We had only moved into our new home 7 days before our first visitors arrived. Nick and Anna-Maria had been volunteering in a remote, understaffed hospital in Tanzania and after some sightseeing in Tanzania they arrived in Nairobi by bus to do another (unfortunately slightly shorter) volunteering stint at our place. Perfect timing as we could do with some help with some homely chores.
Nick is a pretty good mountaineer, so he was great for hanging up the curtains and lampshades whilst Anna is a great cook and bread maker so she was put to work in the kitchen, creating a whole range of breads, muesli, soups and dinners.
Luckily they stayed for 2 weeks, including two full weekends, giving us plenty of opportunity to explore the country with them as well as trying to loose a bit of weight from our stay at the Serena Hotel. We went running and mountain biking in Karura Forest, and within our compound we tested the gym, the pool, the sauna and even created our own training circuit. You are more than welcome to join us when you are here too.
One weekend we went for an early morning run on the lower slopes of Mt Kenya with the Swaras running club. It was a run-until-you-drop course, where you are picked up if you don’t want to (can’t) run anymore. The course was 56km and they had 3 cars doing the rounds, handing out water and fruit and picking up anybody who had had enough. A great way to test your endurance for sure! Jon, Jude and Anna all managed half a marathon and Nick got picked up around 28km. The course was picture perfect, through forests and remote villages, which at least distracted us from all the climbing.
We then went on to our camp site on the Laikipia Plateau in the Ngare Ndare Forest. An amazing private conservancy with the longest tree top walk in East Africa on their property. It was a rather damp and foggy arrival, but luckily the next morning we had a sunny day for a hike into the forest. After seeing a lot of birds and even huge skid marks (!) from elephants on the trail we actually saw a small family of elephants. It’s quite nerve wracking when you find yourself in their company without the protection of being in a car.
Continuing our active weekends we went to Hells Gate National Park to explore the gorge we hiked previously with Jon’s colleagues. This time we continued further down the gorge, determined to find some of the geysers we had heard about. Not deterred by the many large hyena foot prints we trudged on through the creek, giving up on dry feet after a while, and just as we were about to turn around as it was getting late we saw the clouds of steam wafting up from amongst the trees. We had found the bubbling mud and steam vents.
That night we camped in Hell’s Gate NP on one of the ridges overlooking the valley floor where a few herds of zebra and impala were on their way to a safe place for the night. We lit a fire and enjoyed our drinks watching the sun go down and the stars appear. Quite special.
The next day we did a small game drive before heading out to our next destination, the extinct volcano Longonot which dominates the Rift Valley. It’s another National Park, but here the main focus is on hiking to the summit, admiring the amazing crater and walking around the crater rim which makes a perfect circle. It’s a very dusty affair with amazing views, but unfortunately littered with plastic bottles. The first National Park we have seen where the littering was even worse than on the public roads. We picked up as many as we could carry, but had to leave hundreds. According to the rangers that was just the result of one weekend, as they head up in the week to remove them all…
After 2 weeks Nick and Anna went on to Rwanda and Uganda and we (use of the term ‘we’ now includes Evalyne, our house angel who does 99% of the work around here!) prepared the spare bedroom for our next visitor who would be arriving in 3 days.
After only a few months in Kenya we decided to adopt. Most of you already guessed we adopted a 4-legged baby girl, not one with 2 legs. And our baby-girl weighs around 800kg and still drinks many liters of milk a day. Yep, we adopted Kamok, a 15 month old baby-elephant-girl. Orphaned at 1 day old when she wasn’t able to keep up with the herd as she wasn’t strong enough on her own little legs. If you are interested in her rescue, watch the video below (3.30min). If that doesn’t work click here.
You can also decide to adopt her as well, which in a way would make you part of the family.
As a foster parent of Kamok we are allowed to put her to bed any night we want. As she lives in the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage in Nairobi, we’ve already been once, but plan to do that more often. She, and the other orphans, are simply adorable and it’s great to see they are in such good hands after difficult starts to their lives.
But there are a few more benefits that come with adopting a baby elephant. Once you are a ‘parent’ you are allowed to visit the 3 locations where the young elephants are re-introduced into the wild. The established place to release them is in the northern area of Tsavo East National Park – an area normally closed off to people, but open to ‘parents’. Here they have been successfully re-introducing orphaned elephants in the wild for many years. Some orphans have even completed the cycle and have had babies themselves! The newborns are then proudly shown to their old keepers as the mother elephants bring their newborns to the stockades (the stables) and protect the keepers from the baby (as the new baby is certainly not used to humans).
The other, much newer option for orphaned elephants to be re-introduced into the wild is Umani Springs, located in the Kibwezi Forest, a bit closer to Nairobi then Tsavo East. We were lucky enough to be invited by some of our new friends: Su, Kes, James and Helen, and spent a very enjoyable 2 days there.
Leaving very early on a Saturday morning, to try to beat Nairobi morning traffic, we arrive at the turn off for Umani Springs just before 9AM. A few 100m later we are allowed into the Kibwezi Forest after registering at the main gate. It’s a bumpy, rough track with large muddy puddles in places from the previous week’s rain. But after about 8km we spot the small herd of 5 orphaned elephants in the distance. We watch them for a while before driving the last km to Umani Springs.
Here we are greeted by the staff first and then James who gives us a quick tour of the main house where the communal lounge, dining area and bar can be found, as well as the 2 large terraces overlooking the grassland and the pond. This place is amazing!! A dream home, picture perfect, which we are allowed to enjoy, sadly only for 2 days. There are 3 further ‘houses’, all in the same thatched cottage style, all set in their own secluded location, each with their own bathroom as well as its own outdoor bathroom, private decks and some even with their own private lounge area, all overlooking the grasslands and the pond.
But first we joined the others for a (second) breakfast in the outdoor dining area next to the lagoon style pool. You bring your own food to Umani Springs, but after handing it over to the chef on arrival you don’t have to lift a finger. Peter and his team look after feeding you, you just need to let them know when you want to eat and hand over the recipes (although we had the impression he didn’t really need any recipes). We just had to enjoy it all – it’s a tough job going on weekend trips here!
We had a full program on the first day. After breakfast we were meeting the 5 elephants at 11AM when they get their morning bottles of milk – 2 bottles of 2 litres each! – just a few minutes walk from the lodge. They play in the mud, eat grass continuously, get a good head scratch from us and use trees for the serious itches before they head off into the forest again for some more foraging under the watchful eye of their keepers.
The keepers are with the elephants all day every day and every night, looking after them, taking photos and notes for the diary which is published monthly to all foster parents. But most importantly, they teach them to become a wild elephant again.
We won’t bore you with the details of how tough our weekend was, but we managed to squeeze in some nature walks, sundowners on our own private platform overlooking the Kibwezi Forest, games, swims, watching wildlife, more food, more drinks, more elephant visits and some of us even had time to relax and read a book.
Our gorgeous girl has a long way to go before she can be reintroduced to the wild, but we are confident that with our support (and the support of many others), she, and all her elephant friends at the orphanage, will one day be able to return to a wild herd. Kamok will be in Nairobi for at least another year or 2, followed by another 5 – 8 years of introducing her back into the wild, either in Tsavo East or at Umani Springs.
Elephants currently at Umani Springs:
The first 2 elephants to arrive were Murera, who had a broken hip which has healed but has left her with a weak leg, and Sonje with her leg injury caused by a bullet wound which has left her knee with little flexibility. Due to these disabilities these two orphans were never going to be able to survive in the dry conditions of Tsavo National Park where they would have to walk huge distances in the dry seasons in search of food and water.
They were followed a few months later by Zongoloni, Quanza and Lima Lima, so now there are 5 orphans at Umani Springs. Later this month another 3 elephants are expected to join them from the Nairobi crowd (32 currently).
The Serena Hotel in Nairobi is a 5-star hotel close to the centre. Whilst driving with Lara from Kuala Lumpur to London, we also stayed at the Serena in Tajikistan; in Khorog and in Dushanbe. When we were staying in the Serena in Tajikistan however, we camped in our roof top tent in the car park. This time we were actually going to stay in a room inside the Serena… We had already stayed in the Serena in Nairobi for a week during our familiarisation visit and this time it was going to be our home until we could move into our apartment.
The Serena has everything you need. It has a beautiful pool, a great gym with a lot of cardio equipment as well as weights and lots of classes. It has a spa, a sauna, a hairdresser, a shop, a bar and 2 restaurants.
The room had all the usual hotel items, including an enormous bed, but most importantly Simon gave us a fruit bowl and a jar of cookies every day…
And every morning when we walked into the breakfast area we received the standard greeting: “Welcome for breakfast”. Sometimes they would ask us if we wanted a table inside or outside, but mostly she would start walking to a table inside – we ate outside every day. Even after 4 weeks they still didn’t seem to recognise us.
It also had free wifi which worked most of the time. The interesting part was that the login details were your room number and your last name, which meant that any staff member with access to the reservation system could log in using our details. Fine if you have unlimited logins, not great if you only get 3. It took us more than 3 weeks to work out staff was using our logins, so we couldn’t log in, and it had in fact nothing to do with not logging out properly as they tried to tell us!
Five weeks later, after many visits to all the furniture stores in Nairobi, we had our critical items like a fridge, stove and bed delivered and we could move into our real home. When checking out on the final morning we were very surprised that the lady at reception all of a sudden recognised us and offered us a gift from the shop because we had stayed with them for so long…!
Now we have our own private outdoor table for breakfast on our balcony overlooking the stunning gardens, and occasionally one of us utters quietly “Welcome for breakfast…”.