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Bright Lights, Big Game


Imagine New York's Central Park if the big cats, giraffes, and zebras were sent over from the Bronx Zoo and allowed to run wild. True, free-range lions might put a damper on Sunday afternoon softball. But they would give you an idea what it's like to visit Nairobi National Park. On one side, the park borders the fast-growing Kenyan capital, with a population of 2.4 million; on the other, it opens onto a vast game preserve to the south. Although the park is fenced off from populated areas, a corridor allows wild creatures to saunter in and out as they please.

The impressive collection of predators, including pythons big enough to swallow an impala, would make me nervous about using one of the designated picnic areas. But from the safety of a motor vehicle, the park is a great option if you're on a business trip in Nairobi. The park is even close to the airport for this emerging-market hot spot with nascent finance and outsourcing industries.

My driver, Charles, who'd been recommended by Kenyan acquaintances, did his best to lower my expectations as he steered his minivan slowly through the park gates on a breezy, overcast day in late August. We had just missed the wildebeest migration, which draws a large entourage of predators, he explained. In any case, the animal population has declined in recent years as poorly controlled urban development has crowded the narrow corridor connecting the park to the wild country. But maybe we'd get lucky and see a zebra or two.

Bumping cautiously over the dirt roads, we scanned the dry, seemingly empty grassland. Something brown and furry ran in front of the car, but it vanished into the underbrush before we could figure out what it was. In the distance, Charles spotted a small herd of zebras grazing and a trio of giraffes. Even though they were several hundred yards away, I thought, O.K., this won't be a total bust.

Then we surprised a female impala with a calf in tow, skittering along the road ahead of us on improbably slender legs. Not long afterward we came upon a whole herd of impalas grazing close to the road. They watched us warily but didn't bolt. In some tall grass, an ostrich raised its head.

I was starting to feel lucky. We caught up with another van, one of the few other vehicles around. (The $40-per-person entry fee plus the cost of a car and driver seem to keep down the crowds.) The occupants were staring intently into the brush, and soon we could see why. Half obscured by the deep grass was a leathery shape the size of a Fiat subcompact: a rhino nonchalantly munching the underbrush. In the background, you could see the Nairobi skyline.

By the time Charles steered the van toward the banks of a murky river, we had also seen a warthog, a solitary baboon, numerous hartebeests—a variety of antelope—and some buffalo. Would I also be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a hippopotamus? Charles pulled into a dirt parking lot, where a man wearing camouflage fatigues stood cradling a large-bore rifle. Despite his paramilitary attire, the man proved to be an affable park ranger who led me down a path dotted with buffalo dung. The gun was to scare off hippos, which occasionally made a run at tourists.

We didn't see any hippopotamuses, but on a mud riverbank lay two fat crocodiles. I asked the ranger if the crocs, which normally dine on monkeys or impalas venturing down to the river, ever come after people. "Only the children," he replied, in what was apparently an attempt to reassure me.

Back at the parking lot, Charles was chatting in Swahili with a Masai herdsman. Wearing rubber-soled sandals and armed with nothing but a wooden staff, the man had just walked across the bush, Charles said, with obvious respect. According to the herdsman, one trophy would most likely elude us today: Almost all the lions had left the park except a few that were staying out of sight.

EXOTIC EATS

No matter. We had seen plenty of wildlife for one day. The shadows were growing long as we steered away from the river. Suddenly, Charles braked. It took me a few seconds to make out why. Resting in the deep grass were two female adult and two juvenile lions, looking deceptively cuddly. We watched the lions for a long time before, in the failing light, we reluctantly steered for the exit.

That evening, I joined Nairobi acquaintances for dinner at Carnivore, a famous open-air eatery on Langata Road that, as you might have deduced, does not have a vegetarian menu. In fact, there is no menu at all. Cooks roast cuts of beef, chicken, and pork, as well as exotic fare such as ostrich and crocodile, over a giant fire in the middle of the restaurant. Waiters roam among the tables with long skewers, dispensing smoking cuts of meat directly onto diners' plates. Don't forget to try a Dawa, a cocktail made of vodka, honey, and lemon that is Carnivore's signature drink. (Our bill came to about $60 a person with drinks.) It's a fitting way to toast a successful safari—even one that took place within the city limits.

NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK is located about four miles from central Nairobi, close enough to be reached by taxi. Ask your hotel or local business contacts to recommend a driver or tour operator with knowledge of the park, and be sure to agree on price beforehand. Figure about $100 per person including entry fees.

By Jack Ewing


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