The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located inside Nairobi National Park, is one of the most moving places I have ever been. It is an orphanage for young elephants who have been rescued all over Kenya and brought to Nairobi. Baby elephants are not able to survive without their mothers' milk, so the staff at Sheldrick feed them a special formula that mimics elephant milk. (Milk from cows will cause them to die.) Unfortunately, Sheldrick receives more and more baby elephants all the time due to poaching. The baby elephants eventually move to another park in Kenya where they are slowly introduced to other elephants in order to join a wild herd. They have had amazing success with these transitions. The keepers' dedication and love for elephants is heartening. They feed the babies, teach them to browse for food, and even sleep in the stalls at night!
There are several opportunities to visit the baby elephants if you are in Nairobi. The elephants have a mudbath everyday at 11:00 that is open to the public. You have about an hour to view the elephants from behind a rope. It can get quite crowded, but you get to see the elephants play and interact with each other. Tickets can be purchased when you arrive (roughly $7.) At 5:00, people who have fostered an elephant are able to come see the elephants return from browsing in the forest to get their evening bottle and go to bed for the night. You are able to be quite close to the elephants and get to meet the keepers. You must foster your elephant and reserve your spot ahead of your visit. They will have your name on a list when you arrive. Fostering costs $50 a year per elephant. The fostering program is an important source of funding for the Trust. They do amazing work and I was happy to support their mission.
The orphanage is in the Karen area, and a visit can be combined with the Giraffe Center, Kazuri Beads, the Karen Blixen house, or the Utamaduni Craft Centre. Your hotel or tour operator will arrange a ride for you. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes that you can clean off and long pants to walk around the paths. For the 5:00 visit, get there at least 10 minutes early to sign in with the security guard. If you are interested in visiting, be sure to follow them on Facebook or Instagram to keep up to date with the elephants!
Check out the FAQ section if you want specifics about fostering or visiting.
Giraffe Manor is nothing short of magical and I was so happy to return for a second visit two nights in June. Our British Airways flight arrived in the evening and we encountered quite a line at immigration, but we were warmly greeted and offered drinks and dinner despite the late hour of our check in. The staff at Giraffe Manor is very helpful and friendly across the board, check in time is no exception. We stayed in Marlon's Room our first night, the only room available when we booked. It is small, and does not have giraffes visit for pre-breakfast treats. We moved to Daisy's Room the next morning, which has a small terrace and a nice view out over the patio and the wooded area where the giraffes sometimes hang out (see below.) To be sure you get a room that has giraffes come directly to the window, book very early! No matter where your room is, you will have visiting time with giraffes at breakfast, in the breakfast room and along the patio. You will also get to feed giraffes at tea time.
The giraffes begin to wander up as the sun rises. The staff is ready with large bowls of the giraffe treats that they like to eat. It is very convivial at breakfast with everyone taking each other's pictures and talking to the giraffes. They stick their heads through the windows and gather along edge of the patio. There are plenty of staff members on hand to help hand out giraffe food, take photos, direct you to safe spots to interact with giraffes, and of course, bring your breakfast!
The giraffes eventually make their way over to the Giraffe Center, leaving you to finish breakfast and get ready for whatever else you have planned. Giraffe Manor is located in Karen, near some interesting things to do. If you do not have a driver already booked as part of your travel plans, you can arrange with Giraffe Manor for rides to nearby places. Kazuri Beads, the Utamaduni Craft Market, and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (more on that later!) are all nice stops. You can also have someone walk you over to the Giraffe Center to learn more about the Rothschild Giraffe species. All meals are included in your room rate, so many people plan to head out after lunch. Lunch is on the patio when the weather is nice. A note about the food-let them know ahead if you have any dietary restrictions or special requests. There are not many choices offered, but they are happy to accommodate your needs. I had a delicious vegetarian lunch, the chef grilled some halloumi cheese for my kabob instead of the fish.
Around 5:30, the giraffes return. The staff brings out bowls of giraffe treats, as well as treats for the guests. Tea, wine, tea cakes, sandwiches, and all sorts of other snacks are served out front. Unfortunately, the cute baby giraffe was only interested in eating the landscaping, not being fed by people! When it gets dark, the giraffes leave and it is time for a nice drink by the fire and dinner. We had to leave very early the next morning, but the manager helpfully arranged for the kitchen to make us a packed breakfast to take to the airport. If you are flying from Wilson Airport, there aren't security restrictions about liquids, so you can take food and drinks with you to eat while you wait for your flight.
Do you want to go to Africa but don't know where to start? It is definitely a trip that needs to be planned far in advance. The first time, I thought it was going to be a once in a lifetime experience. How wrong I was! I was lucky enough to return three more times, and am excited to be planning a trip for next summer. The animals are always the focus for me, but that does not mean there aren't other amazing experiences and activities. Culture, art, spas, and history can be a part of your trip along with the wildlife.
I strongly feel this is a journey to plan with a professional travel planner who is either based in Africa, or has been there A LOT. You need someone who can deal with the ins and outs of the camp transfers and local logistics. They can help you decide which area of Africa to concentrate on and then send you safari camp suggestions based on your budget. (If you want to do gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda, please note that everything else about your trip depends on the days you are given your gorilla permits. Do that first!)
One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Did it take forever to get there?" If you have miles for upgrading to business class, this is the time to use them. Being able to stretch out and sleep on at least one of the legs will help you be ready to hit the ground running on arrival. Depending on how long it takes you to get there, you may want to plan more than one day in Nairobi or Johannesburg to adjust before beginning the safari portion of your trip. When traveling to South Africa, a few days in Cape Town is a great way to start.
Getting There-South Africa
There are several ways to get to South Africa from the United States, and yes, they are all long. On my most recent trip, I used British Airways miles to book the tickets so we flew through London. I actually liked having a break between the two flights, but some people prefer the long South African Airways flights from the US to Johannesburg so they don't have to change planes. Flying the Middle Eastern carriers is getting more popular and they do sometimes offer competitive fares.
There are a few ways to get to Kenya, but there is no direct flight option from the US. You will need to change in Europe or the Middle East.
There are three main types of accommodations in the safari areas-lodges, tented camps, and mobile tented camping. Lodges are generally larger, with the rooms in one building or a few smaller buildings. Tented camps are permanent tents, with real floors and full ensuite bathrooms. Sometimes, the camps have a small chalet rather than a canvas tent, but they are stand alone rather than grouped in a building. Mobile tented camping is just how it sounds-the safari operator may set up the camp for a whole season, but it is not a permanent camp. Each type of lodging has its advantages, and I have liked doing a mix of camps and lodges. While some are quite luxurious and I know there are amazing experiences to be had at the mobile tented camps, that style is just not for me!
Some will be found in or adjoining national parks, some will be in private reserves. Trip Advisor reviews and each place's website will help you determine this. Something else to find out is what type of vehicle is used, and how many people per vehicle.
I will highlight some of my favorite camps and lodges in upcoming posts.