Karen ‘Out of Africa’ gardens up for sale at Sh800 million


Front view of the Karen Blixen House, which is 100 years old with towering palms she planted in 1917. Photo/FILE

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills….

That remains the most memorable first sentence of Isak Dinesen’s autobiography Out of Africa, which captured her life as Karen Blixen in a colonial coffee farm in Nairobi.

Ever since her life was glorified in the 1985 Oscar award-winning film Out of Africa, Karen Blixen — perhaps because of her love affairs and enterprise — has continued being a major part of the country’s history having moved to Kenya 100 years ago.

And now, one of her Nairobi properties is coming up for sale in what is going to be the most-watched property sale in the region. The asking price is Sh800 million.

Ever since the 1976 purchase of the 114 year-old Kipande House — a national monument in Nairobi’s central business district — by KCB, few properties of historical value have been put in the market.

While over the years Karen’s coffee farm was split up to form today’s Karen Estate, her farm house and the manager’s residence have been preserved.

Her house is now a national monument and houses the Karen Blixen Museum. The manager’s house and adjacent gardens have been fascinating historical property attracting enthusiasts eager to have a piece of Kenya’s ‘Happy Valley’ properties.

4.8-acre property

And this is the property that is on sale — and as usual, to the highest bidder.

Owned by Dr Bonnie Dunbar, a 66-year-old American, the historic piece of land has been in the market since start of the year. The 4.8 acre commercial property on Karen Road boasts a nine-cottage hotel, shops and a restaurant, all sitting on beautiful grounds.

Ryden’s managing director Iain Illingworth says the property has attracted a lot of responses as was expected due to its history and position in the heart of Karen.

“Ryden (the real estate agents) are talking with a number of potential investors both inside and outside Kenya, though no deal has yet been done and new enquiries are still coming in,” said Mr Illingworth.

“The property has huge potential to build on the Karen Blixen name, with possible options including a much enlarged hotel and leisure enterprise.”

Ryden is the “sole selling agent” of the property and has not listed a price on the notice on the website. Interested buyers have to make an application with them.

Dr Dunbar is selling to “release capital” to enable her to pursue her other interests and projects in Kenya.

The price of land in that area of Karen, near the exclusive Karen Golf Club, can fetch anything from Sh40 million per acre. Commercial properties fetch a higher price than residential though the historical attachment could see it fetch an even higher price.

READ: Karen residents get Sh4bn high end shopping mall

“It could cost between Sh60 million to Sh65 million because it’s more of a commercial property,” said Kelvin Muoria of Mentor Management Group. An advert for a serviced one acre plot in Karen on Ryden’s website shows a retail price for Sh45 million.

Karen Blixen Gardens is separate from the adjacent museum.

The museum, which sits on 12.5 acres, is the property of the National Museums of Kenya and has no relation to the gardens other than a common history and similar names.

Prolific writer

“This is the museums’ property. Where the house sits was her house, the rest falls on the gardens side,” said Karen Blixen Museum’s curator Damaris Rotich. Karen called the house ‘Bongani’ meaning house in the woods.

The museum was opened in 1986 after the government expressed interest to acquire it for the purpose of establishing the historical gallery, following the shooting of the movie in 1985. The museum houses furniture and has the story of Karen’s life and the local people in pictures and antiques.

The story of Baroness Karen von Blixen, known as Karen, is well documented and filmed.

A Dane, she moved to the then British East Africa protectorate at the age of 28 years to marry her second cousin Swedish Baron Boror von Blixen-Finecke.

The couple bought farmland, about 6,000 acres, at the foot of the Ngong Hills where they first invested in dairy farming before making it a coffee plantation.
Her struggles to grow coffee at the foot of Ngong Hills is a story of determination and resilience.

Her well-documented story gives a glimpse of colonial Kenya, how the settlers lived — their trials and tribulations — and their relationship with the local communities.

Karen was not always happy and sought love. Seven years after getting married she separated from her husband and in 1925 they divorced, leaving her to manage the loss-making farm.

During her separation she got together with English Denys Finch Hatton, a play boy whose escapades in Nairobi were well-known.

(In Out of Africa, Robert Redford played the role of Hatton). Mr Hatton, who died in a plane crash in 1931, was a tour guide and lived in the farm house known as Swedo House, which sits on the property up for sale.

The same year, she was forced to abandon her coffee plantation due to poor produce and the great depression that affected prices and moved to her family estate in Rungstedlund, Denmark in 1931 where she continued to write. It is here she wrote her memoirs Out of Africa among other books.

A prolific writer, mainly using pseudonyms, Karen published fiction in Danish periodicals under the name Osceola and continued writing over the years.

Two years ago it was revealed she was considered for a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, but she died in September of the same year at the age of 77.

Never gazetted

Swedo House, now on sale dates back to around 1906 when wealthy Swedish civil engineer, who later became a Consul, Aake Sjogren, built it. Today, it serves as a lounge for guests with a bar as well as the administrative offices for the hotel.

Despite its historical importance, Swedo House was never gazetted as a monument and can be demolished by the new owners, if they wish.

“The current owner very much hopes that they will be preserved by a future buyer and incorporated into any future development plans for the site,” said Mr Illingworth.

Remy Marin bought the farm from her and divided it into parcels of 20 acres each, and offered her to continue living in her home. She declined. This was the birth of the leafy suburb Karen, which is named after the baroness.

It is also how Karen’s house was divided from Karen Blixen Gardens. The Gardens is a popular destination in Karen for both international tourists and Kenyans looking to enjoy a meal in a spacious garden boasting 100-year-old trees.

Property prices

It is here you will find locals sitting around the high tables enjoying a pint at the Tamambo Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, owned by Tamarind Group. On most weekend afternoons, friends can be found watching sports on the screens while families enjoy a meal in the gardens.

On some weekends the property hosts artists, who display their work or hosts society events.

Last week, the group announced it was moving its popular sea food restaurant Tamarind Nairobi to Karen Blixen Coffee Garden. The 37-year-old restaurant will close its National Bank Building doors on March 28.

“The Tamarind Group leases the current restaurant on the site, and have indicated that they would consider expanding their enterprise and potentially providing management services to a hotel operator,” said Mr Illingworth.

Dr Dunbar bought the property from friend and former tour guide Frank Sutton. She has worked and travelled in Kenya for years and joins other property owners who are selling part of their land holding to take advantage of property prices.

Last year Hillcrest International Schools put on sale 17.9 acres of land in Karen in a bid to raise Sh2 billion for its expansion plans. Part of the Out of Africa movie was shot on the property up for sale.