We reserved the penultimate day of our inaugural visit to Kenya for a visit to the Nairobi National Park. The idea of an animal sanctuary literally bordering one of Africa’s largest cities sounded a bit strange, but intriguing. There are countless companies in Nairobi offering half day and whole day visits, often combined with other local attractions. I chose instead to contact Chris Temboh Muriuki once again. After the great experiences we had with Chris, visiting Mount Kenya, Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate, I had no doubts whatsoever.
TIP: TRY A DIFFERENT VANTAGE POINT, GO LOW
Now, for most safaris, you want to have a jeep, or a minivan with a raised roof. It provides an elevated viewpoint for watching wildlife and taking photos. However, Chris did not have one available at hand for our visit to the Nairobi National Park. He said he could get one, but I thought that we could maybe try a different approach. I figured that the lower vantage point of an ordinary car would allow for a more interesting, eye-level contact with the animals. It carried a risk as well – that the animals would be invisible in the tall grasses. I was happy to take that risk, and I am so glad I did.
No, Nairobi National Park is Not a Zoo
Having cleared the usual administrative hurdles at the entrance gate, we drove into the park proper. The feeling is a rather surreal one. In national parks, one expects isolation from a man-made environment, and full immersion into nature. However, that is not what you will get in the Nairobi National Park. It lies adjacent to one of the largest cities in Africa after all, and you will be reminded of that throughout your visit.
The park features an almost constant backdrop of the Nairobi skyline. It is always there, lurking in the back of any vista, often distorted by the rising heat, an all too real mirage. Don’t get me wrong, I was not disappointed by it. On the contrary, it makes this place absolutely unique. Where else in the world can you witness, say, a juxtaposition of a mighty lioness against a line of apartment blocks?
Having said that, this is not a Zoo, or a “safari park”, like the (excellent) Safaripark Beekse Bergen in the Netherlands. The creatures here are not captive in any sense. The park is fenced on three sides, to prevent contact between wild animals and humans. The last side is wide open, and the “residents” can come and go as they please.
A Royal Before the Apartment Blocks
Within the first thirty minutes of randomly driving along the twisting and turning dirt paths of the park, we already encountered a number of species, mainly herbivores. But then, on a long stretch of road, running almost parallel to the row of apartment buildings sever hundred metres away, we had our first major encounter. A solitary lioness was just standing there, half camouflaged, in the dry yellow grasses and short shrubs between us and the edge of the park.
She did not seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere, and seemed as interested in us as we were in her. It is likely that the lioness was just relaxing after the morning hunt and her meal for the day. Although the day was an overcast one, the heat was rapidly rising. Thus, siesta time was approaching quickly for all the predators of the great savannah.
We spent almost an hour there, glued to the spot, just observing this majestic hunter. After moving around in small circles, paying attention to various sounds and gasps of amazement coming from a few nearby safari vehicles, she seemed to settle in for the day. We took it as a cue to move onwards.
The Mighty Vulnerable One
Now, Nairobi National Park may perhaps be best known for its rhino conservation efforts. Its black rhino population is the densest in the world, with more than 50 individuals roaming its grounds. Note that this is a rather small park, one of Africa’s smallest, thus the total number may not be so high. However, the high density of rhinos all but ensures the sightings.
Unsurprisingly so, we saw our first rhino not long ways down the dirt track from the lioness. And then another one a bit further on. Due to my low point of view, most I could see were their massive backs. They appeared as some weird battleships, cruising through the tall, yellow, dry grasses. Sometimes, in case of a few amazing specimen, their giant horns would be visible above the sea of yellow as well.
Battlecruisers of the Nairobi National Park
In all cases, though, their backs were hosting a faithful crew of birds, likely oxpeckers. That is an interesting, enchanting example of unexpected, yet absolutely functional and essential, cooperation in nature. One of the world’s largest mammals and terrestrial animals actually has major skin issues. It is relentlessly assaulted by ticks and other bugs, and cannot do much about it. In come oxpeckers, tiny birds that use rhinos’ massive backs as airplane carriers, cruising the endless seas of grass on them. In return, they help maintain their skin hygiene and rid them off all the burrowing and biting pests.
Eye-to-eye With an Amazing Black Rhino and Her Calf
Just as I started thinking that the massive backs and an occasional horn are all that I was going to see of the park’s rhinos, and started wondering if I had made a mistake with not going for a higher viewpoint of a safari vehicle, we had a breakthrough. Another small car drove up the road we were on. There was an enthusiastic family inside, waving at us. They stopped and told us that they had seen a rhino with a calf close to the track, less than a kilometre further up. We thanked them and drove off, our eyes peeled.
After we navigated a really bad patch of the road and drove uphill out from a little ravine, there they were. All of us in the car, even Chris, who has seen it all, could not believe our eyes. A large black rhino, and her already quite big calf, stood just off the road, less than 5 metres away. She raised her head and looked at us, for what seemed like a really long time. In all likelihood, it took her only a few seconds to decide that we were not a threat and get back to grazing.
An Incredible Quarter
The following quarter of an hour was one of the most magical moments of our entire Kenyan adventure. Our low viewpoint and the incredible proximity of rhinos made it all very surreal as well. As the tall grasses grew all the way to the side of the car, we felt as we were out there, kneeling a few arms’ lengths from these two majestic, endangered creatures. They grazed calmly, picking carefully amongst the yellow, dried stalks. The mum sometimes apparently heard a noise or two, unnoticed by us, and aimed her Shrek-like ears in various directions, but other than that, the time went by in beautiful calmness.
As they decided it was time to move onwards, and slowly disappeared in the yellow, dry sea, we restarted our engine and made our move too. There was an absolute, meditative silence in the car. We all knew that we witnessed something unique, and that it is not likely that we will ever get a chance like this again.
Not Just Lions and Rhinos
Although the rhino encounter we had was an absolute highlight of our day, and we knew there was no way anything else would top it, the park still had so much to offer. So we pressed onwards, taking random turns more often than not, letting the park surprise us.
On more than one occasion during our drive, we encountered herds of Common Eland antelopes. Their larger cousins that do not live in Kenya, Giant Elands, are the largest antelopes in the world. Despite their name, they are on average actually not that much bigger that the Common Elands. The bulls we encountered are positively huge – they can weigh up to almost a tonne. So, it does not come as a surprise that the predators prefer to go after other, smaller species of antelopes.
Tell a Giraffe by its Spots
The other encounter I remember well is of a more educational nature. A lone giraffe appeared by the road, its head towering above the short bushes. Chris asked me if I knew what type of giraffe it was, and I honestly did not have a clue. He proceeded to explain that you can tell different types of giraffes easily, by their skin patterns. The one before was was a Masai Giraffe, with its distinct jagged, vine leaves shaped spots. Moreover, their legs are covered with brown spots all the way down. There you go – an instant wildlife recognition guide.
The Nairobi National Park is not all about large mammals. While they undoubtedly cause most “ahs and ohs”, there are numerous other critters, no less amazing. The park allegedly hosts more than 500 species of birds, and avid birdwatchers can spot upwards of a 100 during a day’s safari. While we are not expert birders, we throughly enjoy encountering and observing these amazing creatures wherever we can.
A Colourful Farewell
One particularly impressive encounter happened during our drive out of the park. As we approached an apparently dry tree, I noticed bright spots all over it. At first I thought it may be a type of magnolia, or some other tree that blossoms with bare branches. However, as we drove closer, I figure that those were all brightly coloured birds. Superb sterlings, to be more accurate. By the time we got close enough, most of them took off, but a small group on one branch did not seem to mind our presence.
I took a photo of the three of them, and it ended up being the last photograph I was going to make during this first trip to Kenya. In retrospect, I think it was a fitting good bye to this amazing country. We will definitely be back, and revisit the Nairobi National Park for sure as well.
FAQs for the Nairobi National Park
Yes, absolutely! Many tourists apparently skip it on their way to Masai Mara, or to Amboseli and Mombasa, but that is a grave mistake. The Nairobi National Park offers a true wildlife experience, and one of the best opportunities to see black rhinos…
The park is located about 7km from the Nairobi city centre. It lies directly to the south, and borders the Langata and Mombasa roads.
There are literally countless tour agencies that offer half and full day tours of the Nairobi National Park. Those tours often include visits to other Nairobi highlights as well. Alternatively, your guide, a receptionists, even a taxi driver, would surely know someone (they always do) who could arrange a visit for you. We went there with our guide from previous adventures, Chris, and had a great time.
Here are all the photographs from the Nairobi National Park: