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Majestic Kenya

On 5 February 1952, the 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth visited the Treetops Lodge in Abedare National Park as part of a global Commonwealth tour. She would return to England as Queen. Report by James Innes Williams.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip travelled to Kenya on 1 February 1952. It was to be the first stop on a 50,000km Commonwealth tour across four continents. Lord Chandos, the colonial secretary, recalled: “When Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip left Heathrow for Kenya, the king and queen came to see them take off… I was shocked by the king’s appearance. I had the feeling of doom, foreboding that this would be the last time he was to see his daughter.”

Greeted by the governor of Kenya, the royal couple visited Nairobi National Park, before staying at the Sagana hunting lodge – a wedding gift from South Africa. Following a press call on the morning of 5 February for photographers to capture pictures of the happy couple watching the animals, the royal duo, now with the rest of the day to themselves, made their way to Treetops, to watch wildlife at the salt lick.

Colonel Jim Corbett, a British hunter and conservationist staying at the lodge – literally built in the tree tops – recollected: “The princess and her companions had never previously been on foot in an African forest, and set out that glorious day. From the moment they left, their ears had been assailed – as they told me later – by the rampaging of angry elephants. In single file, and through dense bush where visibility in places was limited to a yard or two, they went towards those sounds, which grew more awe-inspiring the nearer they approached them. When they came to a bend in the path and within sight of elephants, they found that they would have to approach within 10 yards of them to reach the safety of the ladder. A minute after climbing the ladder up into Treetops the princess was sitting on the balcony and, with steady hands, was filming the elephants.”

The private secretary to the Duke of Edinburgh, Commander Michael Parker, suggested Princess Elizabeth watch the sun rise over the jungle the next morning. He recalled watching an eagle hover above their heads, fearing it might dive on to them: “I never thought about it until later, but that was roughly the time when the king died.”

Major Norman Jarman, manager of Treetops, received a call from the Nairobi Standard while having a morning sherry with Major Charteris. The message: the king had died. Alarmed he called Buckingham Palace for confirmation and the message was passed on to Commander Michael Parker who turned on his wireless and heard the BBC announcement. The royal couple had by now returned to Sagana Lodge and Parker attracted Prince Philip’s attention.

Parker remembers: “He looked as if you’d dropped half the world on him. He took [the Queen] up to the garden and they walked up and down the lawn while he talked and talked to her.”

Major Charteris arrived a little later, by which time the new queen had returned to lodge: “She was sitting erect, fully accepting her destiny. I asked what name she would take. ‘My own, of course.’” On 8 February 1952, the Queen returned to London and attended the Accession Council at St James’ Palace. Queen Elizabeth II: “By the sudden death of my dear father I am called to assume the duties and responsibilities of sovereignty… My heart is too full for me to say more to you today than I shall always work, as my father did throughout his reign, to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over.”

First published: Compass magazine, Spring 2012
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