BREAKFAST WITH GIRAFFES AT AFRICA’S LUXURY LODGE IN NAIROBI
Hotel staff often offer a set of instructions to guests when they check in, usually about hotel amenities, meal times, and nearby attractions. Less common is a security briefing. Guests should refrain from leaving the raised area around the main building, the manager explained, as I put down my bag to accept a glass of lemonade. Rothschild giraffes are not malicious, he continued, but they have been known to head-butt people accidentally while sniffing for food.
Giraffe Manor is located in Karen, an affluent suburb of Nairobi where Karen Blixen had her farm in the 1920s. The giraffes roam at will around a rambling house that looks as though it’s been teleported straight from the Scottish highlands. Ivy climbs the walls and is pruned daily by the animals. A gramophone plays jazz in an airy parlour filled with couches. Lunch is served in a beautiful garden around a fountain. It feels grand but sublimely casual, as though the lord of the estate has gone away on business and his staff have invited everyone to stay, including the menagerie from nearby Nairobi National Park. There are 10 rooms, and nine giraffes – unless you count all the paintings and photographs on the walls, in which case there are approximately a million.
“How did this happen?”, I asked the general manager, as a warthog with the hair of Axl Rose rambled across the lawn.
The manor, which was modelled on a Scottish hunting lodge, was built in 1932 by Sir David Duncan using a family fortune made selling toffee in Britain. There were no trees back then; you could see all the way from the manor house to Mount Kilimanjaro. During the war, the British Army requisitioned the property to use as their headquarters in East Africa. And after they abandoned the place, sometime in the 1960s, a group of hippies moved in, graffitied the wood-panelling, and threw parties where people behaved more outrageously than baboons.
In 1974, Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville – she American, he Kenyan – bought the manor house and a small parcel of Duncan’s original acreage. However, when they turned up to take possession of their new home, they found that three wild bull giraffes had decided it was already occupied. The Leslie-Melvilles named their obstinate housemates Tom, Dick and Harry. Soon, as word spread about their unusual living arrangement, Betty and Jock found themselves with other Rothschild giraffes – refugees suffering from the impact of the Kenyan government’s program to develop the countryside. New additions to the family included Daisy, about which Betty Leslie-Melville wrote a famous book, Raising Daisy Rothschild, which later became a movie; and Marlon, named in honour of Marlon Brando.
Betty’s son turned the restored manor into a small hotel in 1984. Though it has since changed hands and now comprises part of the Safari Collection, with sister properties scattered through the country, the guiding ethos has remained unaltered: to spotlight an animal often overlooked by visitors coming to Africa in search of the “Big Five” – the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and white or black rhinoceros.
Giraffes, the hotel argues, are just as sexy as any of those.
This became particularly clear at the daily sundowner, served on a terrace overlooking the manor’s wide lawn. As you take a seat and order a drink, a woman nearby placed a pellet between her lips and then pouted into the air. Seemingly out of nowhere, a giraffe leant down, hovered over her face, and began lashing her with its long purple tongue.
“Oh, you kissed him,” cooed an older woman. “Isn’t that a nice thing to do.”
According to the Giraffe Conservation Fund, the giraffe population of Africa has plummeted 40 per cent in just 15 years, largely owing to habitat loss. This “silent extinction”, as one scientist has called it, means just 80,000 animals remain today.
When it comes to the Rothschild species, the situation is even more grim. Just 1100 remain, which means, as a staff member helpfully points out, that Giraffe Manor has one per cent of the entire population of Rothschilds on earth.
For that reason, a non-profit Giraffe Centre attached to hotel is pursuing an aggressive breeding program. Founded by the Leslie-Melvilles in 1979, the centre, which is part of the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, tries to encourage population growth while educating people on what needs to be done to reverse the downward spiral. Like the nearby David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which rescues orphaned elephants, raises them, then releases back into the wild, this is amusing attraction with a serious goal.
On my second day at the hotel, a man knocked on my door at 6.30 in the morning. “The giraffes are coming,” he announced, as though we were being invaded.
I pulled back the mosquito net, then the curtain. I opened the glass shutter. Crimson sunlight streamed into the room: another perfect day in Africa. Within minutes, as though I’d woken into a Dali painting, a giant yellow head appeared at the window, its eyes slowly blinking.
Personally, I’ve always been fond of the giraffe as an elegant symbol of evolution. Darwin once wrote, “It seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe.” How beautiful their patterns are, and how strange their telescoping necks. How did this happen? To be around them for a day, a night, an early morning breakfast, their shadow on the white tablecloth, is to be delighted into awe.