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Reliving the exploits of Happy Valley

By Jayne Rose Gacheri | July 11th 2021

A white settler's bungalow. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Happy Valley started when Geoffrey Buxton, the first colonial farmer in Naivasha, moved from the dry arid Rift Valley to the area. Brought a dark side to the event. It had me re-thinking about the historical exploits of the former Happy Valley. Naivasha was part of this valley.

You can read the piece by Buri to find out his take about the happenings in Naivasha and connect the dots later after I take you on an adventurous tour of the Happy Valley of the settler years.

The tour

A guided tour of Happy Valley starts with a breakfast briefing at the outstanding and award-winning fine dining restaurant, the Lord Erroll. Situated at 89 Road, Runda, the restaurant is an ideal place to start the tour of Happy Valley with its enchanting and captivating colonial history.

In 20 minutes, photographer Wilberforce Okwiri and I leave Nairobi, destined for a one-day tour of Lord Erroll’s Happy Valley.

A three-hour drive through the scenic Nairobi-Naivasha-Nyahururu highway brings us to Panari Resort, Nyahururu, and our base for the tour. Here we found some artefacts related to Happy Valley. The manager, James Ndung’u gave us a brief on our anticipated tour.

The next morning after a sumptuous breakfast, we leave for the Happy Valley. It is difficult to point out the Happy Valley, which is why an informed guide is necessary. We were privileged to have Ndung’u as our guide.

Ndung’u says that our tour will take us through Happy Valley’s oddly named urban centres of Kariamu, Miharati, Rudisha, Rironi, Haraka, Njabini, Engineer, and Machinery Mawingu. He explains that these names sound strange because they are concocted from the names of settlers.

One of the rooms in settler's bungalow. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

The Wanjohi Valley, better known as Happy Valley, is a scenic region in Nyandarua County and one of Kenya‘s most famous landmarks. It hugs the Aberdares to the east, Lake Ol Bollosat to the north, and Mount Kipipiri to the south. To the west is the Gilgil-Nyahururu Road.

How it all started

Happy Valley started when Geoffrey Buxton, the first colonial farmer in the area, moved up from the dry arid Rift Valley to the area around Naivasha and named it Happy Valley.

In the early 1900s, the Kinangop Plateau (after the building of the railway) served as the headquarters of Happy Valley, a settler community that included many titled aristocrats from England. They frolicked and indulged in sexual orgies as they held parties in rotation from house to house, particularly at Clouds (Mawingo House).

Members of the Happy Valley set included the third Baron Delamere and his son, the fourth Baron Delamere, the Hon Denys Finch Hatton, the Hon Berkeley Cole, Sir Jock Delves Broughton, and the 22nd Earl of Erroll.

Others were Lady Idina Sackville, Alice de Janze, Lady Diana Delves Broughton, Gilbert Colville, Hugh Dickenson, Jac Soames, Nina Soames, Lady June Carberry, Dickie Pembroke, Julian Lezzard, and Baroness Karen Blixen.

The mode of travel then was by the famous flying boats that used Lake Naivasha as their landing base on their way to South Africa.

However, the debauchery of the 1920s aside, some good was also noted from some of the settlers. Conservationists like Joan Root and her husband, Alan, Joy Adamson, and Dian Fossey are mentioned for their good work that has drawn many a tourist visiting Kenya and especially Naivasha.

A corridor in one of the houses. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Touring happy valley today

As we drive, I notice that the once described “lucrative bushy slopes” of Happy Valley’s Aberdare Forest have been deforested through human activity until there is no more land for settlement. I notice too, that the inhabitants are neither that affluent nor happy.

We drive through Happy Valley with Ndung’u narrating stories and pointing out memoirs that bring to life the exploits of the settler communities. Decades after independence, the communities that inherited the valley are not that wealthy. Though they indulge in some white mischief of yesteryears, economically and socially, they are not that happy.

The new inhabitants of Happy Valley have less agricultural land and the thousands of acres of farmlands belonging to the former dwellers, have been replaced by small pieces of land, most less than five acres.

The drive through the Kinangop Plateau, part of the Happy Valley, is soothing and relaxing, and viewing the superb landscape is enjoyable. From here, our guide informs us, we will be visiting the houses built by the colonial settlers. As we drive around Kipipiri, the guide narrates an eccentric account of the Happy Valley set. Of note are the houses of Alice De Janze, now a local school - the Happy Valley School.

We also saw Patricia Bowel’s house, which now belongs to the Catholic Church. The last stretch of the tour is a drive along the Aberdare Forest into the elephant corridor that was home to Mountain Bull, the research elephant killed by poachers.

The writer at the Panari Resorts Falls, which conducts tours around the Happy Valley. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

From Kipipiri, our tour takes us to Clouds, the nerve centre of Happy Valley. As we tour Lady Idina Sackville’s infamous bathroom, the guide tells us of how the lady of the house entertained several men there. You would be mistaken to think that the guide was part of this happy-go-lucky community. The hotel manager becomes even more mischievous as he leads us into all the current conspiracy theories on who killed Lord Erroll, the history of Delamere’s family, and the involvement of the third baron in Happy Valley. 

Rich historical memorabilia and culture

Happy Valley, as I found out during the tour is rich in historical memorabilia and culture. Of all the historical accounts of the Happy Valley set, Naivasha, where a group of privileged British colonials who lived in the former Wanjohi Valley (to the locals), near the Aberdare Mountain range is worth retelling.

These communities were notorious for drug abuse and were promiscuous - included here is partner swapping. Some of the group’s “wretched” activities have been highlighted in books and films such as White Mischief, Earl of Erroll, and Child of Happy Valley.

Some books at a small library at Nyahururu Golf Club bear the names of some of the people who once made Happy Valley their home before the wind of change blew them away after independence.

Connecting the dots

Were the exploits of Happy Valley that stretched far to Naivasha relieved during the just concluded WRC Safari Rally? What of stories of the happenings captured in-camera of enthusiasts relentless in their pursuit to be amused, through drink, drugs, and sex – just like the settler community of Happy Valley did in the 1920s through 1940s.

The writer at Panari Hotel, Nyahururu for the Happy Valley Tour. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Now you know. Connect the dots to what happened at Naivasha during the WRC Safari Rally to the events of those settler years. Could history be repeating itself? Time will tell.

 Happy valley houses fact-file

Some of the homes formerly owned by the British and Boers had been left to Kenyan families, while others were left to the wild. Geoffrey Buxton built the oldest home located in Wanjohi Valley in Kipipiri, Nyandarua, in 1908.

The houses dot the countryside, standing out like lone toadstools. Some are in remarkable condition, others are husks, forgotten and forlorn or competing with grass and other life.

Some of the houses are found among the occasional thistly acacia in Gilgil, Naivasha, and in the valley, within the precincts of the impossibly beautiful blue of the Aberdare ranges.

The architecture varies, depending on the nationality of the former owner: the sloping roof models belong to the British settlers, the non-flashy, square stones to the Boers, and the creative, non-conventional assemblage has a touch of American architecture.

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