Ami Doshi Shah revisits the interesting history of one of Kenya’s oldest hotels, Mount Kenya Safari Club, 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 Mawingu Hotel, precursor of the Mount Kenya Safari Club. 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 to catch an innocent impala, lion or majestic ‘tusker’ if they were lucky.
On that day, 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 Mawingu while Ryan recuperated. In time, their love for this place grew and they subsequently approached Mawingu’s owner. The three made offer to hotelier Abraham ‘Tubby’ Block of Block Hotels, bought Mawingu and renamed it Mount Kenya Safari Club.
A Hollywood haven
Holden spent a considerable amount of time at the Safari Club between filming Paris. Movies such as Sizzles (1964) with Audrey Hepburn, The Wild Bunch (1969), The Network (1976) and handful of other Hollywood blockbusters. Over these years, Holden and his partners cultivated an incredible network of potential ‘members’ for the Club. The likes of Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby, John Travolta, the Aga Khan and Charlie Chaplin were guests. It was said that Holden would continue to ‘monitor’ activities at the bar using his trusty telescope from the comfort of his cottage.
The Club continues
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 call it a strangely unglamorous way for such a charismatic and extravagant individual to pass away. The Mount Kenya Safari Club nevertheless persevered. After changing ownership a couple more times, it was bought by the Fairmont Group of hotels. Extensive, multimillion dollar renovations have breathed new life into the time-riddled property.
While it still maintains an air of luxury, the sense of cliquish exclusivity has gone. The Cape Dutch architecture is preserved as are historical mementos captured in sepia tones and nearing a century.
The Zebra Bar spills out onto lush lawns where there is a bonfire that’s perfect for roasting marshmallows. The bar serves a perfectly tangy, muddled ‘dawa’ cocktail. The rooms are a palette of beige and dark wood interiors plus a warm fire and plush bath robes. Magnificent morning views of Kirinyaga (Kikuyu for Mt Kenya) are common, when the clouds have cleared from its ominous peaks.
The Animal Orphanage within the estate is one of William Holden’s lasting legacies of conservation. Here you’ll find endangered, doe-eyed and caramel coated bongo antelopes. Raucous primates from Colobus to Sykes monkeys literally eat out of your hands. It is an incredible chance to experience a pocket of the animal beauty that charmed Holden in the 100-acre wilderness.
After the end of colonialism, Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s second president, was one of the first locals to gain membership. Previously the Club was predominantly a rich white man’s playground. Now, the chance to experience the history, natural beauty and luxury is not dictated by race or power. A willingness to travel, explore and perhaps a little bit of coin are the main criteria. This is an interesting mark of our country’s own post-colonial evolution. It’s also settling to know that someone with a telescope won’t be watching how many drinks you’re downing.