|DISPATCHES - The house that Kashoggi built |
Story by BERTHA KANGONGOI
Publication Date: 3/17/2006
I had bought into the saying that money can’t buy happiness, until I visited the Ol Pejeta House, which stands in a private game reserve, a few kilometres from Nanyuki town.
Exquisite is no word strong enough to describe the house. But there’s more to the magic of this place than the marvel of grace and tranquillity: It used to be one of the holiday homes of the Saudi Arabian billionaire Adnan Khashoggi.
If it is claimed that Khashoggi was famed for his flamboyant spending, then this is part of the testimony to the claim. Adnan Khashoggi was, and perhaps still is, larger than life.
He built the Ol Pejeta house after acquiring 22,000 acres of land as his private game reserve where he kept lions and cheetahs at the house’s entrance.
His staff, it is said, would slaughter a cow everyday for the four lions. Reality or fiction, it is hard to tell. But in his heyday, Kashoggi was said to be the world’s biggest arms dealer.
Well money is one thing and taste is quite another but Khashoggi seems to have been well-endowed in both.
From the outside, the Ol Pejeta house looks just like another massive house. The striking thing from this point is the extensive private grounds and a beautiful brick terrace just outside the front door.
But once inside, everything takes on a grand scale. The reception is palatial, with a huge, round mahogany table where the rich and the famous would sip their drinks as they waited to meet the billionaire.
The living room alone fits one and a half tennis courts and is not cluttered with all sorts of collections and hangings on the wall. There is only one big painting hanging on the wall, called “Leopard Rain’. It’s the picture of a halfway spotted leopard, with more spots raining on it from above.
Here art imitates life as it is at the Ol Pejeta conservancy, on which the house stands. It is prohibited to wander outside the house’s fenced compound to avoid running into a wild animal. It is also that sense of closeness to danger when you are so safe, that makes the house a magical adventure.
For a man idolised in songs and novels in the 70s, coming into this house makes it easy to imagine how Khashoggi lived. I figure the diminutive billionaire walking from the living room, through the TV hall and out into his private pool, glass of wine on one hand and a model on the other.
But when everyone talks about Khashoggi, it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction.
Eunice Kahindo, the Ol Pejeta housekeeper who was a teacher at a nearby school when Khashoggi visited the school only remembers a few things about the man.
“He came here for holiday only twice a year,” she says. “He came with a group of women, usually his girlfriends while the wife and the kids would visit at another time in the year”.
Like the popular line, Khashoggi spared no treasure to live in pleasure. But nothing beats his innovation in self-amusement.
In his dining room is a pulley whose belts were missing. This, the housekeeper explains used to pull a boat-shaped big basket whose belts ran across the room. “He would put fruits, sweets or chocolates in the basket and would use the pulley to lower the basket onto the dining table to amuse his guests. But that was not as far as it went. For his own amusement, it said, he would have one of his girlfriends get into the basket and would move her around the room using the pulley before lowering her onto the dining table.
The pulley remains but the belts and the boat shaped basket are missing.
From the dining room is the kitchen, which alone comes in three rooms. There is first the utensils room, which is just cupboards with plates and mugs and all sorts of cutlery. The next is a small room with two big sinks — this I call the cleaning room. Lastly there is the biggest of all the three rooms that make the kitchen – the cooking area. I’ve only seen this kind of kitchen in movies or royalty documentaries.
Here I was standing in one and I just couldn’t believe how much space food and eating it occupied in some people’s life. If space were to determine the amount of food eaten in a house, I am almost at starvation point! And the kitchen door leads outside to more sinks, perhaps for cleaning the uniforms of the 120-plus stalwarts who worked for Khashoggi.
Today, there are only about ten workers in the house. They cater for the guests who hire the house for exclusive events. The running theme of the house is wood furnishings, rugs and simple elegance – elegance in simplicity.
There is a wall-to-wall dirty-white Persian rug in the living room, matching the cream of the elegant seats. The fireplace is decorated to detail with two bronze lion heads at its base while the wooden plank over the fireplace is done in abstract carving giving the whole place a rare originality.
When we come into what used to be Mrs Khashoggi’s bedroom on the first floor, on one wing of the house, photojournalist Joan Pereruan goes into moaning. “This is not only breath taking but also depressing,” she says.
The massive bed is one of the main wonders of the house. It is a 12 by 12 ft affair, a little raised from the floor and with impressions at the head that look like clouds. Like it is in most rooms, there are banana shaped lampshades by the two sides of the bed. Closets line one side of the room. But on opening them, one discovers that they are actually part of an escape door that leads down stairs.
Khashoggi lived large and dangerously. For all its beauty, two tennis courts and a paved path that leads to the airstrip, this must have been one of the least of Khashoggi’s properties. It is said that after he was declared persona non grata by Kenyan government, Khashoggi staked the house and all the private reserve in a poker game in Spain, which explains how the house changed hands.
But since last year, the house, and the Sweet Waters tented camp, five kilometres from the house came under the management of the Serena hotels.
“We hire the house out for exclusive social groups,” says Dixon Ondieki the general manager of both the camp and the house.
“This house has a way of changing people,” says Eunice Kahindo, the housekeeper. “I see people come in looking beaten or otherwise indifferent but once they get into the house, that changes. They brighten up. Perhaps it’s the vastness, the brightness and the magic of the place,” she says. “Whatever it is, something just happens”
I think it’s the magic of the larger-than-life Khashoggi that rubbed off on the house!