Where Giraffes Come a-Calling

In Nairobi, Kenya, there is a place where endangered giraffes find sanctuary — and bring joy to people.

In Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, there is a forest sanctuary for endangered giraffes. It’s also a sanctuary of sorts for humans who come to experience the magic of mingling with the giraffes.

When I started planning an overland trip from Kenya to Zimbabwe, there was one extravagant splurge that loomed large in my imagination: a stay at Giraffe Manor, where giraffes and guests intermingle.

The very idea of seeing these exotic animals up close, not to mention handfeeding them, was imbued with the alien magic that only travel can evoke.

While the price was hard to rationalize (to the tune of US$1,100 for my husband and me, far exceeding my nightly budget), I knew that on my deathbed I wouldn’t see those green bills flashing before my eyes. I would instead remember the glee of meeting these gentle giants.

Giraffe Manor is set in the Langata Forest, a 140-acre (0.5-square-km) sanctuary for the endangered Rothschild giraffe. The sanctuary is located inside the city of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Giraffes born here are often reintroduced to the wild, helping rebuild the wild population.

In the 1930s, the manor house was a hunting lodge, and the building feels like something from the Scottish countryside — yet it looks out surreally on a landscape dotted with giraffes moving slowly with graceful steps, swishing their tails and bobbing their heads gently with each step. Wild warthogs also scamper about.

There’s an innate fascination humans have with exotic animals. Why else would zoos exist all over the world? While the zoo has a special draw, spending one-on-one time with an endangered and iconic animal in its natural habitat is a completely different experience. It felt more meaningful, more authentic.

I was sitting in the manor’s garden with a bucket of molasses-and-grass pellets to share with the giraffes, when one of those towering creatures — like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss story — approached me. The staff had told me the giraffes will eat a pellet right out from between your teeth, a signature Giraffe Manor experience. So I gave it a try.

Tea is served on the front lawn in the evenings as the sun sets behind the Ngong Hills.
Tea is served on the front lawn in the evenings as the sun sets behind the Ngong Hills.

The giraffe’s neck, a little longer than the length of my body, was firm and muscular, yet fluid in its movement, as his head came down until he was looking at me eye-to-eye. His black, thickly lashed eyes looked soft and kind. His bristly whiskers only lightly grazed my lips as he gently removed the pellet from my teeth with precision. I felt a childlike happiness well up within me.

He ducked in to take a pellet from my hand, and by the time we had exhausted our supply of pellets, I had been licked by 10 different massive tongues. The staff told me giraffe saliva is antibacterial, owing to a steady diet of acacia leaves, so my hands got a good washing.

In the morning, the manor staff opened the gates separating the hotel from the grounds, to allow the giraffes inside. A giraffe poked his snout in through my window, snuffling about for a friendly hand containing pellets.

I am not a morning person, but seeing the giraffes loping towards my open window was more invigorating than any cup of coffee.
Every few minutes, a massive horned head would come swinging in the window and look at me quizzically, silently informing me that more pellets would be appreciated. And a scritch between the eyes wouldn’t be unwelcome.

The delighted squeals of adults and children alike danced in my ears as I ate breakfast. Even my perpetually underwhelmed British husband brayed with laughter as the largest of the giraffes gave him a nudge. He took a break from eating his frittata to feed the hungry beast.

My heart was full, and though my wallet was lighter, I knew I had made the right choice. I have never regretted a single penny I spent on my night at Giraffe Manor.

Photos Courtesy of The Safari Collection