A Drive in the Nairobi National Park

Waking up last Saturday morning, the sun wasn’t up either. There was still a chill in the air. I pulled the duvet closer round me and began to wonder what I was going to do about Going Places. I began to wish, as I had often wished these last three lockdown months, that I could just take off in the car – beyond the city boundary, north to the bracing tea estates, or south to the wilderness around Lake Magadi.

Then it dawned on me that for these cloistered months I had been forgetting about the wild place that is well within the city’s boundaries – the Nairobi National Park. New housing estates might be closing it off, a railway might be built over it, but it is still an amenity of a kind no other city in the world has.

And I remembered, too, that this was the weekend that Formula One was back on our TV screens and, after a game drive on Sunday, we could be back to watch the race. We could be back to enjoy the new livery of the Mercedes cars that has copied the black of my treasured Land Rover. Yes, despite the virus, I realised there were still things to be thankful for.

Maybe I will never have again a thrill in the park like happened the first time I drove there. It was back in the late 1960s. I had a Cortina GT then – the sort of car being driven in the Safari Rally by Vic Preston. And it was Ferrari red. We had stopped to watch a couple of cheetahs. One of them climbed onto the bonnet, stared at us, turned, lifted a leg – and peed on the windscreen.

Last Sunday, when I went into the park with my wife, the shock was nothing to do with animals. We have never seen it so full of people. The carpark on the immediate left when through the main gate was being used as a virus screening site. It was like party time – packed with vehicles and boisterous young Kenyans.

Once inside the park we skirted the forest for a while and then headed across Songora Ridge towards Mokoyeti Gorge. The picnic sites are temporally closed but the Mokoyeti picnic site was crammed full of vehicles and youngsters taking photos of each other rather than of the animals. And then we had to queue to get to the Hippo Pools.

It’s good to see so many youngsters enjoying the park. But we wanted to escape the traffic, so we took the route less travelled – along the Mbagathi River towards the disused Old Cheetah Gate and then left to one of our favourite spots – the Athi River Dam in the south-east corner of the park.

As always, there were many birds at the edge and on the water: Egyptian geese, crowned cranes, sacred ibis, woolly-necked storks and blacksmith plovers. In the water, there was a pod of hippos; at the edge and close to us, an old male hartebeest was all alone and looking not at all hearty.

Beyond the dam, the arches of the railway stretched way off towards the city. As we drove in the same direction, to our left the long views down to the Athi Basin were magnificent.

We saw lots of plains game that day – hartebeest, zebra, impala and eland – but none of their predators or rhinos. We didn’t mind. It was so good to be out and driving along the dirt roads of the park. But, if you can, and if you want a peaceful time, go there on weekdays!

As Gordon Boy says in his excellent guide, ‘Nairobi National Park, despite its relatively modest size, is one of East Africa’s, Africa’s, and the world’s most diverse and interesting protected areas’. At only 400 shillings entrance fee, it is unbeatable value for a day out.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation