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AFRICA // WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE // Safari for sophisticates

It was an Out of Africa scene.

The little biplane was buzzing around the ice castles of Mount Kenya. Below, zebras and gazelles jogged across golden grasslands like children at play.

"This is my dream come true," announced Andrew Garratt.

Lanky, soft-spoken Garratt, an adventurer from America, is the owner of the open-cockpit biplane that carries visitors on sightseeing flights from the Mount Kenya Safari Club.

That once-exclusive club was founded by the late William Holden and his big-game-hunting pals back in 1959. Now the posh Mount Kenya Safari Club _ astride the equator, about 140 miles northeast of Nairobi _ is open to tourist safaris. The open-door policy helps the club's members pay the bills.

Garratt and his cherry-red biplane seem to have landed here from central casting. Passengers are outfitted with leather helmets, goggles and white scarves for the open-cockpit flights. The plane is a replica of a 1935-model Waco YMF-5, once favored by barnstorming pilots.

The former U.S. Air Force dentist has been roaming the world for the past 15 years or so.

"It's hard to say where home is now _ I guess it's right here," he allowed.

St. John Kelliher, the Mount Kenya Safari Club's general manager and club secretary, counts himself among Garratt's fans.

"Someone is going to come along one of these days and make a movie about Andrew," Kelliher said. "Get him to tell you about the time he was biking across Ethiopia and had to dodge spears being thrown by angry natives."

If ever a motion picture is set here in the Kenya highlands, the Mount Kenya Safari Club's own story would be better than fiction.

The cast of characters:

First, in 1935, was Col. Eric Percy Smith. He traveled here from England to capture a rare bongo, a shy, spiral-horn antelope that resides in the forests around 17,058-foot-high Mount Kenya.

Smith succeeded in bagging a few bongos to sell to zoos in Europe and America. And then he and his sweetheart, Myra Wheeler, late of San Francisco, built a thatch cottage about where the club stands today.

The colorful colonel died in a bar fight in France a couple of years later. Along came Rhoda Lewisohn, a wealthy New Yorker. While on safari in Kenya, she met and fell in love with Gabriel Prud'homme, a dashing aviator from France.

Rhoda and Gabriel went househunting in Kenya and called on the widow Wheeler to see if she would part with her dream house.

Myra agreed to sell _ on condition that Gabriel go fetch Percy's ashes in France. He did, and in 1938, as the deal closed, Gabriel flew Myra over Mount Kenya so that she could scatter her late husband's remains to the African winds.

And then, in 1947, Gabriel died in a flying accident in Sudan. Rhoda retired to California.

Soon after, the property was sold at auction to an African hotelier who turned it into a country hotel, the Mawingo.

Enter William Holden and friends ...

Holden was hunting in Kenya with Ray Ryan, a Texas oilman, and Carl Hirschmann, a Swiss financier. Ryan suffered facial cuts one day when his high-power rifle recoiled. The trio repaired to the Mawingo to find a physician.

"Maybe I'll buy this place," Holden said.

Robert Ruark, the novelist, was sharing martinis that evening with Holden and Ryan.

"Put up or shut up," Ruark growled.

Holden, Ryan and Hirschmann telephoned the Block family in Nairobi with an offer of $35,000 U.S. Done deal.

They pledged to build the finest club in the world _ and invite only fellow notables to become members. And so, on June 21, 1959, the Mount Kenya Safari Club had its grand opening.

Among the early members were Sir Winston Churchill, Lyndon B. Johnson, Aristotle Onassis, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and assorted princes and maharajahs.

But the club fell on hard times in 1972, after the Kenya government banned all hunting.

The Holden bunch was splitting, anyway. First, Hirschmann sold his shares to Ryan. Then Ryan died in a car bombing in California in 1977. Holden died soon after.

The next owner was Adnan Kashoggi, a Saudi billionaire arms merchant. He bought the club in 1975 as a birthday present for his son. Later, Kashoggi was expelled from Kenya for illegal arms dealing.

Lonrho Hotels, the present owner, took over in 1986.

Visitors now are admitted with temporary memberships and have a choice of cozy cottages, luxury villas or riverside suites _ all with views of Mount Kenya. William Holden's favorite unit was Cottage 12.

Club activities include golf, tennis, swimming, horse trekking, trout fishing, bird-watching, mountain climbing, wildlife safaris _ and Garratt's flightseeing.

Perhaps the ultimate experience here is the club's Bush Dinner, a private candlelight dinner served under canvas by the River Likii as African performers dance and drum. Tables are set with silver and crystal. There are charcoal braziers and hot-water bottles for cool evenings. Sentries patrol with bows and arrows to keep critters from intruding.

Stanton H. Patty is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, Wash.

If you go

Getting there: Stays at the Mount Kenya Safari Club are included on several East Africa safari programs, including packages offered by New York-based Micato Safaris.

The club is near the small town of Nanyuki, about 140 miles and three hours' drive from Nairobi. There also is scheduled air service between Nairobi and Nanyuki, at a cost of about $120 U.S. round trip.

Rates: Room rates at the Mount Kenya Safari Club begin at $239 U.S. for a night single, $310 double. Rates include all meals and afternoon tea.

Bush dinners: The elegant, al fresco dinners served by the River Likii cost $25 U.S. a person. A minimum of six persons is required.

Flightseeing: Andrew Garratt's Classic Aerial Safaris charges $175 U.S. for a single passenger, $250 for two persons, for a 20-minute open-cockpit flight. Fares for a 40-minute flight are $275 single, $400 for two.

For more information: Contact Lonrho Hotels Kenya, at (800) 845-3692 in the United States; fax (941) 387-0028.