Having lived in Nairobi for years now, the Karen Blixen legend is still as enduring as ever. When I first moved to the area, I absolutely loved visiting Karen Blixen’s house which has been wonderfully preserved with some beautiful antiques (other items are reproduction, I think many are from the movie), a wide veranda, old outdoor kitchen with original utensils and then a rolling lawn with a view of the hills that does not ever disappoint. The house is small, but packed with atmosphere, the smell of polish, wood panelling, animal skins laid over creaking floorboards, fresh flowers and sunlight seeking its way through gauzy curtains into darkened rooms. I used to like visiting the house at the end of the day when there were few other visitors and often went alone and wonder how on earth Meryl Streep and Robert Redford fitted into that narrow bed.. but I have to admit, it’s years since I’ve been inside the house now.
Karen Blixen's bedroom
Although many of those 1930s characters who lived in Kenya were pretty dissolute and not very much to be admired, I still think it’s a shame that many 1930s colonial buildings are gradually being eradicated; either left to fall into ruin in the countryside or being sacrificed in the face of Nairobi’s aggressive building boom where any square acreage is being cleared for offices, apartments or town house complexes. You do still see the odd old house on a half acre plot, with quirky low tiled roofs tucked behind Chiromo road (one of these used to belong to Ewart Grogan), cowering beneath the spectre of road construction work going on around Museum Hill on a massive scale – but these are few and far between. While progress is undoubtedly a good thing, a peep into the past is also fun. The Macmillan library in the centre of town is still very much on my wish list of places to visit – but I’m not sure what I’d find if I tried going there today. (Do let me know if you have been there anyone?)
Anyway, in the holidays, we went in search of Finch Hatton’s grave. Fortunately my husband had already passed by there on one of his boys motorbike forays, so he knew roughly where it was located and also knew that the road around the foot of the Ngong Hills had been recently graded (smoothed out). My mum who was visiting from England was dead keen to go find the grave – she’s an absolute hound for any kind of local history, so we decided to visit the grave then follow up with a picnic on the Ngong Hills on New Year’s Day. To be honest I was also keen. I love the Meryl Streep/Robert Redford film and remember clearly weeping buckets during the funeral scene at the end.
Sign to Denys Finch Hatton's grave/memorial
When we reached the bumpy track that leads vertically upwards with a roughly paint daubed sign, I wimped out and decided to park at the bottom – Unfortunately for them, I had two children in the car and my Dad. My husband, in another car (we had the dogs with us too) motored up happily and pulled into a large grassy field while my father and I literally dragged the younger two behind us up the slope to the smallholding where the grave is located. While scaling the steep hill, I said to my youngest (6) – look, those children are walking quite happily (admittedly downhill) – to which she replied - but they are USED to it! (I’m not sure how I felt about that comment!) Nonsense, I said.
In fact, it was only a 5 minute walk from the bigger road. When we reached the top and turned in to the farm, there was a lady to greet us wearing in a blue woollen hat and knee length skirt. She said that she lived there with her granny and personally tends and manages the grave site – (as well as charging 300 shillings entry per adult).
Secret garden, entrance to the memorial today
The lady had some printed out information about Denys Finch Hatton – she said that there was so much information on the internet on Denys – that she’d decided on one story only. Sensible, I thought, but I was hot (after the climb) and a bit bothered, so didn’t read the info. Instead, without preamble and having been given a hand written receipt for 1,200/ for 4 of us (the kids went in free), we were led to an unprepossessing corrugated iron door in a high hedge. This was a far cry from the open plains where lion once lay on the grave; it was more like ‘The Secret Garden’.
Once inside, the 12 foot obelisk and plinth were dwarfed by a hedge that ran all around the postage stamp sized plot. Although the granddaughter had indeed made a good attempt at gardening around it, the original brass plaque has been replaced by a blue one and the overall impression was claustrophobic. If you stand on the plinth and crane your neck to the left, then there is a gap in the hedge big enough to give you a glimpse of the breathtaking view that once would have lain out in front of and all around the grave. I wondered if Denys was turning in his grave – My Mum said that he probably would have been happy that the place was being well looked after.
Lions on Denys Finch Hatton's Ngong Hills grave (from the movie)
Our picnic was a success, if a little rushed. Up on the top of the windy Ngongs we frazzled in the blazing sun. The dogs, once finally out of the car, sniffed around distractedly but didn't stray far. There were some boys who were selling Masai trinkets and a couple of other picnic-ing families up there too. We then drove the length of the winding road behind the Ngong Hills, where, eerily, we saw a plaque commemorating one of former President Kenyatta’s political adversary’s whose dead body was ‘found’ there.
Suggested Nairobi tour ideas for history buffs:
The National Museum on Museum Hill (suggested reading; ‘A guide to the Birds of East Africa.’ A novel by Nicholas Grayson . The museum still organise bird watching walks and lectures)
Karen Blixen Museum (full of atmosphere – try and visit low season when there are fewer coach loads of tourists)
Finch Hatton’s Grave – if you are up for an off-the-beaten-track adventure. Follow the road out of Ngong town (recently tarmacked), that runs along the base of the Ngong hills toward Baridi Corner. You will see the sign (photographed above) to Finch Hatton's Grave. Cash payment for entry.
The Norfolk/Stanley hotels. The Stanley was famous for it's Thorn Tree bar as a main meeting place for settlers and safari guides. The oldest hotel, the Norfolk, famous for its Long Bar.