In Nyeri, Memories of Queen's Visit Live On

Monday June 3 2002


A tree planting ceremony led by the Minister for Tourism, Kalonzo Musyoka, flanked by the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Edward Clay, this Monday afternoon at the Treetops hotel in Nyeri is to mark Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee Day on Tuesday, June 4, which is being celebrated throughout the 54-nation Commonwealth.

The highlight of the Golden Jubilee celebrations will be a national service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The minister and the high commissioner will be joined by other guests in celebrating that unique night on February 5-6, 1952, when the young princess ascended to the throne upon the death of her father, King George VI. There is a reception on Wednesday at the British High Commission in Nairobi.

In Britain, thejubilee celebrations kicked off with "summer parties" at the weekend and will continue up to the coming weekend.

Fifty years ago, Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were on a one-week tour of Kenya Colony and spent a night at Treetops as private guests of Major Eric Sherbrooke Walker and his wife Lady Bettie, who owned the Outspan Hotel. The couple had in 1932 built the unique tree house in a huge mugumo (fig) tree along an animal track leading to a natural watering hole in the thickly-forested Aberdares National Park near Nyeri town.

Initially, Treetops accommodated only two people. Walker had contracted Captain Sheldrick, who was part owner of the Mweiga Estate, to build Treetops in 1931. Captain Sheldrick deployed the farm’s carpenter, Puna Nanji, as the construction supervisor, assisted by the farm workers. In the early stages, wild animals often chased them away from the site, so Sheldrick doubled the charges for the construction work, citing the dangers involved.

An employee of Sheldrick, the late Arthur Wachira Waitara of Ihururu, who fought in World War I, recalled the those days before he died in 1984.

After the "tree house" was completed, it was open to guests on Wednesdays only; guests stayed the night. They were usually white settlers from the White Highlands, who brought their guests over to view the wild animals in the area. The rising demand forced Walker to extend the accommodation as the years went by.

The guests were not chauffered in style from the Outspan Hotel as is the case today, but drove themselves. They were advised to call at the Mweiga Estate to obtain the keys to the house from Waitara, who was the farm clerk in charge of farm labour. The following morning, they would return the keys on their way to Outspan.

The royal couple were in the then British colony on the first leg of their tour of the Commonwealth, a journey that was to take them to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and on to Australia and New Zealand. The royal couple planned to sail from Mombasa to Colombo on the next stage of their tour.

Princess Elizabeth and the Duke had arrived in Nairobi on a Friday, February 1, for a six-day tour. They had been seen off at the airport in Britain by her father, King George VI, her mother, Queen Elizabeth, and the prime minister. They were visiting Kenya to receive their "wedding gift" from the colony, the £2,000 Royal Lodge (today’s Sagana State Lodge). It was built on a plot overlooking the trout-filled Sagana River on the lower slopes of Mt Kenya.

The gift was the brainchild of the Governor of the colony, Sir Philip Mitchell, who had chosen the site, a remote area at the time, as opposed to the Ngong site initially proposed.

The keys to the Lodge were presented at Government House (today’s State House), where the couple met 100 "leaders of the community."

Princess Elizabeth had married Philip Mountbatten, a British naval lieutenant and member of the Greek royal family, on November 20, 1947, whereupon her husband became Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

By Sunday morning, the couple had had an extensive tour of Nairobi’s institutions and had also found time to visit the Nairobi National Park, Pumwani African Hospital, King George VI Hospital (the present Kenyatta National Hospital) and the Princess Elizabeth Hospital (Nairobi Hospital). They also visited the All Saints and St Andrew's churches.

Their drive from Nairobi to Nyeri, in a Humber limousine, was a long but pleasant one, with thousands of people lining the road and cheering them as they passed. The entire route had been watered to lay the dust.

On arrival, the princess used the key she had been presented earlier to open the door of their marvellous gift. The following day, they drove to Mweiga Polo Club, where the Duke participated in two friendly matches between the Nyeri and Nanyuki clubs.

The next day, February 5, the couple headed for the Treetops. They arrived there at about 3 pm for late lunch and game viewing.

No pressmen were allowed there. Eric Walker, armed with his double barrel rifle and teaming up with world famous hunter Jim Corbett, escorted the royal couple to the house in the tree for their famous night.

Once in Treetops, the princess started photographing the elephants with her cine-camera.

The Treetops had been enlarged for the private royal visit to accommodate six guests in three double bedrooms and a room for the hunter-escort.

During this 794th night of game viewing, "artificial moons" of floodlights were introduced.

With the royal couple were Lady Pamela Mountbatten, Commander Michael Parker, Sherbrooke Walker, Lady Bettie Walker, their daughter Honor Walker, and Corbett.

At dawn, the princess and the duke came down the ladder. She was already a queen but no one knew it. The news of her father’s death was broken by the Duke at 2.45 pm, local time, after they had taken lunch upon their return to the Royal Lodge.

A news flash that the king had died in his sleep at Sandringham had been received shortly after 2 pm by an East African Standard special correspondent, Granville Roberts, who was covering the visit, but as no journalists were allowed at the Royal Lodge, he was at the Outspan Hotel, 27 kilometres away.

The message was relayed, but the duke and commander Mike Parker had to wait until official communication was received.

On the morning of February 6, the royal couple had been driven back to the Royal Lodge in a ceremonial military Landrover107 that was used by the Commander-in-Chief during official ceremonies.

The vehicle had been obtained from the Kahawa Military Barracks Engineering Garrison.

A former senior police officer, Christopher Nderi, bought the vehicle in 1978 in Nakuru for Ksh25,000. "It was a ceremonial vehicle and was in good condition. I got it registered as KVK 015," he says.

Following the death of King George VI, there was a 16-week period of mourning and the coronation of the young queen did not come till more than a year later, on June 2, 1953, at the height of the Mau Mau war in Kenya.

In May, 1954, the original Treetops was burnt down by Mau Mau freedom fighters led by Gen Ndungu wa Gacheru.

A second Treetops was built in 1957 on a site opposite where the original one stood.