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How sweaty armpit saved the queen from an elephant

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are welcomed by late President Daniel Moi on arrival in Kenya in 1983. [File, Standard]

With Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee celebrations just ended, the younger generation might not fathom that her ascendancy to the throne depended on her safety during a visit to Kenya.

The future queen and her husband, the late Prince Philip, had visited the country in February 1952 as part of a tour to a number of commonwealth countries since her father, King George VI, was ill and unable to make the trip.

In Kenya, the young couple put up at the Royal Lodge, now Sagana State Lodge. One of the nights, the couple was scheduled to visit the famous Treetops, a hotel that began as a game-viewing platform woven around a fig tree.

The platform had been built by David Sheldrick's father and among his first guests were Major Sherbroke-Walker and his wife Bettie who had built the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri. The Nyeri hoteliers saw the spot as ideal for an annexe to Outspan. The royal couple's visit catapulted Treetops to global fame. 

But securing the royal family members was no easy task. The watering hole was frequented by elephants where one injured and enraged bull could easily have trampled the royals on their way up the residence.

Mervyn Cowie, father of Kenya's national parks and John Hayward, the then warden at the Aberdares, were tasked with "managing" the animal to allow the couple safe passage.

Cowie devised a plan. Picking a pebble, he rubbed it vigorously under his armpit and threw it windward beyond the angry bull.

The pebble's noise as it fell on dry leaves and the human scent put the elephant on an attack mode and dashed toward the "intruder". The royal party passed without an incident. But there was more to their security than elephants.      

Central Kenya was in the grip of the Mau Mau gangs that used the adjacent forest as a training ground.

The fighters would have changed the course of history had they laid their hands on a woman destined to become the queen of England and hence Kenya's head of state in a matter of hours.

No attack was recorded then and Elizabeth left Treetops the following morning. "She had no idea that within a few hours of leaving Treetops she was to receive the sad news that cast a gloom across the world that her father had died," wrote Cowie.

She was now Queen of England. Treetops was razed to the ground by the Mau Mau two years later but was rebuilt in 1957.

Unfortunately, it closed indefinitely in October 2021 due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.