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“Hippo,” said my guide, in the reassuring voice of a practiced wildlife expert. “Over there!”

He pointed to it, but I couldn’t see a thing. He was a trained Kenyan safari guide, and it took me a while to spot with a long lens what he had seen easily with the naked eye: Two unmistakable hippo ears, just above the surface. Run of the mill for him, but a giant thrill for me, my first spotting of a large, wild animal in Africa. Standing through the open roof of our Toyota Land Cruiser, I squeezed off the first of hundreds of shots I would take on a memorable day: Lions, impalas, buffalo, antelopes, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, vultures, even a crocodile.

But we were not in the Maasai Mara or the Serengeti, or in any of the fabled game reserves of East Africa. We weren’t anywhere near one. It was early morning on a weekday just outside Nairobi, Kenya, and we were barely half an hour from the bustling center of a capital city of three million people. We were in Nairobi National Park, a small but exceptional preserve that should be at the top of the list for anybody visiting the city.

For a fraction of the cost of a full-fledged safari in one of Africa’s remote reserves, you can have an African wildlife experience that will, with just a bit of luck, rival far more expensive safari packages. You can squeeze it in on one morning between business meetings, if you’re really pressed for time, or you can take a full day, like I did after getting to Nairobi on the new nonstop flight from New York City.

Whatever you choose to do, your first reaction will likely be something like mine. Awed by a sight I had seen before only in documentaries and National Geographic magazines, I couldn’t help but repeat in disbelief, “25 minutes, David! 25 minutes from downtown Nairobi to wild hippos!” My guide, David Mwathi, flashed back a broad smile from the driver’s seat. It was only 7am, and there would be, he said, a lot more to see.

So much more, in fact, that even he was surprised by the abundance of what we encountered, including the rare sight of a pride of lions eating freshly killed prey. As I photographed egrets roosting by the hippo pond, I had no idea of the bounty the day would bring, either.

How to Visit Nairobi National Park

The 45-square mile park is really, really close to the city. It’s also fenced, but that doesn’t always keep the animals and the growing number of humans encroaching on their land separated. Lions have killed livestock outside the park, and poachers have killed rhinos for their horns, which explained the presence in the park of Kenya Wildlife Service rangers clad in camo and armed with Kalashnikovs. Sadly, rangers have had to use their weapons against poachers in Kenya’s national parks.

Image from Google Maps

That proximity is also what tempts many visitors to drive themselves into the park, paying the $43 entrance fee (Kenyan citizens pay the equivalent of $4) and braving rutted dirt roads. My advice is: Just don’t. I would have missed pretty much everything I ended up seeing if it hadn’t been for David’s experience and radio contact with other guides and rangers, and I would also have put my driving skills to a very severe test. It was a rough enough ride in a Land Cruiser, a near-indestructible tank of a vehicle.

There are several outfits that offer tours of the park, either standalone or in combination with two other big attractions for nature lovers: the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which houses orphaned baby elephants before reintroducing them to the wild, and the Giraffe Center, a sanctuary for the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe.

You can find tours on TripAdvisor, or you can go straight to your hotel’s concierge. The park has been around since 1946 — it was the first established in the nation — and concierges at the city’s top hotels know the most reputable guide outfits. The travel desk at my hotel, the Radisson Blu, took just a few minutes to book me, for the very next day, a tour with Wote Group Safaris that included the park, the Sheldrick and the giraffes.

The total came to 28,560 Kenyan shillings, or $281.52, inclusive of all fees and extras, which I paid with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Safaris code as travel purchases, earning me 3x points on this transaction. Those 844 Chase Ultimate Rewards points are worth $16.89 at TPG’s current valuations.

Best of all, I lucked into an eight-seat vehicle to myself, with a guide/driver dedicated to me alone. I suggest choosing the earliest possible departure time; not only does your chance of seeing wildlife diminish later in the day, but you’ll also be under a fierce sun. David and the Land Cruiser were waiting for me the next morning at 6am, before sunrise. Our tour would end midafternoon back at the hotel.

What You Can See

First, the bad news: There is no guarantee you will see lions, which are the main draw for pretty much everyone. You’re even less likely to see leopards or cheetahs, both of which live in the park but are extremely elusive. And you won’t see elephants — they would make short work of the fence, and have been moved elsewhere long ago.

But you are sure to see large, wild African mammals in their natural habitat. You may even get the shot everybody’s after, with a large animal and the skyscrapers of downtown Nairobi in the distance. I got mine with a pair of hartebeest, one of the more common antelopes in the park.

The best way to see the park is in a 4×4 vehicle with a roof that can be raised; you can brace your camera on the railing, and you’ll be shielded from the sun. Taking photos on the go is well-nigh impossible due to the extremely bumpy roads, but you’ll get all the shots you want during the many wildlife-viewing stops. Your guide will view said wildlife long before you do, and you’re likely to see guides pointing at things their guests struggle to find in the tall grass.The guide in the photo above had seen a lion’s head peek out of the grass at 100 feet. The day had just begun, and a lion spotting was a very auspicious beginning. It was my first wild lion, too. (Two, actually, one a young male with just the hint of a mane.)David got me next to a herd of buffalo grazing peacefully while being worked on by tiny oxpeckers, the birds that rid them of ticks and other pests.

But by then we knew there were lions out and about, and that’s what we went for. With some expert maneuvering, David got us to a plain where one had been spotted, camouflaged in the tall grass. It didn’t take long for her to reveal herself, appearing in perfect light: A young lioness, about two years old, David told me.

More lions appeared around her, seemingly out of nowhere, rising out of the grass where they had been hiding. The two humans in the Land Cruiser got a couple looks from them, but the lions were evidently more interested in something they appeared to be smelling on the wind.

  Eventually, four of them appeared, all young and all very much into whatever it was they had literally gotten wind of. Over the radio, David heard what it was: A fresh antelope kill. As our four lions began to amble toward the smell, David turned the engine on. We were going to follow them.

The young lions wasted no time diving into their meal, emerging with bloody faces. In the background, more antelopes seemed to be considering the situation with worry. The cats were eating their fill, though, as David explained — for a while, the antelopes had little to fear from satiated predators. (In the image below, they also look closer to the lions than they actually were, because of the telephoto compression of the long lens I was using.)

All this had happened before 9am, a reminder that a lot of the interesting stuff takes place when the sun isn’t yet high on the horizon and blazing down. But we still had plenty to see; David made sure I wouldn’t miss any of the big fauna, and we encountered zebras next, after some driving around.

I didn’t need David’s help to spot these three giraffes.

I would have been satisfied at that point, but the park had other surprises in store for us, and the biggest one was waiting in a patch of shade: a resting lioness, taking refuge from the mounting heat. As I silently prayed that she would look at me, I was glad I’d brought along a big, heavy zoom lens.

The reason armed rangers patrol the park appeared next to our left as we drove bumpily around: a mother rhino and her calf.

The park has several species of antelope as well, including Grant’s gazelles.

We found a small herd of about 15 impalas by the side of the road, too. Led by a male, they were grazing peacefully and seemed unperturbed by our presence.

Luck was definitely on our side. On our way out of the park, we stopped at a pond on the off-chance that a croc might appear. It did, and once again I would have missed it if not for David’s sharp eyesight (and 20 years of experience).

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

You could do the park as a standalone visit, but you’d miss out on the biggest of the Big Five animals you can find on safari. There aren’t any wild elephants within the park’s confines, but you can go see the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where orphaned elephants are reared until they can return to the wild. In theory, it’s a really sad story. There is no person with a beating heart who won’t be moved by the tale of an orphaned baby elephant — but there’s a happy ending: orphans rescued by the Sheldrick end up back with a herd, roaming free on the big plains.

Every day from 11am to noon, the elephants are brought out to play in the mud. And play they do, displaying a taste for rolling around and spraying each other (and sometimes spectators) with water. They get close enough to touch, too.

The elephants are fed baby formula, in large bottles they gulp down in seconds.

Fun for everybody, bipedal and not — and even for a random warthog that at one point ran through, chased by nothing more than a peal of laughter. The elephants could not care less.

Giraffe Center

After the Sheldrick, David drove me to the nearby Giraffe Center, whose entrance fee was included with the price of my tour, like the Sheldrick’s. This is also a good spot to buy souvenirs, from giraffe-shaped fridge magnets to locally-crafted textiles.

The big attraction here is feeding the giraffes by hand or, if you’re looking for a photo that will definitely get comments on Instagram, by placing a pellet in your mouth and letting the giraffe snatch it with its tongue. Kelly, a 17-year old giraffe, demonstrated how it works.

Just watch out for head butts. Giraffes apparently don’t like to be teased, and if you extend a hand, it better have food in it. Not too much of it, though, as the sign warns.

Giraffes are a big hit with kids. A purpose-built structure lets people touch the animals at the giraffes’ own 15-foot level.

Cramming all this into a single day — plus a stop at some artisanal shops for local coffee, tea, T-shirts and other gifts for friends and family — took until 4pm. David, whose conversation and abundant knowledge punctuated the unforgettable day, deposited me back at the Radisson in time for a swim and a Tusker beer before dinner.

What to Bring

Nairobi is right on the Equator, but also relatively high at 6,000 feet, so you should layer your clothing accordingly. With a lightweight Gore-Tex jacket for the cold, breezy morning, a T-shirt underneath for the 85-degree day and a scarf to ward off the dust, I was just fine. Wote Group provided ample water to drink, which you will need. Bringing snacks is your responsibility. We did not stop for lunch, but we could have — just tell your guide if you’re hungry.

I shot photos with my phone, a Sony RX-100 III compact camera for wide shots, and a Nikon D7500 DSLR with an 80-400 mm zoom lens for the wildlife shots. A lens with a 400 mm equivalent focal length is definitely needed for optimal results when photographing faraway animals — I found myself wishing at times for something even longer, but size and weight do go up significantly above 400 mm, and you’ll have trouble balancing a lens that big on your vehicle’s railing without a beanbag. I saw quite a few people wielding binoculars, and next time — there will be a next time — I will probably bring a pair, too. As well as sunscreen, which I forgot, but a mild sunburn was a small price to pay for an adventure I cannot recommend enough.

All images by the author except where indicated. 

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