Out of Kenya

Karen Blixen & Joy Adamson: two white women who've made a mark for themselves in Africa. At a time when the continent was off the grid for most travelers, these two bravely put themselves at the task of carving their own niche on wild foreign soil. Karen is of course best known for "Out of Africa" while Joy shared the limelight with a lioness called "Elsa".

Since my flight out of Nairobi wasn't leaving until 10:55 PM, I practically had one whole day in the city. I wasn't keen on merely staying at my hotel room watching B-rated movies - never mind if one caught my attention only because it was shot in the Philippines. So I took it one step better: visit two locations that inspired two Oscar-award winning movies instead.

Kivi Milimani Hotel
Tinikling on a B-rated movie

About 10 kms outside of Nairobi is the wealthy suburb of "Karen", so named after its famous resident. Rows of mansions lay partially hidden behind tree-lined streets.  Tucked on one end is this bungalow where Karen Blixen used to live - now known as the Karen Blixen Museum.  Walking with a guide through rooms with mostly original furnishings made everything easy to digest. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.

In 1917, Karen and her then husband Baron Bror von Blixen Fincke bought this house and made it the centerpiece of their 4,500-acre coffee plantation farm. Unfortunately, not only did their relationship failed, she got syphilis from him. She then met big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton who became her lover. Fate wasn't too kind: Denys died on a plane crash and the coffee farm became unprofitable.

Karen Blixen's former home is now a museum
Karen's favorite spot from where she could see the Ngong Hills

Karen called it quits and headed back to her native Denmark. Her passion for writing took a full swing using Isak Denisen as pen name. Among the books she authored, "Out of Africa" waxed lyrical about her years spent in Kenya, eventually getting the nod of Hollywood to adapt it to film in 1985. The movie, which starred Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and Klaus Maria Brandauer, won the Oscars for Best Picture.

Almost two hours away from Nairobi, on the southern shores of Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley, is the Elsamere Conservation Centre. The original house in this sprawling estate was where the husband and wife team of Joy and George Adamson used to live. For many years, they both espoused wildlife conservation while adopting orphaned big cats themselves. The main house is now a museum (no inside photography allowed).

Joy Adamson's house at Elsamere
Lake Naivasha as seen from Elsamere

As day guests of the Centre, part of our visit was watching a video documenting the couple's life with Elsa the lioness. In 1956, Elsa was one of three cubs that got orphaned after George shot their mother in self-defense. While Elsa's siblings were sent away to the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands, Joy took care of Elsa like any mother would. The cub naturally trusted Elsa and the two bonded so closely.

In an effort to re-introduce Elsa to the wild, Joy spent so much time training the animal to hunt and survive in the African bush. Elsa eventually passed her training. But as one can just imagine, the moment of separation was quite both a heartache and joy. Elsa was finally on her own. A year later, the Adamsons returned to Kenya searching for her. They found her. Amazingly, Elsa still remembered them, even introducing  them to her own 3 cubs. Sadly in 1961, Elsa's life as a mother was short-lived after succumbing to illness. Her 3 cubs were subsequently released to Serengeti.

Goodbye Kenya!

Besides being a naturalist, Joy is an author and artist (her paintings are hung at the museum). So inspired Joy was with Elsa she came up with the book "Born Free" which chronicled her life as a surrogate mother to an orphaned big cat. Five years after Elsa's death, a movie based on the same book was produced, earning for itself critical recognition and a nod at both the Oscars and Golden Globe.

While Joy and George both continued to work on conservation projects post-Elsa, their lives and interests took different paths. They never got divorced yet they remained civil to each other. In 1980, 69-year-old Joy was murdered by a former employee. Her legacy of course continues to this day with the Elsa Conservation Trust which has for many years committed its resources to wildlife conservation and public awareness programs.

Back at the hotel later in the afternoon (where I had already checked-out earlier in the morning), I grabbed my bag stored for safekeeping. With no room to change clothes prior to a long flight, the front desk clerk was kind enough to let me use the pool shower. The water was warm and relaxing but mind was preoccupied with the thoughts of Karen and Joy and what they did in Kenya. As for me, the best I could do right at that moment was hum "Born Free".


  1. you did well using up your last day in kenya to the max.

    1. Something worth doing besides wildlife encounter :)

  2. What a great way to end your journey. Love your shots of Karen Blixen's house and the family on the bike.

    1. Karen's house is a treasure trove of colonial era Kenya - wished I was allowed to take photos.


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