Reflections on Out of Africa – by Tony
In 1984, the motion picture company Universal Pictures with director Sydney Pollak, got the rights with actor Robert Redford, to make the epic film of Karen Blixen’s life.
John Sutton, then chairman of K & D safaris was appointed to do the location selections for the film. In 1984 we were living in Keepers within the walls of The Anthill Castle, on our 135 acre farm just off the Langata Road. Sutton chose to construct the set depicting Nairobi in 1913 right opposite our farm entrance – with a good view of the Ngong Hills to the west.
The early White Settler community travelled mostly on horseback, by horse drawn buggy, or in ox wagons in the early 1900s. However the Uganda Railway (aka The Lunatic Express) ran from Mombasa into the interior reaching Lake Victoria in 1901. This steam locomotive brought Karen Blixen from the port of Mombasa up to the frontier town of Nairobi in 1913, where she soon became involved with developing a coffee farm on the outskirts in what today is the suburb of Karen.
Having established Safaris Unlimited in 1971 and now well known for our long distance equestrian safaris across Masailand, Sutton approached me to rent our farm with all my Anglo Somali ponies for the making of the film. I agreed to this proposal which would also include basing a team of oxen and a some mules on the farm. As part of the deal, Universal Pictures were to erect an electric fence around the whole farm to replace our very dilapidated wire fence. This was quickly built in time for filming to start in January 1985.
Robert Redford, who played the lead role of Denys Finch Hatton, made it clear he was not prepared for Tony Church to hire out his 24 odd safari ponies between his commercial safaris in the Mara. Filming could not wait to suit Tony! Redford demanded complete control of the ponies for the duration of the shoot, so he could film as and when it suited him and Sydney Pollak.
As 1984 had been a disastrous drought, my ponies were tired and very short of grass on the farm. I agreed to postpone riding safaris for 6 months and have the Film Company take over all my ponies, and take responsibility for paying for all horse feed, maintenance, veterinary and the salaries of Tristan Voorspuy and the syces until June 1985. In addition Universal Pictures agreed to pay me £3 per horse per day for 6 months. This turned out to be a real bonanza!
I took the time to concentrate on mobile photo safaris, knowing the ponies were in the good hands of Tristan, who lived on the farm in our cottage “The Roost”, next door to the Castle.
Besides my 24 Somali ponies I also owned 2 bigger horses referred to as principal horses, called Nanyuki and King Kong. These were regarded as bomb-proof horses and suitable for Meryl Streep (acting as Karen Blixen) and King Kong to be ridden by the British actor Michael Kitchen (in the part of Berkeley Cole).
Being an accomplished rider, Robert Redford seldom came to the farm to brush up on his equestrian skills. But Meryl Streep and Michael Kitchen came regularly to ride under Tristan as tutor. He would ride them round the ring and continue into the Ngong Forest which bordered the farm.
One day I arrived back at Keepers after a road safari to find Michael Kitchen lying on the sofa in the drawing room somewhat shaken, nursing a bloody flesh wound on his face whilst Tristan was preparing a cup of tea laced with brandy. They had been out riding in the forest and practicing a controlled canter along one of the roads which divided the Ngong Forest into blocks. On reaching a feeder road coming in at right angles King Kong decided this was a quick way home and did a smart ‘quick step’ sideways, pitching the unsuspecting Kitchen forwards onto his face. He landed on the dirt resulting in a severely grazed face on the right side. He and Tristan walked home rather dishevelled and sheepish.
After dressing the wound (what might be described as a grass burn) we did what we could to cheer him up. He was very nervous he would lose his part in the film. However with clever make up, and by keeping the left side of his face shown to the camera, he survived the whole shoot.
In the mean time I was collecting my cash from the film company week by week and hastening off to our beach plot on the south coast of Kenya to supervise the building of our Lamu style brach house, to be called ‘Samawati’ which translated into Digo tongue means ‘a heavenly place’.
In March of 1985, it was decided to shoot the Victory Parade marking the end of WW1. This was to be held down the Main Street of Nairobi, just across the Langata Road.The set was built with carpenters to depict old Nairobi. The dukas were constructed of timber with wooden board walks under a corrugated iron roof. Beyond the front wall being only a mock up, there was empty space!
When the day arrived to start this sequence, many extras were hired to form the crowds lining the streets. Besides the officers of the Kings African Rifles, there were the troops of the Indian regiments, the European settlers dressed in Edwardian attire and various African Chiefs with their tribal followers, and none other than a large band of Masai warriors in full battle array. The make up crew and dress artists had a major exercise in preparing all these people in authentic costume. Most of the crowd had to wave little Union Jack flags too. The Masai smeared in red ocher dressed in red shukas carried their glistening spears.
It was to be a night scene with a huge bonfire at one end of Government Road. The towering Wendy lights were in place with Sydney Pollak directing the parade with a loud hailer. The parade was lined up with the troopers coming first, followed by officers in horse drawn buggies (Tristan in one drawn by our horse Selous), and an old field car carrying Field Martial Jan Smuts, the Commander of the British East African forces.
I walked over from the farm to watch this incredible scene. Just after getting into position, and out of sight, there was a streak of lightening followed by a crack of thunder. Pollak had given the signal to start. As the parade arrived about half way down Government Road the heavens opened. The rain came bucketing down. Everyone ran for cover. The Masai with red ochre streaming down their faces rushed onto the board walks and hurriedly opened the doors to the Dukas only to walk out into the rain again without realising it was a set!!
They must have thought this was a crazy white man’s idea not to have a proper room inside the door. It was hilarious standing in my little covered spot watching this pandemonium! The Masai were running in and out into empty space getting soaked!
That nights shoot was rained off. As happened again the second night. On the third night it did not rain. The costs of setting up this scene three times must have been quite a financial burden on the production company.
The premier of Out of Africa was shown in Nairobi in January 1986 . It was amusing seeing all my ponies in a cavalry charge in one scene shot in the Rift Valley along the road to Magadi. The film received the Oscar for Best Film of the year in February, an Academy winning block buster which gave Kenya wonderful exposure, boosting our tourism industry for many years to come.
In the mean time I finished building Samawati by July 1986. When we christened this beautiful house with a family party made up mostly of teenagers, it was a real humdinger of a party in our partially furnished house.
The house remains in the family to this day.