A Travellerspoint blog

Out of Africa - literally!

Botswana safari plus, day twelve

Making the most of the last few hours

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Rufous sparrow (I think), Ole Sereni Hotel

It turns out that while the Ole Sereni, where we spent our last night in Africa, might well be located on the edge of Nairobi’s city Game Park, the view from our bedroom there was more akin to Spaghetti Junction than to the Masai Mara, and the noise levels equivalent. My sleep was consequently somewhat disturbed!

After a good buffet breakfast we had time to kill before our planned bit of sightseeing - time to relax, catch up on emails etc. and try to spot birds or other signs of life in the park. I had seen a few colourful birds while we were at breakfast, but when I later took my camera out on the terrace by the bar, all I could see were sparrows! Admittedly I think some of these might have been the Kenyan Rufous sparrow, rather than our own ubiquitous house sparrow, but nevertheless not very exciting!

A later visit to the terrace yielded an eagle of some sort flying overhead, and a small yellow bird in the bushes which I’m guessing is a weaver.

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Possibly a weaver of some sort?

Out of Africa

'I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.'
(the opening sentence of 'Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen)

At 11.00 we were picked up by Jackson for our small sightseeing trip, a visit to the former home of Karen Blixen of ‘Out of Africa’ fame. Although I have not seen the film, I was reading her book in preparation for this visit and was intrigued to see the house where she lived.

We drove out of the city centre along the Ngong road, which in her day would, according to her accounts of it, have been little more than a mud track, impassable in wet weather. Today it is a busy dual carriageway, with a large slum to the right (Jackson told us with a tinge of misplaced pride that this is the second largest in Africa, after Soweto) and on the left the affluent suburb of Karen, developed on land once part of her coffee farm.

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Karen Blixen's house


We arrived at the house, now a museum, where Jackson paid the entrance for us and then left us with a young guide, who did an excellent job of showing us around. Firstly, she told us something of Karen Blixen’s story. She was born in 1885, as Karen Dinesen, into a wealthy Danish family and in 19914 married her Swedish second cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, becoming Baroness Blixen. He was keen big game hunter, a pursuit still considered acceptable at the time (something you must bear in mind when learning about Karen and/or reading her book).

Using an investment from their common uncle, the couple bought land in Kenya (in those days, British East Africa), planning to start a cattle farm. But they later changed their minds, having become convinced that coffee would be more profitable. With the uncle they founded the Karen Coffee Company and set about establishing their coffee farm. It did not go well as the First World War led to a shortage of workers and supplies. Nevertheless, they decided to move to a bigger farm and bought a property to the west of Nairobi, near the foot of the Ngong Hills. Of their 6,000 acres of land they used just 600 acres for a coffee plantation – the rest were used by the natives (known as ‘squatters’) for grazing or left as untouched virgin forest. But still the farm continued to struggle. The land here wasn’t really suitable for growing coffee as its elevation is too high and there were other problems too – a fire destroyed the coffee processing factory, there were poor harvests, and so on. When Karen and the Baron separated, in 1921 (and subsequently divorced in 1925) she was left to run the farm on her own, which she did until the company finally collapsed in 1931. Meanwhile she had fallen in love with the English hunter, safari guide and pilot Denys Finch Hatton – the main subject of the film ‘Out of Africa’, in which he was played by Robert Redford (and Karen by Meryl Streep). The book however focuses more on the day to day life of the farm and is very interesting background reading for a visit here.

Our guide showed us some old farm machinery from Karen’s time - ploughs that would have been pulled by her oxen, a wagon used to carry the sacks of coffee to the railway station in Nairobi for onward transport to the port in Mombassa, and a tractor.

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Old farm machinery and a 1922 tractor


Then she took us to the house, starting with the separate kitchen with its iron range and still many of the historic cooking implements in place.

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In the kitchen


From here we went into the main house where we visited a series of rooms, including Karen Blixen’s study and bedroom. From my reading of the book I recognised our guide’s description of her as someone who loved to tell stories and it was good to see the fireplace where she would sit to entertain her friends.

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Study with fireplace

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Bedroom

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Dining room


There were photos of some of these friends on the walls, as well as of Karen herself, her husband Baron Bror von Blixen Fincke and her lover Denis Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford in the film). We also saw reproductions of some of her paintings (the originals are in museums in Denmark) - I liked those of some of the local people (whom she terms Natives in the book).

A lot of reviews I’ve read since say that photos aren’t allowed inside, but I asked our guide if I could take some and she said it was fine as long as I didn’t include any of the art works. And I felt it best not to use flash, although this wasn't stipulated, which explains the slight gloomy, grainy look to my images!

Outside we saw the millstone converted by Karen into a table, where she liked to sit when asked, as she often was, to make a judgement in some local dispute.

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Rear of the house, with millstone table


From the house we walked a short distance through the grounds to see the old coffee processing machine, where the beans were dried before being packed into sacks and sent to Mombasa for export to England.

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Coffee processing equipment, and path from the house


Walking back to the house we took the opportunity to chat a little to our young guide. She told us that she had done a four month attachment at the museum last year, as part of her tourism studies and once these had finished, earlier this year, had returned to work as a volunteer while waiting to graduate. She has ambitions to work for a tour company and I am sure will succeed, based on the very positive experience we enjoyed with her. Needless to say, we tipped her well.

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Our young guide

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Young artist signing our picture

I found it a little odd, however, that Kenya, and Kenyans, seem so comfortable talking about, and through the museum promulgating, the picture of colonial life painted by Karen Blixen and her views on ‘Natives’ which today we would all recognise as racist. At one point in the book she says that ‘white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God.’ And this is typical of her attitude throughout – while she has a lot of good things to say about the workers on her farm as individuals, these are always filtered through a lens of superiority, and when she talks about them collectively it is always to suggest an inferior or at least less sophisticated level of understanding. I found that much harder to stomach, when reading the book, than her enjoyment of big game hunting (which I recognised as an uneducated anachronism).

I was somewhat surprised therefore that our guide talked about her with a sense of familiarity and affection – ‘Karen always liked to sit here …’, or ‘Karen knew a lot about medicine and often treated her workers …’ And this seemed genuine, not parroting what she thought visitors would like to hear. I can only assume that the impact of the book, and later the film, in widening awareness of the beauty of the Kenyan landscape and drawing visitors here, must have not so much outweighed any consideration of her colonial attitudes but rather caused them to be put totally to one side. Kenyans it seems retain some affection for their former colonial power (all of those we spoke to were rooting for England to win the World Cup!) which perhaps makes them more tolerant of past colonialist attitudes.

Having said all of the above, I enjoyed our visit and would recommend it to others. Even if you haven’t read ‘Out of Africa’, or seen the film, a tour here enables you to see the typical colonial architecture and imagine life for Europeans in Kenya at that time, which is after all a major part of the country’s history. And engaging with such an excellent young guide was a great bonus!

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The card we bought

After our tour we had a quick look round the gift shop but didn’t buy anything. As you can imagine, they are keen to promote the DVD of the film, part of which was shot near here on location, but there are also all the usual souvenirs.

Outside on the veranda was a young artist, Tim, displaying his work. Her explained that normally he would be painting but today was too cold - like our guide, he was wrapped in a Masai-inspired blanket. We took a liking to him and his work so bought a small handmade card, depicting a hippo (one of our favourites of the animals we had seen on our safari), to frame, which he kindly offered to sign.

Tamambo

Our tour also included lunch at the nearby Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens, Tamambo. The building here was formerly a house on the farm, used for guests, but is now separated from it by other developments including a medical college.

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The Karen Blixen Coffee Gardens

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Zanzibari seafish

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Chocolate mint dessert

We sat in the garden where it was a little chilly, but they brought a sort of iron bucket with hot coals to warm us. There was a set three course menu with a couple of choices for each course - far more than we would normally eat for lunch but all delicious. In this weather it had to be the butternut squash soup to start. I especially liked my main course, a ‘Zanzibari seafish’ in a spicy sauce, and we both loved the chocolate mint dessert.

As a bonus we befriended the two resident cats. Our waiter Nicodemus (yes really!) had told us that the cats had walked out of the forest and they were trying to tame them, but we found that they were already very tame and comfortable around us!

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Making friends

Ole Sereni Hotel

After our meal Jackson drove us back to the hotel to take it easy for the afternoon ahead of our flight home. We took a few photos around the public areas as I rather liked the modern artworks – stylised representations of African animals, for the most part.

The hotel is built on a site formerly occupied by the US Embassy, which found a temporary home here after the August 1998 bombing of its city centre building (it has since moved to a high security location next to the UN building in the north of the city). We had a very good coffee in the bar, and later a light meal in the Big Five restaurant, choosing salads and excellent mini desserts from the large buffet selection, as we were still pretty full from that lovely lunch.

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In the Ole Sereni Hotel

Time to go home

Jackson picked us up again at 8.00 pm to drive us to the airport which was as mad and chaotic as on our previous flight out of there to Livingstone. We went through five security scans between arriving at the airport and reaching the plane - one while still on the road outside, one entering the building, one to access the departures hall and two in quick succession at the gate. Passengers were encouraged to go through the last of these two hours before departure and we then sat for ages on hard seats with no toilet facilities! While there I overheard one girl saying that the spices she had bought as a gift for family at home were confiscated because they were a powder!

The chaos continued right through to boarding, with announcements inaudible and a last minute move to the neighbouring gate. We were pleased to find ourselves on board and settling into our seats for the overnight flight to London. Homeward bound!

The flight was uneventful and we even managed to snatch some sleep, having forked out for exit row seats with extra legroom, which made a big difference to our comfort levels. But British Airways are definitely not what they used to be in terms of comfort on board and service. The food was poor (especially the dry breakfast roll and cereal bar offered just before landing) and although the entertainment system promised '100s of movies', in fact there were only around 20 to chose from and few of those appealing. The TV and music selection was similarly limited and there were none of the games that usually help to keep children amused.

We landed on time at Heathrow, and despite a rather lengthy queue for the e-passport gates, manged to get through there, collect the bags and catch the Tube home all in good time. Within 90 minutes of touching down we were opening our front door!

Posted by ToonSarah 03:57 Archived in Kenya Tagged restaurant history hotel flight museum africa cats kenya author

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Comments

I am feeling so sad that this will be the last of my daily doses of Africa but, as always, it was a wonderful read with some great photographs. Will you show us the card that you bought from Tim sometime? Your home must be full of holiday memorabilia.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Very interesting to hear about Karen Blixen's home and see the photos -- it really looks like a very well preserved, lovely house & gardens!

I enjoyed reading all the segments about your trip, and the photos of wildlife, big & small! It must have felt like quite a culture shock when you finally arrived back in London.

by starship

I was interested to read that the Kenyans 'retain some affection for their former colonial power'. This was certainly the case when I was in Vietnam in the 1960s. Our South Vietnamese major, especially, was a Francophile who had dropped everything to re-join the French army when General Leclerc returned after the Second World War to re-establish French rule in Indochina.

by Nemorino

As always, thank you all for reading and commenting. I've loved having you along on this journey.

Yvonne, I have added a photo of the card by your special request ;) Yes, we have lots of memorabilia such as photos and carvings, and they all bring back special memories when I look at them :)

Don, the affection for the UK was even more apparent in Botswana I would say, but perhaps more understandable - as a 'Protectorate' they were in a slightly different position from fully occupied countries I believe.

by ToonSarah

I've really enjoyed your trip to Africa. Thank you so much for sharing it. Loved the Blixen house. I've read "Out of Africa" at least three times and seen the movie twice. I really liked both but the book is always better. Yes, parts are offensive to modern tastes but they are a reflection of their time. You can't change history, just reflect on it and vow to do better as you go on. I think it's called learning . . . ;)

by Beausoleil

My sister and I have been discussing the attitude of my mother (who was brought up by a mother from the American South). Her attitude was as you describe Karen's. We were not allowed to call white friends of my parents by their given names. They were all Mr. Ware or Mrs. Sawhill. But the black maids, cooks and janitors were always called by their first names - Viola and Wilber and not Mrs. Holiday or Mr. Jackson. The difference perhaps between the attitude of the 'natives' and the attitude of the black people in the US may be because the 'natives' were not actually slaves. I've been reading about King Leopold II - the attitude in the area of the former Belgium Congo might be different.

by greatgrandmaR

Nice end to what sounded a fantastic trip. I hope you've got all this stuff backed up just in case.

by Easymalc

Thanks all, it's been lovely having your comments on all my blog entries on this trip :)

Sally, you're right of course about the book and it has to be read in that light, both in terms of the hunting and the attitudes to the 'Natives', but I did find it grated at times. And Rosalie, yes, I reckon slavery would definitely make a difference to how anyone would feel - by the standards of those times I think Karen's servants were well treated (paid for their work, given a plot of land to farm for their family's needs etc) Our parents' generation was different for sure, wherever they grew up, but sadly those attitudes aren't eradicated as we all know :(

Malcolm, as with VT I write everything in Word before even publishing, so I have those documents. My photos are triple backed-up! And with TP we have the option to download our blogs as we go along, as PDFs, along with the comments if we choose, so I do that when I've completed each trip - and back those up too

by ToonSarah

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