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Anton and Emma Childs: The Emakoko Lodge, Nairobi National Park

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Emma and Anton.

Situated on the boundary of Nairobi National Park, (one transfers through the park to arrive, a game drive in itself), The Emakoko is a luxury lodge owned and managed by Anton and Emma Childs. Offering a true taste of safari before or after a holiday in Kenya, (as opposed to staying in the city), with varied resident wildlife in and around the property, staying at the Emakoko gives you the chance to discover everything the Park has to offer, long before the first visitors of the day arrive. Somewhat of a treasure, most tourists bypass the park on the way to other popular destinations in Kenya and thus miss out on excellent wildlife sightings: however, more and more people are choosing to spend time exploring it, including a greater percentage of Nairobi citizens who appreciate its value as a wildlife and educational resource. Here I speak with Anton and Emma about the project, the history, the wildlife and issues of Nairobi National Park.

To find out more about the Lodge, visit their website here -

Anton and Emma, what are your safari backgrounds? Where have you worked prior to opening the Emakoko and how did your experiences help with the new venture?

Anthony started off his career with wildlife working with Paula Kahumbu in Shimba Hills counting and documenting elephants. Whilst doing that, his hobby for snakes became more and more a part of his life and by the time he left he was not only a fountain of knowledge on elephants in Shimba Hills but also an authority on East African snakes. The industry started when both of us started working for Jake Grieves-Cook – taking over Porini Camp and the Eselenkei conservation area, from there we moved to Elsas Kopje, Ol Donyo Wuas and finally set up here.

Emma really started work with Daphne Sheldrick as her PA and slowly started to move more into the field operations of the trust. After 3 years both of us decided that we wanted to see more of each other, (Anthony was working in Tsavo and I in Nairobi), and it just made sense that the only jobs we could do where we could continue with a life in the bush was to run camps.

The experiences we gathered and the people we met during these 12 years were instrumental in not only building our confidence to do such a thing – but also on being able to do it at all!

What is the history of the Emakoko? How did the idea come about to establish a lodge on the fringes of Nairobi National Park? What was your design brief when visualizing the concept and how did the process of obtaining an EIA impact those conceptual plans? Before the lodge was constructed, what was in this location?

We both met in Nairobi national park, and on running camps it became so apparent that people were wasting so much time in the city transiting and not using what we believe to be one of the most incredible parks in the world. People had put so much time and effort into a safari, but were missing out on part of the experience. So many people left our lodges to head back home having not seen Rhino and some having not even seen lion – and yet they drove within miles of them as they drove around the park to get to their Nairobi destinations. It was a ‘no brainer’ as to doing something on the border of the park – our rules were that the park HAD to benefit and we were not to build in the park. The park is surrounded by the city and it seemed awful to then go and plonk a lodge in the park too. On top of this hotels have built on the edges of the parks and their guests benefit from the wildlife that the hotels do nothing to protect. It was imperative that Nairobi National park benefitted from tourism.

Anthony literally ‘slept’ his way down the river trying to locate the perfect spot – it had to be away from the city, away from the flight path, in a beautiful area – and any an added bonus of a community benefitting from it all was also a big plus. So we found our spot and it ticked all the boxes. We were however horrified on how long it took for us to get all the permissions in place. The EIA assessment alone took 7.5 months and then planning permission etc. also took its time.

The Kenya Wildlife Service were very accommodating but were also very strict and particular about how things would be done – we were surprised and pleased that there would be lots of hoop jumping for anyone else who would want to do the same.

What were the challenges you faced during the planning, construction and initial opening phases?

The initial challenge was getting permission from the KWS for us to transit the park at night, (transferring people), – although once they came around to the idea it was fairly straightforward with certain procedures which we had to adherer to for each transit – the security of the park and its wildlife were not to be compromised in anyway.

We built the lodge in 8 months and 21 days. We worked day and night in the last month to make sure we got up and running. Unfortunately we had to move our opening date back because of the rains and this was why we made absolutely sure that we got it done this time. One of the biggest issues with the construction was the lower base of the lodge – the soil is all black cotton which shifts and therefore we had to build a ‘floating slab’ which we had not prepared for, (therefore lost 3 weeks), nor budgeted for, (an increase of 21% in cost to the base structures).

We had been made promises by everyone and one by one they let us down. We opened with no electricity and no form of communication at all without having to run up the 131 steps to the top of the hill. By the end of the first year all of this had been put in place and now our focus is on improving what we have!

How do the logistics of running a lodge close to a city differ to one more remote? For instance, from where do you draw water and how is waste water disposed of, rubbish recycled, electricity generated etc?

The logistics are so much easier, we re-supply every week and so all our produce is very fresh. We also do not need a team of plumbers / electricians / carpenters etc as they are all in the city and can be here within ½ an hour.

We have a borehole at the bottom of the lodge and all our water is drawn from this. Our electricity is now finally on the grid and we have a backup generator should in the unlikely event there be a power cut. As for our rubbish – all our cans, bottles and plastics are dropped off at Marula Studios which run the best recycling project in Kenya. In fact they also have a shop there which we take our guests too and they are a very important part of our lodge. All the cans / plastics / glasses are taken to them weekly during re-supplies and they then have the job of recycling it all. We have a compost heap for the rest.

What is the average length of stay for your guests and in that time, what can they experience in Nairobi National Park?

Our average guest stay is about 2 nights now. The park in our opinion is one of the best places in kenya to view black and white Rhino. Not only this but the bird life is simply amazing and particularly at the lodge to be able to see the African Fin foot potter up and down is a real treat. Another thing which I find extraordinary are the lions in this park which are very at home ambling beside your car for kilometres and are just not bothered. While people may prefer to see ‘wild lions’ I still find it so impressive how they will happily sit under your car for shade – peer through your window and even mate inches away from you without batting an eyelid. It is nice to come across wildlife that has not yet been scarred by the horrors of humanity.


Mount Kenya rising above the Nairobi skyline.

Everyone knows of the Sheldrick orphanage and I assume that many guests want to visit it, but what in your opinion are the other highlights of the park itself and what are its secrets which few people get to see?

It is just the extraordinary wildlife. Having said this, Nairobi National Parks best kept secret is that on a clear crisp morning, (normally in November, if you are lucky enough to have the clouds clear), you can see both Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro. Not many wild areas in Africa that you can do that!!!

What have been some of the great sightings you have personally witnessed in the park?

We have had several dinner parties with lions observing us from the pool area – on two occasions they were eating their dinner too. We once, and sadly only once, had a large male white Rhino come up to the pool to investigate. We had, (whilst watching an enormous figure in the dark), assumed it was a hippo until he came into the light. That was an absolute highlight for us. Finally just the other day we had a Leopard come up to the foot of the bridge for everyone to see. Some of the best sightings have been in the lodge.

Other than this, we have had a group of 8 black Rhino all trying to get a female, in our sights for hours. We did manage to get one, (only one), photograph.

What wildlife can guests reasonably expect to see from the lodge’s confines?

Buffalo, bush buck, hippo, baboons, verve, genet cat, mongoose, crocodiles, the odd lion moving through, (this is almost a weekly occurrence), – African Fin Foot, Fish Eagles amongst other extraordinary birds.

What facilities can the Emakoko offer to disabled guests? For instance, what do you offer partially sighted visitors to help them have a greater safari experience? How important, in your opinion, is it that safari operators and properties cater for disabled visitors and how easy would it be for existing lodges and camps to upgrade their facilities for wheelchair access?

We have one room which once across our bridge makes the lodge entirely wheelchair friendly. There are no stairs and doors have been made wider to cater for this. A safari experience is probably the only holiday in the world, (water sports, beach, skiing, fishing etc), which can be done easily in a wheel chair. Any lodges built on the flat, (so the Mara), should be able to cater for guests who are disabled, it is more when you head up to the north and have lodges perched on the edges of cliffs that it all gets very complicated. Certainly the lodges that we have run, do have a degree of accessibility.

How well can you cater for families and especially those with younger children?

Because of the diversity of activities we can do it is probably the best place for kids. Tying in the Giraffe Center and the Sheldrick Trust is not only educational but is so kid friendly it adds so much to the safari experience. On game drives it is lovely to get out at the hippo pools and stroll the river in search of not only hippos and crocodiles, but also the wonderful birds.

In the lodge itself we are part of a large Maasai community and taking kids to the manyattas and the schools in the area, (all by foot), is quite an experience. Aside from this, we have the Athi Kapiti conservation area which has been set aside by the government for people to not only graze livestock, but also for herbivores to spill out of the park and also graze. This is a wonderful place to go for runs or walks to stretch ones legs.

Finally Kenyans are renowned for their hospitality but also with their way with children. We are lucky enough to have a team of people who are more than willing to show kids the ways of the world bush style.


A stylish "City Cat".

How does Nairobi National Park change throughout the year, with the different seasons? What is the best time to stay in the park and what is your personal favorite time of year – why?

The best time of the year is November, the park is stunningly green littered with flowers and it is the most amazing light – so capturing sun rises and sunsets at this time of year is the best time. Unfortunately the game is harder to find as the grass is longer and it is more scattered, but it is still absolutely beautiful. The proof this time, is that our city cats HATE getting wet and so tend to use the roads more often, which makes it easier for us to find them.

What is the breakdown of your guests nationalities? How do they hear about the Emakoko and how important for you is word of mouth publicity? How are you trying to change the mindset of staying in Nairobi, the city, at the start and end of a safari?

The majority of our guests are from the USA followed by Europe and Canada. It is through our agents that they hear about us, so travel shows and door to door meetings is how we get our name out. We are most fortunate to be a part of the Bush and beyond team who are a group of several properties who are owner run. We have therefore piggy backed on their name and have been lucky enough to benefit from this.

The word Nairobi is often followed by the word ‘crime’ or ‘travel warning’. As a result of this people do, quite understandably feel it is a place to avoid. We offer a great alternative, because although we are in Nairobi, we are not in Nairobi. It is more word of mouth and tour operators visiting us which is what will change the mindset. The amount of people who have come with pre conceived ideas of visiting a ‘zoo’ and have left being pleasantly surprised is more often than not.

Indeed, what do you feel can be done, not only to market the Emakoko better to an international audience, but Nairobi National Park itself?

We really do need the Kenya Wildlife Service to get more on board with marketing – sadly their fight against poaching is taking up all their resources and so marketing is the last thing they have the time or the finances to do. This does fall a little in our lap and thankfully Bush and Beyond do all of this for us.


Good chance of seeing Rhino. Black and white.

What conservation efforts is the Emakoko involved with in and around the park and what is your relationship with KWS?

We have an excellent relationship with the KWS and the community and are the link between the two – particularly during human wildlife conflicts. In 2012, 6 out of 8 lions were killed in the community area behind the lodge. Had it not been for our guides it may very well have been all of them. The community and the KWS are now beginning to bridge the gap and for the first time in a long time the community are benefitting from the park itself. We provide employment, purchase supplies and have lit up 10 bomas with lion lights for deterrents, (so far in 2 years there have been no attacks).

On the KWS side of things, our presence has not only helped with guarding the boundary but also with all our customers coming in the KWS have now benefitted in the two years from USD$180,000 in park fees / vehicle and guide fees which they would never have got before. We have also purchased the materials for a look out in the park so that rangers can keep an eye on the Rhinos in an area which is close to the boundary.

There is still lots to do and as our business grows our impact on the park will be much bigger, (in a positive way).

How is human encroachment from the Nairobi suburbs affecting the boundaries of the park?

There is no human encroachment from the suburbs into the park anymore. The bigger issue is human encroachment from the Maasai communities on our boundaries – grazing is an issue as is lions killing livestock.

With regard to the proposed Southern Nairobi bypass which will cut through the boundaries of the park, (which it is believed will lose +/- 150 acres) – what impact will this have on the park’s environment and ecosystem, not only during construction phase but later on, perhaps in 5 – 10 years’ time?

This has now officially been stopped.

How worried are you by the second rhino poaching which occurred over the weekend of 24th - 26th of January and how will this impact upon security measures at the Emakoko?

Rhino poaching is happening all over Africa – Nairobi National Park is under tremendous pressure as other than most wildlife areas where human pressures are at the most 200,000 people – this park has the pressure of over 4 million people. We are indeed worried, not just for this park but for the country and any other countries with rhino’s in it. Security is very high in the park, and in particular on our side – where the Rhinos have been poached, (another one last weekend), they have been on the suburb sides of the parks. Where we are based the communities are very tight nit and anyone seen coming in or out tends to be ‘brought in for questioning’ – there are a lot of suspicious people here and there is a huge sense of community. Added to this we have 7 Rangers on this boundary based right beside the lodge – they have so far succeeded in stopping anything happening this side. Fingers crossed it will remain…


Whilst close to the city, Nairobi National Park is no zoo.

How long do you think it will realistically be before Nairobi National Park is fenced? What, in your opinion could be done to maintain wildlife corridors to the south and how important are such corridors for the continuing biodiversity of the park itself?

Fencing the park is inevitable – the wildlife corridors are almost gone. The park will have to be managed and the KWS will need to be taught how to do this, it is more technical then we all think!

What is your long term aim for the Emakoko?

In an ideal world we would have loved to have bought up more land and secured a better boundary and this may still happen. We would like to have a much bigger impact on helping to preserve the park, not only that we would like to get the community more on board with helping to preserve it too. This would mean that they would need to benefit more from the wildlife. The Maasai in this area are fiercely loyal and if they believe the park is a good thing they will protect it, likewise if they thought it and the wildlife in it was a bad thing they would have gotten rid of everything too.

Images courtesy and copyright of Anton and Emma Childs.

The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.

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Thanks for this. Having stayed at Emakoko and met Anton & Emma I can confirm what they have created is very special and absolutely unique given its a proper safari lodge in a city. A great place pre or post safari. The food is wonderful and transfer to the airport very easy without worrying about Nairobi traffic.

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I live the Emakoko and if I could afford it, I would always stay there.

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I and @@Safaridude were the first guests at Emakoko, a few days before the official opening - a lovely place and good to see it going from strenght to strenght.

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I beat Paolo by a few hours! :D


Very true!

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Posted (edited)

Will be there end Sept- Thanks for the interview GW, Anton and Emma - very insightful and I think such positive reviews of not just Emakoko but how Anton and Emma run it have already made NNP a stop for those who might not have otherwise considered a stop here.

Edited by Anita

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Really good interview (it's fun guessing who is answering what) and a very nice photo of them. Thanks @@Game Warden, and well done getting the park itself and the conservation angle to all this so to the fore. A few things I didn't know.

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