elephant with sandy face

Orphan Elephants at Umani Springs

About Umani Springs

In a previous post about Nairobi, I mentioned the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust whose mission is to promote the conservation, preservation, and protection of wildlife and habitats across Kenya.  It is best known for its work with elephants by operating the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world.

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust houses the orphans at four locations: Nairobi Nursery, Ithumba Reintigration Unit, Voi Reintigration Unit, and Umani Springs Reintigration Unit.  It is possible to stay at the units.  As such, our group of six; Mike, Rootie, Rozy, Jake, Marty and I rented out Umani Springs for two days.

In order to stay at this exclusive use, fully staffed, self-catering lodge that sleeps up to ten guests in three cottages, every guest must sponsor an elephant with Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for $50.  The sponsored elephant doesn’t have to be at the Umani Springs, but it is more fun to meet the elephant you supported.

The lodge is located 120 miles southeast of Nairobi in the Kibwezi Forest adjacent to the Chyulu Hills National Park.  The park is known for its birds and butterflies, but is also home to leopards, hyenas, bushbucks, buffalo, baboons, monkeys, and a few other animals.

A Train Ride to Umani Springs

Umani Springs may be reached by bush plane, train or car.  Since we have never taken a train in Africa and wanted a new experience, that’s the mode of transportation we picked.  We felt both excited and nervous as we didn’t know what to expect.  Would it be like a chicken bus in South America or like a train in Europe?

Security at the Station

Our suspense began at 6am when Robinson to picked us up at the Macushla House in Nairobi.  We reached the train station about 45 minutes later where guards inspected our car. Once allowed in the parking area, we joined two lines, one for women and one for men.  After showing the contents of our purses, we placed all our bags in the center of a long, rectangular pavilion and joined the men in a lineup across from our belongings. 

Two dog sniffing units walked the length of the pavilion smelling for threats in our luggage.  For some reason they really liked Rootie’s, and the dog lover in her couldn’t resist snapping a photo.  The guard promptly scolded her and directed her to add her phone to the pile.  Oops!

Before we left the pavilion, we put our bags through the security scanner.  Finally, we made our way from the parking lot to the train station.  Guards reviewed our $7 tickets and passports at the station’s entrance before we again joined two lines designated by sex.

The women’s line was literally ten times longer than the men’s.  Our bags went through another scanner while we passed through metal detectors.  I think the whole process took about 45 minutes.  No wonder we arrived at the train station so early!

Anyway, we certainly felt safe as we entered the first-class lounge on the second level which was just a small zone sectioned off from the main waiting area with free coffee.  By the time we entered the lounge, we heard an announcement that our train was ready for boarding, some 45 minutes prior to departure.

first class lounge in Nairobi Train Station

We passed through the turnstiles and followed the crowds to the platforms where station attendants decked out in fancy red suits greeted us.  They looked like flight attendants from the 1950s.

On the Train

We boarded an absolutely spotless train with room for luggage beneath the seats in front of us and on racks above.  As we sat in our first-class car, Mike pointed out the flags above the door, China and Kenya.  The light bulb went off.  I had heard the Chinese have heavily invested in Eastern Africa.

When the train finally left the station, the attendants and gun slinging guards stood outside at attention!  Shortly into our two-hour journey, the train attendants served us free water and tea biscuits.  Seriously?!?  I’ve never seen anything like it on $7 two-hour train ride.  Then again, I don’t normally travel “first-class”.

There was a food coach too where Mike and Rootie got coffee, but soon found out they don’t take US dollars like elsewhere in Nairobi and the credit card machine didn’t work!  Marty, the only one carrying shillings, got them out of a pinch.  We promptly wondered if they took the Chinese Yuan.

Each train car has two bathrooms and a cleaning lady mopped the aisle way as we passed by villages, a few small slum-like areas, and the savannah.  Automated announcements in English requested passengers to keep the train clean and directed parents to keep kids from drawing on the walls and to show them how to flush the toilet! 

If only, the announcement included, “keep children from running down the aisles and screaming!”  Though most of the kids were very good, two children had the run of the train car as their parents played cards.  We tolerated it for about an hour when finally, Marty, a retired school teacher put her hand out and ordered “stop”.  That worked for about a minute.  Rootie tried too by kindly telling them they were being too loud, and in response they tried to be good for another few minutes.

Oh well, there isn’t much that can be done about bad parenting!  Otherwise, the train ride was superb. I wish the schedule worked out for our return to Nairobi as it was much better than our FIVE-hour drive.

Upon disembarking the train, we learned it was important to keep our ticket as we needed it to exit through the turnstiles.  Fortunately, we held on to them, though Marty had to sift around for hers until she the last one out of the station.

11am Elephant Feeding and Mud Bath at Umani Springs

Kelvin, with Absolute Vantage, was waiting for us the other side after driving up from Nairobi the previous night. We loaded in his vehicle, and with Umani Springs being just minutes from the train station, we arrived just in time to race along the dirt road to see the 11am elephant feeding and mud bath (an added benefit of taking the train).

The twelve orphan elephants spend their days in the forest and return with the keepers who watch them to get their milk bottle mid-day.  The keepers space the bottles out in a line, and the elephants approach in fast trot for their treat.  The seasoned ones pick up the bottle with their trunk, turn it upside down and feed themselves, while others wait for the keepers to help them. Elephant Coming for Milk Bottle Video

Afterward they take a mud or sand bath or inspect the new arrivals, us.  Since it was our first day, the elephants were acutely interested in us and especially my shoes!  Multiple elephants sniffed my feet and one kept lifting my foot with its trunk until the keeper warned, “Be careful.  It can flip you upside down.”

All of them let us pet them and take photos with them before they went for drinks from the small pond and for sand baths where they doused themselves in dry dirt to protect themselves from the sun and the flies.  The elephants stuck around for 30 minutes before they headed back to forest until dinner time.

The Afternoon at the Lodge

After the 11am mud bath, which is only a hundred yards from the lodge, we walked up to our accommodations and were escorted to our cabins.  The bungalows generally had the same set up with a bedroom, closet, bathroom and an outdoor shower.  Jake’s was the only one whose entire bathroom was outside. 

Upon settling in, we gathered for lunch in the main house.  Using the food that Kelvin graciously shopped for on our behalf, the chef prepared a lovely meal.  We started out with a cream-based soup, a common African dish, and then chose from a cheese plate, avocado, salad fixings, and lentil filled peppers. 

The afternoon provided us a little down time for napping, having a refreshment, lounging by the pool, or watching the bushbuck, monkeys and baboons that wander around the lodge.

5pm Elephant Feeding at the Stockades

At 4:30pm, we walked 15 minutes to the stockades where the elephants, six males and six females by coincidence, go for food and shelter for the night.  Once again, they jog from the forest to the facility and enter their stalls on their own to get their bottle of milk.

The stockades are surrounded by acacia trees which drop bean pods that the elephants LOVE.  The keepers swept the pods into a pile from which we grabbed handfuls to feed the elephants.  Despite their branches of food in their stalls, the elephants begged for the beans through the bars with their trunks.  They could nimbly remove one pod at a time from our hands with the tip of their trunk.  I never knew they we so dexterous. Eating Bean Pod Video

After feeding the elephants, who range in age from five to ten years, we questioned the keepers about their plight. Each baby was orphaned for different reasons such as man-made separation, poaching, and natural causes.  The keepers work with them in hopes to integrate them back in the wild.  Two of the males stayed away for a night, but so far, they still like their milk and the safe stockades!

Sundowner and Dinner

From the stockade, Kelvin and his intern Japhet drove us up to the sundowner deck where we enjoyed happy hour and watched a spectacular sunset before returning to the lodge for dinner.  There was certainly no shortage of food on our safari with another three-course meal complete with brownies from home!  At the end of the evening, we returned to our cabins beneath a breathtaking, starry sky.

6am Elephant Release at the Stockades

The following day we revisited the stockades at 6am to see the elephants get released into the forest for the day.  They slowly stroll out of the stables, stop to eat some pellets on the ground and soon follow the keepers into the park.  It’s really a great life for orphans who would have otherwise died.  They live free in the day and come home to safety at night.  Video of elephant leaving stockade.

After our morning visit with the elephants, we returned to the lodge for breakfast which included pancakes, fruit, vegetables, bacon, and eggs made to order.  Since I didn’t exercise much portion control, I was looking forward to our mid-morning nature walk!  We had to wait until the more dangerous wild elephants left the watering hole.

Nature Walk

But soon enough, we joined the nature guide who led us on a walk to the springs as he pointed out crocodiles, monkeys, birds and butterflies.  It was nice to stretch our legs with a stroll through the surrounding forest and a pleasant surprise to see man-made beehives hanging in trees. 

Another Mud Bath

The rest of the day and the following morning followed the same procedure, though the elephants weren’t quite as curious about us at the 11am mud bath this time.  They were far more interested in the water and the sand which made for completely different and awesome experience as they headed toward the lodge to enjoy a different pond.

Off to the Masai Mara

Umani Springs was great.  And for Rootie and Rozy, I presume it was heaven since elephants are their favorite animals.  But our visit had to come to an end as we made the drive back to Nairobi to begin our next adventure, four days in the Masai Mara.

The drive wouldn’t have been that bad, but the traffic on the two-lane highway was atrocious, and knowing the train ride was faster and smoother, we were all counting the hours!  I will say, I always enjoy seeing how the locals live, and the drive did just that.  We saw busy markets and enterprising folks standing in the MIDDLE of the road selling bags of onion, cut fruit, and bottled water.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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