side. We were beyond giddy. Even our guides were blown away. ‘You are very lucky to see this,” one remarked. We had no expectations of seeing one of the Big 5 on the property, the bulls were a spectacular surprise. The memory still gives me goosebumps.
Five minutes after the elephants, another surprise awaited—a delicious bush breakfast. At the end of the field in a picturesque clearing, sat along u-shaped table ready for a feast. A toque-wearing chef stood behind an omelet station ready to take orders. Muffins, croissant, sausage, baked beans, fresh fruit, and other sides rounded out the spread. The guides took our horses and in turn handed each of us a flute of champagne. We toasted to our fabulous ride. It was one helluva way to start the day.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy
It took a few moments for the grim reality to sink in. I was looking at the last two northern white rhinos on the planet. Let me repeat: On. The. Planet.
At Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the largest game reserve in northern Kenya and 45-minutes from the Mount Kenya Safari Lodge where 700 acres and round the clock surveillance protects them from poachers.
Najin and Fatu, mother and daughter, chomped greedily on a pile of carrots. They’d come running when a handler poured a barrel of the veggies on the ground about 50 feet from our vehicles. A four-legged, flesh and blood tank at high-speed is a sight—you’d be surprised how graceful they are.
Tragically, both Najin and Fatu are infertile which puts a wrench in the conservancy’s plan to recover the species. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino was euthanized after a long illness in 2018. Samples of his sperm are on ice but with neither of the two females are able to bear calves. What to do?
Enter Tauwoa, a young southern white rhino keeping Najin and Fatu company and a potential surrogate. Researchers are working on the science behind artificially inseminating her with Fatu’s eggs fertilized with Sudan’s sperm. To date, it’s never been done. If successful, it’ll take decades before there are enough progeny to consider the species “saved”. And with a price tag of at least 10 million dollars to fund the endeavor, it’ll be years before they’ll raise it. (If you’re interested in donating to the cause, you’ll find information here.)
DETAILS: Visiting the northern rhinos is by appointment only and held twice a day at 8:30 am and 4:00 pm. The cost is $40.00 per person on top of the park fee. In addition to the ladies, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is home to the largest population of black rhinos outside of the Masai Mara, plus you’ll find all of Kenya’s Big 5 and other fascinating animals.
Not so usual is the troupe of rescued Ugandan chimpanzees housed in the conservancy’s Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary. Price of admission is included in your park fee but for an additional $40 per person, you can go behind the scenes.
Nanyuki Weavers and Spinners
Growing up in Nanyuki, northern Africa, Annah Warutere learned the art of weaving, spinning, and dyeing from her grandmother. In her early 20’s, Annah was a teacher and a single mother with a big problem. Working kept her from caring for her small children but staying home meant she couldn’t support her family.
In 1977, under the umbrella of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, Annah founded the Nanyuki Weavers & Spinners, a self-help program teaching widowed, single or poor mothers the skills to spin, weave, and dye to earn an income. Half of the profits raised go directly to the women. Annah started the project with six women and over the years the organization has trained nearly 300. And if that wasn’t enough, a school built to educate their children while the women worked, has graduated many students from primary school, high school and for some, university
Inside the no-frills concrete building, the women, sitting on hardwood benches showed us step-by-step the work and expertise that goes into each rug, doormat, shawl, bedspread, and throw they make and sell out a thatched roof showroom. They also weave custom products for local businesses. Their strength, perseverance, and kindness were humbling.
DETAILS: Ask your hotel concierge to arrange a visit. There is no fee but it would be appreciated if you showed your support by buying one of their products. The program is open between 9:00 am – 5:00 pm.
The Fairmont Mara Safari Club
I’ve been to the Masai Mara on a few occasions but with a place as vast and diverse as the plains of southwestern Kenya, every day is different. At the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, an hour’s small plane flight from Mount Kenya, the fenced grounds enables guests to walk freely without fear of predators. Atop the tall banks of the winding Mara River 50 guest tents overlooked the water teaming with hippos and 15-foot crocodiles.
The tents were anchored to a stationary raised platform and furnished with classic furniture and a large canopy bed accented by iconic Maasai red plaid. A bead curtain separated the bedroom from the dressing room and en-suite bathroom. In the morning, I lounged on the tent’s private deck with a mug of hot cocoa and watched the sunrise. At night, the sounds of the bush lulled me to sleep.
My stay was a short one—only one night—but in that brief period, I went on two game drives in one of my favorite places in the world. In a few short hours, we saw giraffe, elephants, baby topis, sleeping lions, herds of zebras, a hyena or two, a cute black-backed jackal, gangly ostriches, and a herd of reclining buffalo, one of which enjoyed a thorough nose-picking from two very determined oxpeckers.
When the day came to a close, we sipped on sundowners (a lovely tradition consisting of cocktails in the bush at sundown) on an elevated plateau overlooking miles of golden plains spotted with iconic acacia trees.
KOFI ANAN AND ELIZABETH
In a thicket of trees, Kofi Anan and Elizabeth grazed, guarded by men with automatic rifles. We were less than 20 feet from the last two southern white rhinos in the Masai Mara. As with Najin and Fatu, the reality of them being the last of anything was disheartening. Thankfully, they aren’t the only two left in the world—for now.
The Fairmont Mara Safari Club keeps them safe and healthy with round the clock protection. Kofi is not yet an adult, but the hope is he’ll breed with Elizabeth (ten years his senior) when he’s sexually mature. At night, the two sleep in a protected paddock called a boma safe from potential poachers.
DETAILS: The concierge at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club can arrange a visit.
A VISIT WITH THE MAASAI
She’s crazy. I could tell that’s what they were thinking, the only thing missing were thought bubbles above their heads. Who’s the crazy lady taking so many pictures?
On our last morning before whisking off to the airstrip bound for Nairobi and our flights home, we made one last stop at a local Maasai Manyatta (village)—one of my favorite things to do in the Mara. While the flow of the visit is staged for the tour, you’ll learn a lot about how some contemporary Maasai live.
Historically, the tribe was nomadic but the importance of education and loss of land to graze their animals upon, they live stationary lives. Livestock is the basis of their social and economic structure—the more cows a man has the greater his wealth and standing within the community. The greater his wealth, the more wives he can afford.
Cloaked in a red, orange and yellow striped Shuka, the chief ushered us into the village. Pumpkin colored dung huts formed a horseshoe shape leaving a large open area for gatherings. To ward off predators, a fence of woven acacia branches sporting three-inch thorns surrounded the perimeter.
The men tend to the herds, are the politicians, and protect the manyatta while the women take care of the children, prepare the food, make the jewelry, and do most of the manual labor.
The women greeted us singing a traditional welcome song wearing colorful handmade beaded necklaces, chokers and bracelets. The men followed with the iconic “jumping dance typically performed during social events and meant to appeal to the ladies. It’s said that the man who jumps the highest is the most virile.
Afterward, a few warriors demonstrated how they start fires using two pieces of wood and friction—not an easy feat even for veterans. A little retail therapy— Maasai style—concluded our visit. Each woman showcased their own handmade jewelry, carvings, and wildlife figurines on makeshift tables arranged in a circle behind their huts. If you’re looking for souvenirs or gifts to take home with you, a Maasai village visit is the place to buy them.
DETAILS: Visits are arranged through your accommodation or guide. Prices vary.
Note: The Maasai are aggressive salespeople but they expect you’ll negotiate the price. Keep in mind your dollars are a vital source of income and don’t haggle too much. These are the same products you’ll find in a boutique but for higher prices and the village will only receive a percentage of the proceeds.
How You Can Enjoy The Big 5 In Kenya and More
If you are looking for an African holiday with a breadth of activities (riding, swimming, tennis, wildlife, not just game viewing) and environments (city, mountains, plains) the Fairmont properties in Kenya offer a package they call “Escape into Africa.” Three nights in Nairobi, two nights in Mount Kenya and two nights in the Masai Mara. All the activities described above can be arranged by the staff, however, some are at an additional cost. Contact Fairmont for more information.
I was a guest of the Fairmont Hotels in Kenya however the words and sentiment are my own. This piece was neither seen nor approved before publishing.
Thank you to Canon Professional Services for their assistance with this project.