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Fell asleep a princess, awoke a queen: Elizabeth in Kenya

NAIROBI (AFP) – Princess Elizabeth was deep in the Kenyan forest on the adventure of a lifetime, spotting wildlife from high up in the treetops, when her father died and she became queen.

The world awoke on February 6, 1952, to the death of King George VI, who had succumbed during the night to lung cancer at the royal Sandringham residence in Norfolk.

His 25-year-old daughter and heir to the throne only heard the news later the same day, when word reached Elizabeth thousands of miles from home in the wilderness of the Aberdare Range.

Kenya, then a British colony, was the first stop on Elizabeth’s tour of the Commonwealth she had embarked upon with her husband, Prince Philip, in place of her ill father.

The royal couple had taken a night out of their official engagements to stay at a one-of-a-kind game-watching lodge perched in a tree in the Aberdares interior.

It was during their night at the Treetops hotel that the king would die, and Elizabeth would become queen.

Jim Corbett, the naturalist and hunter who accompanied the royal couple to Treetops, is credited with writing in the visitor book, “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and, after having what she described as her most thrilling experience, she climbed down from the tree next day a queen.”

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (C) sits in Westminster Abbey, on her coronation day in London on June 2, 1953. PHOTOS: AFP
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II poses with Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, before her coronation on June 2, 1953

‘MOST WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE’

In fact, the Duke of Edinburgh broke the news to Elizabeth after they had left Treetops but the story stuck and the hotel became the fabled locale where a princess became a queen.

First opened in 1932 as an overnight stay for wealthy and intrepid visitors, Treetops overlooked a watering hole from its position in a giant fig tree.

In its day, there wasn’t really anything like it.

A private setting among branches, remote in the African bush, Treetops offered the privileged elite a chance to encounter wildlife up close, and in safety, as they grazed below.

Elizabeth and Philip kept a handwritten tally of what they saw, recorded on a sheet of paper framed still today inside Treetops.

Large herds of elephant – “about 40” in one sighting – were spotted at the watering hole, along with baboons and waterbuck.

“Rhinos all night”, read the list dated February 5/6, 1952 and signed by the Princess and Prince, and “in the morning, two bulls fighting”.

An aide to the royal couple, instructed to write and thank the hotel’s owners, described a “tremendous experience of watching the wild game in its natural surroundings” and day and night “packed with interest”.

“I am quite certain that this is one of the most wonderful experiences that either The Queen or The Duke of Edinburgh have ever had,” read the letter framed in Treetops dated February 8, 1952.

FADED MEMORIES

Two years after the historic visit, with Elizabeth having assumed the throne, Treetops burned down in what was rumoured to be an arson attack by anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels.

A new, much larger hotel was built on elevated wooden stilts on the opposite side of the watering hole to the original setting, where it still stands today. The royal visit – and the legend to go with it – made Treetops among the most famous hotels in the world.

Well-heeled guests could stay in the Princess Elizabeth Suite, peruse royal memorabilia in the dining room, or gaze upon a portrait of the Queen framed by the tusks of an elephant shot by hunters in the 1960s.

Elizabeth and Philip returned in 1983 – more formal than safari, with the Queen in a knee-length dress, the Duke in a blazer and tie – to find Treetops very much changed in the 31 years between visits.

For many years, nothing more than a plaque marked where they spent that fateful night by the watering hole.

But today it is nowhere to be seen, put in storage after Treetops closed its doors at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two years later – as the Queen prepares to mark her platinum Jubilee – it remains shut, a faded icon of a bygone era.

KEY DATES

Here are some of the key moments that have defined Queen Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne.

1952: PRINCESS TO QUEEN

Princess Elizabeth, then aged 25, was visiting Kenya with her husband, Prince Philip, when her father, king George VI, died aged 56 on February 6, 1952.

She cut short the trip and rushed back to Britain.

1953: THE CORONATION

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation did not happen until the following year. She was crowned at Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, in front of 8,500 assembled guests.

The ceremony was the first major televised international event and led to a surge in sales for television sets.

1977: SILVER JUBILEE

The Queen’s 25 years on the throne saw her reaffirm the vow of lifelong service to Britain and the Commonwealth she had made in a speech aged 21 in 1947.

She toured the country and the Commonwealth. Celebratory street parties provided some respite from the economic gloom at home, marked by industrial decline and strikes.

2002: GOLDEN JUBILEE

Celebrations for the Queen’s 50 years on the throne came in the same year as the deaths of her own mother and younger sister Margaret, and showed public support for the monarchy.

Huge crowds gathered on The Mall in central London to watch Queen guitarist Brian May play the national anthem from the roof of Buckingham Palace after a star-studded pop concert.

2012: OLYMPICS AND DIAMOND JUBILEE

The Queen and other senior royals visited every region of Britain to mark her 60 years on the throne. Beacons were lit across the country, and a river pageant was held in London.

A surprise cameo for the monarch alongside James Bond actor Daniel Craig was a hit at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

2021: COVID, PHILIP, HEALTH FEARS

The coronavirus pandemic forced the ageing Queen into self-isolation at Windsor, from where she made public appearances over video conference.

Prince Philip died aged 99 in April 2021, while later that year fears grew for the Queen’s own health after she spent a night in hospital and was forced to cut back her duties.

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