Africa, Day One. Actually it's not really day one but, because we arrived in Nairobi early we arranged to visit the Sheldrake elephant orphanage just outside the city. The orphanage is part of a privately owned and independently funded charity dedicated to helping orphaned baby elephants recover from various traumatic disasters. These animals get into trouble because they get stuck in waterholes, or have simply lost their mothers through poaching, snaring, and other forms of human stupidity. At the centre is a gallery of very moving images of the animals in the condition that they were found. They come from all over the Kenya, and while some survive, others unfortunately die in transit or succumb once they reach the orphanage.
It's a fascinating place because, although more than 100 tourists were present on the day we visited, you're limited to one short window where the orphans, about 20 of them in total, wander into a small paddock and are fed milk out of a bottle. In fact, once they get sight of the 8 pint bottles some of the babies simply put their heads down and race over to grab the nearest food source. It was an amazing sight watching these animals appear over the brow of the hill being led by their keepers. Some are really very young (8 to 10 months old) while others are approaching 2 to 3 years of age. The handlers give you quite an informative talk about how these babies come to the orphanage and how they have a constitution that's quite different to the way we might imagine it to be (they are very sensitive creatures and can fall prey to a number of relatively simple diseases, like pneumonia, which is almost certain to kill them, even if the help is at hand).
We stood transfixed for an hour as curious and sometimes quite stroppy babies stomped up and down the paddock looking for more milk or attention. You do have to be a bit careful because, as most of them come within arms reach of view, there is a danger of having your feet trodden upon. The photographic opportunities are fantastic because they don't move terribly fast, there are lots of them in a small space and, of course, there are no buildings or fences to get in the shot's way.
To get the best results you have to underexpose quite significantly because the animals are dark. Many of them are covered in mud (which is good for the skin) and the background is dark so the camera naturally overexposes. Underexpose by 1 f-stop, then you should get superior results.
When the hour is over you leave an impromptu shop (of course) and are given the chance to buy T-shirts and similar items. However, what really grabbed us was the offer to sponsor or foster a baby elephant. Three of us, myself included, signed up. So, my wife and I am now the proud foster parent of a small, cute, baby elephant called Mawenzi. signing up also gives you the right to visit the other being tucked up in bed which we did the day after. This was quite a moving experience because these animals behave just like human children: they eat, they play, and then they suddenly lie down and go to sleep. The snoring from one could be heard across the paddock. The keepers sleep in the same compartments on beds raised off the floor so that they can wake up every three hours to give the animals more milk. Even though the beds are raise to a height of 5 feet, the keepers commented that the elephants often reach up and pull the blankets off the keeper's for themselves. It seems like a great organisation that's doing something extremely constructive to save these poor, suffering animals.
All of us left the property feeling considerably richer than before we arrived....