Off the rails in Kenya

A new rail­way line from Nairobi to Mom­basa cov­ers 430km avoid­ing a no­to­ri­ously dan­ger­ous high­way, writes Deirdre McQuil­lan

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL -

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-

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