Adventure calling

Wild side

Adventure calling

With its wildlife sanctuaries and bustling markets, Nairobi has become Africa’s pride and joy. Preeti Verma Lal explores the culturally diverse city in a day.

Circa: Turn of the 20th century. The monied, the adventurous, the big game hunters, the settlers, the explorers from Europe escaping the Old and New Worlds tiptoed into Africa where the sun was warm, the deserts arid, the forest primeval and the bush country endless. Tucked lazily within the vast African expanse was Mile 317.

A nondescript stores depot and shunting yard on the Mombasa-Kampala railway line cluttered with British men in sola toupees, labourers slathered in red soil, and the clamour of shovels and pick axe. It was on Mile 317 that a city was destined to begin its life, a city that would take its name from the Masai word enairobe (literally, stream of cold water).

Nearly a century ago, who would have dreamt that a dreary stores depot at Mile 317 would bulge unplanned, unexpectedly into a city that East Africa would proudly flaunt as its best? In one swell century, Nairobi found its moorings. And fame. The Kenyan capital defies timelines insolently; it turns the clock itself — its pace is hurried, its progress the stuff of envy, its narrative, almost fabled in extent.

Animal kingdom

Neither the narrative, nor the progress, in Nairobi, I first encountered its hurried pace. I had barely landed when Stanley Gitau, driver/naturalist of Glory Safaris, revved the engine, trying to manoeuvre through the early morning rush in one push of the pedal, ignoring the countless storks perched on tall acacia trees and square white clocks by the sidewalk. “The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage would close by noon, I’ll drive you there first,” Gitau began.

Set up in 1977 to honour the memory of famous naturalist David Leslie William Sheldrick, the orphanage is home to abandoned baby elephants and rhinoceros, whose mothers have either been killed by poachers, or felled by disease. Cordoned off by a rope, baby elephants, covered with mud, guzzle milk out of bottles, chew bite-size sugarcane and then stretch their trunk for a massage. The caretakers sleep with the elephants in their stalls and when they grow up, they see off these animals to the wild.    

Not too far away in the Giraffe Centre, Rothschild giraffes crane their long necks for a handful of peanut pellets that visitors are allowed to offer to the endangered giraffe sub-species. The musky breath of the giraffe is certainly not my favourite fragrance, and I shuddered at the thought of their foot-long tongues on my hands, but when they ambled from the lush shrubs for the peanuts, I remembered a brutal fact: Giraffes’ worst enemy is man. Sigh! 

Nairobi is never just a day trip, there is a lot to see, a lot of colonial history to soak in, so many curios to buy. But in my itinerary, it was squeezed in as a pit stop of yore, when hunters stopped for the night, filled their supplies, fuelled their jeeps and headed into the bushes in search of the Kenyan Big Five (lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceroes and leopard). I was no settler on a cross-country safari in toupee, boots, spine-pads and a chest of medicine, but, unfortunately, I only had a day.

History mystery

The clock was ticking away, and I was caught between the footprints of a pugnacious British farmer called Lord Delamare, who in the 1900s, made it chic to build a house in the Dark Continent and lent his name to a bar in the swank Fairmont Norfolk Hotel, and the 101-year-old National Museum, a one-stop for all things African, which was founded by a group of settlers and naturalists who needed a place to preserve their collection of various specimens.

In 1904, Major CGR Ringer opened the doors of Norfolk Hotel, and since that sultry morning, the hotel became inextricably tangled with the history of Nairobi. Rickshaws ‘decanted’ the monied and the mighty who walked in and out of the hotel’s plush door: The Duke & Duchess of Connaught, Britian’s Princess Patricia, Winston Churhcill, President Theodore Roosevelt of the US... Brusque Norfolk loyals would have you believe that if there was no Norfolk, there would have been no Nairobi.

Market mania

After having finished my rendezvous with nimble four-footed animals and the suave settlers, I turned ‘indigenous’ in Nairobi. I was curious about the Masais, a pastoral tribe known as much for the lithe, ebony-skinned tall men, as for their colourful beads. In the Masai Market near Wilson Airport, the Masai culture was rolled out in spread-a-sheet shops where matronly women in elaborate headwraps were hawking handwoven Masai fabric, cotton chintz sarongs with verses woven in Swahili; tubby men hewn out of ebony wood; lissome women made of hay and corn leaf, and dried gourds beaded as water carriers and painted as porridge bowls.

I tried a kanga (sarong) with orange pansies and the wail of a lovelorn, “I love thee, yet you are so far off…” I have never draped a poem over my brown skin, but sarongs with proverbs or riddles are ‘oh! so Kenyan’.

When the evening arrived, I headed to the ICEA Building for a panoramic view of the city. Nairobi was swathed in the glimmer of a million neon lights. The metamorphosis of a dreary stores depot at Mile 317 into a city that East Africa flaunts as its best seems surreal. Yes, Nairobi’s progress is the stuff of envy. Yes, Nairobi’s narrative is almost fabled in its extent.

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