I can't decide what is the more fulfilling experience for an animal lover: spotting one of the big five from afar on safari, or hand-feeding sweet potato leaves to an ostrich just a few centimetres away.
Patricia is a frisky but friendly Masai ostrich who fell into a ditch while running, and broke her leg. “By the time we found her, the leg had already started growing in the wrong direction, so our veterinarian could not fix it. She will probably remain here for the rest of her life,” says Eric, a guide at the animal orphanage in the foothills of Mount Kenya that serves as Patricia’s new stomping ground.
Hers is just one of the rescue stories that Eric recants. A few metres away, two African lynx – Caroline and Renato – stalk about restlessly in their enclosure. They were delivered here by a group of irate farmers who caught them stealing chickens. “We encourage our locals to bring in any ‘problematic’ animals, instead of killing them,” notes Eric. “These will soon be released into the wild.”
A walk among the various makeshift enclosures, barns and recesses reveals a menagerie of animals and birds. Amid the blue monkeys and Sykes' monkeys is a rare hybrid – the only one of his kind, Eric reckons – who was born after "a yellow-chested mangabey monkey, who was here on transit from West Africa, spent a few nights with our female baboon". Elsewhere, a giant tortoise, who goes by the name Speedy Gonzales, crawls by, as a gaggle of Egyptian geese honk their woes above the cheetah enclosure. Like Patricia, the cheetah siblings will be difficult to reintroduce to the wild because "they have not learnt hunting from their mother". The same goes for a lone military monkey, who has a missing arm courtesy of a skin poacher.
Inside the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari
The UAE and the rest of modern civilisation can seem very distant when you’re surrounded by these sights, sounds and stories – it’s certainly the last place in the world where one would expect to happen upon a photograph of Sheikh Zayed. And yet, a visit to the orphanage’s donations’ office reveals a portrait of the Founding Father, sat on a sofa flanked by cheetahs, from when he visited in the 1970s.
The animal orphanage I've been ooh-ing and aww-ing through is housed on the grounds of the five-star Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, a 45-hectare property that's ensconced within a 600-hectare conservancy. The 120-room resort is suitably rustic, with luxurious touches – including a fireplace in each room and a state-of-the-art spa due to be complete in August. The suites and cottages are spread out across the property, and come with views either of the golf course, the River Likii or the equatorial forest.
Variety, in fact, is at the heart of this former members' safari club, which lies bang on the equator. You can start your day with breakfast in the forest, on a patch of flatland overlooking Mount Kenya and reachable via horseback. Be prepared for the rangers to interrupt your meal if you'd like to spot a herd of elephants in the bush behind. The rangers can also take you for a trip up 3962 metres of the mountain face (3352 metres by jeep and the rest on foot), which is second in size only to the continent's Mount Kilimanjaro.
Elsewhere, the property's resident canines – Tusker and Grammy – are on hand for walks through the Millennial Maze, fashioned in the style of the labyrinth in London's Hampton Court. The nine-hole golf course and trout fishing ponds will appeal to connoisseurs of those sports, while a nature walk offers the chance to spot Burchell zebras and great African caped buffaloes. And that's just your morning.
An afternoon at the animal orphanage aside, the resort also offers a bird walk – 50 species of which call the hotel grounds home. These include all manner of ducks, marabous and more than a dozen peacocks, whose favourite gathering spot is the swimming pool. Or perhaps a garden tour may be of interest, to see the unusual herbs, fruits and vegetables that are harvested for the hotel's restaurants, Tusks and Zebar. Dinner can be had at these, or set up on a candlelit island deck surrounding the duck pond, in the middle of the bush or in the multihued rose garden.
How the property came to be
The property itself has a colourful history, which the hotel’s general manager Laurent Chaudet delights in sharing. This was originally a private home called Mawingo that belonged, Chaudet tells me, “to a dashing aviator, who died in the Civil War in the 1940s”. In 1948, hotelier Abraham Block bought and extended the house, turning it into an inn. And so it may have remained, had a man named Ray Ryan not hurt himself on a hunting expedition.
"It was the late 1950s and a group of men were hunting in the hills. One of them [Ryan] had a small mishap and came here to rest," says Chaudet. "He thought the place extraordinary and invited the rest of his party to join him." One among them happened to be Oscar-winning actor William Holden, who was so taken by the mansion that he bought it and the surrounding land, built a series of cottages (that guests can stay in to this day), and turned it into the Mount Kenya Safari Club. The members' list includes Winston Churchill, former US president Lyndon Johnson, singer Bing Crosby and members of the Saudi Arabian royal family.
Chaudet continues: “Unfortunately, Holden got into trouble with the IRS, and the FBI visited the club in 1977 to investigate it as one of his assets. Holden sold the property to a member of the Khashoggi family. Eventually, the property was picked up by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, at the time the owner of the Fairmont group, a brand that its current owner – a local Kenyan billionaire whom Alwaleed sold to – continues to operate under.”
Holden's name still lives on in these parts, though, thanks to the 800 animals he helped stock on the 404-hectare game reserve. The William Holden Wildlife Foundation Education Centre continues to work closely with what's now the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, within which the Fairmont resort is nestled. The conservancy's flagship animal is the Kenyan mountain bongo, a majestic-looking antelope. There are only 100 left in the world, where before "they could be seen from Mount Kenya all the way to Mount Elgon", notes operations manager Donald Bunge. "Going by genetic modelling, the minimum viable number for mammals is at least 250 breeding adults."
The conservancy has a bongo-breeding programme – where antelope also undergo training so that they can go from the dependency they have on rangers to a more natural existence. “For this we have secured 800 acres [323 hectares] from Kenyan forest authorities, with a predator-proof fence for these bongos who are used to a totally secure environment,” says Bunge. “However, we are very fortunate that they have not totally lost their instincts. Today, if we do not move a pregnant calf and she happens to give birth, it would take us up to two weeks to find her – so those natural instincts to evade enemies are still there,” he adds.
More animal tales
Bunge is as eloquent a storyteller as he is a thoughtful ranger, and he regales us with anecdotes – the one with the angry bull in the bongo fence sticks out for its toe-chilling thrills and speaks volumes about the team's work here. "We wanted a secluded area to train a group of bongos, so we created a fence to keep the five resident elephants out," begins Bunge.
"Two calves squeezed through, so of course, the two cows and bull elephant followed to protect them and ended up stuck. Getting them out of there was a nightmare, and a team of 14 rangers spread out across the 400-metre stretch. Myself and my colleague James were in the vicinity when the bull was freed. And he came for us. I fired my shotgun twice in the air, but he would not stop, so we ran and hid. Elephants have a good sense of smell, though, and he found us," he continues.
“I ducked, so he went for James and hooked him twice. I reloaded my shotgun and fired at the bull’s back – these are just shells and don’t cause any real damage. When he still turned to attack me, I realised I may have to put him down. James was bleeding badly; his lung was punctured and intestines damaged. I ran towards the fence and took a 3.75 rifle from my colleague. When I turned back, the bull was just gone. He was no longer chasing me, nor did he go back for James.
“Ancient hunters used to tell us that animals have premonitions. The bull knew that something was coming for him, so he did not follow through, just disappeared. We worked quickly to get James out, and six months after a 10-hour abdominal surgery he came back to work. Now we call him the elephant man.”
Humour is a coping mechanism the rangers tend to fall back on, given the often heart- and back-breaking work they do, trying to rescue, breed and rehabilitate animals in the face of human and natural encroachment. More than half the conservancy’s workforce is deployed as round-the-clock security personnel, striving to protect the dwindling bongo population from poachers and predators; of the 100 bongos left, 67 live on this conservancy.
Just before this piece goes to press, I hear that the bongo cow Gachuthi, who was eight months pregnant when I visited, has given birth to a healthy female calf. Gedi takes Kenya’s bongo population to 101 – music to this animal lover’s ears.