Written by Richard Trillo
Barely out of earshot of downtown traffic, lion prides hunt zebras, wildebeest canter in front of the city skyline, and rare black rhinos lurk in the glades. It’s a jungle out there, just 20 minutes from Nairobi’s central business district.
Lying just south of the equator at an average altitude of 1,650m, and home to more than eighty species of large mammals, the national park is a 117sq km wedge of plains and woodland in an area 25km long and averaging 5km wide – bigger than Paris, and slightly smaller than Doha. Al-though it has no elephants, all of southern Kenya’s other species, including the rest of the so-called ‘big five’ – lion, buffalo, leopard, and black rhino, for which it is a key breeding sanctuary – are present and easy to see. Despite the low-flying airplanes and sometimes lines of minibuses at weekends, you have a greater chance of witnessing a lion or cheetah kill here than in any of Kenya’s other parks.
Nairobi’s busy suburbs give little clue about the landscapes in the park. Flat ground in the east rises to the west to more hilly areas and the thickest patches of forest; grassy plains with scattered bush are broken by dams and seasonal streams; the Mbagathi River, the park’s year-round, life-giving water source, flows along the southern edge of the ecosystem. The Mbagathi is fringed with cactus-like candelabras, giant fig trees, and the yellow acacias that early explorers dubbed ‘fever trees’ because they seemed to grow in the areas where malaria was most common. In fact, Nairobi is just about high enough to be out of the malaria zone (though visitors should take care to be protected), and has one of the world’s finest climates, with long, warm dry seasons interspersed with mild-to-warm rainy seasons of short showers.
Formerly part of the Southern Game Reserve – a huge swathe of southern Kenya that came under protection in early colonial times – Nairobi National Park is the country’s oldest park. It was opened in 1946 on the southern outskirts of Nairobi, as a marked but unfenced wildlife sanctuary where all human activity was banned and the naturally occurring animals were free to move in and out of the area.
Along its northern, eastern, and western boundaries, the park was gradually fenced as Nairobi’s suburbs moved ever closer. Even today, inquisitive lions sometimes slip through gaps in the fence and have to be rounded up by park rangers, to the alarm of early morning commuters. On the southern boundary, formed by the Mbagathi River, the park is unfenced, allowing migrating herds and the predators that follow them to cross the river and move freely between the park and the vast rangelands farther south towards Kilimanjaro – a partly wild, partly farmed and grazed area called the Kitengela game corridor.
Wildlife and the migration
As recently as the 1920s, an annual migration of herbivores – mainly wildebeest and zebra – in-volved millions of animals moving between the foothills of Kilimanjaro and the cooler slopes of Mount Kenya, via the Kapiti and Athi plains, just south of Nairobi. It was a natural phenomenon as big as the world-renowned Serengeti-Mara migration that continues to this day. As Kenya’s population grew and the landscape north of Nairobi became a patchwork of farms and plantations, the full migration ceased. But there is still a significant migration every year, the herds instinctively moving north in July, in search of fresh pasture. Nairobi National Park is the last remnant of their northern grazing lands, where the migration is blocked by the sprawling city. In 2010 it has been a particularly good one, with thousands of zebra and wildebeest trailing into the park from the parched savannah further south. The park opens at 6am and the first few hours of the day are always best for game-watching. You can ask any ranger at the gate for a quick tally of sightings so far: “Junction 17 for lions; a black rhino near 30; big herd of buffalo at junction 19”. The junctions are marked by numbered cairns and on most maps of the park. If you’re driving yourself, you can just follow your instincts and inclinations – any Nairobi car rental company will rent you a 4x4 for the day and all the city’s safari agents and operators, including the front desk at most hotels, can arrange a four-hour tour, either exclusively or as part of a group. There’s a short stretch of tarmac near the main gate, but most of the park’s roads are earth or gravel tracks.
You might spend your first hour at the park’s western end, near the main entrance, where most of the woodland is concentrated. It’s worth scanning the boughs of large trees for leopards sleeping off the night’s activities, but your chances of seeing black rhinos are much better. Each of the park’s precious, horned denizens are individually ear-notched for identification. Also on the west side of the park is the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage, where you can visit baby pachyderms for close-up photos.
Hippos can be seen in most of the dams, but are reliably on show at a pretty pool in the river, near Junction 12 in the park’s southeast corner. This area also has a nature trail and picnic site where there’s usually an armed ranger on guard. As you’re wandering, look out for vervet monkeys and baboons, and for crocodiles in the river.
Out on the plains, have your camera ready for waterbuck, impala, buffalo, eland (the world’s biggest antelope), Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles (knowing the difference is one of the first lessons you’ll learn on safari), zebra, wildebeest, Maasai giraffe, families of warthogs, as well as lion, cheetah, hyena, jackal, and the impeccably patterned serval cat. As well as the shy and dangerous black rhino, the park’s plains are now home to a group of the less threatened white rhino – a docile grazer – translocated from Lake Nakuru. Vultures wheel overhead, scanning for fresh kills, and ostriches and strikingly beautiful crowned cranes stalk through the grass – just three of the park’s 400 species of birds. You could add at least 20 more mammals and perhaps 100 birds to a good day’s tally in the park.
It’s hard to believe the urban jungle is so close to the real one, but look north from any ridge and the unmistakable city backdrop, featuring the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, with its distinctive ‘flying-saucer’ crown, is spread across the horizon.
Nairobi’s National Park has been described as the city’s lungs, absorbing its carbon and producing much-needed oxygen, but in many ways it’s also Nairobi’s soul, a reminder of the land here as it was not much more than a lifetime ago, when the Europeans first arrived and found a scene of Maasai pastoralists herding their cattle through an animal-filled Eden. Today, Maasai landowners south of the park are paid US$10 per hectare to keep their land unfenced to allow the wildlife migration to continue. But the pressures on the park are intense. Only visitors, with their cameras and dollars, can save it from being fenced all round, and keep it as part of Kenya’s natural heritage, physically linked to the rest of the country.