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My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate

Inspired by Scott Griffin's book, "My Heart is Africa", this is the third instalment in the story of my short, eye-opening vacation to the East African republic of Kenya for my brother's wedding earlier this year.

The following day passed with an exploration of a mall in Nairobi where we spent much of the afternoon. My father was busy trying to track down some kind of device that could be used as a cooling rack for the wedding cake that still needed making for the wedding which was just a few days away. No-one was really able to help us with that and we eventually used the front protective grill from the household fireplace.

Family and friends started to pour in, and my brother's new family set about tracking down a charter bus to use as needed for the next week. A 30-seat matatu was found and the driver, John, and I would later become friends.

Most of my brother's friends and the other relatives and guests coming in for the wedding stayed at a luxurious resort and golf club called the Windsor, about 15 minutes from where we were staying. As we were staying in a gated community, the matatu could not enter from the side closest to the hotel due to a low permanent structure specifically designed to prevent matatus. This minibus would have to come in from the other end.

The matatu showed up on the first night we needed it, and my brother's father-in-law and I went to the main entrance of the community to inform the gate-keepers that this matatu was authorised on the premises. The security guard refused to allow the matatu in, and my host quickly became irritated with his refusal. The guard insisted that he had to have a letter from the head office before allowing a matatu into the community. We cut the engine and refused to move, obstructing the exit to the gated community, until they let the matatu in.

The stand-off escalated quickly, and was diffused just as quickly when my host left me to go talk to the matatu driver while he headed home to get a letter sorted out. I hopped out and walked toward the matatu, which at that moment gave up, turned around and drove off leaving me stranded. I realised my options were limited, and double-timed it back to the house, arriving about 10 minutes later.

Eventually, we all drove out to the gate in cars, boarding the matatu, and then us and the matatu proceeded to the Windsor to pick up the bulk of the gang.

We were due for our first tourist-oriented adventure. Any time you tell someone you are going to Nairobi, their first reaction is to say "you must go to Carnivore!" Carnivore is a restaurant that specialises in unusual meats, such as zebra and crocodile. It is as much about the show as it is about the food.

In our matatu full of my extended family and my brother's work colleagues - British computer engineers - we headed off for Carnivore. On our way, I sat up front with the driver in the death seat. As we drove through Nairobi, I asked why there were so many cars downtown at 8pm. John, the driver, told me that it's because they're out drinking. "So half the drivers on the road are drunk?", I asked. "No," said John, "they all are."

Taking comfort in the size of the vehicle I was in, we discussed other topics the rest of the way to Carnivore.

As we travelled, we passed several police checkpoints. As we were in a matatu, these were no longer a simple matter of a wave-through. As the police saw white people though, we were generally hastily moved along. The drive to Carnivore was long, taking close to an hour. We had to traverse Nairobi from pretty much the north-east corner to the south-west corner.

We arrived and headed in to our reserved table. Our group crowded around a large table and the show began.

The menu for the evening consisted of: leek and potato soup, rump steak, leg of lamb, leg of pork, lamb chops, beef sausages, chicken yakitori, chicken livers, pork sausages, chicken gizzards, pork spare ribs, chicken wings, camel, crocodile, and ostrich meat balls, with an assortment of desserts. It was served by curiously dressed people holding what can best be described as swords with hunks of meat on them. The swords were stuck on our plates and pieces chopped off.

The camel was so tough as to be inedible. I tried a second piece later on to see if I just got a bad piece, but it was simply like chewing rubber. The flavour was interesting, but the rugged nature of the animal is quite apparent in the meat. The ostrich meatballs tasted like... meat balls. The crocodile, on the other hand, while served in strange little boney cubes, tasted rather fishy and was pretty good. In spite of the exotic meat marketing, the best meat available was the chicken hearts that came with the livers.

After the meal, we went to the other half of the restaurant which was acting as a night club, with a dance taking place and a good deal of booze being served. A few of us went to an outdoor veranda and listened from afar.

Eventually we returned to the matatu, and John had to do his part for the evening's entertainment before we left. He reached in the van to turn on a switch and we watched as the van lit up into a series of entertaining sequences of flashing decorative lights. The trip back to the Windsor was marked primarily by drunken singing from the back.

The next day, the 2nd of February, saw our first adventure beyond the limits of Nairobi. Climbing into John's matatu, we headed out of the city en route to the Elephant Orphanage. On our way there, we passed the entrance and John apologised, saying he needed a card for his cell phone.

I was quickly learning that cell phones are an integral part of life in Kenya. Ground lines are totally unreliable and, while they exist, I never once saw one used while there outside of the Windsor. Cell coverage, on the other hand, is extensive, and prepaid minute cards are readily available in the most unlikely places.

We pulled up a steep almost 2-lane hill on this main road and at the top we pulled off. John jumped out his right side door and walked over to a small shanty with some indication that it sold cell phone cards. He bought a card and returned to the van, managing to turn it around with little fuss. We headed back down the hill, and pulled into a dirt road.

We were met by a game warden who made John sign us in, and we then proceeded to drive up a windy, bumpy gravel road until we got to a gravel area that passed for a parking lot. We piled out and headed for the orphanage's show area.

When we got there, a baby rhinoceros was walking around being taken care of and shown off by two handlers dressed in bright blue-green shirts. Within a few minutes, the rhino was taken away and a moment later a train of baby elephants were paraded into the field. Meanwhile, baboons showed up in the distance and walked around merrily, mounting each-other and otherwise distracting the audience.

The youngest of the elephants was fed in front of us. As the elephants are all orphans, there is no mother around to feed them. To keep the youngest elephants comfortable with the feeding process, a blanket is put over them and a milk bottle given to them. The idea is to simulate being under the mother, and this trick apparently works quite well.

A family of wild boars came out of the woods and walked by as we watched the elephants, providing us another animal that I hadn't really thought about seeing before. They ignored us, carrying on aimlessly. The elephants, meanwhile, were brought right up to the dividing rope and we were invited to feel them. Soon, they were on their way and the hour-long show was over.

We piled back into John's matatu and headed a little ways to the Giraffe Centre in the Nairobi suburb of Lang'ata.

Another of the quirks of Kenya is that nearly everything that costs admission has either "resident" or "non-resident" rates. We paid our non-resident rates, which were many times that of the resident rates, and entered the Giraffe Centre, where those who wanted it were provided with food to feed the giraffes. A number of people in our group took this up and we spent some time amusing ourselves by watching each other's hands get cleaned by hungry giraffes.

We went up a flight of stairs to be at the same level as the heads of the giraffes and this is where I learned of the animal's habit of head butting, narrowly avoiding a head-butt when getting a bit too close.

One of the handlers at the Centre convinced a nearby giraffe to stick its tongue out, showing its rather phenomenal length. We learned that the giraffes like to eat a very thorny plant, but can do so because their tongues, while not impervious to the damage caused by the thorns, heals rapidly and the giraffe's saliva is antiseptic. Most of the trees around the giraffes had no foliage below the height of the top of the tallest giraffe's head and warthogs ran around underfoot, at least once getting stepped on by a giraffe that really couldn't care less while we were there.

After feeding the giraffes for a while, we wandered over to a small food counter at the Centre and our whole group ordered lunch, which we spent most of the next hour mostly waiting for and rapidly devouring. Lunch at a consistent time, we learned, did not appear to be a major local requirement.

We left the giraffes and headed for the third and final pre-safari wildlife reserve. Mamba Village, a crocodile and ostrich sanctuary, two of the animals we had eaten the night before, was the highlight of the day.

The admission cost here was significantly steeper than the previous two places, and was the only place that I can recall on our entire trip to Kenya that had prices posted in US dollars as well as Kenyan shillings. With the large group and evidence that large groups were somewhat rare, a crocodile handler put on a full show for us.

We started with the small crocodiles. He climbed into the pen and talked about the crocodiles while standing among them, occasionally poking them, constantly on the lookout. He noted that while the crocs this size could hurt, they were still too small to kill him.

He climbed out and walked us over a short distance to another pen where larger, adult crocodiles lived. He told us that crocodiles work as a team, holding their prey at either end and turning rapidly in opposite directions to rip them to shreds. He said that they are fed just once a week, noting that one of the more fun ways to feed them is to provide live chickens which try in their hopeless way to fly across the water, getting snapped up along the way.

Using a piece of what appeared to be rubber hose, he bopped the adult crocs on their noses to provoke them, making quite a show of it as they splashed around, apparently more annoyed at his presence than hungry for a quick meal of the speciality meat currently standing next to them with a stick.

He told us that crocodiles' sex is determined by temperature at which the crocodile eggs are incubated. When eggs are laid at Mamba village, they are loaded onto trucks and sent to Mombasa, several hours east, for hatching. Considering the condition of Kenya's roads, it is truly remarkable that any of them make it all the way.

After climbing out of this somewhat more dangerous crocodile pen, he grabbed a pair of egg shells to show around. One was an ostrich egg, the other a crocodile egg. He noted that the ostrich egg is roughly equivalent to two dozen chicken eggs. The egg itself was about the same size as his head. A small hole in the end of the egg indicated that this particular one had fed him for a few days, which he acknowledged with a grin. The crocodile eggs, on the other hand, are much closer in size to chicken eggs.

In the never-ending burning equatorial sun, we all walked a few hundred metres out to the ostriches, where, as we had with the giraffes, we busied ourselves feeding these massive birds. They're very quick, able to snatch food out of your hand before you've fully realised they were aware of its presence. The ostriches were a lot of fun, but it was eventually time to go.

As we left the ostriches, we stopped in a little shop inside Mamba Village where souvenirs of various descriptions could be bought. "Karibu!" exclaimed the shop-keepers, the Swahili for "welcome", and I grinned, thinking of "caribou" in the context of all these animals.

We left Mamba Village to return to Nairobi. A little while after departing, we were pulled off at a police checkpoint and the officer looked in my window, noting the tourists. He exchanged words with John in Swahili for a brief moment and said, with a big grin, that he hoped we were all having a good time and he wouldn't hold us up from enjoying ourselves, waving us on. Thus ended our first taste of what we would see on the safari to come.

Next, though, was my brother's remarkable cross-cultural wedding.

My Heart is Africa - the series

  1. My Heart is Africa
  2. My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum
  3. My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate
  4. My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding
  5. My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway
  6. to be continued...

Posted at 21:40 on August 28, 2006

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