Arriving in Nairobi at the beginning or end of a safari can be an ordeal: a drive downtown, or to a suburban hotel, through some of the continent's worst traffic snarls that can take up to two hours. But today is different.
In transit between the Masai Mara National Reserve and Cairo, I've arranged to extend my wildlife safari with a stay at the Emakoko. Emakoko is one of two new lodges geared towards the exploration of Nairobi National Park (NNP), a 12,000-hectare refuge for about a hundred mammal species. The opening of the Emakoko last February, and another upmarket property, Nairobi Tented Camp, has suddenly transformed Kenya's oldest national park into a weekend safari destination in its own right - and one that is easily accessible with daily Etihad Airways flights to Nairobi. Travellers arriving on international flights can be inside the park within 20 minutes of plucking their bags off the luggage carousel at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Wilson Airport, the light safari charter aircraft base, is just a 10-minute drive from one of the park's main gates. Anton Childs, the Emakoko's owner, picks me up in his 4x4. Instead of crawling towards a downtown hotel between stalled minivans, hawkers and pedestrians who walk faster than vehicles, we are soon driving across a lion-coloured savannah looking at Masai giraffe, Coke's hartebeest, waterbuck and a herd of male eland, antelope weighing more than a tonne with fat spiral horns, wattled chests and enormous shoulders.
Though I've been on more than 30 African safaris and have frequently passed through Nairobi, I'd bypassed NNP, reasoning that the best wildlife viewing opportunities lay elsewhere - elephant watching in the Samburu Game Reserve or catching the August to September wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara National Game Reserve. I was put off by the idea that NNP is located less than seven kilometres south of the city centre. Along the northern boundary, which abuts the main road to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, it's possible to photograph giraffe silhouetted against skyscrapers.
To my surprise, away from the fence it quickly becomes possible to get a glimpse of old Africa. NNP was created in 1946 as the result of a campaign by Kenyan-born conservationist Mervin Cowie, who lamented the loss of the wildlife habitat. Indigenous Masai and other tribes had always lived in balance with wildlife. But after Nairobi was settled by Europeans in 1910, the combination of lion-shooting farmers, commercial cattle ranching and urban development created a conflict with the wildlife that caused game populations to plummet.
The park still preserves a biodiverse stretch of river-fed savannah bound to the west by highland forest. In the southwest, the park narrows into the Kitengela Migration corridor and ends at the Athi-Kapiti Plains, where Masai tribes still graze goats, sheep and cattle while around 4,000 zebra and 1,000 wildebeest migrate in and out of the park's protected zone according to age-old patterns determined by the country's two rainy seasons.
Driving and scanning the bush with his binoculars, Childs, an avid birdwatcher, explains that NNP remains an important biodiversity reservoir with more than 520 recorded bird species, ranging from spectacular crested cranes to dozens of "LBJs" - hard to distinguish warblers nicknamed "little brown jobs."
Approaching a waterhole, we see a white rhinoceros wallowing next to a snowy egret. Towards dusk we come across four Eastern black rhino, a species whose population plummeted to fewer than 500 in the 1970s due to poaching. Of the nearly 700 that live across East Africa today, 60 are found in NNP, which is an important breeding centre and the rare spot - apart from the private Solio Game Reserve and Ol Pejeta Conservancy in north-central Kenya - that virtually guarantees repeated sightings. Black rhino are browsers who prefer thick brush and are extremely shy and skittish. Until now, I've only seen them in the wild, and in poor lighting conditions, in the northern Serengeti.
The post-airport game drive eventually brings us to the bank of the Mbagathi River. I walk across a private bridge onto Emakoko's property, which rises from the river gorge, lined with tall acacia and fig trees, onto a plateau of traditional Masai grazing land. Despite the proximity to a metropolis of five million people, the lodge setting feels refreshingly natural and isolated.
The balcony of my oval chalet, up some steep stone steps, gives me a superb view back into the park and puts me at eye level with some black colobus monkeys clambering in the branches of a yellow fever tree. Beneath me sits the lodge pool, the communal library and slate roofed dining lounge with log pillars, leather chairs and urban-chic velveteen taupe couches. The look is contemporary Kenyan, and each chalet has a fireplace, taupe and bronze silk textiles and zebra-striped cushions.
Childs and his wife Emma are veteran safari camp managers who decided to relocate to the capital after the birth of their children. Their stroke of genius was to buy a 15-acre parcel of land on the bank of the Mbagathi River, the park's southern boundary, and obtain permission to keep the lodge vehicles parked inside the reserve just over a hand-built wooden foot bridge. Clients have 24-hour access to the park for game drives, and the vehicles are handy for airport transfers at any hour of the day and, if desired, shopping expeditions.
The last time I spent a night in a downtown Nairobi hotel, the drive to the airport took me a nightmarish two hours. Departure from Emakoko will be a breeze, and I will check-in for my evening flight to Cairo exactly 27 minutes after getting up from my leisurely lodge dinner. However, you may not want to rush your transit because evening is the time to catch rare glimpses of nocturnal creatures such as cerval cats and aardwolf in the headlights.
While the Emakoko suits travellers who want luxury, style and modern convenience, including WiFi, in a natural setting, Nairobi Tented Camp would appeal to travellers who want a complete break from urban habitat.
The camp, which opened last year, consists of a communal mess and eight private tents with en-suite bathrooms and hot bucket showers. Just 25 minutes, door to door, from the international airport, the camp functions like most accommodation under canvas in the African wilderness with daily game drives and - unique for a Kenyan national park - guided game walks and night drives. Given the high cost of boutique safari lodging and charter aircraft flights, the opportunity to stay in a tent in NNP's 12,000-hectare wilderness, and to see four of the big five (lion, buffalo, black rhino, leopard, but no elephant), poses a cost effective alternative for business travellers who want to experience nature, or couples with young children who want to encourage an interest in wildlife. The minimum age for guests is two years, and families can arrange to nip out of the park to visit Daphne Seldrick's Elephant Orphanage or the African Fund for Wildlife's Giraffe Sanctuary, which have child-friendly nature education programs.
It's odd to think of a game park as a commuter shortcut, but that is another key advantage of staying at Nairobi Tented Camp or the Emakoko, which are each a mere 25-minute drive, through park roads, from boutique shopping areas in the historic Karen district. It is where Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, lived, and many exclusive arts galleries and crafts cooperatives are located. Hearing that I want to buy a gift for a child's birthday, Anton bypasses the city street gridlock and drives me across the park and out a gate to visit Marula Lane, a crafts cooperative, and Nairobi HQ for Uniqueco Designs, a Kenyan non-profit organisation that creates toys, jewellry and other items from abandoned flip-flops swept onto East African beaches by currents that come from as far away as China. Working at the Kiunga Marine National Reserve on Kiwayu Island, in the Lamu Archipelago, 150 women employed by Nairobi HQ collect flip-flops at low tide. Craftsmen then recycle them into toy airplanes and a menagerie of African animals, including zebras, giraffes, hippos and lions.
On national holidays and weekends, NNP can be crowded with Nairobi residents. But on the way back to the Emakoko after my shopping expedition, we spot just one other safari vehicle, along with white and black rhino, wildebeest, zebra and a variety of birdlife including a kori bustard and a glaring, martial eagle. The density of animal life is of course a fragment of pre-World War II levels, when 100,000 wildebeest migrated freely on the Athi plains amid colonial farms and masai kraals. During the war, herbivores were shot to feed British soldiers and Italian prisoners of war, lions were shot to protect livestock and human settlement gradually choked old migration routes.
Although the park's wildlife is not completely enveloped by human development, there are more and more roads and houses sprouting on the migration corridor, and the Kenyan government has proposedusing the park land as a part of a Chinese-built highway system bypassing traffic to the south of the capital. In June, in a disturbing sign of human encroachment, Masai herders speared and killed six members of a lion pride that had wandered out of the Kitengela corridor and killed a donkey and some goats.
Nixon Paramisa, the Emakoko's community chief, joined the efforts to calm the local residents while "herding" the pride's two traumatized survivors away from the livestock grazing area and back into the park lands, where they now have to join or face off NNP's remaining 37 lions.
For wildlife enthusiasts, it may be jarring to see a jumbo jet fly over an elegant pair of Masai giraffes nibbling at leaves of an acacia. But sadly, it's the rare wildlife refuge that lacks visual and auditory pollution. Stay at any lodge in the Masai Mara or Tanzania's Serengeti, and you will see other vehicles and hear the whine of light aircraft ferrying tourists several times, daily. The wildlife experience in Nairobi seems all the more precious in knowing what lies just beyond the park gates.
If you go
The flight Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) flies to Nairobi from Dh2,020 return
The stay The Emakoko costs from US$440 (Dh1,616) per person, per night, all inclusive (www.emakoko.com; 00 254 07 7430 9752). Nairobi Tented Camp costs from $268 (Dh984), per person, per night, full board, not including game drives or airport transfers (www.nairobitentedcamp.com; 00 254 02 0260 3337)