Peter Welcome to our travel podcast, we’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week, we’re at one of the world’s most unusual and fascinating places to stay. At first sight it looks remarkably like a classic English country hotel, a mellow brick 1930s house with ivy-clad walls set in landscaped gardens at the heart of 140 acres of rolling countryside. But once away from the manicured lawns, you might be forgiven for guessing the trees and general terrain are not actually to be found in the Cotswolds, but somewhere considerably more exotic. And wait, what’s that poking its head through my bedroom window…a giraffe? Am I dreaming? Nope. We’re not in Oxfordshire; we’re in Kenya at Giraffe Manor on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Felice It’s been dubbed the most Instagrammed hotel in the world and I can see why. At certain times a day, giraffes are everywhere with heads popping up on balconies and at the breakfast table, helping themselves to your toast and cornflakes. I’ve travelled a lot over the years, but for me, Giraffe Manor is one of my most vivid memories – even more so than going on a safari where you don’t actually get to touch any of the animals. Giraffes are so gorgeous with their long eyelashes and beautiful colouring.
Peter We met up with Tony Levi, the hotel’s Assistant General Manager. After eight years here, there’s not much he doesn’t know about these extraordinary creatures.
Felice Tony, welcome to Action Packed Travel podcast. The biggest surprise for me was that their tongues are blue and feel really rough. They’re very long, nearly half a metre; I certainly wasn’t expecting that but then, of course, they’ve got to deal with all those thorns.
Tony Did you get a kiss when you were here?
Felice I did. I got licked and I fed them by hand. So can you tell us a bit about giraffes to start with? Do you know how tall are they roughly?
Tony Ed, who’s the tallest giraffe, we reckon he is about 15 and a half, 16 feet tall, but he’s the dominant male and he’s about 10 1/2 years old.
Felice Wow. And what do they eat mainly?
Tony Out of the 140 acres that we have here, they eat all the foliage apart from – it’s known as the trumpet flower, I don’t know what the biological name is, but that’s because that’s hallucinogenic – but everything else in the compound they will eat. And the only reason why they come to us is because we feed them pellets. The pellets are corn, bran and molasses….so those tiny things that you get when you are here for breakfast. That’s the only reason why they come to us. But there has to be a bit of a respect balance with that, because it all depends on how you face them. You know, you can get an occasional ‘Good morning, you know, you’re supposed to feed me.’
Peter How many giraffes do you have in all on site?
Tony So currently on site we have 12 giraffe. So we have Ed, the dominant male; we’ve got Betty who’s our matriarch, she’s about 21 years old or going on 21; we have Kelly who is the one who is notoriously known as the head butter. She’s named after Grace Kelly; she’s about 19 going on 20. Then we do have other females. We’ve got Daisy, Salma, Stacey, we’ve got Ed. I think Salma is older than Ed because she’s about 11 years old, because all five calfs in place, so 12 on site.
Peter How do you tell a difference? Can you can you recognise them all?
Tony Yes. So I’ve been here for eight years so I can tell different coats, different personalities. The ones that are a bit tricky for me right now would be the calfs, because the calfs are varying for between maybe four months to about slightly over a year, but they’re all over six feet tall. So just different coats. The coats are like our fingerprint, so every giraffe has a different coat and the characteristics is what makes them more noticeable.
Felice How do they sleep? Do they sleep standing up?
Tony No. So they get down but never put their necks down. But they will rest for between about half an hour to about an hour, an hour and a half tops and then that’s it. They are constantly just eating, maybe 95 percent of their lives are just constantly eating.
Peter It sounds like a Labrador actually.
Felice When they’re in the wild, what are their main predators?
Tony You can get everything. The main predator will probably be a lion or big cats, but it would take a number of lions to turn into a full blown giraffe because one day a kid can be a killer lion. So they will try and defend themselves. I think in most cases, what I’ve seen in a documentary is they were trying to attack a calf, especially when it was just being born. But yes, it’s quite a risk for a big lion or a pride of lions to try to attack a giraffe.
Felice Can you tell us a bit about Giraffe Manor? When did it become a sanctuary for giraffes?
Tony So basically, the whole programme was started by a lady called Betty Meldrum – her and her husband, Jock Meldrum. They bought the property in the early ’70s when they bought the property there was giraffe that used to come and eat the ficus, which is what grows on the side of the building of the main manor. Betty Meldrum did fall in love with the giraffes and when she looked at the different types of giraffe that we have on site, or in Kenya, she found the Rothschild’s were critically endangered. It was literally less than 100 of those in the whole of Kenya. So that’s why she started the whole The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife in 1974, which is a giraffe conservation and breeding centre. And in I think mid-80s is when they made the house an exclusive hotel. So the first giraffe brought here was named Daisy. We have a room named after her right now and so we now have Daisy the fourth, who is also a head butter giraffe, in between there was Daisy the second and Daisy the third. We also had a giraffe brought to us, Marlon. He was named after Marlon Brando who was a very good friend of the Anderson family, which is Jock and Betty Melville’s family.
Felice When was the house originally built?
Tony The house originally built in 1932 by a gentleman called Sir David Duncan and he had something to do with the Macintosh family, which is the whole toffee industry. He built it for his wife reputably, apparently, because this was the year they were in Scotland. Just before independence, he did sell the property, and moved to South Africa. So the house was abandoned. Then it was bought by, I think a few people in between never really lived inside it. And then in 1974, early ’70s, Betty and Jock, did buy it.
Felice The house looks a little bit like it might be in England…
Tony It’s a Scottish hunting house. Yes, it’s more like a Cotswold manor house, but it’s a Scottish hunting house, yes.
Peter How do you get your giraffes? I mean, they obviously don’t just wonder in, where do they come from?
Tony So there’s a whole logistical process which is involved through our conservation efforts. The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, KWS, which is a government entity, so far so good we have now have no giraffe brought in from outside, which means we actually have a breeding programme. So a lot of giraffe have been brought here, have been relocated back into the wild. The numbers to date would be about 64 giraffe that have been relocated as a whole program that started in the early 70s. We just relocated three giraffes about three months ago, the beginning of this year. They were taken to Eldoret, which is about 400 miles from here. It’s a long drive.
Peter So what’s different about the Rothschild’s from other giraffes?
Tony The most important things would be the patterns. There are three kinds of giraffe, the Rothschild’s have more…well, it’s a different pattern compared to the reticular or Masai giraffe, but they also are characterised as having white stockings. So from the bottom of the knees, we have no patterns going right down. But also which you might notice is that they have five ossicones. So you’ve got three quite visible ones, but right by the ears you’ve got two very invisible. Rothschild’s is the only giraffe to have five ossicones; every other giraffe has three.
Felice What are ossicones? I haven’t heard of those before.
Tony So the ossicones would be like the horns that they have here. So get a predominant one over here and you’ve got two here to make three, and then you’ve got two really tiny ones back here to make five. These are the ossicones.
Felice How do you relocate them?
Tony There’s a lot that goes into play in coming to that. They usually are put into a pen. We have a pen of giraffe not far from the drop centre. They get to choose who they will be sending back into the wild, who they’re going to relocate into the wild. It would be a truck that’s brought over. They are loaded into the truck. Most important is they can only be taken standing, so it’s a very slow, painstaking process. A lot of logistics, you know – power lines coming quite low.
Felice Giraffe Manor became a hotel. When did that happen?
Tony The hotel was started in the early ’80s by the Anderson family, which is basically Jock’s family. It was a private hotel in 2009. It was sold and it was actually then bought for The Safari Collection. So the Safari Collection then made it a commercial hotel. And now we’ve expanded from initially, I think, five rooms, six rooms now to a total of 12 altogether. So it’s a very small boutique hotel, but it’s divided into two manors. We’ve got the original one from 1932 and they’ve got a new addition added, known as the Garden Manor, which is built just up to 2010.
Peter And how do the guests interact with the giraffes? I gather from pictures that they actually look through the windows, put their heads through the windows upstairs, is that right?
Tony That’s correct. So we do have two feeding programmes, two feeding times for giraffe. One of the most important is the five o’clock, which is where we have access for the guests outside the building with a small wall that separates the giraffe and the client. What happens is you can take all your pictures; you can get all your kisses. We’ve got a swing; we’ve got a famous swing on Instagram right now. So, yes, we got the High Tea Experience, which is at five o’clock, and we basically walk out the giraffe and go to the wall, you can get to feed the giraffe, the same giraffe. You can get to the side, you can get your giraffe kisses, you get the swing, which is very famous on Instagram. Everyone likes to get giraffe pictures on the swing, but the second experience and the five o’clock experience is between five o’clock until about 6pm, 6.15pm.
The most important experience will be the Breakfast Experience, and that starts any time from 6:00 in the morning to about eight in the morning, and those giraffe will have access around the building. So from your room – some of the rooms have giraffe access – you literally just crack your window open or just walk onto your verandah and you can get to feed them. The rooms have our pellets and you just give them one at the time. Come down not too long after that and you’re coming to the different breakfast rooms – one in the garden, one in the main manor. We open the windows, they put their heads right inside. And there’s lots of pretend pictures of…you’ve got people with coffee cups, but never do you really have real coffee to drink. It’s a lot of saliva I don’t think it would be quite tasty. Then eventually you do have your breakfast.
Felice Oh, it’s a wonderful experience. And they’re really gentle creatures, too.
Tony Yes, they are. It’s one of those things you have to experience yourself. No videos or pictures can do justice to what happens at Giraffe Manor. So after eight years I’m still in awe of what happens every morning; it’s like living in a whole different world.
Felice What is the hotel like inside? What is it like to stay there?
Tony The Safari Collection has basically kept it very well and tuned it back to the days of the 1930s. We’ve got very old furniture; we have no phones. Recently we got a TV, which is in the library. Sometimes you get people in to watch some special channels or some sports. But yes, most rooms are based on really old looks inside. It’s a 1932 setting.
Peter Can the guests wander outside with the giraffes or just see them through the windows?
Tony The only time we let guests wander outside with the giraffe will be the High Tea Experience, which is at five o’clock. But, as you remember, there’s a small wall that separates the giraffe from coming over the house so they can walk up to the wall and feed the giraffe, but the feeding times would be in the morning between six and about eight, half past eight, and then five o’clock, which has been up to between about 5pm to about 6pm, 6.15pm. And then any time between 9am and 5pm, these same giraffe will be at the centre. They keep serious time. I mean, by 8:39 o’clock they’ll start going back to the centre, 5pm they will come back for high tea. So yes, you go to bed, we ensure that we have to knock on your door to get up at 6:00 in the morning because they come around the building, they don’t see it they’ll just move on and if nobody’s there they’ll just wander off.
Felice I remember when I was there seeing warthogs in the garden as well. Do you still have those?
Tony Yes, we do. They are the cutest and funniest creatures, actually. They are known as our natural hoovers and anything that falls down is what they would pick up. We have a few that we do recognise, but the biggest thing about the warthog is that because they burrow in and out the compound, we can’t keep track of who’s who. So unfortunately, we’ve not named those guys. But yes, we still have them around every time they follow the giraffe and know that food’s going to fall down. They’re opportunists.
Felice Sounds like our dogs; they do that. Our Labrador dog does that. If he sees children, he knows food might be around and they might drop something. Do the giraffes and the warthogs get on together or do they ignore each other?
Tony Yes, to do they get along very well. I guess with the giraffes so tall, even though they’re feeding the giraffe, the warthogs are around the ground, so they will alert each other if there’s a threat coming from somewhere – they’re a great team.
Peter It’s entertainment for the guests for all ages, presumably? So small children even right up, and obviously adults.
Tony Yes. I think the youngest guest we ever had here is probably three months old. We’ve had all age brackets here and yes, it is good fun for everybody.
Peter How many giraffes at a time do you get at feeding time, how many giraffes come up to the house, to the windows?
Tony At any one moment we will get maybe a maximum of about five or six. The calfs are still a bit shy. It gets them to about six, eight months before they can start approaching. You can try and feed them, but then because too much of the food can make them ill so we do try and take it a step at a time. So the five calfs right now are just watching us from a distance wondering what’s going on and warming up to the whole idea: ‘Who are these people trying to feed us?’
Peter At the moment presumably you have very few international guests?
Tony Fortunately, for our part, we are quite busy with international guests. Yes, happily, we were the first hotel to open in June last year. During Covid, the borders were closed for international flights but then when that opened on the 15th of August, we had the first international guests come in.
Peter You’ve been open ever since?
Tony Yes, we’ve been open ever since. We are still practising the whole social distancing with everything that’s going on with the pandemic in 2020. So far, so good. Everybody seems to respect the fact that everyone respects everybody’s space. We take the filling of the swing one at a time, with different groups of guests and so far so good.
Felice Tell us more about the swing, because it wasn’t there when I came, or at least I didn’t see it?
Tony So that was introduced by General Manager, Mary, which is probably about four years ago. And what happens is right in front of the Garden Manor we get the head butters – so Kelly, Salma, Daisy – we keep them on that side and they just come to see, so you can get to swing and stretch out your hand and you can get to feed them.
Felice Do guests normally come for just one night, or do they come for a whole week, does that very?
Tony The majority of the guests o Giraffe Manor would just come for one night because we are a ‘start to a stop’. So a lot of guests will come off international flights, spend one night here, they’re going on safari the next day. Sometimes at the end of their stay, just before they have to leave to go back home. Hardly ever in between, but usually just a night, especially in the high season. We do have guests who will book maybe multiple nights and maybe up to three nights but that’s very, very rare.
Felice Where do the guests come from mostly?
Tony Fifty percent of all our bookings will be from the United States. Five years ago, I think the country that probably gave the United States clients the biggest run was Australia. But yes, America is our biggest fans. Canadians, sometimes Europeans…
Felice Now, the Danish author Karen Blixen wrote her memoir Out of Africa in 1937. And there’s a room in the hotel named after her, isn’t there?
Felice And is that special in any way?
Tony The Karen Blixen Suite also has some furniture handed down by Karen Blixen and herself. There’s a dresser and there’s also a picture of her just before she went back to Denmark.
Felice And that was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. The Safari Collection, which owns Giraffe Manor, has a lot to do with conservation, doesn’t it,
Tony For the Giraffe Manor we are in touch with our conservation manager, Mark Boyd, and through that we get the Giraffe Conservation Fund and we also have very close relationships with the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife.
Felice Have any funny things happened with the giraffes while you’ve been there?
Tony Funny things with the giraffe? No, ma’am. We just received the moment. Funny things with some of the guests…possibly…some close calls with giraffes yes. The most important thing is that people don’t pay attention then you can get the occasional bump. But yes, the giraffe are pretty beautiful animals. As long as you feed them and you respect their space, everything will go well. The one thing I’ve learned about Giraffe Manor is you just always be alert and give them the space and everything would be good.
Peter Tell us a little bit about where Giraffe Manor is in relation to Nairobi?
Tony So we are on the outskirts of Nairobi city. We’re actually in a place called Lang’ata, which is a suburb of Nairobi, but it’s a smaller area known as Hardy. So it’s literally what I’d say, a 15-minute drive from the Karen Blixen Museum. It’s a bit quieter, less traffic than in the city – that’s very, very important – and we are at the edge so to the international airport will probably take you, off-peak hours, maybe 30, 40 minutes to arrive to us. The most important website to book the Giraffe Manor will be Thesafaricollection.com
Felice Have any other animals ever managed to get in or get to the giraffe in the gardens?
Tony In the time I have been here so far, so good. I mean, we do have a fence that protects all the giraffe, and that’s around the giraffe centre, the sanctuary, and we do have lots of guards who patrol and see, but we do have the giraffe, the warthogs and maybe some bushbuck. There are two very shy bushbuck and you see them jumping around every so often. But, yes, it’s as good as it gets…no wild animals, so far, so good. But that being said, it’s 140 acres and you may get cases of wild animals coming in. That’s important; we keep guests by the house. You can get leopards, which are expert climbers, so touch wood I haven’t seen leopard around giraffe and I hope it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
Peter You have the most unusual job.
Tony I think, in the whole of the world that’s for sure.
Peter Tony Levi, thank you very much indeed for appearing on the show. And we wish you and Giraffe Manor the very best of luck for the future.
Tony Thank you so much, Peter. Thank you so much Felice. Have a great day, a great evening – I don’t know what time it is over there. Stay safe, keep smiling, and we hope to host you very soon.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to email@example.com
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