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Kiambethu, the mother farm of Kenyan tea

Harriet James @harriet.jimi86

The crave for tranquillity, knowledge and fresh air has been my drive for travel of late. After visiting tea farms in Kericho recently, I learnt about a farm in Tigoni, Limuru, where I could learn a bit of history on Kenyan tea and life on a colonial settler’s farm.

So I wanted to find out why this gem, which once hosted former US President Jimmy Carter and his family, attracts so many visitors. The tours begin at 11am sharp and bearing this in mind I ensured that I did not miss anything. I was aware of the cold Limuru weather so I wore a heavy jacket.

Much as I was excited about the trip, I dreaded the cool weather ahead. This historic tea farm is situated a 70-minute drive from Nairobi. Passing through various small towns gave me a peep into how Kenyans in the rural areas live and once I began to see magnificent views of tea plantations, I knew that I had arrived in Limuru.

Fiona Vernon, the owner of the farm welcomed me in a soft-spoken voice and I am amazed at how easily she recalled my name despite her age and the many things she handles.

There were many visitors, most of them foreigners, all eager to learn the history of the family that brought tea to Kenya. The gardens around the home were lovely, the grass well manicured.

Colobus monkeys jumped from tree to tree as the birds chirped. The view of the lush acres of tea plantation was magnificent, rolling far into the distance till they disappeared in the horizon. Fiona took us to their two-hectare tea plantation where we were taught on the history of tea and a bit of tea farming.

Limuru has a warm and temperate climate with a lot of rainfall even in dry months. This makes it a great region for tea plantation. There were no tea factories in the past; hence people pounded tea on hollow trunks for consumption. Today, each plucker can pick between 50kg and 70 kg per day. Plucking normally begins at 7am till late in the day.

They are paid based on the quality and quantity and all the tea in this region is handpicked as this improves quality. Fiona narrates to us how she began the tea tours and how ‘fate saw her handling the tea tours that she once swore to her mother that she would never do. “I told my mum that I would never do it but now I am handling it.

I sometimes wish that I asked her the questions that are required,” she said, removing the plucker’s apron and preparing to give us a brief history of the farm. The late AB McDonell, the first person to grow and sell tea commercially in Kenya, bought the farm in 1910. The word Kiambethu is derived from a Kikuyu word which means “traditional dancing ground.”

The farm became popular in the early days because of the ngomas that took place there. After years of trial and error, the late McDonell experimented on tea farming with Camillia Assamica seeds originally from Assam, India.

The rail company used to import the tea for its workers because Indians working on the railway loved it. This is how his fortunes changed as tea began growing in Limuru and, eventually, to the rest of Kenya.

Later, we walked over to the main house for a cup of tea and snacks. It looked like a farmhouse from the colonial era, well maintained with family photos and trophies decorating the living room.

We enjoyed the short tea break before we proceeded for another interactive session on tea production. Apart from the tea lessons, we were also taken on a nature walk by Julius, one of the tour guides in the farm. Advance booking is essential the visit costs is Sh3,300 per person all inclusive. Children under 12 pay half the price.

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