I continue my tour of Kenyan Fairmont properties with a stay at the iconic Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club
High above Nairobi, our female Air Kenya pilots give us astonishing views from our 18-seater, Twin Otter 300 plane over the city’s western suburbs before the landscape changes to dry brown scrub, then pockets of farmland criss-crossed by red-earth tracks turning greener as we neared the slopes of Mount Kenya – the Magic Mountain. For that is certainly what Mt Kenya is. Our first sight of her through the sun haze is breathtaking: snow-covered jagged peaks are the plug of an ancient now-extinct volcano. The 17,058ft-mountain looks ethereal.
No wonder local tribespeople consider Mt Kenya to be sacred. A protected area since 1949, it became a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1973 and a World Heritage Site in 1997. Today the whole area is managed by the Government-funded Kenya Wildlife Service.
Few hotels can boast they have the Equator running through their grounds, but such is the fortune of the historic Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club near Nanyuki in East Africa. This award-winning 100-acre resort estate on the slopes of Mount Kenya has a fascinating history. Formerly the retreat of Hollywood star and game hunter William Holden, who sold the Safari Club estate to previous owner Adnan Khashoggi, this idyllic Kenyan hideaway still feels like a family home – albeit on a super-grand luxury scale.
By the time we land at Nanyuki’s grass airstrip, Mount Kenya – usually shrouded in fog and clouds – is clearly visible. An auspicious portent on our arrival at the Equator. The air smells fresh; there’s a slight wind to cool the heat; the sky an iridescent blue. Acacia trees stand sentinel alongside the newly built runway. I inhale deeply like a free diver re-surfacing. There’s magic in the air here.
We arrive in minutes at the resort’s grand gated entrance. Security is tight at all Kenya’s Fairmont properties: The guards wave us through and we enter an enchanted kingdom. The drive to the main house passes the stables, flame trees, more acacia and thorn trees, lush manicured lawns and gardens, vivid purple bougainvillea and orange bird of paradise. To greet us, a colourful group of Kikuyu dancers dressed in traditional costume lead us singing and dancing to the exquisite Rose Garden for a very special Equator Ceremony and presentation of our Equator crossing certificates.
The Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club lies at 7,000ft and straddles the Equator, so guests can spend part of their stay in the Southern Hemisphere and part in the North. Our guide Charles demonstrates how water drains clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anti-clockwise in the southern. It’s known as the Coriolis effect. How extraordinary to be in a garden divided by the Equator. The varying north and south energies are tangible here.
The Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club offers guests a haven of tranquillity with 120 luxurious rooms. The main house, with its 1950’s colonial aesthetics and superb rooms and suites, an arc of independent cottages (huge two-bedroom luxury bungalows) and additional bungalows in a forested area of the estate. It’s the perfect setting to marry the love of your life (the Signature Suite is a honeymoon favourite). And the perfect solo escape… as I discovered on entering my gorgeous two-bedroom bungalow. Discreetly tucked away along the driveway to the right of the main house, it boasted a massive lounge space with working fireplace (lit each night, thank you). And two beautiful bedrooms each ensuites with capacious bath tubs and showers. And all the amenities you’d expect at this level, including two hot water bottles discreetly placed in my bed each evening.
The expansive private terrace looked out across to Mt Kenya across manicured lawns and a large pond that came alive each afternoon with birds. And to my left partial views of the main house. The most beautiful escape. And I was only a few hundred yards from William Holden’s former cottage. Apparently, he set up a telescope in the garden, so he could keep an eye on proceedings at the main house.
The silence is so welcome. No cars here and the only noise you’ll hear during your stay are the bird calls from over 50 species: semi-tame sacred ibises, marabou storks, peacocks, Egyptian geese and lots of beautifully coloured smaller birds who approach the lunch and breakfast tables in anticipation. Other resident animals include two gorgeous black Labs, Tusker and Grammy who appeared to spend most of their day in blissed out repose.
We had lunch in the courtyard (intriguingly divided by the Equator line – we chose to eat in the Northern Hemisphere). The choice of food here was superb: hot and cold dishes, salads, soups, starters, an incredible array of desserts and fruits. And a meat grill with freshly barbecued cuts of chicken, lamb and beef. The pterodactyl-like Marabou storks with their grizzled heads waited patiently for titbits on the rooftops. They are the most extraordinary birds. They really do stalk when they walk.
Afterwards, I relaxed by the inviting outdoor pool, enjoying the spectacular views over sweeping terraced lawns towards the golf course and the rising majesty of Mt Kenya in the far distance. Of course, you could spend the whole time pool lounging, or relishing the spa treatments (great massages from Margaret) but there’s so much else to do. There’s a nine-hole golf course, a maze to get lost in, tennis and basketball courts, as well as horse-riding, mountain biking and nature walks. And fabulous bush dinners and game drives at Solio Game Reserve, Sweet Waters Game Reserve or further afield at Aberdare National Park and Samburu Game Reserve.
I took one of the mountain bikes around the estate and came across a group of Colobus monkeys playing tag in the trees. Black and white long-haired bodies leaping from branch to branch, their long white bushy tails like trailing scarves.
That evening we dined on succulent barbecued pork, beef, lamb, Berber chicken and marinated prawns on the lantern-lit pontoon deck over the pond. Warmed by the lively fire and fortified by Tusker beer, mains included pan-seared fish and delicious truffle mash, accompanied by fine local vintage wines and fabulous desserts (mousse, fudge, macaroons… The backdrop to our voices were fish and frogs in the lake below us, their grunts and croaks echoing around the estate giving the impression of much larger beasties.
After a sumptuous breakfast at the main house the following morning, we head for the Ol Pejeta Conservancy an hour’s drive from the hotel. Zebra, wild dogs and lions are here. As well as the world’s last-remaining three northern white rhinos and it’s a sanctuary for 113 critically endangered black rhinos and is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. Today the demand for ivory comes from Asia and the Middle East, where rhino horn is falsely considered to have medicinal properties and is used to make ornamental dagger handles. A kilo of rhino horn can fetch up to $60,000 on the black market. Ironically, rhino horn is just made of the same substance as human fingernails – keratin.
We were honoured to meet Baraka, the blind black rhino who lives on his own 100-acre enclosure. He has plenty of visitors and a specially designed platform affording a close-up experience with this remarkable animal. He was sleeping when we arrived, yet the brave keeper went down next to him to take photos.
In 1970 there were around 20,000 black rhinos living in Kenya. Due to poaching and drought there are significantly less. We next meet Sudan, the only remaining northern white rhino. Thought to be about 45, he’s an old fella, heavily protected. He’s not entirely alone, there are three female northern white rhinos here too, but they are not able to become pregnant. So, the ambitious plan to avoid complete extinction is to use in vitro fertilisation. Since writing this, Sudan has sadly died. Even more reason to protect these irreplaceable species.
Returning to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club for lunch we were treated to the most gorgeous dining setting in the exquisite Rose Garden. Beautiful arches and pergolas, running stream and indigenous trees providing shade, it felt like an English country garden. The perfect wedding location, we savoured tuna starters followed by an amazingly spiced vegetable curry with the best crème brulée. Magical.
Adjoining the Safari Club is an animal orphanage – part of the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy – and currently home to some 1200 animals. Privately owned and run it was founded by William Holden and Don Hunt in the Sixties, supported by Don’s wife Iris and actress Stefanie Powers. Recognised by the Kenyan government, the education centre receives visits from hundreds of school children each year. We wandered among orphaned ostriches, Mountain Bongos (forest antelopes), llamas, monkeys, cheetahs, baby buffalo and a giant tortoise. There are also cheetahs and lynx.
A combination of animal rescue, adoption and rehabilitation here has ensured the survival of the endangered and rare Albino Zebra. The conservancy which is spread over 700 acres is also home to Mountain Bongo breeding programme which has seen the population of the Bongo’s increase from 18 to 70 renewing hopes for their survival whose population was below 100 in the wild.
Photos of Hollywood stars who have visited the conservancy grace the walls, including Grace Kelly, and a very young John Travolta.
Having been thrown from horses as a kid, I faced my fear and actually enjoyed a 1:1 ride with horseman John before dinner. Riding next to the Safari Club was a great way to get closer to a herd of white zebra, many deer – and sneaky warthogs who hide in the long grass and scare the horses. My trusty steed was spooked, but luckily I was holding on tight. No bolting back to the stables this time.
We enjoyed a superb dinner on our final evening in the private dining room at Tusks.
Fire lit, we all gathered around an impressive antique dining table, like a scene from out of Africa. Executive Chef Picco truly worked his magic with a range of African, Indian and European-inspired dishes. Scallops starters followed by Salmon Wellington and a divine Pistachio and Coconut Ladoo. The flavours here are so fresh and flavoursome – what a joy to have local provenance.
Reclining on my bungalow lounger later that evening I stare up at the inky night sky. Lanterns flickering on the pontoon the only visible light. And the stars. Pure, blissful silence. If heaven is a place on Earth, then Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club is as close as I’ll get.
East Africa has cast her spell once again. A magical and unforgettable experience.