Ami Doshi Shah revisits the interesting history of one of Kenya’s oldest hotels, Mt Kenya Safari Club, which was once an exclusive playground for Hollywood’s rich.
In 1959, Hollywood actor- William Holden, infamous oil and property tycoon- Ray Ryan and Swiss financier- Carl Hirschmann were visiting Mawingo Hotel. A modest but beautiful 100 acre hunting lodge, Mawingo sat at the foothills of Mt Kenya nestled in an intermittent haze of cloud. One fine day, the three went out on a hunting trip, perhaps hoping that their triggers would catch an innocent impala, lion or majestic ‘tusker’ if they were lucky. On that day though, it seemed that luck was on the side of the four legged creatures and Ryan suffered a cut in the eye from the recoil of his rifle. In solidarity, the three influential men decided to nurture their growing ‘bromance’ by staying at Mawingo while Ryan recuperated. In that time, their love for this place grew and they subsequently made Mawingo’s owner, hotelier Abraham ‘Tubby’ Block, of Block Hotels an offer he couldn’t refuse and bought Mawingo renaming it Mt Kenya Safari Club.
Holden spent a considerable amount of time at the Safari Club between filming Paris when it Sizzles (1964) with Audrey Hepburn, The Wild Bunch (1969), The Network (1976) and handful of other Hollywood blockbusters. Over these years, he and his partners cultivated an incredible network of potential ‘members’ for their club including Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby, John Travolta, the Aga Khan and Charlie Chaplin. It was said that Holden would continue to ‘monitor’ activities at the bar using his trusty telescope from the comfort of his cottage.
In 1981, Holden died. Not in a hunting accident, but rather tripping and knocking his head on the side of a table, while heavily intoxicated. Some would say a strangely unglamorous way for such a charismatic and extravagant individual to pass away. The Mount Kenya Safari Club nevertheless persevered and after changing ownership a couple more times, fell into the hands of Fairmont Group where extensive, multimillion dollar renovations have breathed new life into the time-riddled property. While it still maintains an air of luxury, the air of cliquish exclusivity has gone. The Cape Dutch style of architecture is still preserved as are mementos of the property’s rich history nearing a century which you’ll find hung on the walls in sepia tones.
At the Zebra Bar which spills out onto lush lawns and a bonfire perfect for roasting marshmallows, you’ll get a perfectly tangy, muddled ‘dawa’. In the rooms, in a palette of beige and dark woods you’ll find a warm fire, plush bath robes and magnificent views of Kirinyaga (the Kikuyu name for Mt Kenya) especially in the early morning when the blanket of clouds has cleared from its ominous peaks.
At the Animal Orphanage (within the estate), one of William Holden’s lasting legacies of conservation, you’ll find endangered, doe-eyed and caramel coated bongos, raucous primates from Colobus to Sykes literally eating out of your hands and an incredible chance to experience a pocket of the animal beauty that charmed Holden in what was then 100 acres of wilderness.
After the end of colonialism, Daniel Arap Moi, our country’s second president gained membership to the ‘Club’, one of the first Kenyans in what was predominantly a ‘rich white mans’ playground. Now, the chance to experience the history, natural beauty and luxury of Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club is not dictated by race or power but a willingness to travel, explore and perhaps a little bit of coin. This is an interesting mark of our country’s own post-colonial evolution and it’s also somewhat settling to know that you won’t have someone watching how many drinks you’re downing with the help of a telescope.
Activities include: horseback riding, golfing, nature trails and fishing