Notes from an author: Paula McLain

The best-selling American novelist and biographer travels in the footsteps of aviator and adventurer, Beryl Markham, the first British woman to fly solo across the Atlantic

By Paula McLain
Published 13 Nov 2015, 08:00 GMT, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 12:30 BST

'So there are many Africas,' wrote British-born aviator Beryl Markham in her 1942 memoir West With The Night. 'Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations.'

I should have considered myself forewarned, but having taken up Markham as the subject of a historical novel and devoted myself to extensive, obsessive research of her life, I stubbornly wanted to find a very particular Africa when I travelled there: hers.

Beryl came of age in colonial Kenya after the turn of the century, a country she painted with shimmering words and untempered nostalgia in her memoir, describing a magical place that 'had not been found,' no matter how many explorers and settlers had arrived with railways and maps and ambitions. 'It was unknown,' she went on. 'It had just barely been dreamed.'

I wanted to grasp a visceral sense of the boundlessness that had touched Markham's soul and set the tone for her adventurous life — but I'd be hard pressed to find it in Nairobi, I quickly learned. I visited the Norfolk Hotel, the Muthaiga Club and the farm Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Dinesen) immortalised in Out of Africa, all beautifully preserved haunts of Markham and her set of British and European expats, including Blixen and safari-hunter Denys Finch Hatton, the lover both women had tried, and failed, to tame. But Nairobi had long since become a sprawling, modern city with high-rises, near-constant traffic congestion and a population rapidly approaching four million.

Leaving the city by Land Cruiser, with a driver and guide from Micato Safaris, I passed into the Wanjohi Valley and the Highlands, once an Edenic play yard for the notorious Happy Valley set. Further along, in Nyeri, there was time for an ice-cold Tusker beer at the White Rhino, the site where, so the story goes, Markham was first dared by fellow flier John Carberry to attempt the cross-Atlantic flight she'd make history for in 1936.

Here was the brushing up against history I'd longed for, but Nyeri was also full of stop-and-go traffic and petrol stations and most indisputably 'town'. We pushed on, past Nanyuki, the last real outpost, standing tiptoe on Kenya's northern frontier. The paved road ended, becoming rutted murram. "Kenyan massage," my guide said, laughing as the Land Cruiser began to pitch and rock. I didn't half mind. Red dust swirled past the windows, and the vegetation grew more sparse and austere by the mile: blanched yellow flatlands clustered with whistling thorn and grazing zebra — my first glimpse of wildlife roaming, well, wild.

The murram track stretched on dustily, all the way to Ethiopia my guide explained. I was tempted to suggest we try it, but we were expected at Segera Retreat on the Laikipia Plateau, where German entrepreneur and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz keeps one of his most beloved possessions, the 1929 De Havilland Gipsy Moth used in the movie Out of Africa. It's a beauty: satin-bright, sunflower gold and a perfect match for the plane Denys Finch Hatton tragically crashed in 1931. I'd come to photograph it without knowing much at all about Segera, the luxury retreat owned by Zeitz, where he also resides part of the year. But it stole my heart before I was even properly out of the Cruiser.

Perched on 50,000 acres of staggeringly beautiful wildlife sanctuary, the retreat has six private timber-and-thatch villas stilted over winding paths and gardens. Mine had two secluded verandas, one with a swinging bed, and another that faced the plateau — a landscape so raw and simple, I felt myself expanding almost instantly.

That night I slept under mosquito netting, my bed warmed by a fleece-covered hot water bottle. At some point I woke in dense, inky darkness to hear zebra and hyena yipping and crying out, but I wasn't afraid. This was nature getting on with its business, and I wanted more of it.

Dawn brought my first crystalline view of Mt Kenya and a game-viewing drive through rocky, thorny terrain. At a wallow surrounded by pistachio-coloured fever trees, a herd of elephants bathed, drinking their fill. A group of young males stamped out streaming muddy water. One trumpeted, waggling his great head before the group pounded off into the brush. I felt exhilarated.

Later there was an Out of Africa-inspired picnic on a riverbank, and then a long scented soak in the stone tub on my veranda as evening fell, and the stars tumbled out of their velvet box one by one. I have never been happier. Dumbstruck by boundlessness. Vastness. Uncontainability. I might never find Markham's Africa, I realised, but for one moment, and possibly forever, I had found my own.

Paula McLain is author of The Paris Wife, a fictionalised account of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage. Her new Beryl Markham-inspired book is Circling the Sun. RRP: £14.99 (Virago).

Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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