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Queen Elizabeth II: She arrived in Kenya a princess but left a Queen

William Ole Ntimama was the interpreter for chief N Kortom when Queen Elizabeth visited Narok in February 1959. [File]

As the princess took majestic steps towards the wooden spiraling staircase, heavily armed special agents took position. Earlier, soldiers and police officers had combed every thicket to neutralise any danger lurking in the bushes. London was closely monitoring every step the princess made.

At hand were a bunch of porters detailed to wait on the important guest. The visit had thrust Nairobi and Nyeri into unprecedented international limelight.

When the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth, the first child of King George VI, finally arrived at the nondescript hotel on the afternoon of February 5, 1952, her luggage was whisked away by porters who had been patiently waiting for the grand arrival. Her destination was an unremarkable wooden structure, which looked as if it was standing on stilts.

From a distance, it looked like a big granary, elevated to the level of the tree line right in the middle of the Aberdare. Its base was a gigantic mugumo (fig) tree. Its branches jutted out of the roof, but the lodge’s rugged look belied its stature, and the thrill it afforded its guests, who included the top cream of the colonial settlers. To access the eight rooms, which were not ensuite, guests regardless of their bloodline, were supposed to painstakingly climb the spiraling staircase, one step at a time.

Nahashon Mureithi Nyaga, 87, a porter who carried the Queen’s bags recollects what happened the moment the princess arrived at Treetops Hotel.

“She arrived at about 3pm and we took her bags. She was accompanied by other guests. After she had taken only a couple of steps up the staircase, she looked at the salt lick and exclaimed in delight. Right in front of her eyes a herd of elephants trooped to the watering point, where they occasionally came for the salt.”

Nyaga’s accounts of the Queen’s delight are corroborated by Treetop owner, Eric Sherbrooke, who while bidding her goodbye said: “If you have the same courage Madam, in facing the world as you have in facing an elephant ten yards away, we are going to be very fortunate.”

Interestingly, nobody in Kenya new that the King had died and Elizabeth was Queen. Death of a King Chris Slack writes that when the Princess arrived at the rugged lodge on February 6, its beauty bewitched her.

“The Princess soon got to work with her own camera, recording a number of animals including elephants, baboons and a warthog. The Princess enjoyed herself so much that she asked for tea to be served outside to avoid missing any of the wildlife.”

The following morning she was quite thrilled to see two rhinos fighting by the water hole. Apparently, she could not get enough of the Treetops and as she wistfully said goodbye to the staff she promised to come back again.

Unknown to the Princess, as she was having the time of her life in Nyeri, things had taken a nasty twist in another lodge - Sandringham Norfolk in England - where King George VI, her father, was also holidaying.

The king was scheduled to travel to Kenya and Australia, but was unwell, and had opted to stay in Britain. On the fateful evening, His Majesty had played with his grandchildren, Charles and Anne and had dinner with his daughter Princess Margaret before retiring for the night.

The following morning his body was discovered by his valet James McDonald, who went to wake him up so that he could take a bath. There was no direct way of immediately breaking the devastating news to Princess Elizabeth who had automatically become the Queen by virtue of her being the eldest of the king’s children.

And as government officials scaled the endless hurdles of bureaucracy in London it took one call to a journalist covering the royal visit in Kenya to break the news. Acting on a news flash by Reuters, an East African Standard correspondent, Granville Roberts, contacted the authorities in Kenya.

Back in London, news of the death, which had now been confirmed by a medical doctor, was first communicated to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, before top officials were assembled to strategise on how to manage the tragedy.

The King was only 56 years old. The correspondent immediately called Lieutenant Colonel Martin Charteris, Elizabeth’s private secretary, who was at the time staying at the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri. By this time, the Princess, who had unknowingly become the Queen, was already at Sagana Forest Lodge. The lodge had been given to her as a wedding gift in 1951 by the then governor of Kenya, Philip Mitchel, as a belated wedding gift so that they could have a perfect view of wildlife and Mt. Kenya. 

The East African Standard later reported that following the King’s death, between 2.15pm and midnight, the telephone and telegraph exchanges in Nyeri and Nairobi handled a record 8,000 trunk calls. Never before had so many calls be made in Kenya.

During the same period, the two teleprinter channels in Nyeri carried 175 messages, which translated to a total of 25,352 words. When word finally reached Sagana Lodge, the new Queen’s husband, Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, took her for a walk and gently broke the news. This marked the beginning of an elaborate plan to fly Her Majesty out of Nyeri to London. Her evacuation was not without drama after it emerged that she could not take off from Nairobi.

From Nyeri the Queen was driven to Nanyuki, escorted by Lady Pamela Mountbatten, Charteris, and Michael Parker as her luggage followed in another car. Her plane took off from Nanyuki air strip at exactly 6.57 pm, seventeen minutes after her arrival.

She flew aboard an East African Airways Dakota, christened Sagana, right into the eye of a storm in Entebbe, Uganda. Wooden plaque On arrival in Uganda at 8.44 pm, she was met by the Governor, Andrew Cohen, Chief Secretary, H.S. Porter and the Commissioner of Police, JW Deegan but her flight back to London was delayed by three hours by an unusually heavy storm.

When the skies cleared, the Queen flew away to London where Buckingham Palace was waiting for her to lead the world in mourning her father and steering her kingdom. After her departure, things worsened in Kenya.

Two years after her visit on October 10, 1954, Treetops was attacked and burnt down by Mau Mau freedom fighters. So enraged were the fighters by Britain’s continued domination of Kenya that they also destroyed the mugumo tree on which the hotel was hoisted.

There have been attempts, 60-year-old Amos Ndegwa, Treetops hunter-cum-guide explains, to replant a mugumo tree on the exact spot where the original hotel was, but every seedling planted there dies off or is uprooted by elephants.

“Perhaps, the Mau Mau cursed the place,” says Ndegwa.

The only reminder of the room where the Queen slept is a wooden commemorative plaque, the only item that was rescued from the lodge after Mau Mau’s rampage.

Despite his age and challenges with formal education, Nyaga stayed in communication with Buckingham Palace. He received a letter from the Queen, signed by Miss Jennie Vine, the palace’s deputy correspondence co-ordinator.

When the interview was conducted, Nyaga was unwilling to divulge his request to Buckingham palace but his letter read in part: “While I must tell you that it is not possible for the Queen to do as you ask, it was nevertheless most kind of you to take time and trouble to write as you did.”