“I loved Njoro from the first. There was a freshness in the air, an exhilarating sparkle in the sunlight. To wake each morning to regard that great, spreading view across the Rift, was a delight daily renewed.” – Elspeth Huxley
Njoro is a shambling little town set in the foothills of the Mau above Lake Nakuru. Driving through its streets it’s seems like any other up country agricultural town, but it isn’t. There’s something different about it, it is an old town hiding a fascinating history behind its modern day goats, clapped out tractors and reams of dust. Nobody would imagine that it was Lord Delamere’s ambition to turn Njoro into the capital of the Kenya/Uganda Protectorate, the hub of East Africa – but it was not to be.
In 1904 Delamere received his first grant of land in the highlands to the north of Mile 464 of the newly completed railway. He was awarded a stretch of land between Njoro (so named from the massai word ol-corro meaning spring) and north to the Molo river which covered 100,000 acres. He called his land Equator Ranch. Here he laid the foundations of modern farming in East Africa, through trial, error, and tremendous financial risk. The local Maasai never grazed their livestock in the area as over time they withered away and died, anyone else who brought livestock in suffered the same misfortune. (It was later discovered that a total lack of colbalt was the trace mineral the herbivores were lacking, and once discovered was supplemented into their diet making future livestock farming possible).
Too far in to his investments to turn back, Delamere decided to invest in crops. He employed experts to experiment and cross breed disease resistant wheat and maize. The project became so vast that he set up a plant breeding station, and survived 4 years of trial error before he managed to cross breed a hybrid strain of wheat that was resistant to most disease. He harvested his first 300 acres in 1908.
Delamere was a property developer, he acquired land, invested in the infrastructure then sold off bits to finance his other plans of empire building. In this way he vetted and attracted other aristocratic settler families into the area. Firstly his brother in law, the Hon. Berkley Cole, then Lord Hindlip, Charles Clutterbuck came with their horses, and a rich Bostonian sportsman, Bill Sewall, shareholder of the Boma Trading Company that opened up the NFD. The money that accompanied these newcomers into the arena accelerated his plans for development.
In fact there was so much blue blood and money attracted to the area that the Njoro Country Club hosted Kenya’s first Air Rally from its airstrip in 1923. Signed photographs of King George VI and his wife Princess Elisabeth (the recently deceased Queen mum) adorn the club walls today.
Beryl Markham, early aviator was born and raised two miles up the hill from the Delamere’s farm, at a place now known as Klatabaki. This was so named after Beryl’s father Charles Clutterbuck, a very successful racehorse breeder. The railway siding where he had his posho mill is still standing. She planted a small arboretum in Njoro which is still there and represents the indigenous trees that she found in the Njoro area
Regular visitors to Njoro were Karen Blixen her husband Bror who would call on their close friends the Lindströms. She felt that ‘few places in the world are more lovely than Njoro’. Her lover Denys Finch-Hatton had built a house not far away on Gogar Farm in Rongai. Bror Blixen was always in debt and when his creditors were looking for him he would take refuge with Per Lindström. As a favour to his friend, Per cut a dead straight track through the bush on the approach to his house so Bror could see his creditors coming, and make off into the forest behind the house before they caught up with him.
Njoro has an unusual layout which reflects its grand dreams of becoming the administrative capital of the Uganda Protectorate and British East Africa. Its disproportionately large Railway Station is the center where oversized streets for such a small town convene. In between these planned arteries the town is laid out on the American grid system. A huge town square enabled large trains of oxen to turn round without unshackling them.
I have not found out what turned the tables on Njoro’s high flying future, but I feel a number of factors came into play. Firstly the First Great War smashed the empire’s plans, shifted the Uganda Protectorate’s border’s and created a world-wide depression that lasted through the thirties. Development and cash flow stopped as the landed gentry attempted to live out the slump, and it wasn’t until after WWII that the colonies had their next boom in development. In this time Nairobi had matured into the thriving capital city of the Kenya Colony, and Njoro had hardly developed since the ’16-18 war
In the 1920’s a sporting associate of Delamere, Lord Egerton of Tatton decided to settle in the Kenya Colony and bought up vast tracts of land to put to the plough. One year on colonial leave in England he was introduces to and fell in love with an eligible young lady who informed him she was not going to Africa to live in a mud hut. Egerton promised her a proper castle, ballroom and all, and spent so much time in this perfect construction for her she fell in love with, and married someone else. Egerton never married and put his entire life and love into Kenya, creating an agricultural school next door to Delameres plant breeding center.
Today, Lord Delamere’s Plant Breeding Station can be credited with having produced the most popular seed varieties Kenyan farmers use today. Lord Egerton’s School of Agriculture has boomed and expanded on its own successive successes and is now a fully fledged University. His old residence Egerton Castle has had a huge amount of effort spent on it by the University, who are setting it up as a shrine to our agricultural history; cleverly avoiding the colonial politics of the settler era while glorifying the blood sweat and tears that they expended in taming this country. Young Kenyans will be able to study past mistakes in farming practice and not repeat history setting our nation’s development back again.
Njoro still shrouds her fine successes, hiding the arboretum behind a line of gaudily painted shops, filling its wide streets with all manner of jua kali enterprises. Njoro Country Club still holds its old world charm with its full size snooker table, its walls hung with portraits of settlers and Royals. Its golf course is well set along the banks of the Njoro River and attracts a plethora of golfers from Njoro’s community.
Old settler houses that once graced the area are still dotted around, and visitors on a search for peace and solitude may find it within the bounds of Delamere’s “El Dorado,” his highland dream of Equator Ranch. Kembu Cottages are set up on the slopes of the Mau less than a mile from where Delamere first got off the train and was carried down the hill on a litter to his two mud huts, the first steps of a lifetime’s quest. Beryl’s childhood home has been restored at kembu and is now a “live in” celebration of this fine aviatrix’s life.