As the stars sparkle brightly over the Nursery in Nairobi National Park, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trusts elephant Keepers are all wide-awake, scurrying quietly around the sleeping orphans as they prepare for the exciting day ahead. For it is on this early morning at 4am that three orphans, Layoni, Rombo and Dabassa, are to embark on their journey down to the Voi Unit to begin their journery back to the wilds of Tsavo. A floodlight illuminates the dark stockade grounds where the Trusts elephant-mover truck is positioned, ready to transport its special passengers. The orphans have been acquainting themselves with the elephant-mover for the past couple of weeks, their Keepers encouraging them to move around the truck tempted by bottles of milk and tasty treats. This cleverly designed vehicle can comfortably transport three elephants and several Keepers, allowing all passengers to touch and see one another, whilst allowing even more space for all the necessary luxuries such as milk, water, cut greens and other encouraging treats.
Once the elephant-mover is fully prepared, the Keepers, clad in their familiar green uniforms and pale floppy hats, all wait silently in the moonlight as one of their team appears in the shadows, milk bottle in hand followed by the first traveller, Dabassa, who faithfully follows his Keeper and his milk into his travelling chamber without hesitation. Next to follow is Rombo; he is slightly more hesitant yet still cant resist the lure of his milk and is soon comfortably enclosed in his chamber next to Dabassa. Layoni is last to be led from his stockade and walks slowly towards the truck, studying the surrounding Keepers warily, whilst keeping his trunk stretched towards his milk. He is unsure and reluctant to be enticed forward despite the weeks of training for this moment, but with the encouraging calls of his Keeper he slowly inches forward into the shadowy spotlight and into the truck.
Rumbles and cries echo gently from the stockades of matriarchs Mutara and Shukuru who sense the imminent departure. All this is made all the more remarkable when one remembers that Layoni just a few months previously was a wild elephant living in the wilds of the Masai Mara before his mother was speared and as an orphaned calf he was badly mauled by hyenas. Now with his wounds completely healed and in such a short time Layoni himself a trusting member of the Nursery team one could be forgiven in thinking he had been around for years. Smiling triumphantly the spirited Keepers bid the young travellers farewell, eager for them to get on the road to miss the relentless traffic of Nairobi. The three of the Nairobi Keepers who have been chosen to accompany the orphans on this journey and stay with them in Tsavo, jump enthusiastically into the trucks corridor offering comforting hands through the bars, which are stroked lovingly by the youngsters. More goodbyes and good lucks are called and the elephant-mover lurches to life and passes through the Nursery gates heading out of the Park, along the quiet roads of Nairobi and south towards the wilds of Voi in Tsavo East National Park. Leaving the chaos of Kenyas capital city behind the three orphans follow the weaving Nairobi-Mombasa highway south, cruising through vast plains and up into rolling hills where the road descends a thousand feet into a dryer climate. The flora soon morphs into stretches of commiphora vegetation rooted in red soil and dotted with muddy water holes glinting in the ochre sunrise. The northern end of the Chyulu Hills soon becomes a major focus of the journey as the young calves continue further south on their adventure, passing villages and maize farms hidden amongst towering forests of baobab trees. The entourage consists of the Truck, followed by two landrovers with Daphne, Angela and Robert Carr-Hartley accompanying the move. After three hours and just past half way, the elephant-mover pulls gently to the side of the road and the Keepers jump out and disappear into thick bush. Whilst the orphans wait impatiently, their trunks reaching anxiously through the partitions, the Keepers reappear carrying armfuls of gruere; a lush vegetation that all elephants cant resist. Climbing back into the truck the gruere is divided between the excited orphans who eagerly devour every last piece. Heading on the elephant-mover stops once more to refuel at a small village called Makindu; the station attendants and locals curious about the extraordinary cargo on-board. But without delay the truck gets back on the road, keen to get its passengers to journey's-end before the scorching heat of the noon sun. With Tsavo stretching into the distance, the road continues to follow the misty slopes of the Chyulu Hills with Kilimanjaro veiled in the clouds behind. The green and rocky hills of Voi are soon insight as the truck curves off the highway towards the Voi Gate and into Tsavo East National Park; the Nursery orphans have finally reached their destination.
After just over six hours on the road the orphans and Keepers arrive at the Voi Rehabilitation Stockades greeted by the excited Voi Juniors, all jostling to get a look at the truck and its passengers. Led by Lesanju, the junior Voi matriarch and ex-Nairobi Nursery orphan, the elephants all trumpet wildly with excitement reaching out their trunks to smell the newcomers. As the truck gets into position the Voi Keepers keep the rowdy and eager welcome-group back and under control, whilst the Nairobi Keepers are first out of the truck smiling and greeting their long-lost Keeper and elephant friends. First to be released from the elephant-mover is Layoni. Slightly wobbly on his feet he immediately staggers forward and is enveloped into the herd, showered with kisses and strokes from all the Voi juniors who push and shove to get closer to him. Rombo and Dabassa soon follow and are again enveloped into a mass of gentle trunks and joyful rumbles. Watching this merry scene from a short distance away is the resident herd of over fifty curious impala; most probably relations of an impala called Bunty who Daphne Sheldrick raised at Voi many years before. Whilst the Nairobi and Voi Keepers share stories of their time apart and their news of all the elephants in their care, the three new arrivals blend in perfectly with their new friends and family. Three bottles of milk are brought out from the recently renovated Voi stockades and a playful struggle ensues as all elephants vie for the tasty treat, which is only allowed for the newcomers. The Keepers call order and divert the juniors attention to the mini mudbath, whilst Rombo, Layoni and Dabassa refresh themselves before joining them.
As they do every day all the elephants follow the Keepers out into the bush to browse and enjoy the wilderness of Tsavo. Climbing up the sloping hills of Voi, Layoni and Dabassa are led by Sinya who guides them lovingly through the thick vegetation and into the shade of acacia trees, whilst Rombo follows bull Tassia higher up the slopes under the watchful eye of one of the Keepers. As the elephants all settle into their routine a light rain from the silver-lined clouds above cools the heat of the afternoon; the three orphans who were just hours ago safely enclosed within the boundaries of Nairobi National Park are now home and embarking on another adventure as they gently reintegrate into the wild elephant herds of Tsavo, a slow process that can take up to eight to ten years. A week on we can report that the Nursery trio have settled in fabulously well, and are absolutely loving been engulfed by the loving older Voi herd once more feeling their elephant family is whole. While each one remembers their elephant wild family well, but that makes fraternizing with older elephants and wild herds all the more special.