Aviation pioneer and big game safari leader, Denys Finch Hatton was the quintessential Edwardian gentleman living in the romanticized era of large hats, garden parties and African safaris that occurred between Queen Victoria’s death and World War I.
Finch-Hatton is best remembered by his portrayal in Isak Dinesen’s book, Out of Africa, and by his connection with Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly east to west across the Atlantic Ocean. An aristocrat (his father was the 13th earl of Winchilsea) and educated at all the right schools (Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford) Finch-Hatton moved to British East Africa at the age of 24 and began indulging his love of big game hunting.
Later on, he would parley this experience into acting as a professional guide for wealthy big game hunters.
Yet safaris weren’t the only notable adventures to be had. Aviation was finally starting to come into its own after WWI and by 1929, it was estimated that out of every 100 airplanes owned in Great Britain, the majority of them were DeHavilland Gypsy Moths.
Finch-Hatton’s Gypsy Moth came in handy not only for scouting out potential trips for his clients but for also seeing the African landscape in a completely new way.
And then tragedy struck.
On May 14, 1931, Finch Hatton took off from Voi airport (outside of Nairobi) but never made it to his destination. The plane unexpectedly stalled, plunged to the ground and burst into flames. His body was later recovered for burial in his beloved Ngong Hills at a site marked with an obelisk and a simple brass plaque marker.
In April, 2009, Sabine Ludwig journeyed to visit both his grave and Karen Blixen’s house in Nairobi, Kenya
“After traveling fourteen hours on the night train from Mombasa, we arrived in Nairobi the next morning at a beautiful train station that seemed as though it had been frozen in time since the early 1900s.
Nairobi is supposed to be the most dangerous city in Africa since the fighting started in January, and houses are now equipped with at least two dogs, a security service and high electrical fences. However, Nairobi city center was a pleasant place to visit and the local people all very helpful. Of course we visited the house where Karen Blixen lived from 1914 to 1931. It’s a beautiful museum located in the Nairobi suburbs.
During our visit, we decided to take a taxi up into the Ngong Hills to look for the grave of Denys George Finch-Hatton. Unfortunately, the Ngong Hills become dangerous after night fall and we left the Karen Blixen museum later than planned.
The poor taxi driver.
Six miles of badly rutted dirt roads and one sunset later, we arrived at the obelisk where we managed to shoot a few photos before turning around for our long bone-rattling drive back to our guesthouse home, content with having seen this special part of Kenyan history.”
YouTube Video Clip: Flight Over Africa
New York Times: In Search of Karen Blixen’s Kenya
St. Petersburg Times: Visiting Author’s Africa Revives Area’s Long-Ago Era
New York Times Book Review: Too Close to the Sun: The Life of Denys Finch Hatton