Into Africa: Part One -- The Kiss of the Giraffe

My recent journey to Namibia reminded me of a two-week safari I took five summers ago to East Africa. Below is the first in a series of dispatches I wrote on that trip.

NAIROBI -- My introduction to the wildlife of East Africa was a kiss from a giraffe. No, this isn’t a metaphor. We’re talking about a real wet lip-smacker here, a come-here-big-boy-and-let-me-give-you-a-taste-of-my-long-black-tongue kiss.   

But let’s back up a bit.   

I arrived in Africa from London at about 8:45 on a humid Nairobi night. Almost immediately on exiting the plane, I was greeted by a smiling woman from the safari company that had organized my tour, and whisked through Immigration to the baggage claim area, where she introduced me to two fellow safari-mates who just happened to be on the same flight: Jennifer and Benjie, exuberant 30-somethings who, she explained, were celebrating their new marriage with a safari honeymoon. Ah, romance!   

We gathered up our green duffle bags and before long were rolling through the night toward the Norfolk Hotel, a grand colonial-era  establishment on the outskirts of the city, where I tumbled into a deep sleep.  

Early the next morning we met the fourth and final member of our party – Jill, a lively Southern Californian – and then met Duncan, the company’s director of safari programs, and our safari leader, Lewela. Pointing to a large map, Lewela presented an overview of our itinerary: We would spend the first day touring Nairobi and the surrounding area, then fly south the following day to Amboseli, where we would spend two days; in successive two-day stays, we would visit the Mt. Kenya Safari Club; Maasai Mara National Reserve; Serengeti National Park in Tanzania; and finally Ngorongoro Crater before returning to Nairobi. Duncan then introduced a tall, thin man splendidly attired in bright red traditional Maasai garb, who told us in a soft voice about the history and culture of his people, and said that as part of our stay in Maasai Mara, we would be able to visit a Maasai village; he said the villagers welcomed this opportunity to teach us about their traditional ways of life.   

After that we scrambled into a minivan for a day-tour of Nairobi and surrounding towns. On first impression, Nairobi is a daunting city, a big, bustling, car-crammed and pedestrian-crammed, choking-air capital that seems to uncomfortably combine elements of the first and third worlds. On the one hand, there are shining skyscrapers, headquarters of international corporations and organizations, and businesspeople striding in sleek suits as they talk urgently on cell phones; on the other hand, there are potholed streets, broken-up sidewalks, and endless strings of people walking, walking, walking along the roadways, crossing haphazardly in the midst of perpetual-rush-hour traffic or threading a ragtag path between cars. In some places we passed small plots of lovingly tended community gardens and bright brand-name boutiques; in others, trash fires burned where sidewalks should have been, and muddy, tin-roof shanty towns sprawled and spread. While experience tells me that a sustained stay would open up the idiosyncratic wonders of the city, on first glance Nairobi seemed an intimidating, impenetrable place.   

Soon a very different Kenya revealed itself as we drove into the suburbs of Karen, past posh mansions and rambling walled estates to the gracious former farmhouse of Karen Blixen.  A Danish aristocrat and coffee planter who settled here from 1914-1931, Blixen wrote the passionate memoir “Out of Africa,”  which has probably introduced more Westerners to the country than any other single tome. On her expansive estate Blixen lived what was considered a life of luxury, but it’s illuminating to tour the farmhouse, now a museum, and see what kinds of cooking and cleaning contraptions constituted luxury in those days.   

We also drove into the green, tea-growing highlands of Limuru, where we visited Fiona and Marcus Vernon’s Kiambethu Tea Farm. This excursion presented another and even more unexpected view of Africa – lush green rolling hills of tea plants, punctuated by farmsteads with broad pastures and bright gardens. The Vernons are descendants of one of the original Kenya tea farmers, who settled here in 1910, and they opened their home to us, describing the process of tea cultivation and production in their living room and then serving a splendid lunch – featuring vegetables grown in the backyard gardens we had just toured -- under sun umbrellas on their lawn.    

But the most memorable moment of that first day for me occurred at the Giraffe Center in the suburb of Langata. Founded by Betty and Jock Leslie-Melvile in 1979 as a refuge for endangered Rothschild giraffes and supported today by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, the Giraffe Center makes exemplary efforts to educate Kenyan schoolchildren about their wildlife and environment. Part of that effort includes the opportunity to feed the giraffes and, for a brave and foolhardy few, to kiss a giraffe.

When Lewela asked our adventurous foursome if any of us wanted to be kissed by a giraffe, I felt sure someone else would volunteer -- wouldn’t a giraffe kiss make that honeymoon even more memorable? But when no one stepped forward, I felt a professional obligation to put my lips on the line. Lewela laughed and slapped me on the back, then placed a long thin stick of some sweet treat -- a kind of giraffe Tootsie Roll -- between my teeth and instructed me to pucker up. Sure enough, within a few seconds, a Rothschild beauty was swinging its patched proboscis toward me and unfurling its prodigious leather-black tongue. With a swift tickle of chin hairs and a sloppy slippery scratch of the tongue, she took the Tootsie from my lips. Wow! Talk about interspecies communication.   

As I blinked in disbelief, Lewela draped an arm over my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Don, the giraffe's saliva is extremely antiseptic.” Ah, I felt much better.   

So what did it feel like? Make a dish of tapioca pudding and spread a thin layer over a sheet of very rough-grained sandpaper; now take that sheet and smoosh it across your lips. Mmmm.  The kiss of the giraffe.   

That night we were treated to a festive feast at a private home in another gracious Nairobi suburb and I was able to regale the table with my tale of the giraffe’s kiss. Sometimes adventure travel takes you places you never expected to go. And this was just the beginning!

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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