Sharing my breakfast with a Rothschild giraffe is not just faintly surreal but huge fun, charmingly chaotic, rather wondrous, and an unforgettable experience. This would likely be the case for anyone interested in wildlife, conservation, and African safari. For to touch, see, sniff, and feed (with organic nuts) these elegant—and endangered—animals at such close proximity is a special experience to be savored.
I had arrived at Kenya’s Giraffe Manor the day before, after a long flight from England. I had been driven through the notoriously mad Nairobi traffic out to the leafy suburb of Langata and into the oasis that is Giraffe Manor, a wonderfully eccentric faux Scottish hunting lodge built in 1932 by Sir David Duncan, a member of the Mackintosh family of Mackintosh’s Toffee fame. I might have been arriving for a weekend house party in the Highlands, were it not for some scurrying warthogs and the dozen or so tall, leggy, graceful herbivores wandering around the lawns and acacia trees.
When Jock Leslie-Melville, grandson of a Scottish earl, and his Maryland-born wife, Betty—a model turned charismatic conservationist and author who was often called “The Giraffe Lady,” for her love and devotion to the species—acquired the property in 1974, she discovered that the local Rothschild giraffes were under threat. Their habitat was fast being lost to farmland development. Betty persuaded her husband to allow the at-risk animals to live on their fifteen-acre estate—the first giraffe being Daisy—and they have been there ever since. The couple created the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, based both in Kenya and Maryland, and most importantly launched a breeding program to reintroduce giraffes to the wild.
In 1984, the manor opened as a small guesthouse, but in 2009 it was bought by Mikey and Tanya Carr-Hartley (who created The Safari Collection group of upscale luxury lodges). “I had grown up very close to the family, so there was a sentimental attachment to the Manor,” says Tanya. “We absolutely wanted to retain its special character of colonial Africa whilst updating and giving it a fresh look.” That they certainly have.
I am greeted by Edgar, one of the house managers in the double-height entrance hall and given a short safety briefing. “People forget these are wild animals,” says Tanya, “and a giraffe kick or headbutt can be a serious injury.” I was then shown the ground floor communal areas and taken up to Betty’s Room with its own roof terrace facing the front. Guests are encouraged to use the Manor as a private home, albeit an unusual one.
The Carr-Hartleys, both fourth-generation Kenyans, are supremely capable, and they undertook the refurbishment themselves. “Kenya is full of very talented people,” says Tanya, so the couple was able to have leather dining chairs made to their specification, source the fabrics for the rooms locally, choose paint colors, have sofas re-upholstered, and have wrought iron chandeliers to their design made nearby. They have increased the available accommodations by six rooms in a new separate structure, fashioned in the same architectural style. Each room is individually decorated and named for one of the resident giraffes or one of Kenya’s past historical figures, such as author Karen Blixen (known also by her nom de plume, Isak Dinesen) and her romantic partner Denys Finch Hatton. (Think Out of Africa.)
After a delicious lunch on the terrace—all locally sourced organic food—from menu headings written as Browse, Munch, Graze, and Drool, and a visit to the onsite Matbronze Wildlife Art Gallery, it’s back for tea on the terrace with scones and cucumber sandwiches while the giraffes happily circle around. The sun drops quickly on the equator, and with sundowner soon in hand I retire to my room to later enjoy dinner on my terrace with a carpet of stars overhead and the sounds of cicadas in the gentle breeze.
After the early morning tea and wake-up in the morning—well, we know what happens then in the breakfast room below. So unique is Giraffe Manor that it has attracted the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, model Gisele Bündchen, actress Naomi Watts, Sir Mick Jagger, Richard Quest, and many others. But that is not the reason to visit. It must be to fall under the spell of wonderful threatened animals in an authentic old African home, full of life.
This story appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of MILIEU. To purchase this issue in print, visit the MILIEU Newsstand. To purchase in digital format, visit zinio.com.
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BEDDOW