My 12-year-old Eliza asked for an elephant for Christmas. She got a gray stuffed one from Santa Claus, a tie-dyed one from her aunt, and a foster elephant in Kenya.
Godoma had been stuck in a well, only a couple of months old. Her parents had run away to escape poachers. Rescuers from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust discovered her and airlifted her to Nairobi, to get well and grow up in their elephant nursery.
In school, Eliza wrote that Godoma was her best present ever, and told friends she was saving her money to go visit her. She doesn’t make all that much frankly, but Kris planned us a monumental journey.
We landed in Nairobi, which is fun just to say, and made a loop from Samburu, Ol Pejata, Lake Naivasha, to the Masai Mara—on the Tanzanian side of the border it’s the Serengeti, which is also fun to say—then back to Nairobi.
We saw families of impalas, waterbucks, gazelles, giraffe gazelles, topi and, famous for frequent appearances in the Timescrossword, oryx. By the end, we could even tell them apart. Even families of jackals and hyenas were adorable.
After one night in a manor, we fed breakfast to giraffes out our hotel window. Eliza could stick a food pellet out of her lips to get a kiss. A Brit assured us it was okay because giraffe saliva is antiseptic.
There were families of wild elephants, too, the little ones clinging to their parents ambling through bushes, and it was heartening after reading so much about orphans.
We saw one lion wheezing in the Samburu where it’s too hot to grow a mane, later a beautiful pride of them in the grasses on the Mara, quietly minding a herd of water buffalo at a stream. An impatient adolescent lion took off toward a small buffalo. A dozen bigger ones spun in a millisecond and chased him away. With that, we saw just the right amount of the circle of life.
Our own brush with danger came with a cheetah, mother of two, jumping up onto our vehicle, 12 inches from our faces, no glass in between. After I leapt in front of my little girl, our wonderful guide Mwok stopped chucking to say she was eyeing a luncheon warthog not us.
Mwok told us he has 36 brothers and sisters, but he and only half a dozen finished school. Kenyan school kids have uniforms but no shoes. They walked drearily up hot black roads, but when we’d wave out our truck window, they beamed. In a small village, Eliza gambled with the men and danced with the women. She showed off that popular middle-school dance move, bashfully looking at her feet.
Finally we met Godoma. She trotted up a path with a couple dozen of her stable mates for their evening social hour. They drank formula from giant baby bottles and rolled around in wet red clay. We petted Godoma on her head and scratched behind her ears. She was smiling the whole time. That may be an elephant’s default expression, but to us, our adoptee was smiling.
When Godoma first arrived at Sheldrick’s, she followed around an older elephant, Mbego. A year later, Godoma leads the littler ones to mud baths and lets them suckle her ears. She’s growing up, as girls seem to do.
After discovering the savanna together, I noticed upon landing that Eliza said about four words to me during 17 hours flying home. “No,” she replied, “it was more like 15. I had to ask you to go to the bathroom.” My little girl became a teenager ahead of schedule.