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Home / Kenya / Nairobi / Travel Tales /
Giraffe Manor
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Giraffe Manor
  Nairobi Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

"Have you ever heard of Giraffe Manor?" the driver asked me, slowing his vehicle to a halt on the crunchy gravel lane aside the two-story stone building.

I shook my head from side to side, my eyes riveted on the long-legged giraffe standing in our path. "No, " I said. "Never . . . not until I arranged this trip."

The giraffe was watching us and waiting, batting her big brown eyes with eyelashes as thick as a scrub brush and twice as long. I was in a trance; I didn't hear the heavy door of the manor swing open, nor did I see Rick Anderson step forward. No doubt, he was smiling confidently. He knew that the gangly creatures that hang around his entry like house pets flabbergast first-time guests.

"Welcome to Giraffe Manor" he said, ushering me inside, not expecting a reply.

My two feet hardly graced the sill when the 18-foot interloper, legs splayed, lowered her huge head and stuck it inside the door. Rick passed me an urn of pellets and before I could say giraffa cameleopardii (the official Latin name), I was gingerly rubbing her furry horns and scratching behind her protruding ears, my face frozen in a smile. I had never been this close to a wild animal, let alone one three times the height of a full-grown man, and certainly never one capable of rendering a lion helpless with one swift kick! The giraffe's soulful expression never changed. Her interest in me, I suspected, was more of the voracious kind. I didn't want to stop feeding her, or touching her, but Rick assured me, there would be plenty of opportunity for further tactile contact. Reluctantly, I put the food out of sight. "Baby" Daisy, a distant relative of the now-departed famous Daisy, swung her head around in a sweeping motion, quickly, smoothly, and glided toward the woods. Laura, a paler and smaller version of this giant (giraffes are recognized by their distinctive patterns ), loped gracefully behind her.

The tale of Giraffe Manor began in 1972, when Betty, an American writer, and her husband Jock Leslie-Melville, a Kenyan of Scottish descent, bought an old English estate just eight miles outside Nairobi. Both Betty and Jock were conservation conscious, so when they heard that western Kenya's farmers were closing in on the grazing land of the world's few remaining Rothschild giraffes, they decided to do something about it. With government permission, they captured five young Rothschilds and brought them home to their 15-acre estate. The first one, who lost its mother to poachers, Betty named Daisy, who ultimately became the most famous giraffe of all.

Raising Daisy was such a pivotal and loving project (no one had ever raised wild giraffes successfully before), Betty wrote a book about it. Subsequently, the book, "Raising Daisy Rothschild", became a CBS movie. Even more gratifying, it was chosen by Barbara Bush as the book to read on her literacy program. But despite Betty's success as an author, Betty and Jock's continuing concern was the plight of the Rothschild giraffe. So shortly thereafter, Jock founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife: AFEW. Eventually, AFEW raised enough money to move breeding lots to nearby protected land: Nasolot Reserve and Ruma and Lake Nakuru National Park.

Over time, the fertile herds multiplied into more than 500 and were removed off the "danger of extinction" list. Encouraged at having saved an endangered species, the Leslie-Melvilles' focused their energy on education and began construction of a learning classroom. The doors to Giraffe Centre opened in 1983 and Kenya's school children assembled by the thousands. While the youngsters feed and pet the six resident giraffes, educators teach them that taking care of Kenya's wildlife is just as important to humans as it is to animals.

I was lucky enough to be there during a field trip. I don't know which was more rewarding, listening to the children squeal and giggle at the sight of a sticky foot-long tongue gobbling up the goodies or watching the giraffes jostling for position in the food line. . When Jock died in 1984, Betty transformed her manor into a very special inn, capable of accommodating ten guests. She then returned to the United States and left her oldest son, Rick, and his wife, Bryony, in charge. Rick and Bryony are suave and sophisticated hosts. Rick, brought up in Kenya and schooled in the US, has just the right amount of American candidness to put guests at ease; Bryony, raised in Kenya and educated in England and France, has just the right amount of British formality to keep the hotel running smoothly.

Guests are encouraged to make themselves at home and a houseman is always within earshot to satisfy any request, be it a cup of tea or a glass of sherry or a ride to the nearby golf course. Morning and noon meals are served in a glassed- in sun room; delectable dinners are prepared by an imaginative chef and served in a formal dining room. Dress is casual. The gift shop at the nature centre, just steps from the estate, has a small selection of souvenirs, and marked trails meander through a bird-blessed forest that trills with musical arias.

The five-bedroom stately home, built for Scottish coffee baron Sir David Duncan in 1932, is personalized with a wall- to-wall private book collection and an assortment of family photos. A rock fireplace is always a strike away from being lit. I found it easy to lose myself in the luxurious surroundings, curled up in a deep-green sofa, my nose buried in the pages of a well-read novel.

Never having seen the movie "Out of Africa" and never having read the book, I was curious about Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen). I was curious about her life on a coffee plantation, west of here, in the visible Nyong Hills. Especially since I was sleeping in her bed, or at least in one once owned by her. (When Blixen left Africa in 1931, she gave Jock's mother, who had been a friend of hers, some of her belongings--a few simple pieces of furniture and a book shelve built by her lover Denys Fitch-Hatten). So when I wasn't reading facts and myths on giraffes, or scanning the paneled walls for photographs of prior guests like Walter Cronkite and Barbara Bush, I delved into books by Blixen and about her. I concluded that although Blixen left Africa, the people and her life here never quite left her. I wondered, does Africa draw forth such passion or are the passionate drawn to Africa?

The sun streamed into my corner bedroom at dawn and for two glorious mornings I would wake from the sheer brightness of it. The southern window faced the expansive lawn and woods where Jock 11, Buttercup 12, "Baby" Daisy 9, Arlene 4, Laura 4 and Lynn 2 slept. They slept motionless and silently among the thorny acacia trees, like towering timber statues outside a craft shop. I opened the window slightly, causing the curtain to flutter and, attesting to their keen sight and sense of smell, the herd stirred.

Breakfast was in the sunroom, a bright cheery porch with floor-to-ceiling windows and scenic views of the west hills -- that is, until the giraffes cast a shadow. I suppose, in time, the novelty of these willowy beasts crashing breakfast would fail to excite me. But, not very likely and certainly not then. I jumped up when the two spotted heads appeared at the white-enamelled arches, eager to feed them, to touch them and, on my final morning, to bid them farewell.

"How was your visit?" asked the driver, who had arrived to take me to my next adventure.

"Extraordinary," I answered. "Do you suppose Africa motivates people to do extraordinary things?"

My neck twisted to face my breakfast companions through the rear window, swinging their long legs gracefully towards the eye-level landing at the centre where school children waited with anticipation. I marveled at the way they swung two legs forward on the same side of the body at the same time. It made them look like they were floating. I thought of Betty and Jock devoting their lives to these strange-looking animals.

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