I had a fright in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Baroness Blixen's farm - go if you can, it's full of her spirit.
Down to her jodhpurs thrown on the bed and her boots at the foot of it.
See Out of Africa but don't bother with the rather turgid book.

A few winters ago, when my life was out-of-control chaotic, I was delighted to accept a kind invitation to go to Nairobi and spend a week hiding out at the home of a friend who works out there. I could say all sorts of things about the amazing and selfless work he does fighting malaria, but this is all about me I won't.

One of the reasons I was so keen to go was that he and I have long shared an obsession with the (officially still unsolved) murder of Lord Erroll, a scion of the Happy Valley crowd in 1930s Kenya. Watch White Mischief for the full story (and some great shots of Charles Dance in the buff) or read the book which is just as gripping. Dr Mosquito and his lovely wife wheeled out heaps of Old Kenya Hands for me to quiz on their first-hand knowledge, memories and local folklore about all the protagonists in this classically Colonial murder. All the ingredients are there - sex, booze, money, scandal, screamingly mad eccentrics and an unexpected insight into the Colonial justice system. It's also a fascinating peep into the mindset of those crazy brave souls who took off across the sea to make new lives in strange lands. I just love those long-ago attitudes - harvest ruined by lack of rain? Buck up and start an affair with a neighbour's wife. Husband given you syphilis? Buck up, plant coffee, adopt a deer and ride for days alone round the perimeter of your lands. Lost your entire inheritance in a bet? Stiff drink, buck up and shuffle the cards again. Lover unfaithful? Buck up, follow him to Paris and shoot him in the balls (read up on this wonderful nutter, Alice de Janze. They simply don't make them like that any more.)

I had a lovely time and spent several happy afternoons drifting about the Muthaiga Club which looks exactly as it does in the film. To this day, cameras are banned in case members are snapped with someone they shouldn't be with. No money changes hands - everything is signed for on a chit and accounts are settled depending on the harvests. I shamelessly eavesdropped on a classic exchange between two old boys in the foyer. One covered in red dust, just driven into town, the other in pressed khaki, grasping a large gin, waiting for him.

"Super to see you. How's the wife?"
"Bloody cancer. Doc's not too hopeful."
"Rotten luck, old chap. Kick her up the arse from me."
"Will do. Drink?"

Everyone I met had a pragmatic, almost casual attitude to death. They all had first or second-hand experience of carjacking, shooting, attacks by animals, theft, crazed hippos charging, rape. Mrs MD and I drove her 4x4 up to Lake Naivasha one day to get as close as we could to the Djinn Palace, the notorious setting for several of the parties you see in the film. We hired a boat, took heaps of photos, had lunch at the country club and drove home. That day, two American women were shot dead on the same road we had driven and their 4x4 was stolen.

On my last day, my host had arranged to borrow two horses and hired a guide to take us on a riding safari in the Ngong Hills. (Everyone I know has seen Out of Africa, and if you haven't, do so immediately. You'll love it.) I was very excited, Karen Blixen being a personal heroine and here I was, about to quite literally ride in her footsteps. My horse was bloody gigantic. I am not. She definitely had racehorse blood. Our safari was supposed to take an hour. It ended up closer to four. There was rather more razor wire than I remember from the film. The guide got completely lost as the recent rains had caused sudden growth of the bush, so all the paths had disappeared. My horse jumped a gorge and left my host and guide on the other side as we galloped uncontrollably away, crashing through spiky undergrowth, caught by trailing thorns. My host speaks Swahili. The guide had a gun. I wasn't even carrying a lipgloss, much less a mobile phone. It turned out I was not made of the stern frontier-smashing stuff I once was. Somewhere along the way I had become a small, scared mummy on a sodding great horse who really, really wanted to go home.

It didn't take that long to find me, covered in scratches and sunburnt.  When I finally dismounted in the yard, my knees buckled with either shock or relief and to my shame, I burst into tears. Dr M stuck a filthy great drink in my hand and they all looked the other way while I Bloody Well Bucked Up.


  1. "Out of Africa" is one of my favorite movies, and I admire your pluck to go there and experience Kenya. I have a question for you. I have always read that Jeremy Irons was the first choice for Finch-Hatton. True or not, don't you think he would have made the movie so much better?

  2. Good morning James! Some would have another word for it...

    I'm afraid that yes, I do agree with you. D F-H was rumoured to be bi- if not homosexual, and I think RR is incapable of portraying anything but Real Men. JI on the other hand can, as you may remember from Brideshead, play bisexual chaps with ease and style.

    Having said that, here's an excerpt from an Eton contemporary's eulogy to D F-H:
    "one always sees him--in full sunshine, crossing the street to the wall, with his peculiar slouching, rolling gait, half gamin and half seraph. His hat is tilted back, forehead quizzically wrinkled, eyebrows raised, eyes dancing with amusement, and his queer, wide flexible mouth curling at the corners in that enchanting smile!...those long limbs, those superb good looks"

    I think Redford pulled that bit off!

    It's a great film, isn't it? Her house is amazing - when I went, we were the only people there and I was sure she'd just popped out to chat to the foreman. Her presence is palpable. What a horrible time she had of it though.

  3. I love Karen Blixen's house... elegant, but comfortable. You do have the feeling that she just stepped out and will be back in a moment.

    As for the White Mischief story... its now pretty certain the husband did it... the doctor who alibied him confessed that he perjured himself at the trial...

  4. You had quite the adventure! I someday hope to travel to Africa.

  5. Rasputin - yes, that's exactly how she left it.

    I believe June Carberry gave him an alibi too, and her daughter recently spilled some beans on the days after the murder. It seems to have been a pretty open secret in the Colony that is was Jock - even Diana is alleged to have said that she believed it was him.

    JMW - probably not the most sensible thing at the time. It's a beautiful country - all the cliches about huge majestic skies and breathtaking scenery are true; the climate is just beautiful and the air is intoxicating.

  6. Anonymous English Female3 November 2009 at 18:23

    Love your Kenya stories - you write beautifully. A few years ago I was sat next to Lord Erroll at lunch when the subject came up. I remember he said he believed it was Delves Broughton who murdered his grandfather.

  7. AEF - How very kind. Lucky you - I hear his usual lunch chat is database design and biometrics as an argument against ID cards!!

  8. Out of Africa was a great movie. Some years ago I worked with a fellow from Kenya I loved the stories he would come back with each time he went over there to visit his family. The Blog is Great!

  9. Thanks so much, Brian. So lovely of you to visit and thanks for the comment. It is a fascinating place - though perhaps a little lively there days for an old lady like me!

  10. Gail, in northern California6 November 2009 at 22:15

    The exchange between the two old boys in the foyer had me laughing out loud.

    Hope you don't mind but I've made copies of this post to mail off to friends in need of some cheer. If this doesn't do it, nothing will.

  11. Absolutely not - spread cheer as much as you like! It made me snort as well. Nobody else batted an eyelid.
    Regards from a freezing UK

  12. Sorry to have had such a great laugh at your misadventure. A well-told story. I always use the "straighten your tie and get on with it" line. It will be replaced by "buck up."

    Ah Africa, one of the two continents on which I have had a massive gun pointed at me by someone much younger. Thank you Mr. Canadian businessman, where ever you are, for the help with the bribe and airfare.

  13. LOVED this story! Are you a journalist/writer by trade as you really can turn a phrase. I also adored the story of the bus conductress & your grandfather, brilliant. I'm going to Nairobi in March to research a book on pioneer women in Kenya & was interested to read what you said about your wanderings at the Muthaiga club. Did you have to be taken in by a member or can any curious soul go in & politely ask to have a look about? I live in Australia & so am restricted somewhat in meeting people & accessing resources from that time but I find the subject so fascinating including the whole Lord Errol, Happy Valley story. It was heartening to see that other people are interested in that era as well so I'm not just writing the book for myself!

  14. Anon - please feel free to email me directly (monavismesamis@hotmail.co.uk) and we can discuss? Thanks for your lovely comments, glad you are enjoying the blog. Sadly no, am just a researcher, but these are my first writing steps, would LOVE to e published one day...


Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth