Monday, August 20, 2012

Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton

One of the last places I went before I left Nairobi was a longer visit to the Karen Blixen Museum and the Denys Finch Hatton grave site.  I find it interesting that Blixen's house has been given the full treatment, and turned into a beautiful museum, donated by the government of Denmark to Kenya, and Kenya has done a wonderful job keeping it up.  Finch Hatton, on the other hand, has not fared quite as well.  Still, visiting the two sites on the same day made their love come alive, despite the problems that they had as a couple, which are well documented.  It was a gray sort of day, typical in Nairobi in late May, at the end of the rainy season.  Sammy drove me around, and it was a long, tiring day.

What can you say... a classic movie that helped inspire me to go to East Africa.

A shot of the front of the house.  Apparently they shot the exterior shots for the movie at the house, and the interior shots at another house nearby.  I'm not sure why that was the case, but there it is.  The verandahs are quite nice on the house, which would have really helped during the warm dry season.

A young coffee plant, the plant that was to be the savior for Karen's project in Kenya, but ultimately proved her undoing, which was pretty accurately portrayed in the movie.

Not the best of my shots, because what I am trying to show is not just the beautiful lawn surrounding the house, but in the distance you can see the blue of the Ngong Hills.  Her house is really on the edge of the hills, not exactly in the hills.

Some of the beautiful landscaping around the house.

Some more of the landscaping.  I am not sure if it looked like this when Karen lived here.  I really don't think it was quite this way, but it gives you an idea of the extent of the grounds.  Apparently this was a farm of a couple of thousand acres.  Keep in mind that today most Africans are farming small plots of 1-2 acres, so this thing was huge.

That's me at the side of the house.  This is a door leading into Karen's bedroom, where she and Finch Hatton apparently spent a good bit of time.

A shot of the verandah on the side of the house.  It's a pretty impressive place.  Bror Blixen didn't build it, apparently they bought it from someone (I can't remember the whole story now), unfinished.

A view of the front of the house.  Very lovely place.

One thing about the museum is that you cannot take pictures inside.  I have taken these from other sources, to give an idea of the furnishings inside.  This is the living area.

This is Karen's bedroom, pretty much the way she had it when she lived there.

Anotther interior room.  These shots really don't do the place justice, and I couldn't find a good shot of the main room where Karen used to read stories to the children.

The coffee roaster used on the farm, part of the project that doomed Karen's stay in Africa when coffee production did not work.

As I noted above, Finch Hatton has not gotten the treatment or recognition of Karen.  Perhaps because he was a philandering big game hunter, but he probably deserves a bit better.  Here is the only marker directing visitors to the grave site.  And if you don't know where it is, there is no way you could find this on your own.  Sammy knew where it was, and he even seemed to have some problems.  And the road is terrible.  When Denys was buried here by Karen after he died in the plane crash, there was nothing in the surrounding area.  And the grave is truly in the Ngong Hills.  Today there is a good bit of development, particularly small shambas in the hills, but the site is maintained by a Kenya family, who do a wonderful job maintaining the grave.  One last note, the grave is a long way from Karen's house, and when she and the others went to bury Denys, they really had to want to go, because I am sure that when this was done there were hardly any roads to speak of in the hills.  Also, please note that the scene depicted in the movie depicting Denys' burial is not where he is buried.  That is way out in the Masai Mara.  More picturesque, and may have been what the site looked like then, but not now.

The obelisk demarcating Denys grave.  The woman in the foreground is the one who takes care of the site.  She charges a small fee, but because the site is so difficult to find, there aren't a lot of visitors.  It's a beautiful and thought provoking site, though.

There used to be a lovely brass plaque on the obelisk, but it was stolen.  Now there is just the blue plaque.

A view from the base of the obelisk of the grave site.

The four posts are where the actual body is buried.  Notice the scraped earth of the grave site, with no grass growing.  That is not unusual in an African burial site.

A view looking out onto the hills from the grave site. 

A view of the site.

Another view of the obelisk.

Me at the obelisk.  Sammy took this, he has a definite problem taking pictures.

A view of the hills surrounding Denys' grave.  The neatly cultivated fields were not there when he was buried here.

Another view of the hills.

Perhaps Denys Finch Hatton hasn't gotten the attention that Karen Blixen has gotten, but visiting his grave site is a moving experience, if you are interested in the story.  It's a challenge to get there, but one that is well worth it.


  1. So jealous! What a wonderful experience you had!

  2. Wonderful memories. When I was a boy in the '40s, we occasionally took a drive round that side of the Ngong Hills. You went out via the Ngong Road and followed the winding road round the foothills. The place was quite empty of people once you passed the DC's office. The F-H memorial was a little above the road with open views across the Kapiti Plains. We ended up returning to Nairobi via the Langata Road.

    In those days, there were still people around who remembered those people and times - not always favourably! And just this weekend, I met a man whose grandfather had shared ownership in a farm with Denys Finch Hatton and another man somewhere near Muhoroni, he said, or perhaps Fort Ternan. It became his grandfather's property when the others died.

    This is in accord with the Wikipedia statement " In 1910, after a trip to South Africa, he traveled to British East Africa and bought some land on the western side of the Great Rift Valley near what is now Eldoret."

  3. Long ago in the 1970s, I had a friend named Bob Chancellor (no relation to the NBC anchorman, John Chancellor). Bob was a reporter for the VOICE OF AMERICA. He lived in Nairobi but visited family in Springfield, Mo. often. Bob told stories punctuated with tales of magnificent wild animals I have only know from the zoo, a circus or picture books. It was exciting to hear his descriptions of the African hills, the people and their gloriously beautiful land.
    I have several books by and about 'Karen'. The 'OUT OF AFRICA' film is one of my favorites. Therefore, I am extremely happy to view these photos. Thank you for posting them as I am sure many find these people and their era fascinating too!