Off the rails in Kenya
A new railway line from Nairobi to Mombasa covers 430km avoiding a notoriously dangerous highway, writes Deirdre McQuillan
Ever been kissed by a giraffe? Well, I took the bit between my teeth so to speak at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, one of the city’s premier tourist destinations, on a sunny Sunday morning earlier this year. On entering the enclosure you are given a handful of pellets from a bucket to feed the animals in the usual way and close up, the gentle nature of these lofty, sociable and silent creatures, once hunted nearly to extinction ( and still hunted) is at once engaging and awesome.
The bit was literally a pale grey molasses pellet to which giraffes are particularly partial, which you place between your lips. The animal leans down and softly and swiftly withdraws it from your mouth - the guides reassuringly explaining that their long black prehensile tongues are antiseptic. There is a childish thrill from the wonderment of it all.
Giraffes use their long eyelashes and ears to communicate, we were told, and each one has their own individual coat pattern called a pelage. These particular giraffes with their white socks are the endangered Rothschilds so called after the British zoologist Walter Rothschild and only a few hundred of them survive in protected areas of Kenya and Uganda.
The centre is a stone’s throw from the famous Giraffe Manor Hotel formerly the home of conservationists Betty and Jock Leslie Melville who raised two wild giraffes at the house in the 1970s and established the centre in 1983. After Jock’s death, the house was opened to the public with all profits going to the education centre and continuing conservation efforts. It is now under new and five star ownership and the giraffes are regularly to be seen poking their heads through the top storey windows nosing for snacks, enchanting young and old alike.
We were to see more giraffes a few days later driving through Tsavo National Park, the oldest and largest park in Kenya, and one of the world’s most extensive game reserves. The first animal sighted was a lone, dark male, instantly recognisable, and later a group of four younger ones who turned to face us in the distance, their long pointed ears flapping madly before they loped off together into the bush.
Established 70 years ago as a wildlife park, Tsavo was bisected east and west by a railway built by the British in 1898 during the scramble for Africa, and dubbed the Lunatic Express. Its construction using tens of thousands of workers and costing the equivalent of over € 700million in today’s money was beset by a pair of man- eating lions who killed more than 100 Indian and local workers before being shot dead. The Kenyan Wildlife Service and Wildlife Works who now run the park operate a carbon credit incentive scheme compensating locals if they refrain from killing wild animals and burning wood in order to create sustainable forest management and maintain wildlife.
A new railway built by the Chinese called the Mandaraka Express now plies between Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa replacing the old one and creating new oppor-