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Bang on the Equator
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

"Guess, who’s coming to dinner?” Sitting by crackling logs and luminous mounted cheetahs on the walls, Fatma Bashir of Kenya Tourism Board stumped me with her question. Oh! There’s a dinner date. Who? I knew not. Smack on the Equator at 0 degree latitude in Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club, I could not even see an apparition of a knight. So, who? Clint Eastwood, the cowboy with a scowl and a raspy voice? Liv Ullman, the actress with piercing eyes? Catherine Denevue, the aloof blonde? A king? A prince?

No, I was not dreaming. Near where I sat, the monied, the mighty, the megastars have all clanked their goblets. They have sauntered in their bowler hats, slung binoculars on their broad shoulders, kicked dust on jeeps and waltzed throughout the night with pretty women in tulle gowns. For decades, Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club has been the haunt of the swish set. This one sure is no ordinary Club, it has a Hollywood script to boast – Mount Kenya Safari Club was the retreat of William Holden, the smouldering Hollywood heartthrob who built sunken baths, a studio, a chapel and an Animal Orphanage on a 100-acre farm sprawled under the shadow of Mt Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain. One of the founding members was the dapper Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England.

But that evening in the dimly-lit Tusks restaurant I could not choose my dinner companion. Not Holden. Not Churchill. So, who was coming? “Zebra.” Bashir answered with a straight face. Before I could hazard who Zebra was, she hurried with an appendage. “Look, there he is. With his rambunctious friends.” My eyes followed her fingers pointing towards the manicured lawns. There was no knight in a tux, but there was a zebra grazing by the tall acacia. I looked at Bashir with disbelief. “What? You were expecting Clint Eastwood? This is Kenya , the land of beautiful animal and birds …”

Well, Bashir was right. Kenya is the land of the big five (leopard, lion, buffalo, rhinoceros, elephant) and in Mount Kenya Safari Club, there could be interesting dates: a giraffe could walk by as you dig your fork into the scrumptious grilled Lake Victoria Perch, a finch and a starling could wait on the rails as you finish the ugali (cornmeal porridge) at breakfast, and as you swims laps in the beryl pool, the crowned crane might just watch you go breathless.

As I walked through the corridors of this luxurious 120-room Club, the shadow of Holden fell everywhere. He smiled from wooden frames on walls, his bust lay on a table, his ‘hunt’ were mounted on walls, his chapel still resonating with the wedding vows of many who troop to the Equator to say ‘I do’, the lawns resplendent with the blooms of his favourite flowering plants, the Animal Orphanage – his pet project – agog with clamour of endangered Bongos, llamas from Peru, an ostrich called Patricia, a pygmy hippo christened Priscilla, a panther, naughty Colobus monkeys eager to eat peanuts out of your hands …

Beyond Hollywood and Holden, lies a hemispherical delight. If you are a golfer, you can hop hemispheres in one swing (read: tee). Forgive its nine-holed size. Sometimes size is irrelevant. Focus on its incredible positioning – the golf course, technically, sits at the earth’s bulge. Do not get distracted by the herds of zebra and giraffe peacefully grazing nearby, or an odd lion or two sleeping under the warmth of the Kenya sun. Every hole offers a spectacular view of Mt Kenya and nowhere in the world would you come face to face with one of nature's greatest anomalies - a snow-capped mountain lying on the Equator. However, here what makes the golfer whoop in the joy is hopping over hemispheres during a game.

You tee off in the northern hemisphere; on the seventh hole, you would have crossed into the southern hemisphere. Where on earth can you play nine holes in two hemispheres?

That’s not where the hemispheric delight ends, though. At ZeBar, the plush bar, you can pour the beer in one hemisphere and quaff it in another. The idea of hopping hemispheres was tickling me and I decided to do it in style. Two Masai men in beads and traditional costume rolled a red carpet, thumped the goat-skin drum, held my hand, ululated and lo! I had jumped across the Equator: Latitude 00 degree. Longitude: 37.7 degrees. Altitude: 7000 ft. Earth’s circumference: 24,902 miles.

Puffed about the Certificate of Achievement (yes, you get an Equator-Crossing certificate), I hurried to Nat King Cole who was waiting impatiently by the wooden chapel. No, not the singer with his famous baritone, but a brown stallion all prepped to take me through the woods and the river for a jaunt into the African savannah scarlet with the red oat grass. That morning Nat was frisky but the vista was bathed with morning dew, the Starling was whistling a warbling song, the hare was scampering and I forgot the woes of the world.

When evening came, the mercury dipped sharply, fires were lit in earthen pots, I wrapped myself in a red Masai shawl and watched the natives dance the evening away. The oompah beats of the drum tore through the silence at the Equator, all I could hear was the flap of a Marabou stork’s large wings and a few whispers. Was it my heart beat? Or was Clint Eastwood somewhere near?

India Today Spice magazine 2012


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