I had never been to East Africa, and had no concept of the distance from London to Nairobi. I assumed the journey would take three or four hours, and was quite surprised when nine hours after our departure the flight attendant finally announced that we were approaching our destination.
Nairobi, like any other city at nine thirty in the morning, was in the midst of its rush hour. Cars, bicycles, and motorcycles were travelling in all directions on the busy streets. When I arrived at my hotel I was pleased to see that Africa, like the rest of the world, has firmly moved into the twenty-first century. Nairobi, in fact, is an extremely progressive city, offering all the amenities to which I we, as westerners, are accustomed.
“Where are the animals?” I asked. “I can see cars and buses any where. I came to Africa to see elephants and giraffes”.
I took a trek to Karen Blixen’s house, located on the outskirts of Nairobi. Karen Blixen (real name Isak Dinesen) was the author of Out of Africa, a true tale - and later a film of romance and heartbreak set on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
The manicured lawns and trimmed hedges were adorned with flowers of all colours. As I entered the modest dwelling, I was immediately swept into African life as it must have been several decades ago. Of course, seeing Robert Redford’s trousers proudly displayed on the bedposts, reminded me that no matter where in the world we go, Hollywood is close behind.
From Karen Blixen’s farm, I headed to my first encounter with African wildlife. The Giraffe Manor is home to a vast number of Africa’s Rothschild giraffes. These animals are so tame that when they approach, they lower their necks, and scoop up whatever you might have in your hand with their ten inch black tongues. I may have thought the sandwich I was holding was my lunch; however one of the giraffes had a different idea.
I ventured north to the town of Thika and was amazed at the brilliant red hues of the famous flame trees. The raging waterfalls and picturesque scenery left me breathless. All around were tall poinsettia trees, a flower I had assumed was grown only in red wrapped pots and sold at grocery stores during the Christmas season.
My journey continued to ‘Treetops’, a hotel made famous when England’s Queen Elizabeth, then a princess, spent a night there in the early fifties. It was the night her father passed away – an event that spawned the quote, “She went up a princess and came down a queen.”
‘Treetops’ is nothing more than a series of rooms suspended high above the ground supported by poles, which are interwoven with large tree trunks. A giant balcony overlooks a watering hole where salt licks have been scattered to attract animals, so tourists like me can have a better view.
I checked into my room, which was no more than two metres by three metres, most of which was taken up by two bunk beds. Quickly I returned to the verandah in order to witness the wildlife of Africa. I saw Malibu storks, nearly the size of a full-grown man, boldly wandering along the railings. As I stood watching, a herd of Cape Buffalo numbering in the hundreds marched from amongst the trees and circled the entire lake.
I watched in awe, for as quickly as the large animals arrived they also disappeared. It was unbelievable watching Africa’s natural inhabitants roam free, making me feel like an intruder. There were antelopes, baboons, and a group of warthogs, some of whom drank while kneeling. Young warthogs are unable to reach the ground with their faces as their legs are too long.
I continued to gaze at the sights of Africa’s natural splendour. Time passed quickly, and around two-thirty in the morning I decided to call it a night. I had just fallen asleep when a loud buzzer sounded, waking me with a start. Naturally, I assumed it was a fire, but quickly realized it was the hotel’s way of notifying guests that a herd of elephants had arrived at the nearby watering hole.
I dressed and moved onto my balcony and as my eyes grew accustomed to the moonlit surroundings, I was suddenly shocked to see half a dozen of the world’s largest land mammals standing directly below me. It felt as if I could simply reach out my hand and touch them; it was easy to lose the perspective that these animals were wild.
Elephants live well into their sixties and grow five sets of teeth during their lifetime. The last set simply wears down and the elephant can no longer chew natural foods. In the final days of an elephant’s life it seeks terrain where the grasses are soft and pliable, allowing it to live out its time in peace and tranquility.
Elephants live in small herds which seem almost like families. When the males reach the age of fourteen they are forced away from the group and left to make it on their own. These outcasts normally attach themselves to another herd, ensuring that no inbreeding destroys the strength of the species.
My next stop was the Mount Kenya Safari Club, built by actor William Holden in the 1940’s. It was constructed on the slopes of Mount Kenya and positioned directly on the equator. When I saw peacocks and storks walk leisurely over the rolling hills of green grass and flowered bushes, I knew that this place would forever hold a special attraction for me.
The white stucco building was decorated with hundreds of artifacts of African life: masks and spears, tusks and skins; all reminders of the Africa that I had studied in school. I continually glanced around corners, for I was certain Johnny Weissmuller might appear at any moment.
The Mount Kenya Safari Club was surrounded by tea plantations, something that I had never seen before. I was quite surprised at the smallness of the leaves.
After a few days I found it difficult to say good-bye to this beautiful resort, however, the wilds of the Samburu region lay ahead and my guide explained that we had to make it to the lodge by nightfall. He said it was forty kilometres away, and I looked at my watch wondering what I was missing, for there were at least three hours of daylight remaining and forty kilometres would, after all, not take more than thirty-five minutes.
We had no sooner started on our trek when the road abruptly ended, and what was a crude form of pavement a few minutes ago became gravel held together by potholes. The Land Rover bumped and tossed, and I remembered why I really did not enjoy the rides at amusement parks.
Our journey continued. As I glanced behind during one of the few occasions when my head was not being bumped against the roof of the Land Rover, I saw nothing but a massive dust cloud as our driver pushed the vehicle to its limits. It is said that when you are in danger and surrounded by fear, your life flashes before you. I found this to be true.
“How long do these cars usually last?” I asked.
“Two years,” the driver, Raffi, replied.
“How old is this one?”
“It is nearly three.” He smiled, as if proud of having accomplished something others had not.
I sat quietly, staring at the wonders around me realizing I was in a world foreign to me, on an adventure that I would never forget.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com