Out of Africa – Hollywood’s effect on Kenyan tourism

Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships during the Trojan Wars. Sydney Pollack’s Oscar-winning film, Out of Africa, launched Kenya’s tourism career. Before Out of Africa, Kenya was the preferred but very exclusive destination of royalty, aristocracy and glitterati for whom, in the 1900s, it was THE big game hunting safari destination. It was not, however, a holiday option for the average traveller.

Out of Africa shampoo scene
Out of Africa tells the story of Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep), a Danish baroness, and her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (played by Robert Redford). Out of Africa won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Sydney Pollack.

Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa

In 1985 Out of Africa changed all that. The film was based on the autobiographical book Out of Africa published by Isak Dinesen (the pen-name of Danish author Karen Blixen) in 1937. All over the world, movie-goers were enchanted by the sublime scenery of the Masai Mara National Reserve, the Shaba National Reserve and the cascading waterfalls of the Aberdares Mountain Range. And they flocked to Kenya in their thousands.

As a result, Kenya’s hotel industry blossomed along with her tourism infrastructure and Nairobi established itself as the Safari Capital of the World. In 1986 Karen Blixen’s erstwhile home at the foot of the Ngong Hills was turned into a museum and is now one of Nairobi’s most visited tourist venues.

Such is the power of the silver screen.

Kenya movie posters

Hollywood’s love affair with Kenya, however, began long before Robert Redford so memorably washed Meryl Streep’s hair in the Mara River. It began in the 1950’s when a cavalcade of stars flocked to Kenya to feature in a train of cinematic greats such as King Solomon’s Mines (1950), starring Stewart Granger; The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner; and Mogambo (1953) featuring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly.

The cast of Mogambo, 1953
A break in filming for the Mogambo cast (1953) © Ker & Downey Safaris

Born Free

At the same time a number of notable British films were made in Kenya, such as Where No Vultures Fly (1951), which documented the founding of Kenya’s legendary national parks, and Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957), one of the first great Tarzan epics. Then, in 1966, Kenya hit gold with Born Free, a British film based on Joy Adamson’s 1960 book of the same name. Starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as Joy and George Adamson, it was filmed entirely in Shaba National Reserve and follows the fortunes of Elsa the lion cub.

Now becoming established as a popular destination, Kenya went on to provide the backdrop for numerous films such as: Sheena Queen of the Jungle (1984), White Mischief (1987), Kitchen Toto (1988), Mountains of the Moon (1989), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) and Paradise Love (2012).

In 2002, the German language film, Nowhere in Africa, was filmed in Hell’s Gate National Park and went on to win over 14 international awards. And the 2005 film, The Constant Gardener, filmed in Nairobi and Lake Turkana, received worldwide acclaim. Subsequently, Hell’s Gate National Park memorably provided the backdrop for the films Tomb Raider 2001 and 2003 starring Angelina Jolie.

It’s not only on the big screen that Kenya stars, however. She has also provided the location for the blockbuster TV reality show Survivor and the high-action backdrop for countless award-winning television wildlife series such as the BBC’s Big Cat Diary, which has made the lions of the Marsh Pride in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve possibly the most famous lions in the world.

A young male from the Marsh Pride, Masai Mara
A young male from the Marsh Pride, Masai Mara


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