Mile 327 and an unofficial tree post office: Nairobi's time capsule

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Dubai - Buried underneath a thorny Acacia tree in Nairobi’s unofficial post office are the travel tales from the past

By Anjaly Thomas

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Published: Thu 12 Aug 2021, 8:23 PM

In 1890, a British railroad camp was set up on the Kampala- Mombasa railway and simply called Mile 327. It served as the British provincial capital until 1905, became the centre of the colony’s tea and coffee trade and eventually went on to become Independent Kenya’s capital in 1963.

Welcome to Nairobi, the Green City under the sun. Today, you can breakfast with giraffes, shop at swanky malls and launch your game drives here, but before it transitioned into its current avatar, Nairobi, with its temperate climate, steadfastness and vulnerability, became the home of Europeans looking for a new life.

There are reasons enough for the city’s popularity amongst tourists and filmmakers. But not everyone is here for the game drives; some are here for coffee and a handful, like me, for the excitement its history evokes, particularly through the writings of Elspeth Huxley, Karen Blixen and Ernest Hemingway. And its 130-year-old railway station.

After all, this place of cool waters, as the Swahili meaning of its name suggests, is an emotion.

An unofficial post office and an online forum

Like the books, the story of Mile 327 also begins like this: Once upon a time… when the railroad came to Mile 327, four sparsely furnished rooms over a general store and post office were set up as a hotel overseen by Mayence Bent, who ran the store and “post office” for two years before opening the Stanley Hotel with 15 beds. Soon, in 1907, Mile 327 turned into a small village and hunters, adventurers and fortune-seekers arrived to a new life that was growing here.

Mayence divorced, remarried and started what is today Sarova Stanley Hotel or simply, Stanley. The hotel gained reputation and many writers, including Karen Blixen, Elspeth Huxley and later Ernest Hemingway, hung out here regularly. Letter and notes were exchanged at the reception desk. And in the year 1922, the first stock was floated in its bar on ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, which later gave rise to Nairobi’s Stock Exchange.

In 1958, when the hotel was redesigned, a Naivasha thorn tree (Acacia xanthophloea) was planted in its courtyard. On its trunk, tourists overlanding between Cairo and Cape Town left messages for fellow travellers, letters and enquiries about rides to the next destination, elevating the tree to the status of an unofficial ‘post office.’ That tradition continues today. Today’s tree is the third in line and buried under it is a time capsule to be opened in 2038, during its replacement.

Thorn Tree Café was later built around it and 38 years later, in 1996, inspired Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, to start the world’s leading online travel forum, Thorn Tree.

In fact, Stanley Hotel is Nairobi’s history in a nutshell.

A place where writers find inspiration

The best way to find out things, if you come to think of it, is not to ask questions at all...

These words of author Elspeth Huxley are particularly true of Kenya and the life it offered her during her stay between 1913 to 1925. In Nairobi, if you are patient, all the answers come to you. The author of The Flame Trees of Thika frequented the Stanley and immortalised it in several of her works. Colonel John Henry Patterson, author of The Man-eaters of Tsavo (inspiration for film The Ghost and the Darkness) also found his stimulus while staying here.

That being said, it was hard to miss Karen Blixen here — she being the most identifiable name here. This Danish aristocrat arrived in the then British East Africa and lived here between 1914-1931 through one marriage, bankruptcy and a tragic love affair. Upon returning home, she penned her experiences in her book (and later a movie) Out of Africa. Such was her contribution to Nairobi’s fame that a huge part of the Maasai Mara was named after her. When not tending to her coffee plantation, Karen spent her ‘restful and limpid’ evenings at Stanley.

I turned my attention to Ernest Hemingway, an American journalist and author, who arrived in 1933, two years after Karen Blixen left and eventually ended up at Stanley. My reason to trail Papa Hemingway were many — I am a lover of literature and literary figures, the wild outdoors and good coffee. Hemingway ticked all the boxes. Sure, he knew how to spin stories, but he also sniffed out great places to travel, adventures to have and cafes to visit.

Himself a big game hunter, Hemingway became hunting buddy of Karen’s former husband Bror von Blixen. It was while recovering from post-hunting illness at Stanley that Hemingway made notes of his famous Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

His short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (later a film) is set in Stanley Hotel. When not writing, Hemingway, as the staff had me believe, simply watched the world go by.

For a while, I did the same, imagining the day when he introduced the word ‘safari’ to the English language. What was going through his head? Safari is a Swahili word that means ‘journey’.

From here, my trail led to the stone-built, tiled roofed Norfolk (today Norfolk Fairmont), another of the city’s colonial landmark just a few blocks way. It had the distinct markings of a Hemingway favourite. Karen had left her mark here too, alongside Alan Moorehead, author and war correspondent who preferred Norfolk over Stanley while researching his books in 1958.

Another author to join the literary greats at Norfolk was Sottish born John Alexander Hunter, who moved permanently to Nairobi in 1908 and his books are said to be written here over coffee with his friend and Karen’s lover Denys Finch Hatton.

Historians claim that Nairobi literally grew around the Norfolk, believing that if there wasn’t a Norfolk Hotel, there may not have been a Nairobi. And without a Nairobi, what would Kenya’s history be like?

But as I made my way out, I pictured Hemingway in his hat and parasol walking alongside me.

The memories are green

Nairobi thrives — on its past and vision of the future. Its urbaneness may seem to distance it from its wilderness, but the city has it all. Over the din of the omnipresent, decorated matatus, you can hear the lions roar in the world’s only national park within the city. But of all the reasons to visit Nairobi, a journey into its colonial past and story-book reality could be counted as one.

My next stop was Karen Blixen Museum. As mentioned earlier, Karen is everywhere, but her real presence is felt at her former home a short distance from the city centre. In keeping up with her love of storytelling, the museum guides took me through her life as a farmer.

I rounded off my quest with tea at Giraffe Manor, a 10-minute drive from the Museum — another evidence of Kenya’s colonial past. It’s elegant interiors, handsome gardens, courtyards and the Rothschild giraffe joining you for tea easily transports you into Blixen’s Africa. Though she never came here, a room is named after her, simply because hers is the ‘name everyone in Kenya knows’.

My last stop was Thika, the home of Elspeth Huxley and the spectacular Fourteen Falls. The journey itself was fantastic. Lush coffee plantations and fields as far as eyes could see. And like a forgotten memory that surfaces suddenly, a Huxley-moment played out.

A young man urging an ox cart uphill — like the Huxley family did when they ran out of money for gas and used oxen to pull the farm truck — so she says in her book. Just like that young man today.

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