Travelling through Kenya: Kissing giraffes and panoramic views
A new railway line from Nairobi to Mombasa covers 430km avoiding a notoriously dangerous highway
At the giraffe sanctuary in Nairobi. Photograph: Fionn McCann
Tsavo National Park
Salt Lick Lodge in Tsavo National Park in Kenya. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images)
The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) passenger train in Nairobi. Photograph: Simon Maina/ AFP
Ever been kissed by a giraffe? Well, I took the bit between my teeth so to speak at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, one of the city’s premier tourist destinations, on a sunny Sunday morning earlier this year. On entering the enclosure you are given a handful of pellets from a bucket to feed the animals in the usual way and close up, the gentle nature of these lofty, sociable and silent creatures, once hunted nearly to extinction (and still hunted) is at once engaging and awesome.
The bit was literally a pale grey molasses pellet to which giraffes are particularly partial, which you place between your lips. The animal leans down and softly and swiftly withdraws it from your mouth - the guides reassuringly explaining that their long black prehensile tongues are antiseptic. There is a childish thrill from the wonderment of it all.
Giraffes use their long eyelashes and ears to communicate, we were told, and each one has their own individual coat pattern called a pelage. These particular giraffes with their white socks are the endangered Rothschilds so called after the British zoologist Walter Rothschild and only a few hundred of them survive in protected areas of Kenya and Uganda.
The centre is a stone’s throw from the famous Giraffe Manor Hotel formerly the home of conservationists Betty and Jock Leslie Melville who raised two wild giraffes at the house in the 1970s and established the centre in 1983. After Jock’s death, the house was opened to the public with all profits going to the education centre and continuing conservation efforts. It is now under new and five star ownership and the giraffes are regularly to be seen poking their heads through the top storey windows nosing for snacks, enchanting young and old alike.
We were to see more giraffes a few days later driving through Tsavo National Park, the oldest and largest park in Kenya, and one of the world’s most extensive game reserves. The first animal sighted was a lone, dark male, instantly recognisable, and later a group of four younger ones who turned to face us in the distance, their long pointed ears flapping madly before they loped off together into the bush.
Established 70 years ago as a wildlife park, Tsavo was bisected east and west by a railway built by the British in 1898 during the scramble for Africa, and dubbed the Lunatic Express. Its construction using tens of thousands of workers and costing the equivalent of over €700 million in today’s money was beset by a pair of man-eating lions who killed more than 100 Indian and local workers before being shot dead. The Kenyan Wildlife Service and Wildlife Works who now run the park operate a carbon credit incentive scheme compensating locals if they refrain from killing wild animals and burning wood in order to create sustainable forest management and maintain wildlife.
A new railway built by the Chinese called the Mandaraka Express now plies between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa replacing the old one and creating new opportunities for tourism in the area. Opened in May last year, the railway is the biggest infrastructure project since Kenya’s independence in 1963, covers 470km and took an incredibly short time - just under four years - to build. An ongoing project it will eventually stretch to 840km and link Mombasa to South Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia marking further Chinese economic penetration of Africa.
The brand new station in Nairobi looks more like an international airport and we arrived there to take the train down country to Voi (the inexpensive tickets having been purchased online in advance). The first surprise encounter was with the military in full fatigues, guns and sniffer dogs stationed under a long awning before the entrance plaza. Bags then went through further security, followed by passport control where guards checked tickets. Inside, yet another security check followed before we were finally directed upstairs to the waiting area. Chinese and Kenyan flags flapped over the building and on entering the carriages, staff were decked out in sharp red uniforms with yellow silk cravats. It was another world entirely.
The journey, which avoids the notorious highway between Mombasa and Nairobi, takes about four hours compared to nine or more on the congested single lane route where in 2013 alone more than four thousand people lost their lives and where at one point there was a 48km (30 mile) long traffic jam. We were to find out just how dangerous that highway was on returning a few days later in a 4x4 to Nairobi from Voi, even with the most experienced and fearless of Kenyan drivers at the helm.
Drought is a huge problem in the area around Voi and regular sights on the roadside were stacks of yellow drums waiting to be filled from a bowser, a truck selling much needed water to locals. Chris Campbell Clause, an artist, conservationist and award winning environmentalist who runs a lodge below Kasigau Mountain, explained that after a shower of rain, the whole landscape comes alive pointing out extensive sisal plantations, a major crop that can thrive without water.
In the 1914-1918 war, the British army set up camp on Kasigau but their positions were disclosed by locals deceived by the Germans into thinking they were friends. The British enacted a terrible revenge executing the top chieftain and forcing the whole community to walk to their death on board a ship more than 322km (200 miles) away on the coast. Many died while those that survived took 20 years to return home. Today Campbell Clause’s base camp, an eco lodge, is popular with school groups who hike, abseil or go climbing on the mountain.
One of the most astonishing sights in Tsavo is Salt Lick Lodge, which looks like a medieval French fortress on stilts over a waterhole designed in the 1970s for optimum viewing of wildlife day and night. Driving past one evening we saw buffalo, a lioness with cubs, antelope, zebra and other animals in the savannah, and marvelled at how, unlike wildlife documentaries full of action and thrilling movements, the reality in the bush is how relaxed the animals are, just grazing and dozing. Of course, nothing is ever what it seems and we were to hear about ongoing problems between cattle ranchers and wildlife conservationists whose aims are not always in harmony. From the decks of the magnificent Lion’s Bluff Lodge with its 360 degree panoramic views such antagonisms seemed as unreal as the sight of mighty Lion Mountain in the distance.
One memory stands out from the arduous nine hour road journey back to Nairobi; the sudden and unexpected sight of a young elephant peacefully grazing alone on the side of the road disregarding the dangers all around him - the endless rumble of container lorries and trucks trundling in both directions on the narrow highway. We didn’t stay to see his progress but marvelled as he flung up his trunk, unconcerned, at a leafy branch while right behind him the new Mandaraka express, sped swiftly by. One last note about the train: while it has worked very successfully shuttling passengers, its cargo service, planned to relieve the congestion, has been a complete disaster and newly manufactured Chinese freight trucks lie idle and empty in Nairobi. In that moment we were witnessing, what Kenyans are now calling, the national white elephant as well.