Retracing an episode from Out of Africa on Ngong Hills

Above:  The obelix on Ngong Hills for Denys Finch Hatton by Kikwata Farm. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 14 Dec 2019

I’m setting a time period. 1900 to 1931. It’s based on Karen Blixen’s novel Out of Africa which Hollywood turned into a blockbuster in the 1980s and everyone wanted to know who these people were, that is Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton. The novel Out of Africa was followed decades later by Too Close to the Sun penned by Sara Wheeler, based on Finch Hatton whose claim to fame is having been the famous lover of Karen Blixen and the famous aviatrix Beryl Markham. It is a tragi-romance.

At Kikwata on Ngong Hills . Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)
At Kikwata on Ngong Hills . Copyright Rupi Mangat

We’re on the east side of the Ngong Hills that Blixen described as ‘immovable dark waves against the sky’ while the Maasai had a legend of a giant who was speared and fell to his death. His clenched fist forms the knuckles that are the iconic hills.

The two lovers, Blixen and Finch Hatton would ride to the hills and spend time gazing at the eagles soaring and the plains that stretched forever filled with the animals. Lions roared, giraffes browsed on the acacia and the antelopes kept an eye on the lions.

In reality, Blixen was bankrupt because the coffee farm in Karen on the outskirts of Nairobi was never going to be successful because the soil was not right. By the end of the 1920s, even she had to admit that she had lost everything. Her lover was now someone else’s. It was the famous aviatrix, Beryl Markham.

In 1936, Markham became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean east to west in a non-stop flight, a flight more difficult than the eastward journey, because the aircraft flies against the prevailing Atlantic winds.

Markham was a wild child, abandoned by her mother and brought up by her father. She grew up on a farm in Njoro with the local Kipsigis kids and developed a love for horses.

When Hatton took off for Voi to scout for elephants he had invited Markham to fly with him and not Blixen. Although Markham accepted, she changed her mind at the last minute. Instead Hatton had to hurriedly ask his unwilling cook Hamisi to accompany him. On the return journey, minutes after take-off from the airstrip at Voi, his aircraft Gypsy Moth plunged to the ground and burst into flames. It was the morning of 14 May 1931. Both men were killed.

The woman who buried him was Karen Blixen.

“Both rode out here,” narrates Susan Kung’u whose home Kikwata doubles up as a ground for camping. It neighbours Finch Hatton’s grave. “They dreamed of being buried here because in those days you could see both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, as well as Karen’s home.” Karen’s home refers to the now famous Karen Blixen Museum in Karen the neighbourhood named after her.

Kung’u is a story teller and vividly portrays this epic love story. Some days, she’s accompanied by local drummers and enacts the romance by the obelix that was erected by his brother at the grave. A small plaque on it reads ‘He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast’.

Standing at the obelix that’s now on the Kimani family land, it’s hedged in with the urban sprawl of Kiserian on the foothills. In 1988, soon after the movie l too came here and it was a grassland as far as the eye could see and in its midst, the obelix.

Part of the obelix with the plaque on Ngong Hills for Denys Finch Hatton reads ‘He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast’. . Copyright Rupi Mangat
Part of the obelix with the plaque on Ngong Hills for Denys Finch Hatton reads ‘He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast’. . Copyright Rupi Mangat

“Finch Hatton’s coffin was brought up here on ox cart,” continues our drama-mama. “And because it was May and had rained, it was very muddy. This road was already here.”

Shortly after, Blixen left for her homeland, Denmark, never to return.

We’ve strolled back to Wamucii’s, a name given to Kungu by her Kikuyu neighbours. “It means the one who loves, or belongs to the home,” explains the British-born Kenyan.

She continues to describe the land where her home is now. “From here you can hike up to the second peak from the right of the four knuckles or the third peak from Corner Baridi. There are some buffalo, hyenas, antelope and monkeys and l’ve heard that there are leopards on the other side.”

We hop into a field that’s still left open for grazing. It’s got wild flowers and wizened trees. Sitting on a slope looking down into the valley, we watch the flight of an Augur buzzard from above, its wings spread mighty. And then it swoops down and from its beak dangles a snake.

Fact File

Kikwata is open to the public for picnics, camping and other small functions, on request. It’s 30 minutes from town centre with no traffic. Directions and contact on

the website: starop.wixsite.com/kikwatastorytellers

Join Nature Kenya started in 1909 by naturalists for exciting excursions.

 

 

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