Weblog of Leland Rucker
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Jambo Bwana 2: A Week with Elephants

Kissed by a giraffe. Does it get any better than this?

Wednesday June 22
Karen Blixen Cottages
Nairobi, Kenya

Among the apprehensions we had about this trip were the plane flights to and from Kenya. Each end included a three-hour hop to another U.S. city and then two eight-hour flights, one to Amsterdam and then to Nairobi, with some, but not much leeway between plane changes.

It didn’t begin well. An otherwise uneventful hop from Denver to Minneapolis that was supposed to take off at 3:50 p.m. on Sunday didn’t actually leave DIA until 6:30. Without going into too much detail, the delay, which included replacing a malfunctioning air conditioner in sweltering temperatures after we boarded, two kids throwing up in the row across from us because it was so hot, a couple of trips out to the runway and back, a law-enforcement officer who demanded to be let off the plane followed by 20 other fed-up passengers who got off as well, including the mothers and two kids who threw up across from us, which meant all of them had to go through security and be accounted for.

What this meant to us was a long slog through the Minneapolis airport to barely make our Amsterdam connection. “We are closing the doors on this flight soon,” that airport voice droned through the loudspeakers while we were running along the terminal carrying all our shit. We just made it, and we wondered aloud if this might be an omen for the rest of the trip.

But the lengthy, cattle-car flights, all of which were loaded to the max, were our only real hassles of the entire experience. The flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam was the easiest, our first eight-hour overnight, and I managed to watch The Revenant and Concussion while intermittently napping.

After the longest airplane taxi I can remember – more than 15 minutes – we deboarded into the Amsterdam Schiphol terminal and then walked at least that much longer before finally locating and checking into the Mercure Hotel inside the terminal. This had been suggested by Lois, our safari leader.

The eight-hour layover turned out to be a wise move, and it helped prepare us for the flight to Nairobi. We had a postage-stamp room with no window and a large bed. I remember a painting of a giant tulip on the opposite wall and falling asleep for a few hours and getting a good shower before we had to find our way to the Nairobi gate for our second eight-hour flight, both the longest each of us had ever done. Not fun, but we made it.

We had added a second day in Nairobi before the safari actually began, concerned about jet lag, missed connections and other nefarious things you think about when going somewhere completely foreign and far, far away. This turns out to be a wise decision as well. The jet lag isn’t too bad on this leg – perhaps it was that eight-hour layover in Amsterdam that made a difference, perhaps just our general excitement level — but the extra day in Nairobi affords us the luxury of visiting the Giraffe Center and the nursery run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an organization dedicated to preservation of elephants and education about their situation, without having to rush.

Billie gets acquainted at the David Sheldrick nursery in Nairobi National Park.

Billie and I attended a Sheldrick-produced event at Denver’s Regis College in the winter of 2015. Both of us were knocked out, especially by a short film which explained the organization’s process for re-introducing orphaned elephants back into the wild again. Watching the elephant orphans’ joy as they sprinted for their bottles of milk really affected me. Couldn’t get those images out of my mind. Something stirred from deep within. But not even remotely enough to actually think about going there.

I remember Dumbo, though I only saw it once. But boy, do I remember.

My own interest in elephants has been minimal and intermittent. As a child I was smitten with their charm and immensity when I watched them checking us out with the trunks in their enclosures at the Kansas City Zoo, and Dumbo had a profound effect on me at an early age. But I can’t say I had any experiences or memories worth mentioning beyond that. Later I saw the documentaries that explained how, when an elephant died, other elephants remembered and returned whenever they were in the area, and the images of them turning over old bones with their trunks stuck in my mind.

But perhaps the thing that first really piqued my attention was a quote in 2003 by Dr. Harvey Croze, who studied elephants with Dr. Cynthia Moss in nearby Amboseli National Park. I had an email conversation with him while writing a story for the Daily Camera business section about QuickBird, the satellite company based in nearby Longmont that was promoting its business by following a herd of elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya with cameras 200 miles above the animals and donating the photos to the researchers in hopes of garnering publicity like my story.

The email exchange was businesslike and amiable, but when I asked innocently what had been the biggest surprise he had found in his research, I got an answer I wasn’t expecting:

“Where to begin? It’s like studying humans, endlessly fascinating, endlessly complex: the more you learn, the more you find out there is to find out. Let’s just say that elephants are right up there with the higher apes and whales and dolphins: a complex, fluid society, based on individual relationships and networking served by systems of communication that work along several dimensions, including something very close to a spoken language; high intelligence, both native and that learned from the social group during a childhood as proportionally long as humans; demonstrated insightfulness, compassion, altruism, low levels of tool making, evidence of self-treatment and herbalism, and, quite likely, consciousness of self. Cognition and self-awareness is an exciting emerging area, which the uniquely tranquil Amboseli elephants will hopefully shed new light on.”

Jesus. That got my attention: Complex, fluid society; “very close to a spoken language; high intelligence, insightfulness, compassion, altruism, consciousness of self.” That really stuck with me. It reminded me of newspaper columns written by local animal behavior researcher and author Marc Bekoff about how animals think and show emotion. His lectures and columns began helping me to think in a different way, and this particular exchange certainly piqued my interest.

Elephant orphans search for the right vegetation at the Sheldrick nursery in Nairobi.

Still, I was a long way from wanting to travel a third of the way around the globe just to see elephants in their natural setting. Billie and I had begun talking in early 2015 about doing something completely different, and the first thing that came along was the possibility of visiting Cuba before it becomes Americanized again. We did some research and attended a lecture/presentation at the Changes in Latitudes travel store in Boulder.

Then, in July while I was in Kansas City, Billie told me over the phone that she had put a deposit down on a safari in Kenya for the last week in June 2016. I was really surprised, dumbfounded at first, but after the initial confusion, it didn’t take long for me to get onboard. Our window of opportunity is closing, she explained, and we haven’t done any real “adventures” for a number of years, those kinds of things that get you completely out of your daily grind and into a new reality.

Our two Alaskan visits to observe brown bears at Brooks Camp and McNeil River and half dozen trips to follow wolf packs around Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley were all now more than a decade in the past. An African safari would certainly do that, though, frankly, I only knew vaguely where Kenya was, and the thought of going scared the bejesus out of me, and I think it did Billie, too.

As we contemplated the costs and the idea of traveling almost 9,000 miles in each direction to observe pachyderms in their natural habitat, we kept reading more about the serious decline in wild elephants, the uncertain future of the species and the deadly trade in ivory that is the foremost contributor to their demise. The more I read, the more I came around, and, keeping it 100, one of the main things that convinced me is because of our complete respect and admiration for the David Sheldrick Animal Trust and what it’s doing.

We both had reservations. Mine were pretty bizarre at times. I imagined impending tropical disasters: malignant mosquitoes, ant infestations and especially black mambo snakes dropping from the ceiling. When I checked Lonely Planet’s guide for Nairobi, the first sentence I read was: “Nairobi’s reputation for crime is well-known … ” OK. We updated our passports, and Billie worked out the details through the fall and winter and booked our flights while I tried to concentrate on work and the pros of the trip and not think much about the cons as time grew closer.

But Billie did a marvelous job setting up this adventure, and on this second day we’re beginning to fall into the never-forgotten and wonderful routine of travel. We stop down again at the outdoor breakfast area for some sustenance, fruit and eggs, this time over easy, with a little bacon on the side and plenty of mango in the open-air dining area. (We get offers of eggs scrambled or over easy with a little bacon or sausage on the side every day of the trip — perhaps an attempt to appease the Western palate?)

We spend some time in the old building that serves as check-in, office and living room of the cottages. It’s a former manor house moved brick-by-brick from downtown Nairobi to the Coffee Garden in 2008 to save it from destruction. The proprietors are friendly and helpful, and there’s a warm fire and international CNN blaring on the TV. I already want to turn it off. We will soon enough be away from this shit.


In the afternoon, Brian picks us up for a drive over to our first official events, visiting the Giraffe Center and the Sheldrick Elephant Nursery, both not far away. Watching him negotiate traffic and talking about Kenya is really fun. I wind up liking all our drivers immensely, as much for their companionship as their  motoring skills.

Near the Giraffe Center was the exotic Matbronze Gallery.

We make a stop at the Matbronze Gallery, which has some fascinating works, including a green-eyed elephant in front, and a coffee shop. Just around the corner is the Giraffe Center. A non-profit operated by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, it is aimed at educating Kenyan youth, an important part of the country’s mission to appreciate wildlife and end trophy hunting. Kenya was the first, and still only one of two African countries (Botswana is the other) that has banned hunting, and teaching young people the importance of this is part of the education program.

I really liked this bronze elephant at Matbronze Gallery. A little large for the suitcase, however.

The Giraffe Center is a wonderful opener. Upon entry, we climb up to the feeding area and are immediately supplied with pellets to give the Rothschild giraffes, who come in and are used to the attention. (In fact, on occasion, people who stop feeding them or are careless get head butted, something you don’t want from these big boys and girls—those heads are enormous and powerful.)

The Rothschild giraffe is an endangered species, with only 1500 individuals estimated left in the wild. It used to be considered a subspecies of a singular Giraffa species, but thanks to a genetic analysis in 2016 released just after we visited, is now considered a nonspecific ecotype of the Nubian giraffe, a subspecies of the Northern giraffe. So there you go. They are gorgeous.

We followed custom, put pellets in our mouths and let the giraffes take it from us. We get to feel their tongues. Big, wonderful, kind tongues. Kissed by a giraffe. Nice.

Believe me, you don't want to get a head butt from a Rothschild giraffe. Very powerful. Wow.

Just visible off in the misty distance is Giraffe Manor, the old manse where giraffes come up to lodgers’ windows so they can actually feed them from their bedroom windows. Mick Jagger and Walter Cronkite are among those who have stayed there, according to the promotional material on the website (what, no Lady Gaga or Taylor Swift?). And we get to see our first warthog right down there below the giraffes, foraging on his front knees. It won’t be the last.


Back in the cars for our much-anticipated visit to the Elephant Orphanage, the very place where the video of the orphans we watched at Regis College just a year and a half ago took place. It is operated by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The connection to the Trust, as I’ve said, was a vital part in our decision, and it is hust beginning to dawn on us how incredible this week is going to be. Nothing, not even the videos, prepares you for the joy of seeing these orphans emerging from the forest and running for those bottles of milk held up by their green-clad keepers.

The Trust was established after the death of David Sheldrick, husband of Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who created and still runs the Trust. She tells her story in her memoir, A Life With Elephants. It’s required reading if you’re interested in African elephants, history or Kenya. It took Sheldrick years to finally stumble upon the formula that could sustain orphans deprived of their mothers’ milk upon which they depend the first years of their lives.

Two ostriches, including this female named Pea, were also at the nursery among the orphans.

Though it could take less, because of the long period of elephant adolescence, some of these animals could spend ten years in the program before finally returning to the wild, and we will see that entire process up-close-and-personal during our safari week. The project claims to have put more than 150 orphans back into the wild, which doesn’t sound like much in the grand scheme of things. But these orphans represent much more; their stories embody the future of the species and hopefully are helping to make a change in the way we understand and treat elephants. And their tales are getting out to the rest of the world, even an old couple from Boulder. The rest of our trip will be at Trust facilities, and the money we spend to do this goes to the Trust.

We’re here for a private visit. In an hour there will be hundreds of people roped off and jockeying for position to even get near the orphans. But there are no barriers, nor any other people around, just the eight of us in our tour group with our two drivers and the keepers.

Edwin Luschisi, head of the Sheldrick nursery, talks about the mission with one of the orphans listening intently.

Orphanage head Edwin Lusichi spends a few minutes explaining exactly what is going to happen and how the orphanage works. (Watch Lusichi’s talk here.) Soon the young elephants begin appearing in small groups at the wood’s edge, accompanied by an ostrich named Pea, and take off running for their respective bottles. As they finish, the elephants mingle around, and it is our first chance to actually move among them, approach them and feel their skin and touch, and they oblige us while a sounder of warthogs watch us from the perimeter of the area, Nairobi National Park in the misty distance below them. I even get to meet the orphan I foster, Kamok. It’s pretty overwhelming and surprisingly calming.

And, of course, the ubiquitous warthogs, this time hanging at the edges of the nursery with Nairobi National Park in the background. They're literally everywhere.

Next, we are taken around to see the enclosures where the elephants are kept. There is some noise behind us and to the left, and I look up to see a huge, male baboon moving along the rooftops at a gallop, his feet banging the tin roofs like heavy rainfall, another, smaller male right behind him. The sight literally takes my breath away. Renae walks around the corner and says she just heard a lion roaring. Quick reminders that we are indeed in Kenya, and that the nursery is actually in the national park.

It feels wild and exciting, and even though two large baboons just passed above us, I’m beginning to feel more comfortable by the minute. Before we leave, we spend a few minutes with Maxwell, a blind rhino adopted by the Trust. He won’t be able to return to the wild, and his enclosure was just increased in size. He is enormous and wonderful to touch.

A black rhino, Maxwell is blind. His pen at the nursery was almost doubled in size just before we arrived, and he seemed grateful.

After that magical experience, we stop again at Utamaduni, where we shopped yesterday. I finish the marketplace before the others and order a cup of coffee at a little café next door set in a green paradise. I had been talking with Brian, the driver, and he has questions about America, and we have a great conversation about the U.S. and Kenya.

Tamambo Restaurant asked for our names when we sat down. This was dessert.

Dinner is at Tamambo, a nice restaurant just a short stroll from our rooms within the compound. Food is great. Dessert is a plate with a tiny dessert and our names written out in delicious chocolate. Back at the suite, I do a couple of FB posts with video of our visit to the Giraffe Center and orphanage just before the internet goes completely dark on us. Woo hoo. The safari begins tomorrow morning. Bring it on, brother.

Part Three of our elephant adventure is here. Watch videos of our week here.

1 comment

1 Jambo Bwana 1: A Week With Elephants — Jukebox in My Head { 06.21.17 at 7:15 am }

[...] Two continues here. Watch videos of our elephant journey [...]

You must log in to post a comment.