Nairobi National Park, Kenya: The world's most astonishing wonderland

One minute outside one of the biggest airports in Africa and there's a herd of zebras wandering through some empty bushland just off the main road into the city. Two minutes later, there are three giraffes turning their heads this way and that, looking for all the world as if they're preparing a traffic report for their mates back in the jungle.

And within just 15 minutes of clearing customs at Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta Airport in the capital Nairobi, I'm sitting watching three lions stalk another dazzle of zebra and buffalo having a mud bath in arguably the world's most astonishing wonderland – a massive wildlife conservancy on the very fringes of the fifth biggest city on the continent.

Where else on the globe could you possibly travel for such a short time from the major international airport and view such a variety of a continent's wildlife within a bare few moments of arriving?

Nairobi is special like that, and in many other ways besides. Without leaving the confines of this city, it's possible to have a pretty much whole-of-Africa experience – big game-watching, meeting and fostering a baby orphaned elephant, having afternoon tea with an endangered Rothschild giraffe, visiting one of Africa's finest craft markets, sampling a taste of colonial days at Karen Out of Africa Blixen's old house and chatting to single local mums creating beautiful jewellery to support their families.

Oh yes, and staying at a beautiful family-run boutique game lodge at the Nairobi National Park, with each cottage and its large veranda nestled in spectacular bush, and falling asleep to the roar of a lion or the call of a lone hyena.

"This park is a very special place," says Anthony Childs who has lived in Kenya all his life and now runs The Emakoko Lodge with his wife Emily. "It's Kenya's oldest designated conservation area and was the catalyst for all national parks to follow.

"It's extraordinary in being 117 square kilometres of wilderness on the doorstep of a massively growing metropolis. We're now the only capital city in the world with over 600 species of animals and birds, and more than 500 species of plants. It's amazing that it's so close to the city, but so far in terms of its atmosphere."

As such, Kenyans are quite rightly immensely proud of the park, and work hard to keep the savannah grasslands, scrub, upland forest, rocky gorges, wetlands and streams a secure refuge and breeding ground of global significance. When the government recently announced proposals for a Chinese-built railway to be constructed over the park, it was met with howls of protest and a concerted campaign against it. With its staggering numbers of lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalos, giraffes, zebras, impalas, hartebeest, elands, Grant's gazelles, vervet monkeys, baboons, hyenas, even tortoises – everything in fact but elephants – supporters have a weighty argument.

If you can tear yourself away from the park, Nairobi has far more than its fair share of other tourist attractions, too. One of the best is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the elephant orphanage nearby, rescuing baby elephants who've fallen down wells or lost their mothers to similar accidents or poachers around Kenya.

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It took Sheldrick's wife Daphne 28 years to discover that calves could flourish on a special (human) baby milk formula. Now they're all bottled-fed by handlers as you watch, and then often roll in the red dust at your feet or wander over to caress you with their trunks. Each orphan is gradually introduced to a wild herd for longer and longer periods every day until, at last, they stomp off to the wild for good.

Those of us who can't help falling in love with them can "adopt" one for US$50 a year, return to the orphanage to watch them being put to bed at night, and receive regular letters from their keeper.

The giraffes of the sanctuary that's come to be known as Giraffe Manor are equally captivating. Left to wander freely around the property, they nuzzle food from guests' hands, peer into the windows of the main hotel and even tongue-kiss the willing. At the Giraffe Centre next door, the public can also feed them, at eye level.

A short drive away is a glimpse of colonial Kenya through the eyes of the late Danish author Karen Blixen. She came to Nairobi to marry a half cousin and become a dairy farmer, then – disastrously – a coffee farmer. After her divorce, she farmed alone, fell in love with an Englishman and, when he died and the farm failed again, returned home. It was her 1937 book Out of Africa, and the later movie, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, that captured the public imagination. Her house is now a beautifully well-kept, and immensely poignant, museum.

With picture-postcard views of Blixen's beloved Ngong Hills, is the Utamaduni Craft Market, a two-storey Kikuyu-style house with each of the 19 rooms holding a different selection of cultural souvenirs, from baskets, beaded glassware and bowls to jewellery, fabrics and carvings.

Close by is another favourite spot: the Kazuri bead factory. Arrive at 3pm and listen in awe as the women workers, all sitting at big wooden tables firing, glazing and painting beautiful clay bead jewellery, sing songs as they work, and in prayer.

"We started with two mothers, and now there are 340," whispers foreman Philip Mukeku under the swell of sweet voices. "I think everyone is happy to be here. Listen to them. It's so beautiful, isn't it?"

Like zebras and giraffes wandering close to the airport, Nairobi's capacity to delight and surprise seems boundless.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/kenya

emakoko.com

FLY

South African Airways flies to Nairobi via Perth and Johannesburg (flysaa.com).

STAY

The Emakoko Lodge has just 10 rooms, five on the main level and the others built into the cliff-face, with spectacular views. There's a pool overlooking the river and meals are served in the restaurant and bar in the main house. From $US450 per person with all meals, activities and transfers. Book via The Classic Safari Company: phone (02) 9327 0666; see classicsafaricompany.com.au

Sue Williams travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways.

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