Game in the City

Posted On 21st February 2017
“A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” This phrase of biblical origins rang in my mind, and I flushed with embarrassment as I approached. This unhonoured legend has been around for 69 years (written in 2014) and it was reprehensible that someone who considers himself a connoisseur of Kenya’s attractions was visiting for the first time. Like many other people, I was full of excuses why I had never visited Nairobi National Park, Kenya’s oldest game park. My feeble defence was that the park’s location on the capital’s fringes always reassured me that I could visit any time. This, as you should already know, makes it the only park of its kind in the world. I had been to the Kenya Wildlife Service clubhouse for a party and vowed to return for a proper visit. 

Finally, on a tranquil Saturday afternoon, I made my way to the main Lang’ata Road entrance before climbing into an off-roader with my guide, Saruini. They don’t call this ‘grandmother of parks’ the lungs of Nairobi for nothing. It is hard to ignore her garden-fresh breath. She is raw beauty with her stretches of savannah broken by scrub, bush, rocky valleys, gorges and man-made dams. This combination against the outline of the city skyline is truly picturesque. As we snuck into base camp, her shy children came out to play, and I couldn’t help, but recall the KWS We Kamu commercial that my daughter is gaga about. 

Hordes of zebra and impala, a pair of scramming gazelle and elegant Maasai ostrich posed for close-ups before leaving the dirt path when we came too close for comfort. Later, on the evening game drive, I learned from Saruni that large herds of buffalo, zebra and wildebeest flanked by at least 14 species of antelope all call the Nairobi National Park their home at some point of the year. This, of course, means that plentiful predators — predominantly lion, leopard and hyena — lurk in this peace. But better to focus on the pleasant sights. I never pictured the eland so magnificent, but this largest of the antelope species is quite the looker, and I have to admit I was awestruck. With an incredible 527 species of birds, the park is also a great launch pad for birding safaris, boasting species such as the heaviest flying bird, the Kori Bustard, and the magnificent crowned eagle. The drive’s highlight, hands down however, was the park’s star attraction; the rhinoceros. This endangered, horn-toting giant thrives here, and we were privileged to see an impressive14 rhino, two of them the very rare white. 

Eyesore encroachments that let waste into this paradise, poachers who kill at will, and fences that curtail the movement of migratory game are the threats eating away at this heritage. The fight to retain the park should continue lest we turn into a faunal vacuum like most of the world. This was the dream of pioneer visionaries, who included the first game warden of Kenya, Captain Archie Ritchie. This group saw the value of animals in the face of increasing urbanisation, and used their influence to help create protected areas that gave wildlife a fighting chance. 

There were numerous hurdles to jump in realising this vision, the most troublesome being claims to the land. Various Kenyan communities argued ancestral privilege while Somali ex-servicemen who had participated in World War 1 said the land referred to then as Nairobi Commonage was granted to them in a Soldier Settlement Scheme by the English Crown. All the while, helpless beasts trudged on in uncertain conditions. Fate would again play a cruel hand during the Second World War, when a destructive training camp was set up in the commonage. When the war ended, the clamour for the establishment of this unique park finally bore fruit. The result, in 1945, was a 12,000-hectare park created from the larger Southern Game Reserve. To separate the national park from the urban fabric, electric fences were progressively installed to the west, north, and east. To allow migratory species movement into the larger dispersal area, the southern edge still retains an open border. The outlet for the migratory inmates of Nairobi National Park is via what today is known as the Sheep and Goat Land, situated adjacent to the park boundary near the Hippo Pools. The fast-growing settlements of Rongai and Kitengela, established at the southeast and southwest corners of the park and flanked by the Southern Bypass pose the newest threat to the park’s survival (and more recently the construction of a railway). But this park, true to its nature, lives to fight another day, thanks to efforts of concerned conservationists like Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP) and initiatives like the ‘Wildlife Lease Programme’. The latter, a community-developed planning regulation that restricts the minimum plot-size in much of the dispersal area, works to identify unprotected parcels of land most important for migration, and pays a nominal rent to the landowners in exchange for their commitment to neither subdivide, sell, nor fence the property. 

There are six picnic sites, Mokoiyet, Kingfisher and Impala.  My first visit, however, had to be special. I booked at Nairobi Tented Camp, the only accommodation option in the park. Disembarking from the off-roader and following declining path on foot, a camp hidden in a gorge marked by a beautiful olive and croton forest sort of springs up on you. This is where the line is drawn between wild and tame. Ntete Ngarian, the resident guard, recalls a day when a pride of lions decided to bask on the path, effectively blocking it. Guests had a real ball watching the pride from the tented lobby further down. A mounted photograph of a nursing cheetah with her two cubs sets the mood as you approach the quaint yet plush entrance. Nearby is the central mess tent with comfy safari seats draped in sheep’s wool. The lobby houses a bar and library to refresh both throat and mind. 

Nairobi Tented Camp goes all out in selling an authentic safari experience, and, commendably, in an eco-friendly manner. Do not expect a swimming pool, manicured lawn, et al; rather, lights out is part of the drill in the unfenced camp running on solar energy. To wash off the game drive dust, one has to contend with the eco-friendly shower limited to 20 litres of water. I had trouble keeping a tab on that limit given the bathroom essentials that kept urging me on. I would later, while enjoying bonfire warmth, learn that I was not alone in this. Clemence, the camp manager, confirmed that the products are indeed a hit with guests. The camp is keen on ensuring that it does not leave a print on the fragile environment. No print means no waste trail and, skipping the gory details, all that needs disposing of finds its way outside the parks confines. To this green end as well, the number of guests dictate the number staff on duty, who deserve commendation for their minimal disturbance during one’s stay. Chef Ogelo outdid himself with the grilled beef kebabs with mushroom soup and the signature Porini salad with rosemary dressing. One guest described this place best in the visitor’s book: “You could easily imagine that you’ve been transported a few hundred kilometres from Nairobi. So quiet is the camp and so dense the forest around it. All the sounds of the city are replaced by jungle sounds at night. And yet you’ve travelled only a few kilometres from the city.”