What I am about to tell you will sound like a fib. Luckily we have the photos to prove it. Lauren and I played with - and in her case cuddled with - a cheetah. No, it was not a stuffed animal and yes, it was a living, breathing African cheetah. And he was very cuddly.
So impressed with Eastern and Southern (and especially our guide Michael) after our safari, we contacted them about taking us around for a half day in Nairobi and dropping us at the airport in the afternoon. The alternative would've been to try to do our own thing or just stay at the hotel until our flight in the afternoon. It was ultimately a very easy decision.
When Michael picked us up from the Hotel Jacaranda that morning, we collectively decided to do a "nature walk" and then visit a giraffe sanctuary before lunch and our flight. The nature walk ended up being essentially the Nairobi Zoo, but the designers had done an excellent job of making the place look like the natureal habitat of the area, which happened to be right next to Nairobi National Park. It's actually pretty amazing to think that a national park, which is a legitimate game watching locale, is so close to the hustle and bustle. We were reminded of this proximity shortly after passing one of the largest slums in the world (~1m people) when we had to stop to let a family of wild warthogs (think Pumba) cross the road.
I think our guide, a student intern from nearby East Africa School of Aviation studying tourism management, was a bit disappointed that we had seen many of the animals in the wild he was showing us at the zoo. Despite his best efforts to get the resident white rhino to stop eating and turn around (he failed), I got the sense that he saw his tip slipping away. Of course Lauren and I didn't really care and were basically doing this instead of watching CNN in the hotel, but he didn't know that.
The excitement began when we approached the lion area, home to two females and one rather large male that just happened to be relaxing directly on the other side of what I hoped was a very durable plexiglass pane. We did catch a glimpse of a leopard shortly thereafter lounging on the top branch of a tall tree, but it wasn't until we approached the cheetah pen that things got very interesting.
"They're very friendly," our equally friendly and well-dressed young guide stated.
Sure they are, I thought, right before they eat you...
It was about that time that I noticed one of the caretakers inside the pen drawing the male cheetah away from his shady spot under a tree by teasing it with a stuffed animal on a string. This was all happening fairly close to us so I reached into my bag to switch lenses. When I looked up I saw only the guide smiling at me and pointing to an open door leading into the pen through which Lauren had just passed. Sure enough, inside the pen was a real live cheetah, a stunningly beautiful animal mind you, on it's back enjoying a belly rub from Lauren!
In all, we spent around ten minutes with the animal who, despite having rather large paws and a mouth full of sharp teeth, was as sweet as a house cat, even purring when rubbed in just the right spot. Definitely an unforgettable, and unexpected, experience!
Next stop on the dime tour of Nairobi was a giraffe sanctuary. I had actually attempted to book a night at the famous Giraffe Manor - a 19th century British colonial manor that had been converted into an exclusive (and expensive) B&B where Rothschild giraffes poke their heads into your room in the morning - but they were completely inflexible with the non-standard hours of our stay and all around not very accomodating. The sanctuary, situated next to the Manor and sharing the same giraffe population, was not a very big place and was teaming with school children on field trips. Walking up to the viewing platform Lauren grabbed some food pellets and was soon feeding Daisy, an 18-foot tall female giraffe, by hand. We both gave Daisy a big neck hug and then hung out for a while watching the rest of the bunch feed on trees, play with one another, and watch as Japanese tourists fought Arab ones for a better viewing spot. We weren't really in a rush and, after all, when would we next get a chance to hang out watching a bunch of giraffes watching us?
A barbecue meat lunch (think Brazilian steakhouse with the addition of crocodile meat) followed and we were soon sitting on our Emirates flight back to Dubai, reminding ourselves that just that morning we played with cheetahs and hugged a giant giraffe, expecting to wake up from our dream at any moment...