Golden light had just started to fall over the lush landscape, the rising sun warming up the red brick courtyard overlooking the 12-acre property just outside of Nairobi. The shaking of pellets in a metal bowl sounded and a group of giraffes started to slowly make their way across the greenery to the edge of a 1930s property that felt like it was plucked straight from the English countryside.
We had just arrived the previous morning on a brand-new Kenya Airways direct flight from JFK and were, naturally, exhausted. But as we drove past the city and pulled through the heavy gates of Giraffe Manor, catching our first glimpse of the iconic animals in the distance, the jet lag seemed to melt away. Many in the tourism industry throughout Kenya have said they’re hopeful the new direct flight will bring in more business, but one thing was for sure: there was nothing quite like going to sleep in New York and waking up to giraffes.
"Being able to interact with giraffes firsthand allows you a deeper knowledge of how unbelievably beautiful they are. And then the second reaction is 'this is wildlife and it's threatened wildlife,’” said Tanya Carr-Hartley, the owner of the Giraffe Manor and The Safari Collection. "We try and let people understand this is a breeding program and this is a threatened species—of course, the whole eclectic thing of having this neck inside a house is beyond ridiculous."
Giraffe Manor was first built in 1932 and welcomed its signature lanky animals in the 1970s. The Manor, and the adjacent Giraffe Centre, now have 10 Rothschild giraffes that move freely through 140 acres of protected land. The Giraffe Centre began as a breeding program to combat the dwindling number Rothschild giraffes in Kenya, and now there are over 300 throughout the country. The Giraffe center itself has welcomed five young giraffes, according to Carr-Hartley
The Manor usually books anywhere from nine months to two years in advance, with most people staying one or two nights, said Edgar Orlando, one of the managers at the hotel. And between the hotel's small size (there are only 12 rooms and about three staff to every guest) and lack of fencing, you'd be forgiven for feeling like these towering animals were there for you and you alone.
The star is Edd, the biggest of the giraffes and one of the friendliest. But watch out for Daisy and Salma, while happy if you have treats to give, they're known as “head-butters.” With these tips in mind I settled into one of the plush chairs on the terrace with a glass of red wine in hand a few hours after we arrived. The mist started to settle on the grounds, lending a surreal feeling to the property, and one of the manor's staff softly called out to the distance, “Stacey.” She was far away, but giraffes have impeccable hearing. She turned her head in the half-darkness and almost begrudgingly, Stacey made her way toward us as Lily, her baby born in 2016, bounded in her wake. And just like that, I was face-to-face with a giraffe, standing on top of a raised terrace as her scratchy, wet tongue pulled a treat from my hand.
It had been a day filled with animals, as we spent time at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which rescues young elephants and rhinos orphaned by everything from poaching to drought. We had trudged through the forest by the edge of Nairobi National Park and headed toward a clearing where nearly two dozen baby elephants were happily huddled. They nudged us — as if they knew it was time to make their way back down the small path — then they sauntered through the woods and into their enclosures for night, to the delight of the human visitors whose foster donations helped the trust do its important work.
That afternoon I left the animals for a city stroll through local boutiques, happy to spend a few more hours soaking up the vibrant city before leaving for the Savannah. At Utamaduni, a collection of more than a dozen shops, small stuffed safari animals waited on shelves with a child's imagination written all over them. And at nearby Langata Link Shops, small groups gathered in the courtyard, lending a bustling vibe to the dizzying collection of high-end tea towels with minimalist animals printed on them.
Carr-Hartley noted that places like the Karen Blixen Museum, the former home of the author of "Out of Africa,” and Nairobi National Park are popular stops, but Nairobi's growing art scene is an exciting addition to the city. To experience it firsthand visit galleries like Matbronze (which specializes in wildlife bronzes), the One Off Contemporary Art Gallery, and the Banana Hill Art Gallery.
The next day, I welcomed the quiet serenity of Giraffe Manor, waking before dawn and stepping out onto the balcony of our room in the Garden Manor, steeling myself against the early morning chill. Across the courtyard, a pair of giraffes stood ready at the breakfast room of the main house, their heads having already disappeared through the lower windows.
In between sips of coffee and just before my eggs Benedict, we fed giraffe after giraffe peeking through the open glass panes in search of their own morning meal. As we got ready to leave, I turned back to take one last look at the two-story estate and the giraffes now standing among the trees, and I couldn't help feeling like we had been in on some sort of secret—a secret that had to be shared.