For months we anticipated our visit to Nairobi because of a couple we met while attending Spanish School in Nicaragua. They discovered the equivalent of Disneyland for people that love babies and animals, or more appropriately, baby animals. This utopia is also known as the Sheldrick Trust Elephant Orphanage. It was started in the 1970s by the widow of an English naturalist that wanted to give orphaned elephants a second chance at living in the wild. To accomplish her husband’s mission, Daphne Sheldrick spent years understanding the needs of infant elephants, developing the proper milk formula and training a group of keepers to ultimately rescue, raise and reintroduce the elephants (and keep in mind, this is all accomplished through donations). Yeah, we’ve heard it before as well, take animals out of the wild, mingle them with humans and then somehow teach them the skills they need to survive alone. In our travels, this has been near impossible. Yet at Sheldrick, they’ve found a way to do it with huge success.
Kenya is a long way from Nicaragua, and saying you are going to do something is a lot different than actually doing it. To cement our intentions, we fostered a baby elephant last Valentine’s Day! Her name is Sities. She is two years old. Every month we get a newsletter with journal entries from the various keepers that take care of her. We know when she’s been bad, when she’s been sassy and even when they had to introduce her to the older group early so she could learn some much needed social skills (aka get put in check). There is drama, intrigue and baby elephants…who needs television or a subscription to Us Weekly?
I’ll admit I was a little indifferent about seeing Nairobi itself which is fondly referred to as “Nairobbery.” We’ve seen plenty of big cities in developing countries and many have not been impressive. They tend to have horrendous traffic, a higher than acceptable rate of crime and a serious litter problem. What we found when we got there (although we were on the outskirts of town near a suburb called Karen) was that everyone we met was extremely helpful and outgoing. When we were lost, we were picked up by an off-duty safari operator, and he wouldn’t even accept a thank you tip! When we were looking for the bus, we were picked up by another elephant foster parent and driven all the way back to our camp…almost 10km. Another time, we were picked up by a couple that not only searched for directions to our destination on their phone but ended up driving us about 20 minutes to Karen Blixen’s restaurant. By the time we left Nairobi, we had become avid hitchhikers in one of the most notoriously “dangerous” capital cities in Africa. We were surprised too!
With three days on our Transit Visas (woohoo! $60 savings) and accommodations within close proximity of Sheldrick and Nairobi National Park, we changed our tune from an administrative holiday to active tourism. We stayed at the Wildebeest Eco-Camp. After three weeks of camping and more camping (although luxurious) on Mt. Kilimanjaro, we were ready for an upgrade. We slept in actual beds even though they were still in a tent. The grounds were beautiful. The restaurant had relatively exciting food. The showers were hot. And they did our laundry. Actually, they ruined our laundry. They washed our fast drying, sweat-wicking fabrics and jackets at a cool 60 degrees Celsius after we abused them on Kilimanjaro. For those not familiar with the metric system, that’s 140 degrees Fahrenheit! We were offered a half-hearted apology for all the damaged clothing that we had grown so attached to. At least their customer service was consistent with what we’d received during most of our travels through Africa. We are wayyyy spoiled in the United States. Next time you are transferred to a customer service employee overseas with the name John Smith, just be thankful they were not trained in Africa (or even many places in South America for that matter).
Despite the troubles, we committed to making a great first impression for Sities. She couldn’t have cared less. I wasn’t sure what the research said about how elephants handle long-distance relationships, but she didn’t give us the time of day. To think, we brought a family photo… When we arrived at Sheldrick (we missed our first appointment after walking about 12 km in the wrong direction), we met a couple named Bart and Monica from Poland. A previous holiday vacation to Kenya and Sheldrick spurred a love connection/obsession that resulted in a move to Nairobi and a daily (sometimes twice daily) visit to their orphans. It’s quite clear we haven’t invested enough time in Sities. Even with her disinterest, we were hooked. There were 24 other elephants that needed us. How many more could we foster? We found a way to visit twice more, including a mid-day visit for the daily mud bath and bottle feed. We saw baby elephants covered in sunblock holding their own bottles and wrestling for fun. One baby sucked on my fingers like a pacifier. Easily a highlight of Africa, of our trip, of my life.
I cannot say enough good things about this place. It was full of love. We watched an elephant being rescued from Amboseli National Park. The first thing it did was wrap its trunk around the keepers leg and suck on his fingers. My heart melted.
In the evening, foster parents get special time with their elephants. They come running from the bush where they spend the day to get a bottle before bed. Sities almost trampled Joshua to get to her food!
Even with our larger than expected time commitment to Sheldrick, we dedicated our final morning to seeing our missing Big 5 member, the rhino. For $100 ($160 less than Wildebeest was charging) we entered Nairobi National Park (the only National Park with skyscrapers as the backdrop), and were on a private game drive with the local rangers.
Our mission was clear. Forget the rhino giving birth while fighting off a pride of lions. We’d be happy just seeing one eating grass. Black or white, who cares? Two hours into the drive, our prayers were answered.
The oldest rhino in the park, 65 or so years, was posing just for us. Full set! And just in the nick of time, as we were headed to Dubai that afternoon and Joshua had to pee so badly he couldn’t keep his eyes open since he was concentrating so hard on not wetting the jeep.