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Denys Hatton: Playboy who pioneered Kenya’s luxury safaris

Friday October 11 2019

Denys Finch Hatton

This image taken on October 9, 2019 in Ngong Hills, Kajiado County, shows the monument dedicated to game hunter Denys Finch Hatton. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JAMES KAHONGEH
By JAMES KAHONGEH
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"He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast," reads the inscription on a 14ft monument on the eastern side of Ngong Hills in Kajiado County.

These words, borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1834 poem "The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner" — Denys George Finch Hatton’s favourite — capture succinctly the eventful life of this pioneering hunter of pre-independence Kenya.

The monument, on private land, marks the 20th century English wanderer, hunter and playboy’s grave. The grave itself is a few metres away, marked with four beacons. Residents call the place kaburi ya mzungu (white man’s grave).

Hatton’s remains were buried here in 1931 by his elder brother. It is said, though, that Baroness Karen Blixen put up the monument in 1945 in honour of Hatton, her former lover.

Ms Damaris Wanjiku, the custodian, says a white flag was hoisted at the grave for months after Hatton’s death — it enabled Blixen to see the grave from her house in Karen.

WAR HERO

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To get to the monument, one drives from Nairobi to Upper Matasia, outside Ngong town, then along the newly-built Naserian Road. Without a guide, it’s easy to miss the small signage fastened on a pole. From here, it’s just 300 metres to the site.

About 20 tourists visit the site daily. Entry fee is Sh500 per person, and proceeds go towards maintaining the monument.

So, who was Hatton? And why do people travel from as far as Canada and America to visit his grave? Hatton was born in a noble family at Kensington, the UK, in 1887.

A gifted athlete, he studied at Eton College where he also excelled in extracurricular activities. His academic performance though was barely impressive.

He later joined Oxford before serving in the British army where he was assigned to Egypt during World War I. Coming to the wilderness of Africa to quench his thirst for fantasy was an easy decision for the aristocrat.

PLAYBOY

Hatton blazed the trail of safari expeditions at a time when the adventure was frowned upon due to the perils of the Kenyan wild.

He inspired an era of luxury safaris in Kenya, and it is for this reason that Finch Hatton Camp at Tsavo West National Park is named after him.

He’s also listed among famous big game hunters reputed for their professional hunting exploits in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Upon landing in Kenya in 1910, Hatton thrust himself smack in the middle of action, exploring, hunting game and making merry. A classic nomad and adventurer, he travelled between Kenya and Somalia.

But among his many controversial traits, none is quite as storied as his escapades with bohemian women. From Karen Blixen to Nairobi-based horse trainer Beryl Markham and Sarah Wheeler, Hatton was the archetypal womaniser.

He broke the hearts of his lovers for a hobby, according to Wheeler in her book Too Close to the Sun, in which she states that Hatton "was the open road made flesh".

BARONESS BLIXEN

Few months before the end of World War I in 1918, Hatton met Blixen and her Swedish husband Baron Bror Von Blixen at Muthaiga Club, then an exclusively Europeans’ establishment.

They became family friends until 1920 when Hatton left the country. He returned in 1922 as a land development investor, and settled in Eldoret.

Hatton, a typical 20th century vagabond, had no known residence of his own. Baroness Blixen thus invited him at her farmhouse. By this time, she had parted ways with her philanderer husband ahead of their divorce in 1925.

The baroness’ residence made an ideal base for his operations. Here, Hatton received his wealthy guests for hunting and safari excursions.

Prince Edward of Wales, who would later become King Edward III of England, and his brother Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, are some of the notable guests he hosted for safaris.

Soon Hatton and Blixen were enveloped in a roller-coaster romantic affair. Writing for New York Times in 2007, Florence Williams described Hatton as Blixen’s “escape from the drudgery of a loveless marriage, a failing Kenyan farm and a debilitating bout of syphilis”.

GREAT LOVE

Blixen even penned a memoir, Out of Africa, in which she immortalised Hatton. In the book, Blixen describes Hatton as the great love of her life.

In a letter to her brother, Blixen wrote that Hatton made her "love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves".

Blixen though suspected that Hatton “loved open spaces, flying and hunting” more than he loved her.

During a tour of Tsavo in 1931, Hatton’s small aircraft, nicknamed the Gypsy Moth, crashed at Voi aerodrome due to bad weather killing the 44-year-old and his assistant on the spot.

With a dead lover and plunging fortunes, Blixen left for Denmark, her homeland, that same year to rebuild her life.

Hatton had lived a full, carefree and adventurous life. Nearly a century later, he still watches over the land below from his favourite spot.

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