Everyone agrees that Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club Nanyuki is an exclusive retreat. Situated some one hundred and ninety kilometres north of Nairobi, on the slopes of Mt Kenya, it has a reputation for relaxed elegance. Many of the world's most famous names, be they royalty, film stars or merely the rich, seek it out as a secluded haven where, although you don your safari gear during the day, you always dress for dinner. Sir Winston Churchill was reputed to have been a founder Member. The list of those who joined after the Club opened in 1959 reads like an international ''Who's Who'', and includes Prince Berhard of the Netherlands, Lord Louis Mountbatten, author Robert Ruark, former US President Lyndon Johnson, Conrad Hilton, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and a bevy of celebrities.
The Club's allure has never faded. Contemporary Members have included His Royal Highness the Aga Khan, President El Haj Omar Bongo of Gabon, President Gafaar Numeiri of the Sudan, Members of the Saudi Arabian Royal family, KRH Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz and Mrs. Anwar Sadat. A highlight has been President Daniel Arap Moi's acceptance of membership, which has accorded the Club Kenya's seal of approval.
Countless people will vouch that the Club's exclusive tone has been maintained, but if word of mouth is not sufficient, the Club's reputation was reaffirmed recently when it was given the prestigious World Star Award by the United States. Thus the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club Nanyuki ranks equal to hotels and resorts of longstanding classic quality such as Hong Kong's Mandarin, the Negresco in Nice, the romantic Gritti Palace in Venice and Zurich's stately Dolder Grand.
At the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club luxury resort hotel, the normal leisurely tempo of a holiday can be changed dramatically with trout fishing, game watching and mountain climbing. The Club's staff has been primed to lay it all on for anyone who feels the need to punctuate lazy days by the pool with activities of all descriptions. A regular scheduled, thirty-minute flight links the Club to the city, and also to the range of other air excursions offered to any point of interest in Kenya. Like many of East Africa's pre-war dreams the then 'Mawingo' and now known to us Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club was born of a love affair, and one that had all the ingredients of an epic Romance, a handsome older woman, a dashing aviator and, for their playground, all of Africa. However, what gave the creation of 'Mawingo' its sparkle was the unlikeness that almost typical of the spontaneous, champagne years that gave the Kenya of the 1930s its notoriety.
Rhoda Lewinsohn was married to a millionaire financier from New York. She had everything: a philanthropic husband of good social standing and two grown-up daughters, but also a rare ability to enjoy life to the fullest. Evidence of this 'joie de vivre' is threaded throughout her story from the moment she left her family in the United States to holiday in Kenya. Although in her fifties, Rhoda was a stunningly attractive woman, as sleek as a thoroughbred racehorse, and with the same dynamic energy. Perhaps it was these qualities that attracted Gabriel Prudhomme to her. He was much younger than she, an adventurous French bachelor who had his own airplane, and was a keen hunter of big game. When he took Rhoda and her friends on safari, not only did Rhoda shoot her first elephant, she also fell madly in love. Gabriel pressed his suit and very soon Rhoda, the Manhattan Matron, had discarded her husband and her US citizenship. The couple was married in Paris before returning to Kenya to live at Njoro among the Happy Valley set.
Years later, as a widow in her eighties with swept back blonde hair and an unlined face, Rhoda would show photos to her friends who came to tea at her home in Santa Barbara, California. The pictures were foxed with age, but you could still see the figures in comical long dresses and baggy shorts, arms linked and laughing on the lawn, or proudly standing with gun in hand next to a trophy lion. She referred to them all by their first names, and spoke of them in the present tense as though they were still around. The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk' Indian Erroll and her husband Joss who, later, was to be shot mysteriously in his car one night - a murder that was never solved.
Rhoda and Gabriel were anxious to build their own home and had chosen as a setting an enchanting expanse of forest and field at the foot of Mt Kenya near Nanyuki. The property, however, was not for sale. It belonged to a Mrs. Wheeler from San Francisco who had also fallen in love with the same environment and wanted to build a house of her own, but a strange quirk of fate was to change everything. Mrs. Wheeler's fiancé died suddenly while abroad. Grief stricken, she told Gabriel she would sell the land if he would fly to France, have the body cremated, and bring the ashes back to Kenya. Gabriel agreed willingly, and later flew Mrs. Wheeler high over Mt Kenya and scattered her lover's remains over the mountain.
The Prudhomme started to build immediately and completed the house in a year. Photographs show Indian labourers busy working on bamboo scaffolding. Unlike other Kenyan houses of that time, where guest cottages were added on haphazardly to accommodate a growing number of friends, relations and children, Rhoda insisted on one large building. She said that she wanted everyone under one roof because it got so muddy during the rains. It was Rhoda who gave the house the name 'Mawingo', the Kiswahili name for 'the clouds' that so often skirt the slopes of Mt Kenya. There have, of course, been changes since then, but Club connoisseurs can still recognize the original building, which extended to where the Trophy Lounge is today. The relaxed and sophisticated atmosphere is probably much the same as it ever was and even in the early days there was an abundance of tropical shrubs, a small lake and small orphanage of Antelope and Cheetah. The Prudhomme Mt Kenya idyll lasted just a year before the onset of World War II shattered it in 1939, when Rhoda returned to New York. Tragedy ensued. Having fought for the Free French in Algeria, Gabriel flew to the United States to rejoin Rhoda but, without the sparkling air of the Kenyan highlands to nourish it, their relationship soured.
Rhoda divorced Gabriel and thus lost both husband and home, for she had given 'Mawingo' to him as a present. When he died, shortly after the war, his intention had been to return it to her, since in his own words, ''...she was the only woman I ever loved''. He had, however, forgotten to sign his will so the house went to his family, who were, alas, never able to enjoy Mawingo. During the war, the family home in France was occupied and Gabriel's family was forced to live in their unheated attic. They both died of pneumonia.
Mawingo was bought in 1948 by Abraham Block, who extended the house and turned it into an Inn. In 1959 the film star William Holden stayed there with his friends Ray Ryan and Carl Hirschmann, the latter a Swiss Banker. They were in the middle of a shooting safari, and Ray Ryan needed to recuperate, having sustained a cut eye from a gun recoil. All three men succumbed to Mawingo's charm. They bought the property and turned it into one of the most unusual and exclusive Clubs in the world, 'The Mt Kenya Safari Club'. It has blossomed over the years with each new addition - luxurious cottages with sunken baths, a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool, sauna - and side by side to William Holden's favourite project, a 1000 acre game reserve stocked with more than 800 wild animals. Following his death, it has now become the William Holden Foundation.
The rich and famous still retreat to the Club for relaxation. Catherine Deneuve, Liv Ullman, Stefanie Powers, Ali McGraw, author James Clavell, film producer David Lean and footballer Joe Montana have all signed the guest book. Those who have stayed there will understand Rhoda's assertion to a friend in California, some 30 years after her marriage to Gabriel had been dissolved ''those were the happiest years of my life. There are no regrets''.
There is no doubt that the historical background of Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club in Nanyuki reads like a fairy tale. The only difference is that in this case, the fairy tale happens to be a true story, which drawn upon the feelings of almost everyone who hears about it and realizes that such a place does exist.