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Home / Kenya / Nairobi / Travel Tales /
Olerai House
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Olerai House
  Nairobi Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

maid_test.jpg Olerai House sits in a pasture surrounded by vegetable gardens, sheep and cows and shaded with yellow flowering acacias. The setting is calm and serene, like a painting by Renoir. Owner Oria Douglas-Hamilton greets me with a friendly handshake. She is wearing navy pants and a sweater that matches the rusty tones of Kenya's earth. Her greyish blond hair is straight and swept back from her face, her skin bronze from the sun. The look is simple and unpretentious.

"Welcome to Olerai House." Oria says. "You're tired, of course, after that long journey and I won't keep you." The air is fragrant, barely a breeze and except for the fluttering wings of a bird and the buzz of a fly, hardly a sound can be heard. We arrange to meet later and I follow the maid, a young girl dressed in a lilac cotton frock, who shows me to my vine-covered cottage.

The sun streams through the gossamer netting over the canopied bed, tempting me. I haven't slept for over 30 hours; however I know if I were to lie down now I would sleep the rest of the day. I wash my face instead and walk over to the main house. While Oria instructs her staff concerning dinner I examine my first Kenyan farmhouse. This was Oria's home until she and her husband Iain moved to Sirocco House. It is small and intimate, made of wood and stucco and accessorised with cotton throws, natural straw mats, oversized pillows and lamp shades handmade by Oria.

Resting on the mammoth hearth in front of the fireplace, Oria speaks about her plans for Olerai, her involvement with the planned parenthood clinic that she started ten years ago and her constant efforts to raise money for their causes.

She speaks with her entire body, her cheeks flushed from the heat of the crackling fire. "It's my Italian-French heritage," she smiles, explaining her animated motions.

I've admired few people in my lifetime, and then only after I've studied their accomplishments; however, as the fire warms the air, I warm to Oria Douglas-Hamilton. Before the evening is over, I'm overcome with the urge to help.

Oria started the planned parenthood clinic in Naivasha to educate the young women in the village and to stop unwanted pregnancies. Today, the clinic funding comes partially from the government and partially from friends that Oria and Iain met during their conservation efforts. The women living and working on her estate attend classes on birth control and self respect. Oria will not tolerate any abuse among the employees on the farm.

She opened her home to the public to help defray the costs of running the farm and to allow her and her husband Iain, to continue their campaign to save the elephant. Passionate in all her projects, she is determined that Olerai House leaves a lasting impression on her guests, that they understand, just a little, why Kenya is so special to her. They can choose to stay on the farm and enjoy the calming vistas or they can join daily excursions that include walks among giraffes and zebras.

The cottages on the farm are in colors of Africa--the browns of the earth, the orange shades of the cats, the purples of the blossoming jacarandas--the rooftops are a mass of tangled greenery. Amidst the lush farmer's fields, the effect is disarming, charming and so mellowing. Visitors can't help but unwind the moment they arrive.

"They sleep in. They forget what time it is," says Oria. "For two, three days or more, their busy lives belong to someone else."

I retire at eight that evening and awake to a tap at the door. It is the housekeeper, letting me know it is midmorning. Do I still want to go to Crescent Island? I contemplate staying put for two days; however, the chance to mingle with gazelles and water bucks is too hard to resist. Breakfast and a flock of jewel-toned sparrows wait for me on the patio. I treat my self to papaya, biscuits, muesli and delicious Kenyan coffee and then leave for Crescent Island. There are no predators on Crescent Island. This 300-acre sanctuary, located in Lake Naivasha, is paradise to hundreds of birds and grazing animals. Eagles perch on tree limbs, dikdiks rustle in bushes and pelicans fly in the air--wavy and silvery and alive with flying insects. We meander among giraffes, zebras, gazelles and water bucks without a care in the world. We are not threats to the animals and they are not threats to us, however, we do avoid the hippopotamus, who decides to come out of the water to munch on grass. Our guide explains the lumbering animal's habits to us and it is interesting, but primarily, the thrill is just being there.

While we enjoy our leisurely stroll, others are preparing a picnic feast. Platters of meats and vegetables grown on Oria's farm appear like magic under a grove of umbrella trees. Nothing is left to chance: A wash basin and a portable outhouse is set up a short distance away. Inside this 3x3 canvas closet, a hole has been dug and a wooden commode placed over it. When our tour of Crescent Island is over, this instant environmentally friendly toilet is dismantled and removed and the hole covered with dirt.

After the picnic we visit Elsamere Conservation Centre, the former home of the late Joy Adamson and Elsa the famous lioness. Through photographs, the home's small museum depicts the close relationship between Elsa and Joy. Memorabilia from the film "Born Free" is scattered among the pictures and a collection of Adamson's paintings.

Guest cottages frame the Centre. Each has a veranda and faces Lake Naivasha where over 200 species of birds have been recorded. Along with the many birds, a troop of black and white Colobus monkeys visit frequently, swinging from tree to tree to the delight of onlookers. Many guests at Elsamere are researchers coming to take part in local projects. It's a unique opportunity for the lay person with an interest in conservation and a desire to observe wildlife in its natural state. Since accommodations are limited to around fifteen visitors and they dine together, strangers become acquainted quickly.

Our day ends at Elmenteita Weavers, a local shop where we watch artisans Tom, Henry and Salmon weave their magic. The wall tapestries, mats and throws are works of art and a testimony to their talents. I buy two striped pillow covers in beautiful earthy shades before returning to Olerai. The housekeeper is there to meet us with a drink and a smile. The fluffy towels, fresh flowers and the hot water bottle in bed are good amenities, however, it's the staff's genuine friendliness that is refreshing.

The following morning Oria and I walk the short forested path to Sirocco House, the art-deco home her parents, Mario and Giselle Rocco built in the 1930's and where she was born. Oria's father had come to Africa to hunt game and her mother had come to sculpt and paint the human shapes of Africa. Once a student of Rodin, Giselle Rocco's striking African warrior sculptures and paintings add an aura of mystique and power to the house of arched dividers, tall windows and high ceilings. Not surprisingly, Sirocco House and gardens have been locations in movies and used as back drops for fashion shoots. The November 1996 issue of Architectural Digest featured the house as well.

Lake Naivasha and the extinct volcano Mt. Longonot is in plain view through a natural cathedral grove from our position in the garden. Oria presses her back against a plastered wall. "When I stand here and look towards the lake and mountain and back towards Sirocco House, I am eternally grateful and amazed that this is my home. It is spacious and extraordinary just like the land around it. " . Busy with her other projects, Oria neglected the house for the longest time after her parents died. "I'm happy to say I'm slowly restoring it to its original appearance."

Guests staying at Olerai House are welcome to tour Sirocco and the gardens and VIP groups up to ten can fly directly to the estate for a special lunch and a swim in the pool.

Oria met her zoologist husband Iain Douglas-Hamilton in 1970, at a social gathering at the house. She was fascinated with his love of elephants and his work for the New York Zoological Society in Manyara National Park in Tanzania. Shortly after they married, they built a camp on the river banks and lived among the beasts. Together, they studied and recorded elephant behaviour and raised two daughters, who she describes, "have sunshine in their hearts." Over time, they built Olerai House and wrote two books. "Among the Elephants" and " Battle for the Elephants."

Oria and Iain played an important role in the eventual ban on ivory hunting in 1989 and to this day, they continue their involvement in saving the elephant. "Our battle with poachers is never-ending" she says, not willing to give up the fight. "Just when we think we are winning, we hear another elephant has been killed and his tusks removed. "

Iain is a trustee at the nonprofit organization "Friends of Africa /Save the Elephants Project," with offices in Colorado (1.970.923.2466), London ( and Nairobi (254.2.891673). Donations to this worthwhile organization are welcome. One of the projects the society is involved in is installing tracking collars on elephants. This exercise enables researchers to monitor the elephants' activities and needs. The cost for one GPS radio collar including flying and darting expenses is $10,000. Another project underway is green hunting, an alternative to lethal sport hunting. A private nature reserve bordering Kruger National Park in South Africa has agreed to green hunt its yearly quota of four trophy bulls. The elephants will be"shot" with a sat-gun, tranquillized and a foam cast taken of the tusks so the "hunter" can mount his trophy.

Iain also helped produce the Imax film "Africa's Elephant Kingdom" released in 1998 for Discovery Channel Pictures Ltd. Notes on the film can be found on http://www.discovery.com/area/nature/elephants.

Oria's energy and excitement electrifies her words whatever the topic, but it is the elephants that are closest to her heart. To introduce guests to these remarkable animals, Oria and Iain fashioned an expedition where participants camp inside the elephant's world. According to Oria, to be accepted by the elephants is something you will never forget.

It is obvious that Oria Douglas-Hamilton does not forget.

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