Ol Pejeta Ranch, Laikipia, founded by one of the legendary figures of Kenya's settler days, Lord Delamere, covers 140 square miles of dry thorn bush, including undulating hills on distant horizons and a clear view of snow-capped Mount Kenya. The present owners, Lonrho, have asked the British-based property dealers, Knight Frank International, to handle the sale at a rumoured price of $25m (pounds 15.5m ).
The most celebrated recent owner was the international arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi, who bought Ol Pejeta in 1978, but lost it through debt in 1987. He turned the ranch into a playground, with sunken baths, elephant tusks cuffed with silver and enormous beds.
"He'd spend all day sleeping until 4pm, then have lunch, get into the sauna, eat a late dinner and enjoy a night of entertainment," says James Munoriu, who was trained as a pastry chef in Mr Khashoggi's kitchen. He remembers cooking for visiting heads of state from France, Canada, Gabon and Sudan, and coup plans being discussed around the pool.
But the sale, unprecedented in Kenya, has aroused strong emotions. Richard Leakey, the conservationist and head of Kenya's wildlife service, says it is "a bit like selling off the grand masters in Europe". While it might show that Kenya is moving into the free market and not restraining foreign interests, it also reveals "a lack of clear thinking on land policy". Kenyan law forbids the sale of land to foreigners, but there are ways around this, say lawyers, including direct consent by the president or forming a local company.
Mr Leakey is uncomfortable with ranches such as Ol Pejeta and its neighbours, owned by rich foreigners such as the New York billionaire Alec Wildenstein. The ranches, he contends, are maintained by conservation charities and have no commercial or national viability.
"For most, it's the private playground syndrome. The mzungus [whites] all fly to each others' houses for tea, fish the Mount Kenya streams, and live behind good fences. It's beautiful, wonderful, but it does nothing for the development of the country - I find it offensive that these ranches are privately owned." As a result, he believes, cash-strapped national parks must compete with privately sustained reserves. He says that much of the ranch land should be used to grow cereals for local consumption or export - or, where game conservation is important, nationalised.
Who will buy Ol Pejeta? "I think you're talking of someone with so much money it doesn't mean much to them commercially, that they just like Africa and want to have this land for recreational or philanthropic reasons," says Richard Vigne, the present ranch manager. There is a rumour that Mr Khashoggi would like to buy it back. Others who have shown interest in the property include Richard Branson.
Lonrho Africa says it is selling the land as part of a continent-wide "swing in focus" towards food processing and away from primary production, and denies rumours that it is in a cash crisis. Although the company insists it is looking for a "responsible buyer", its property representative, Mark Charleson, said it could not be responsible for the new owner's actions. It will, however, expect him or her to honour existing tenancies and understand that under Kenyan law, game belongs to the state.
But whoever buys Ol Pejeta also buys into Kenya. Recently, despite relative political stability, tourism has plummeted, infrastructure has crumbled under corruption and poor management, and the issue of who succeeds President Moi after his 21 years in power has raised tensions. In Kenya, where population growth is among the highest in the world and unscrupulous government ministers frequently grab large tracts, land is a highly sensitive political issue.
Ol Pejeta's electric boundary fence marks the divide between poor and privileged. Within yards of the fence, Ole Rana Kuyoni, aged 62, walks with a small sack of straw slung over a shoulder. For 35 years he has lived next to the ranch, which he says has "always been owned by whites". He is scornful of claims that tourism or conservation schemes benefit local communities.
Driving home, Richard Vigne ruminates on the future. "The best way to look at it [the sale]," he says, "is a chance to do something right. I hope that chance is taken up properly."Reuse content