Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton's grave today

Karen Blixen's former house in Nairobi
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’.

The obelisk
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)

The Railway Museum (see the actual carriage where a man was pulled to his death by a lion in Tsavo on the lunatic express) – previous post: Down at the Station - man eating lions of Tsavo

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.


Lesley Beeton said...

Just found your lovely blog. So much to read and catch up on. I was living in South Africa when Out of Africa was released - how we laughed at Meryl Streep 'I had a farm in Aahfrika'. Sounds a bit like her Maggie Thatcher, come to think of it :).


Robyn said...

I've been twice to Ngong to try and find the grave and haven't been successful. But not how i imagined it at all...

Anonymous said...

Yes, Karen is really built up. Difficult for you to imagine that you could see the Ngong hills from your property. I vaguely remember seeing them from there.

Happy New Year to you and your family. Penny

Africa Expat Wife said...

Hi Penny, thanks for your message - happy new year to you all in Canada too! What's the weather like? It's sweltering here at the mo. I also wouldn't have believed that it was possible to see the hills from our house - just as well that you and your mum provided us with photographic evidence!

Hi Robyn, the grave is still well worth a visit, as I said, if you crane your neck to the left hand side, then you can see the view!

Thanks for reading Lesley! Yes, the foot of the Ngong Hills... always cracked me up too. After that you sort of get sucked in..

Anonymous said...

It's pretty cold here. -11 degrees celcius just now. Brrrr.

My friends son is heading to Kenya soon with the Me to We program and will help build a school and/or help get a fresh water supply out in Maasai Mara. It's brought the memories of my trip flooding back. What a great trip! Can't believe it was almost 2 years ago already. Hope I'm lucky enough to return one day. I love Mama Africa!!

Anonymous said...

I love Out of Africa - I just might watch it this weekend. And while am at it, I might as well watch my favourite movie - Nowhere in Africa!

Michele Kostelnik Parrillo said...

I would like to read the last things Karen said to Denys at his burial. It was after the Eulogy.
It was something about "he was not ours - he was not mine." How I cried at the end of Out of Africa!

Christina said...

The reason Meryl Streep pronounced Africa the way she did in the film is because Karen Blixen was Danish and even now that's how some Scandinavian's, depending on where they are from and their generation pronounce it. I visited Deny's grave, where the obelisk is, about 10 years ago but had to take an armed police guard up with me since it was not safe to go up there at that time. I picked some lavender that was growing at the grave site and have transplanted it to my garden. My in laws were in Kenya for many years leaving in the late 60's. They left behind many friends and recall many a pleasant afternoon and evening spent at Muthaiga. They are still alive and in their 90's. The bridge dedicated to Denys in the sports fields at Eton is also a place I like to visit when in England.

blogville said...

Very lovely blog. The McMillan Library is still standing though has lately fallen to disuse. In December 2013 I wrote about Nairobi's architectural history in UP Magazine and walked through the old buildings and it was remarkable. Splendid blog! -Mark Namaswa.

Saman said...

Thanks for the lovely info. We'll be travelling in April this year (2015). Hope to find the grave and visit some of these places.


Terminal Tours Kenya said...

Lovely Blog

Old Coot's Remorse said...

I am absolutely disturbed beyond belief that idiots have deprived Densy and his visitors of the Ngong views...and, of course, the lions. Damn human beings with no cares for history.

Marcella Warren said...

Personally, having studied accents for my own career I thought Meryl Streep was dead on. You must take into account where she was from and the particular generation to truly understand she did an amazing job. Before I ever pick apart or ridicule an actor for the accent and how good it is, I check out everything about the character they are playing. But then again I do not ridicule anyone who is brave enough to go for it!