It’s love at first sight. I have arrived in Kenya only recently, but I know that any moment now, I am going to have my first kiss with a tall, lithe creature making her way towards me: a drop-dead gorgeous giraffe called Betty. This is a paradigm shift for me. So far, I have only ever looked up at a giraffe from ground level, either standing beside it or from the confines of a Land Rover. But here I am now, inches from one, pouting with a food pellet between my lips.
I am on a day trip at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, a 120-acre conservation centre with a breeding programme, a museum, nature trails, and most popular of all: an observation deck where tourists can meet and feed the elegant Rothschild’s giraffes. The centre was started in the 1970s by a Kenyan-British couple, Jock Leslie-Melville and Betty Melville, who began breeding the species in captivity when they discovered that the Rothschild’s giraffes had lost most of their habitat in east Kenya to agriculture. Since then, they have successfully introduced pairs of Rothschild’s giraffes into Kenyan national parks. Thanks to the feeding platform, the centre is also incredibly popular with travellers.
Walking up to the observation deck, I was entranced by how the giraffes look at close quarters—their geometric striations and patches, their slender necks and luminous, limpid eyes with long eyelashes. “The Rothschild is easily recognizable by its legs, which have no markings from the knee joint to the foot, like it’s wearing white stockings,” our guide David explained. I admired their graceful gait, like a ballerina practicing her pirouettes, covering vast distances in easy steps. They roamed around munching on acacia trees (their preferred choice of food) with frisky warthogs playing near their feet. When they were thirsty, they splayed their stilt-like feet so they could guzzle a long drink of water. I learned that they’re named after zoologist and banker Walter Rothschild, who was the first to publish a scientific paper on them, noting that they have five horns instead of two.
“Make sure you have food in your hands as you approach them, or they will headbutt you,” David warns over-eager tourists who swarm all over, taking selfies with the giraffes at the observation deck. There is a lot of good-natured laughter and people daring one another to pout at the giraffe with pellets of grass and salt between their lips.
It looks like fun, but I hesitate. “Did you know that a giraffe’s saliva has antiseptic properties?” David adds gently, sensing my apprehension. My friends joke about posting the picture on Facebook so that my husband can see me cheating. I muster up the courage and make my way to the edge of the platform, to come nose-to-nose with these two-storey-high, gentle creatures that I have loved from childhood.
Betty notices me, rolls out her long blue-black leathery tongue (more than half-a-metre long!) and snatches the food pellet from my mouth, leaving a trail of gooey saliva in her wake. I feel warm and fuzzy—and jubilant to have stretched outside my comfort zone.
At the small museum at the giraffe centre, I pick up some amazing giraffe trivia: they have the same number of cervical vertebrae as humans, and pregnant giraffes can postpone their delivery by as much as three months (for a safer environment)! The ultimate giraffe experience would be to stay at the Giraffe Manor, 2min from the Giraffe Centre, a hotel with 10 rooms named after the centre’s long-limbed residents. Guests breakfast with giraffes popping into the windows and strolling about on the lawns. I put it on my wish list for next time. This time around, kissing a giraffe was adventure enough!
Orientation The Giraffe Centre is located at Karen, and is around 17km/35min from the centre of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya in East Africa.
Getting There Kenya Airways operates daily non-stop flights from Mumbai to Nairobi. Alternatively, it is possible to fly to Nairobi via a Middle Eastern gateway city.
Stay The Giraffe Manor has 10 luxury rooms housed in a brick building with foliage creeping over the walls, set in 12 acres of private land within a large forest. Check the website for details; from $565/₹38,248 per person sharing, in high season.
Do Entrance fees to the Giraffe Centre is 1,000 Kenyan shillings/₹661 for non-resident adults and 500 Kenyan shillings/₹331 for non-resident children. In addition to interacting and feeding the giraffes, visitors can walk down the nature trail and visit the small museum. Don’t miss the souvenir shop. Combine it with a visit to the Karen Blixen Museum, the estate setting of Blixen’s famous autobiography Out Of Africa, and the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage close by.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.