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News & Advice

My life in travel: Virginia McKenna

'Kenya is where Born Free began'

Wildlife campaigner, Virginia McKenna, is leading two anniversary tours to Kenya in October to celebrate the 30th birthday of her charity, the Born Free Foundation (bornfree.org.uk).

First holiday memory?

Being taken to Sandwich in Kent by my father. Then, when I was able to travel on my own, I used to spend holidays with my grandmother on the coast of Normandy. It was a pebble beach, so you couldn't go digging, but that didn't matter. We used to go out in canoes instead and it had mildly better weather than home!

Favourite place in the British Isles?

Surrey, near my home in the leafy hills south of Dorking. I have a wonderful view and I'm surrounded by nature. I've got lots of lovely wild animals in the woods nearby, it's very peaceful and everything I could wish for.

Also, the Born Free Foundation has a little cottage on the Isle of Skye that we rent out. We were given it many years ago by an American friend who could no longer travel for health reasons. I've stayed there and it is quite wonderful.

Best holiday?

A family camping holiday to Kenya in the mid-1970s. The highlight was spending Christmas at George Adamson's camp in Kora, seeing the lions he was rehabilitating, driving in the reserve, paddling in the River Tana and cooking mince pies with Hamisi, the chef, on the outdoor camp fire.

In those days, you could camp anywhere. One morning we were all outside brushing our teeth when three magnificent Maasai people appeared out of the bush and looked at us in amazement. We all said "hello" and smiled and we waved our toothbrushes in farewell.

What have you learnt from your travels?

To try to travel with an open mind and leave any preconceptions at home. Also, to be positive about all the experiences, even the ones that perhaps are not so enjoyable.

Ideal travelling companion?

It was my husband, Bill Travers. We were in tune on so many things. Since he passed away, I like to be with people who are on the same wavelength and think about things in a similar way. Someone with whom I can look, and watch, without speaking.

Greatest travel luxury?

A cotton sunhat, a bottle of water and a camera. Not that I take a lot of photos. Sometimes you miss the whole atmosphere of the moment if you are fiddling away with the view finder.

Holiday reading?

I really like to read a book that is connected to where I am travelling. For example, Brian Jackman is about to have a new book published called Savannah Diaries. For anyone like myself who loves Africa, it's a must.

Where has seduced you?

The place I describe as my spiritual home is Kenya. I first went in the 1960s to make the film Born Free with my husband and have been going back every year since.

The most special place in Kenya for me is Elsa's Kopje in Meru National Park – a beautiful camp with delightful and caring staff. Meru is the reserve where Joy and George Adamson taught the lioness Elsa to live a free life. Elsa is buried there and, for me, it represents unspoilt beauty, tranquillity and a sense of where the whole Born Free story began.

I have been back there more times than I can count and can hardly wait for my next visit in October when I'll be taking a group of people, to share all those experiences and, no doubt, have many more.

Favourite walk?

Walking from the village where I live in Surrey up to Leith Hill Tower. You can see seven counties from the top, it's quite extraordinary. There's not a man-made thing in sight – you're completely surrounded by nature. It has so many memories because I've lived there so long.

Best meal abroad?

At Elsa's Kopje. I'm a vegetarian and I love it because they cater for all kinds of diets. They grow all their own herbs and it's all freshly made, using ingredients from the local market. It's beautifully served in a beautiful setting.

Where next?

Malawi. For some years now we have funded a lioness refugee centre in the capital Lilongwe. Some time ago, we took a one-eyed lioness called Bella out there, who had been saved from a horrible zoo in Romania. This time, we're taking a male, Simba, who was saved from a compound in France by a Belgian who then called us for help. We are due to bring him out and hopefully, if the two like each other, we will pair them. The place has a huge education centre too, which is a really important visual reminder that we must care for these animals and keep them safe.