A Drive in the Park

It was the worst time of day for such a trip. I told my visitors that if they wanted to see the usually difficult to see animals then they should get up before dawn. I even described some of our memorable moments in the National Park: the rhino that made us brake when it emerged out of the mist; the cheetah that climbed on the bonnet, looked intently at us through the glass, and then peed on the windscreen….. But it made no difference. They had no appetites for getting up so early. So I suggested that they could indulge their lazy appetites by having a mid-morning breakfast at Rangers.

Even then, they were late. It was almost mid-day before we sat down at the restaurant.

‘Are you still doing breakfasts?’ I asked.

‘Yes, Sir,’ the waiter said. ‘Here, you can have breakfast at any time of day.’

Now, a few months ago I was very unkind in what I said about Rangers – arguing that the place hadn’t made up its mind as to whether it was a down-market restaurant with an international menu or an up-market nyama choma joint. There was little about the place that did any kind of justice to its wonderful site.

But last Sunday it was different. The chequered tablecloths were clean and crisp; the waitress was smart and smiling – and the English breakfast (one of our best gifts to the world) was all that it should be – tangy fruit juice, crunchy cornflakes with cold milk, fried eggs with the white firm and the yolk runny, plump sausages, hot coffee…..

Sitting out on the veranda, with the sun filtering through the forest trees, catching glimpses of antelopes through the undergrowth – we could have been many more than five kilometres from the city.

An hour or so later we drove into the park. I always enjoy the reaction of first-timers when we clear the forest and the grassland opens up before us. Because this is a very dramatic boundary between the highlands and the savannah. And you can still get some idea of how the landscape was when the builders of the railroad first set up camp over a hundred years ago at the place they called Nairobi.

As usual, I backtracked into the forest and climbed to the Impala observation point, so that we could take in the full panorama of the park. As for wildlife, there was very little activity – a few small groups of hartebeest and zebra along the water courses, a flutter of ostriches, and a lone giraffe, way in the distance, browsing among some acacias.

We could see only one other vehicle. It is really amazing, isn’t it? This was a Sunday, a non-working day. Here – just a few kilometres from the capital city – was one of the places that people from the industrialised parts of the world would go crazy about. A real wilderness – not a zoo – and we could see just one other vehicle.

We drove down again to the plain and headed west along Oloonjua Ridge to Mokoyeti picnic site, where I was hoping to find the hyraxes that live among the rocks there – and so I could explain for the umpteenth time how these little creatures are actually related to elephants. But, from the mid-day heat, they must have retreated into the dark recesses. Never mind, the view over the Mbagathi Gorge, with the river winding through the fever trees, is magnificent and well worth the stop. I could, anyway, indulge myself by telling how the fever trees got their name.

Instead of a walk along the Hippo Pools nature trail, we drove beyond where many people turn back – beside the stream to Lt. Mutinda Bridge (Who as Lt.Mutinda?) and turned left at Vultures Roost to make for one of my favourite places in the park – the Athi Basin Dam.

There are always plenty of birds at the dam – storks, ibises, herons and many other waders. The plains animals come down to drink. And occasionally you can see crocodiles at the water’s edge. It’s hard to find shade, but it’s a good place for taking out the coolbox and having a cold beer as you watch the birds and they watch you.

It was late afternoon when we drove back across the Embakasi Plain. At a time when a few more sensible people were driving in. Suddenly, we came across a small, tight circle of vehicles that told us that there was a lion. We saw the zebra carcass first – and then the prone figure of a male lion under a thorn bush and almost hidden in the yellow grass.

A KWS bus drove up, full of school children having a ride through the park. They crowded to the viewing side of the bus. Then one shouted, ‘Simba! Simba! Look! Look!’

Let’s hope that when these children have children Nairobi National Park will still be there – and their children won’t grow up to take it for granted.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation