A good old fashioned hero

Denys  Finch-Hatton 1887 – 1931

When I was living in Kenya in the mid 90’s, the movie, Out of Africa, with
Meryl Streep and Robert Redford had recently been released.
Being the old romantic that I am, I was taken by the cinematography and
music, which to my mind so beautifully captured the splendour and
vastness of Africa, a continent that I loved and hated in equal measure.
And indeed, the love story between Denys and Karen Blixen.
Denys spent most of his life in Africa avoiding any kind of domestic
confinement. Preferring to be out in the wilderness, mainly in the Tsavo,
running hunting safaris for the rich and aristocratic. His clients included the
Prince of Wales, latterly Edward VIII. It was during these safaris with the
Prince, that Finch-Hatton began to promote photographic safari’s, rather
than hunting with a gun. Oh, he would still hunt for food, but not more.
The original book and later the movie, depicted Denys Finch-Hatton, Karen
Blixen’s lover, requesting that he be buried in the Ngong Hills.

Romance born under the Ngong Hills

This brief exchange between Denys and Karen was covered in the book,
Out of Africa, written by Isak Dinesen, Karen’s pseudonym.
There was a place in the hills, on the first ridge of the Game Reserve, that I
had pointed out to Denys as my future burial-place. In the evening, while
we sat and looked at the hills from my house, he remarked that then he
would like to be buried there himself as well. Since then, sometimes when
we drove out in the hills, Denys had said: ‘Let us drive as far as our
graves.’ Once when we were camped in the hills to look for buffalo, we had
in the afternoon walked over to the slope to have a closer look. There was
an infinitely great view from there; the light of the sunset we saw both
Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Denys had been eating an orange, lying in
the grass, and had said that he would like to stay there.
The Ngong Hills are some few kilometres outside of Nairobi, so one
weekend, having nothing much else to do, I took one of the company’s 4 X
4’s and went in search of Denys Finch-Hatton’s grave.

On my mission, I went

I had previously visited Karen’s house in the suburb named after her,
Karen, which is now owned by the Kenyan National Museums. The house

is simple and homely, but it is the view that makes it. It overlooks the low
Ngong Hills shimmering in the medium distance. Yet the other side of them
overlooks again, the great Rift Valley, with the beautiful Naivasha Lake and
its millions of pink flamingos in the far distance. It was to this far side that I
set out, with a local driver and guide, we climbed the Hills, along what could
only be described as a steep track. Had we not had the benefit of the 4 X 4
we would not have been able to progress.
We searched most of Saturday and despite local enquiry, had no joy. I
resolved to return the following day, but this time driving virtually to the
summit of the Hills and working my way back down. It was near the top that
I spied a small hand painted sign, “Finch-Hatton Grave” nailed to a tree.
The sign pointed to a nearby Shamba, a smallholding.
I was ushered into the garden of the property by a local Kikuyu woman,
who predictably demanded some shillings for the privilege of seeing the
grave. Even on entering the shamba I could not see the grave, merely a
wall of old wooden doors that had been erected to hide it from public view.
The grave is extremely disappointing, although I’m not sure what I
expected. The original grave was a simple flat stone set in the ground, with
a view over the Great rift Valley. It was this openness that defined Denys to
the day he died, he hated to be confined, shut in, in any way. In fact, it was
this very need of his to be free that caused the rift between him and Karen.
Their affair was on the wane at the time of his death, with her demanding
more of his time. He had even taken up with the racehorse trainer and
aviator Beryl Markham (of West with the Night Fame, her story of her solo
flight over the Atlantic in 1936) The grave has a forlorn and elderly obelisk
that was only put up later by Denys’s brother.

Died, but not forgotten

However even in death he came back to her, at his funeral she read a
eulogy from The Shropshire Lad,” to an athlete dying young” which

really summed up his need for freedom.

She also tended his grave by marking it with white stones from
her own garden, and as the grass grew up after the long rains, she and
Farah, her Somali house steward, erected a white pennant so she could
see the spot from her house, some five miles away.
It seems that the two women tried to possess him even in death. But he
now has another lover, the Kikuyu women who tends his grave regularly

and charges a few shilling to those tenacious and inquisitive enough to
seek out his grave. But his death really wasn’t supposed to happen this
way. All his life he broke traditional boundaries and relationships to be free
and unconstrained to an unfettered life in the wilds. It’s ironic that in death,
he should end up hemmed in behind a wall of old doors. All within the
domesticity of a small Kikuyu shamba.
So here, in a small Kikuyu shamba on the Ngong Hills, lies Denys Finch
Hatton, son and heir of the 13th Earl of Winchelsea, Great White Hunter,
and lover of two women far more famous than he ever was: writer Karen
Blixen and aviator and race horse trainer Beryl Markham.
Beryl Markham wrote of him: “Denys Finch-Hatton has been written about
before and he will be written about again. If someone has not already said
it, someone will say that he was a great man who never achieved
greatness, and this will not only be trite, but wrong; he was a great man
who never achieved arrogance.”

Too good a story to let slip by

From my little research, I guess this just about sums him up.
Yet another woman, the one whose shamba this is, shows him a new kind
of love, taking care of the garden around the obelisk. Ironically more
symbols of domesticity.
It was Denys very search and need for freedom and his love of flying that
led to his death. Denys died in his Gypsy Moth in 1931, and in unexplained
circumstances. He was taking off from the airstrip in Voi in southern Kenya
when his aircraft exploded. He and his Kikuyu co-pilot were killed. Denys
was forty-four.
For those who remember the movie, Out of Africa, one of the most
charismatic and evocative moments of the film are when Deny’s takes
Karen up in his Gypsy Moth and flies over the Rift Valley, with her words,
“This is how it was meant to be”, all set to John Barry’s wonderful soaring
That for me just about sums up the beauty of Africa.

and every love story should have a happy ending

Karen struggled to make a success of her farm; she was trying to grow
coffee and regretfully the Nairobi Highlands are just not suited to that crop.
She was forced to sell up and return to Denmark. It was during this period
that she found out about Denys death. Although she wrote about her
experiences in Africa, under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen, she never
Sometime after she had returned to Denmark, she received a letter from
the District Commissioner at Ngong.
The Masai have reported that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have
seen a lion and lioness coming to lay on the grave for a long time. From
there they can probably see the cattle and game on the plain below.
I’m not sure that there are any lions still roaming the Hills today, as much
has been taken over by the local Kikuyu shamba’s. But being the old
romantic fool that I am, I still love the story and feel sorry for poor Denys
hiding behind a wall of old doors.

Tony Lewis, Malvern, 2022

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