70 years of stories are to be found in every corner of Mount Kenya Safari Club
When the invitation to attend a friend’s 65th birthday slap bang on the equator hit my inbox I jumped at the chance. Having listened to my mother’s glamorous recollections of her stay at the Mount Kenya Safari Club in the early 1970’s I had to experience it for myself. And it was high time to shake the Mara mud from my boots and venture north.
Would I feel the ghosts of the world’s who’s who as I explored those famed corridors, I wondered? The heyday of the Club, founded in 1959 by Hollywood heartthrob William Holden, with his partners, welcomed, amongst others, Ernest Hemmingway, Ava Gardner, Bing Crosby, David Lean, Charlie Chaplin, Steve McQueen, Conrad Hilton, Winston Churchill and the Maharaja of Jaipur. Membership to this exclusive club set in the soft green foothills of Mount Kenya was strictly by invitation only. And as legend has it, sometimes guests had to shoo a leopard off the bar stool. Or was it a cheetah? Either way it must have been fabulous. In the words of Bill Holden when he saw the property for the first time: ‘This is the most beautiful place in the world’.
And it still is. The buildings ooze history and who could not fail but to be impressed by the equator running right through the bar? Gin and tonic in the southern hemisphere and whisky and soda in the northern hemisphere. So worth getting drunk for. The green trimmed lawns seem to stretch forever bumping either into the 9-hole golf course (the equator runs through the 7th fairway jinxing most accomplished players, I am told) or the magnificent maze planted to celebrate the Millennium. Peacocks screech in your ear as you sip your afternoon tea – whoever said vuvuzelas spoiled the Soccer World Cup in 2010? And guests are encouraged to walk the two sleek and friendly black labs who call the Club home. It’s that kind of place.
The best was still to come.
I never imagined I would be able to feed a rare mountain bongo, say ‘how do you do’ to a pygmy hippo or be photobombed by a needy eland. Well, I experienced all that and more at the Animal Orphanage at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, a mere five minute walk from the Club’s front door. Bill Holden set aside 1200 acres of the ranch for the preservation of endangered wildlife and its regeneration through selective breeding programmes. At the heart of the Conservancy lies the Animal Orphanage and the William Holden Wildlife Education Centre built in his memory by actress Stefanie Woods in 1984.
The orphanage could be Dr Doolittle’s backyard. A delightful family of waifs, strays and orphans compete for your attention: the aforementioned needy eland, a 2-week old fuzzy zebra whose legs still wobble; a 150 year old Aldabran Giant Tortoise; a three legged but extremely precocious Patas monkey who has given birth to three offspring here; Peter the pygmy hippo; drooly lamas (why I have no idea); fruit-eating little Sokoke Forest Cats (unique to Kenya and endangered); and the headline grabbing mountain bongo. These rare, elegant and beautiful antelope now number over 70 in a breeding programme that has brought the species back from near extinction in Kenya. They are currently only on the Conservancy but plans are underway to reintroduce them to the forests of Africa’s second highest mountain where they once roamed in abundance.
And when you do visit the Orphanage please ask for James aka ‘The Elephant Man’, chameleon whisperer and master storyteller. Ask him why his nickname – it is a story that will make your blood run cold.
And whatever you do, set your alarm for 6am when staying at the MKSC and sneak out on to the veranda in your jammies and slippers to catch a glimpse of the coy mountain which prefers to spend all of the time well hidden in cloud. It’s worth the stares you will get from early departing guests.
Note from the Editor: I stayed as a guest of MKSC’s owner and vowed to return one day soon – it’s simply that kind of place.
TAGGED WITH: Wildlife, Travel, East Africa, Kenya, Explore East Africa, Mount Kenya Safari Club, Animal Orphanage