While it may be situated many miles away from any movie theatre, the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club has a front-row seat to its own kind of spectacle. From the hotel verandah its namesake, Mount Kenya, cuts into the horizon, a distinct set of glacier-clad summits (the highest of which clocks in at 5,199 metres). In its shadow, a tapestry of Afro-alpine foliage and forest hides hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wild animals. Plenty of zebra, buffalo, and waterbucks roam these parts, as do rarely-seen leopards and rhino, and it’s difficult to believe the genesis of the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club came, in some ways, from its founder’s love of the hunt.
It was during the 1950s that American actor William Holden fell in love with this very plot of land in Nanyuki, which lies northeast of Nairobi, during a hunting safari. When the property came up for sale in the early 1960s, Holden purchased it along with two partners, and its days as the Mount Kenya Game Ranch began. Today, the region’s foremost luxury hotel sits on this site, and there is an animal orphanage as well, just steps away from the main guest house and cottages. The non-profit sanctuary was started by American actress Stephanie Powers in William Holden’s name after his death in 1981, and acts as a modern-day ode to wildlife preservation that can also be visited by hotel guests. Thirty employees tend to their wild charges, and the group of animals has grown to include some rare beasts indeed.
The sanctuary is home to the only bongo (a striped forest antelope) breeding area in all of Africa, and also a large, lackadaisical turtle named Speedy Gonzales who clocks in at more than 150 years of age. A brother and sister cheetah in the maternity ward strut around their enclosure as quiet and stealthily as they one day will in the wild. One glance at a sponsor wall shows off an international mosaic of Chinese, Indian, and British donors, as well as a fair share of American supporters, and some silver screen connections too; names like “Mr/Ms Paul Newman” and “Mr/Mrs Frank Sinatra” boldly stand out.
Seven years ago the Fairmont group took over Mount Kenya Safari Club, refurbishing the entire property including the main building, a wonderful example of 1950’s colonial architecture, while maintaining its overall historical polish. Bedecked with authentic remnants of post-colonial Kenya, black-and-white photographs hung on walls portray Holden, as well as Ernest Hemingway, hunting there. Mounted busts of cheetah and lion, stuffed wildebeest, and elephant tusks adorn the walls. The story-worthy interior design alludes to a bygone era, when a who’s who of guests used to drop in to stay—Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, among others—only adding to the property’s rich heritage.
No stay would be complete without an approach toward the great mountain of Mount Kenya, and horseback could be the most enjoyable way to do so. Saddling up for an early morning “game ride” brings on vistas worth fumbling for one’s camera to capture as elephants and zebra lope about in the sunrise. (There is nothing much to fear; the animals observe a group of guests on horseback to be just a pack of horses, I am told, not registering that there are humans astride them.) It is uncommon to see albino zebras in the area, but spot one I do in a small clearing. Pale and lightly-striped, the zebra sizes up the horses timidly before bounding off, the embodiment of his virtues both rare and wild—much like the mountain peak not far off in the distance.
Set upon 120 acres, the Mount Kenya Safari Club straddles the northern and southern hemispheres. As the lore goes, the divide cuts right through the long wooden bar set back from the hotel’s central courtyard in the main lodge. Imbibing across the hemispheres has never been so enjoyable, and it’s easy to imagine Hemingway pulling up a chair after a day under the sweltering African sun, cradling a whisky, and jotting down notes of his time spent here in the spiritual foothills of Mount Kenya.