Out of Africa

She was known by two names, Karen Blixen and Isak Dinesen. She led two lives, Kenya coffee farmer and Danish literary celebrity. Many decades after her death in 1962 her home in Rungstedlund. near Copenhagen, and her home near Nairobi, Kenya, are both enduring tourist destinations, each called ‘the Karen Blixen Museum’.

If you’ve seen the film of Isak Dinesen’s memoirs, Out of Africa, a visit to the African Karen Museum will feel like a visit to a film set. At the end of the gravel drive sits the same low stone house, surrounded by a veranda, where Meryl Streep as the new Baroness Blixen, was welcomed by her African staff.  Inside the house you’ll see the folding screen, decorated with the Chinese figures that prompted the tales Karen Blixen spun, Scheherazade-like, for her lover Denys Finch Hatton, as played by Robert Redford in the film. Her polished riding boots are near her lace-covered bed and in the guest room, Denys Finch Hatton’s jodhpurs lie folded over a trunk.

But then the guide tells you that those boots belonged not to Karen Blixen but to Meryl Streep, and the jodhpurs belonged to Robert Redford. The painted screen is not the original but a gift from the producer of the film. The photograph of Denys Finch Hatton on Karen Blixen’s study wall is pointed out with a smile as that of the ‘original Robert Redford’.

This uninhibited mingling of fact and film should ring false but curiously, it doesn’t. It even seems oddly appropriate. No one could leaven reality with romance more freely than did Karen Blixen herself. Friend have recalled the rows of crystal wine glasses set out at dinner though there was seldom wine, the richly costumed servant who attended her even though she was bankrupt, her blind faith that her coffee farm would prove profitable even though planted in the wrong soil at the wrong altitude.

Most of her 5,000 acre farm has been developed as the affluent Nairobi suburb called Karen, but her house, a museum since 1985, is still set in wide lawns. An overgrown path through the surrounding forest leads to the rusted ruins of her coffee factory where pieces of abandoned machinery stand in a clearing. The blue knuckles of the Ngong Hills she loved so well, and where Finch Hatton lies buried, still dominate the horizon as they dominated her life.. ‘I have a feeling,’ she once wrote home to her mother in Rungstedlund,’ that wherever I am in the future I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong.’

This proved to be literally true. When the farm was finally lost in 1931, when her marriage to Baron Blor Blixen was long over and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton had just died in the crash of his airplane, she returned in despair to Rungstedlund. Adopting the pen name Isak Dinesen (Dinesen was her family name, Isak means ‘one who laughs’) the failed coffee farmer began to write. Books such as Seven Gothic Tales, Babette’s Feast, Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa, eventually made her an acclaimed international literary figure. But every night of her long life she would stand for a moment on the sill of the south-facing door to look towards Africa and the Ngong HIlls.

‘It is a law of life’, she observed in her short story, The Poet, ‘that one thing amongst all that we meet must impress itself deeper upon our souls than any other.’ How deeply Kenya impressed itself on her soul can be seen in all the rooms of the Danish Karen Blixen Museum. The windows of her summer study overlook the blue waters of the Sound, but Masai spears and shields hang behind her desk.  In the Green Room, the wickerwork chair which was Denys Finch Hatton’s favourite on the farm is pulled up to the table. The gramophone he gave her is nearby. In the gilded drawing room from which the celebrated Isak Dinesen made her popular radio addresses, the painted screen (this one the French original) stands beside the marble fireplace. An ornate Zanzibar chest, the gift of her devoted Somali servant, Farah, holds an arrangement of flowers and leaves from the  Rungstedlund gardens and woodland as it did during her lifetime.

In Africa, Karen Blixen often thought of the beech woods of Rungstedlund. As a child she had wandered through them with her father, listening to stories of his life with the Indians of North America.  When she died in 1962, in the house in which she was born, she was buried in these woods under a giant beech tree.

All she owned of Africa, a handful of earth she had brought back with her to Denmark in a little wooden box, was mixed with the soil of Rungstedlund in her grave. The unadorned tombstone of Isak Dinesen, the world-famous author, is inscribed simply, ‘Karen Blixen’. 


Out at First Light

Early morning tea arrived to our rooms just before dawn. I took my cup out on the balcony and watched the Indian Ocean surge up from the darkness to drum against the beach.The kaskazi trade wind fingered the fronds of the coconut palms; the air was as warm as bathwater. At first light, we were going deep-sea fishing. My friend, her young son, and I – total fishing novices – were staying at Hemingways Resort, in Watamu, Kenya.

Hemingways is named for the legendary writer and big-game hunter, Ernest Hemingway, who “discovered” deep sea fishing in these waters in 1934. Hemingway’s discovery came at the end of a safari. With two weeks in hand before sailing from Mombasa, Hemingway set out in a semi-derelict boat named Xanadu to try his hand at fishing in the Indian Ocean. The subsequent battle with the weather, boat, skipper, and fighting fish engendered a respect for the sport that never left him.

We had spent our first few days of discovery walking the long, white beach, sunning by the pools, and enjoying the cuisine and the tropical landscape. Late each afternoon we watched – drinks in hand – as the Hemingways fishing fleet returned home.The catches were weighed on the slip; the more impressive specimens – including a 1,000-pound Tiger Shark – were photographed.Would we try it too? Why not. So, at 5:30 this morning, a “fisherman’s breakfast” awaited us under the thatched roof of Hemingways’ restaurant pavilion.

In the lamplight, a chef stood behind a row of chafing dishes.We weren’t hungry for more than coffee and toast at that hour, but when he asked us to assemble our lunches for the cool box on the boat,we optimistically picked out roast beef sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, some little homemade cakes, and bags of crisps. Then, along with the skipper and the three-man crew, we waded out to the dinghy and headed for the boat.

The late February sun had risen quickly and was already glinting on the dark blue sea, promising another day in the 30s.The Ol- Jogi, a pristine 33-foot-long, twin-engine fishing boat, proved to be an extension of the five-star standards of the hotel. We stretched out on foam mattresses under a canvas shade and tried to adjust to the rocking motion as the Ol-Jogi ploughed away from the coast. The skipper told us we’d be motoring through “sail fish alley” where billfish ride the current down toward Zanzibar.We seemed more than ready for them. Nine rods bristled from the cockpit.

 Once we were under way, the three-man crew began a ballet of sorts, switching rods from place to place, attaching lures like brilliant dust mops to the lines, balancing themselves on the rails to set up out rigging devices.We were well clear of the coastal coral reef when the clatter of the ratchet on the rod brought us to attention and off the mattresses. I was given first turn in the revolving “fighting chair.” Bracing against the footrests, I wound the reel mightily for several long minutes. With a lurch and a flap, a plump silver fish about 12 inches long landed at my feet, gave me a surprised look, twitched once, and lay still.

The crewmen pulled in more of them on other lines. They were bonitos, a kind of tuna and my catch was not, in fact, a potential trophy, but live bait for bigger fish to come. The diesel motors hummed on, the sea around us peaked in dark triangles above the inky blue wash.The ratchet squealed again and a rod dipped down. Though the seven-year-old was coping with the onset of seasickness, he willingly left the rail to take his turn in the chair. A crewman gave him a hand, helping him to reel in hard and fast. A dorado, the agile predator of flying fish, came streaking out of the water on the end of the hook, shimmering gold and four feet long. It was brought aboard with grappling hooks and held for a photograph before its iridescence died with it.

As the morning went on, we glimpsed dolphins, barracuda, and the lateen sails of local fishing boats but not the marlins or sailfish for which these waters are famous. Ernest Hemingway’s record catch stands at 23 sailfish, all tagged and released.We brought in a second dorado, a small yellow fin tuna and several more bonito. By noon, the onshore monsoon began to kick up a stomach-churning chop and though the crew moved aft for a few discreet bites of lunch, they were kind enough not to remind us of our provisions in the cool box.

 Back on shore, the fish were weighed and the youngest member of our party posed with the best of our catch before we gave it to the crew. We kept one bonito.The chef turned the silver fish into six platters of rose-pink sushi, garnishing the plates with slices of the pale green Kenyan lemon. It was served to our party that evening at a candle-lit table under a crescent moon. Just beyond the terrace, in the dark, the waves were drumming on the shore.

Fishing at Hemingways runs from August to mid-May. November through March, when the seas are warmer and calmer, are the main months for marlin and sailfish. The 33-foot boats carry an absolute maximum of four clients.

For bookings, contact:


Safari with the Maasai

Romantics and adventurers have been coming to Kenya since the turn of the last century. It took them at least three weeks to make the journey from Europe. Today, you’re there in a day. In fact, getting there can be easier than choosing where to stay. As more and more tourists come looking for the real Africa, the authentic safari experience is becoming harder to find.

Jake Grieves-Cook of Gamewatchers Safari has come up with a solution. About five years ago he saw the developing problem: too many tourists chasing too few animals in the game parks. He knew that the famous Masai Mara game reserve occupies much of the tribal land of the Maasai people, but by no means covers it all. A few years ago, he met with the Maasai elders and offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse. In exchange for a yearly rental plus a fee for every guest bednight, Grieves-Cook acquired huge swathes of land ouside the game park, land previously used by the Maasai for hunting and grazing their cattle. He established four camps where a strictly limited number of visitors have the exclusive use of pratically unlimited stretches of game-rich bush country. He also offered young Maasai warriors training and employment in the camps. He called the camps ‘Porini’, meaning wilderness.

Recently, I visited Porini Lion Camp. Situated on the 20,000-acre Olare Orok Conservancy, it caters to a maximum of 20 guests. An hour’s flight from Wilson airport in Nairobi brought me along the Rift Valley to a red-earth landstrip carved out of the bush. A 4×4 vehicle manned by two Maasai, a guide and driver in their traditonal red robes and beaded jewellery, was waiting. On many previous safaris to other camps and lodges I’d glimpsed the colourful Maasai at a remote distance; it was strange to be sharing a Land Rover with two of them now. In excellent English they thanked me for coming and I realised that, here at least, the Maasai are finally getting something back from the tourist industry.

 The pale green tents of the Porini Lion Camp are strung out along the Nitakatiak river. Although the campsite is ecologically responsible (it could be struck in 24 hours leaving scarcely a trace), the tents are extremely comfortable, with solar lighting, flush loos and hot showers. The food is good too, served buffet style with freshly baked bread and cakes and plenty of wine. The Maasai take care of their guests in style under the watchful eye of a throroughy experienced camp manager.

A typical day here involves three game drives — the first one allows you an early-morning look at the African world as it wakes up. Up close and personal, I saw predators on the prowl, brilliant birds among the trees, hundreds of grazing animals on the grasslands and hippos on the river bank. After lunch and a nap there’s another expedition, with a stop for a drink to watch the sun go down.

The days ended with a magical night drive on the search for nocturnal animals such as that most elusive of creatures, the leopard. And no matter what we happened upon — a herd of elephants trudging along, the babies walking beneath the mothers; or a lioness bringing down her prey — in this wilderness camp no minivan of tourists ever drove up to spoil the moment.

Prices per night per person at the Porini Lion Camp include return flights from Nairobi to Mara; game drives in an open 4×4 with a qualified guide; a bush walk with Maasai warriors; night game drive; sundowner; all meals on safari; soft drinks, mineral water, house wines, gin and tonics; as well as all park and conservancy fees. Contact or

Gamewatchers Safaris and the Porini Safari Camps were recognised as the Best in Kenya for “Support and Integration with Local Community”. They were honored for their pioneering work and partnership with the Maasai communities in creating wildlife conservancies in addition to supporting local initiatives in education, health & water projects.


Over Africa


I‘m not normally a nervous flyer. I eat the meal, drink the wine, watch the film. On long flights, I even sleep. It’s much like being on the ground. But is that because I don’t realize I’m flying? Through the air? Take away the tranquil decor, take away the meals and the film — take away the roof especially — and that’s flying, and then I’m nervous.

 So I was nervous, sweltering in equatorial heat on a sun baked airstrip in northern Kenya, flapping at the flies, as a tall, good-looking English-American pilot put the finishing touches — not to mention the cowling — on his shiny red biplane number 5YCAG. Andrew Garratt is the owner and main man of the Classic Aerial Safari Company, whose aim is to offer the genuine “Out of Africa” experience to tourists in Kenya. For passengers in his reproduction 1935 open-cockpit plane, he orchestrates the complete works, fitting them out with a brown leather flight jacket, white silk scarf, leather helmet with goggles and earflaps with radio receivers through which they listen to Mozart.

But Andrew had flown to this airstrip in Navaisha to have his Waco biplane serviced, not expecting to pick up a passenger on her way to the Mount Kenya Safari Club. A friend had lent me a black leather jacket to keep me warm at 11,000 feet and my sunglasses would double as goggles, but I had nothing to protect my ears. “Not even cotton wool?” Andrew worried, fearing I might wind up deaf after the 50-minute flight over the Aberdare Mountains.

That particular concern wasn’t even on my list.

Two hours after we’d arrived at the field, the newly serviced plane had been checked and double-checked and was ready for takeoff. It had been pushed out onto the airstrip, and the Jacobs motor (nickname: “shakin’ Jake”) was sending tremors from the Waco’s nose to its tail. Ostriches, who probably don’t realize what strange-looking birds they are themselves, patrolled the other side of a chain-link fence, eyeing the quivering 5YCAG suspiciously.

Time to climb aboard. Andrew, who had been a very relaxed conversationalist so far — chatting about his boyhood in Pennsylvania where he’d cut grass and answered the phone at a local airfield to earn flying lessons, and about quitting the U.S. Air Force after eight years to bicycle from Europe to Africa — suddenly morphed into a pilot, with a pilot’s preoccupations. I was not to step on the (fabric-covered) wings but only on the black plywood tread. I was to step on the leather seat of the front cockpit and then ease myself down into it, like an egg into a crate, keeping my feet off the puckered pouch on the floor, right in the center, which housed something or other important. The controls in the front cockpit were disconnected, he said (good!), and I was to give the thumbs up from time to time to let him know “everything was all right.”

“What do you mean ‘everything’?” I asked, suddenly fearing responsibility.

“Just that you’re comfortable,” he said. “We’ll be taking off northeast, flying through a saddle in the Aberdares to Mount Kenya. Should arrive by one.” So there I was in the Meryl Streep seat, my oversize leather jacket bunched tightly by the lap and shoulder harness. The seat had straps for two either very slim or very friendly passengers. The needles in the dashboard dials began to flutter, and a stick labeled “throttle” described a mysterious arc all by itself on the left-hand side of the cockpit. The little plane hurtled frantically forward and I realized I could not see where it was going, my view totally blocked by the high curve of the dashboard. Out the sides, there was a view, threaded over by rigging that held the top wing to the bottom and served as a kind of harp for the wind to play on.

We were aloft, and the noise, as Andrew had warned, was horrendous. It was as if the plane was screaming — and who could blame it with the abuse it seemed to be taking. I concentrated on the low-pitched heartbeat of the motor, a steady pulsing that was never interrupted, though I constantly expected it to be, by that cough I remember hearing in war films. Time for a thumbs up. The wind flattened my arm each time I raised it, so after three tries I seemed to have been pantomiming thumbing a ride in the air, which was not inappropriate. Not long after takeoff, the screaming turned to something like singing, and this is no doubt where Mozart kicks in for the Safari
passengers. Below were little settlements in the Great Rift Valley, tiny shelters giving scale to the steep valley wall, the Escarpment, over which we were flying. The flat valley landscape stretched out of sight behind us, pale green and glistening except where the clouds threw shadows over it like purple blankets.

Then we were up over the Aberdare Mountains, thick green billows of bamboo and montane forest, a dark, secret place, home to monkeys and leopards, lions and elephants and once to the Mau Mau. Clouds began to roll in under us on the right. On the left, the sun was still shining. In the thermals, the tiny plane slipped and slid, its forward movement momentarily suspended as if it were dangling on a string. Another thumbs up, in case Andrew was worried for me. He must have been encouraged, because he executed a half-turn and stood the plane on one wingtip. As if pointing with it, Andrew was showing me a slender silver waterfall, tumbling in three leaps down black wooded slopes into a shining thread of river. Much later, a similar maneuver signaled a herd of elephants at a muddy water hole. The biplane soldiered on over lumpy forest that looked like an agitated sea. It was almost three; we would be nearing Mount Kenya. Except in the early morning, this majestic snow-clad mountain on the equator is shrouded in clouds. I’d heard that one pilot had three times flown a plane into it. The Safari Club is carved into the mountain’s wooded lap, and even when we circled over the clubhouse, pool, villas and golf course, Mount Kenya itself was invisible. Andrew made a tight little landing at Mawingu, the bush airstrip, and his second pilot, Jim Dale, came out of the gum pole office of Classic Aerial Safaris to help me out of the plane. Turn around, step on the seat, stand on the black tread, jump to the ground. The flight hadn’t bothered my ears, but my knees wobbled.

I had a question for Andrew. “If I couldn’t see forward from my cockpit, how can you see where you’re going from yours?”
“A good question,” he answered. “I can’t.” In the office I glanced through the guest book: “My heart and soul sing with emotions, Jan”; “I cried tears of joy, James”; and from Wilhelmina: “O that my life could have ended at the moment of climax when I touched the hand of God and He smiled upon my soul.” In “Out of Africa,” Karen Blixen had written: “Every time that I have gone up in an aeroplane and looking down have realised that I was free
 of the ground, I have had the consciousness of a great and new discovery.
‘I see,’ I have thought. ‘This was the idea and now I understand everything.’ ”

I didn’t stop to write in Andrew’s book. I wanted only to get to a telephone and call home.

Africa Explore

Stone town, spice island


In my mind, Zanzibar had always been located somewhere between Timbuktu and Xanadu, or to put it another way, midway between fact and fiction. But the Air Kenya flight from Nairobi touched down on a real island, 25 km off the coast of Africa, six degrees below the equator where a real rain was falling and real palm trees blowing in the softly scented air.The Serena Inn, where I would be staying, had sent their minibus to meet me.

For ten minutes or so we bumped through a muddy suburb of makeshift shelters, shops, and garden patches. Briefly, we skirted the waterfront where, offshore, the stiff sail of a small dhow sped through the bright water like a white bird in a blue sky. The hotel stood with its back to the Indian Ocean. A doorman in turban and long white robe stood by the massive brass-studded teak door. In the foyer, a fountain played into a tile basin, sharing the space with a curving carved staircase, sculpted mouldings, rich wall hangings, antique grain chests. One flight up, off an open verandah,my room and its balcony looked out over the turquoise sea.

 Fore-warned by ‘Zanzibar – an essential guide’, I changed into flip flops.Then I went down to meet my guide for a tour of Stone Town in the rain. Guide Muhara rolled his trousers to the knee and we began our walk, down streets so narrow we had to flatten against a wall for the occasional bicycle to splash by. There are 1500 buildings in Stone Town, in varying stages of dilapidation.A number of these coral rag structures, for the most part built by wealthy Zanzibari merchants in the 19th century, still have their carved doors and elaborate wooden balconies.

The United Nations has named Stone Town a World Heritage Site and efforts are being made to save the historic Muslim city from crumbling into dust.The restored Apothecary House is an outstanding example of what can be done. This eye-popping structure of green and white fretwork now houses a French restaurant and an antique shop. For the most part, though, Stone Town remains in suspended animation, waiting for the touch of a magic wand.

Through the streams of ankle-deep brown water which sluiced off the roofs and into the street, we sloshed to the fish market. Here I was told, and promptly forgot, the names of a wide variety of glinting gray and pink fish. I remember squid, octopus and a pewter-coloured marlin which lay beached on the wet cement floor . But I had come to Zanzibar for fantasy, not fish, and one of the ex-Sultan’s palaces was our next destination. In 1840, Sultan Sayid Said had moved his court to Zanzibar from Muscat, the better to oversee the enormous wealth generated by the ancient trade in slaves and spices. The palace which housed his wives and children and subsequently those of his descendants, became a museum when the last Sultan was overthrown in 1964. It was not a palace in the Thousand and One Nights tradition, however.

In the Sultana’s drawing room the sumptuous black ebony and red velvet furniture clustered around a black formica coffee table printed with yellow and red boomerangs.The Sultan’s massive bed, surmounted by a verdigris crown, was set off by a suite of imitation blonde wood formica furniture with apple green plastic legs.

The Sultan’s riches, it appeared, were the bodies of the African men, women and children who were landed in Zanzibar in their thousands every year either to be put to work on Zanzibar spice plantations or auctioned to other slave owning countries. My guide seemed anxious to introduce me to slave history, running into some resistance from me from time to time as the stories became more horrific. I did not, for example, peer down into the pit (the Anglican church now stands above it) where slaves were stored before sale but could not avoid hearing that where the altar now stands slaves were once flogged to test their endurance.

More slave stories concerned nearby Prison Island, which we reached in a dugout with an outboard motor. Recalcitrant slaves were disciplined here and the cells can still be visited, though not by me. Instead I fed leaves to the vaguely threatening giant tortoises which, in their vast enclosure, are the island’s current prisoners. And I collected shells on an already tiny beach which shrank markedly as the tide came in. On a slave-break, we travelled by car to Jozani forest, the home of the red Colubus monkey, an endangered species unique to Zanzibar. Big-eyed monkeys large and small hung from leafy branches, the babies sometimes crashing through the foliage to drop like ripe fruit to the ground.

 Nearby, a Spice Garden Tour has been developed which proved to be less a garden, more a jungle. I followed my all-knowing guide down a muddy path laced with spider webs and crossed by columns of biting ants, keeping a wary eye out for snakes. At the same time, I sniffed and nibbled berries,roots and leaves pepper and turmeric, nutmeg, vanilla and cloves.which were picked or dug up by Mr. Muhara. He even snipped off a bit of an iodine plant so I could apply the thick white sap to a cut on my foot. Somewhat to my surprise, I still have the foot.

The last day we drove to Mangapawni, the Serena Inn’s resort on the Northwest coast. It’s a short stretch of sand backed into a forested cliff, with 16 or so rustic beds in the shade of reed-roofed tables. An attentive staff shuttled back and forth with cold drinks while the hotel chef, at his massive stone grill, prepared lunch of lobster, prawns, kingfish, steak and chicken. The shaded dining terrace overlooked the inlet and the stretch of beach where fishermen were mending their boats in the sun.

I could have trekked through the forest after lunch to visit the underground bunker where slaves were hidden after the trade was officially outlawed, but instead accepted the offer of three fishermen to go for a sail in a belem, a small dhow. In fifteen minutes they had rigged and raised the lateen sail and we headed out into the jewel-blue Indian Ocean in perfect silence. There was no creaking, no flapping, no water lapping, just the sensation of being drawn onward by the wind as if on the end of a string.Then it was back to the Serena where, while I was at dinner, the shutters of my room would be closed over the view of a moonlit sea, the netting drawn around the four poster bed, and the coverlet strewn with jasmine blossoms.

Rather like a night in Xanadu.