As we approached Nairobi National Park, the sun began to cast a golden glow across the sky. We were entering through the Main Gate, located just off the Lang’ata Road.
With our backs to the city, it was easy to forget we were only a few kilometers from an international airport. The bush land in front of us stretched almost as far as the eye could see; dusty, flat, and rich in flora and fauna.
It was surreal and quite beautiful to witness the harmony of man and nature in a way that few people get to see. Zebras stood shoulder to shoulder with their backs to us, watching the cityscape’s blinking lights.
Normally, a safari takes you out into the middle of nowhere, with no skyscrapers in sight and no flashing lights or sirens. However, the border between city streets and Nairobi National Park, on the other hand, marries concrete jungle with wild jungle in ways I never imagined possible.
The park’s proximity to Nairobi is perhaps its most distinguishing feature. The looming shapes of skyscrapers are ever-present as we speed along the grassy plains. Smog, that grey scourge of city living, looms large over the skyline.
The road beneath the tire quickly changed from firm grey concrete to a rough and red dirt track, spraying a thin film of dust across the windscreen. We took a path that curved slightly to the left, providing us with a panoramic view of the park against a hazy city skyline.
We had the park all to ourselves for a while. However, it wasn’t long before we saw the first signs of life.
Stopping after about five minutes, I noticed a brief movement in the grass running parallel to the track in the left-wing mirror out of the corner of my eye.
As a professional freelance safari guide, I’d studied the birds of East Africa extensively, so I knew what I’d be looking at and knew it wasn’t a mammal or a reptile.
I asked my companions, who are avid and experienced birders, and they confirmed my suspicions. It was a Spur-winged Plover, a common pied plover with white cheeks and a brown back easy to identify because of its bold plumage.
Already, the day seemed to be filled with promise.
We come across the impressive bulk of a male ostrich meandering through the grass a few meters ahead. These flightless birds are a lot of fun, reaching heights of well over two meters and sprinting at speeds of up to 70 km/h.
The clouds were low today, and the city had turned into a grey smudge on the horizon, with tall shapes blanketed in light smog. There were no overly tall trees to block our view, and the park was mostly flat and easy on the eyes, punctuated only by large shrubs and overgrown patches of grassland.
The car came to a stop slowly, and our driver pressed the tip of his index finger against the window glass. A rhinoceros family, two parents and a child, was about twenty meters away from where we sat.
My companions are the first to break the silence – isn’t it strange to see them like that? White rhinoceros?
I’d never noticed the overall squareness of a white rhino. Their jaws were strong and set at sharp angles; even the outline of their muscles beneath grey skin appeared overtly box-like, as if they were only a rough sketch and the gentle curves would be added later.
The crash ambled away, unimpressed with their new audience, into the grassy plains’ wildness. I couldn’t help but smile; I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen a rhino on safari; they’d been on the verge of extinction for so long that I’d almost given up hope.
We continued on through the grassland. The bush reached up to the windows in places, gently sweeping the glass as we passed. We spotted the long necks of giraffes waiting by the side of the dirt track just ahead and to the right. I’d been on a few African safaris over the years, but I’d never seen giraffes so relaxed and unbothered by our approach.
After a few twists and turns, we come across a lioness approaching us slowly.
We’d struck gold only fifty minutes into our journey.
It was incredible to see a lioness in its natural habitat. Even from a distance, the bulging muscles that give these cats their enormous power were visible. Soon after, a second vehicle arrived, with four passengers practically dangling out the windows to get a good view. We were thankful for the open top!
Incredibly, the lioness continued towards us. She ended up walking directly in front of us and the other car, putting us just inches apart. While we were frantically trying to take it all in, the lioness was unimpressed.
She had more important things to do with their morning than worry about us humans.
We happened to be in the way of her preferred morning snack, a small herd of impala grazing a few hundred meters away. She positioned herself strategically between a dirt mound and the dense undergrowth, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
The opportunity never came. The lioness was spotted almost immediately, with the terrified herd on high alert. Both parties were locked in a long-distance battle to see who would make the first move.
The lioness eventually conceded defeat, knowing she would have to travel far too far to reach the impala. She plodded away, and we parted ways, feeling very fortunate to have discovered this amazing animal so early in our drive.
Considering its small size, the park has an impressive variety of wildlife. We were fortunate to see hippopotamus, giraffe, zebra, crocodile, and rhinoceros, among many other animals! It’s surreal to see the shape of a giraffe, rhinoceros, or lion superimposed against this industrial backdrop. Buffalo, impala, and zebra all stood just ahead, their heads held high and expectingly towards us.
The only park within a city, as well as other wildlife parks, may face more serious threats than pastoralists and poaching. Nairobi National Park may become a zoo in the coming years. Infrastructure and human development are currently the greatest threats to wildlife. Land grabbing, fragmentation, fencing, and development on the park’s southern edge may soon turn it into a zoo unless urgent action is taken.
A monolithic railway viaduct has been built in recent years to connect Nairobi and Mombasa, cutting straight through the heart of the park. The rail has been designed to allow animals to freely roam beneath the track. Nonetheless, the massive structure was an imposing and unsubtle addition to the landscape.
It doesn’t take long to notice these strange contrasts everywhere you drive inside the park.
We kept driving around in our jeep, stopping every now and then to look for new species. It was a fast-paced adventure with something new to see at every turn.
I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
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