Night falls fast in Kenya.
A few minutes before it does – the light winnowing outside the famous Zebar Bar, as a pair of house peacocks stride gallantly on the lawn – I summon my server. As she grants me a gaze across the room, I carefully enunciate the words: “Hot. Sauce.” She smiles. She nods.
Before long, she’s crossing the equator to bring me some spice reinforcements. It’s the first time that a condiment has expressly been genie’ed for me from one hemisphere to another – and, yet, a common enough tableau here, this being a bar, after all – the only bar? – that splits directly down the middle of both.
Life at 00:00, baby!
Come for the latitude, stay for the classic allure: that’s something else I say about the bar – and more – carved into the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club. Jonesing for an African adventure – one combining Big Five with 5-Star, with a douse of Old Hollywood – I landed here recently in this classic property spread against the backdrop of the continent’s second highest peak and once the private retreat of silver screen gent William Holden.
With little to foreshadow the splendour that awaits you when you make a hard right, on a dusty road, at an electricity substation, in the nearest township, Nanyuki, the gates – sprouting two elephant heads – give way to a time-travel of its own.
Outside: all manner of flora and fauna (see: monkeys hanging from rooftops, rich clusters of birdlife), a pond very much out of E.M. Forester, a life-sized maze to get pleasantly lost in, an on-site chapel (for repenting purposes), a sweeping highland forest. All of which can be inspected from one’s in-suite balconies, each facing peak-side – the ideal place to take in either dawn’s tah-dah (while sipping masala tea – a Kenyan must!) or a bedtime story of stars.
Inside: a chalky, colonial-recalling property that’s run now by Fairmont and is aglow with handsome suites that do not skip out on the small touches. The wood-burning fireplaces that a fireplace whiz comes to light on demand, say, or the hot water bottles they slip under your duvet every eve. You get the drift.
The bait for a trip here? Naturally, it’s a chance to see wildlife in the bush, as I did when the hotel packed us up in a Moonrise Kingdom-chic jeep, delivering us over to the SweetWater Reserve, where I checked off all the requisites: buffalo, leopard, elephants (so many elephants!), rhino and lion (four! I saw four!). Giraffes aplenty. Zebras for miles. Hippos on-coming. It was hashtag #amazing.
But what possibly stayed with me just as much during my stay at the hotel – me being someone who revels equally in the zoology of celebrities – was the chance to summon up the ghost of the man who founded the joint. Holden, who starred in such classics as Sabrina and Sunset Boulevard, first came to Africa in 1958. Enchanted, he purchased a run-down hotel; decided to stay a while.
As the 1960s come into focus, Mount Kenya Safari Club became one of the world’s most elite private members’ clubs, with membership leaning to the likes of Winston Churchill, Steve McQueen, Conrad Hilton and the Maharaja of Jaipur. Vestiges of that time remain, reflected in the images that run through the walls of the property, and, more precisely, an Animal Orphanage located right on the premises.
For his last 15 years, “Africa was the most important thing in Bill’s life” is how one of Holden’s closest friends, Don Hunt, once summed things up, a sentiment that’s echoed by Stephanie Powers of Hart to Hart fame, the final woman in Holden’s life. The two, both divorced, famously met at a tennis tournament in California in 1972 and later discovered a mutual passion for adventure and animals. (She took on the stewardship of his foundation, the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, after he died, and April 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of his birth.)
All these years later, the star of Hollywood’s Golden Age remains a legend in Kenya, where the foundation that bears his name helps to shape the attitudes of African children toward wildlife. Though mores have no doubt changed from the time when Holden first came to the continent, his legacy definitely leans towards ecological awareness.
“Did you know that the daytime here is always equal to the night time?” one of the other guests at the hotel informed me one day, spewing a bevy of equatorial facts. As a matter of fact, I did! Twelve hours each! No longer or shorter days here.
The only thing more consistent than the light, though, here on Mount Kenya? The hard-shell glamour.