In 1902, when British maverick Col Richard Meinertzhagen went to Nyeri on a punitive expedition against the people of Tetu, who had massacred an Arab caravan, he found a spot that would later mark the start of an administrative town.
At the base of Nyeri Hill, Col Meinertzhagen settled on a site, now believed to be at the car park of the Nyeri Club, and they built a tiny administrative centre.
In his notes, he says that after a bit of argument, he called it “Nyeri” – which was an incorrect spelling of the Kikuyu word “Nyîrî”.
From here they carried out punitive raids on the Kikuyu, taking their livestock and intimidating locals.
Meinertzhagen was later involved in the killing in cold blood of Koitalel arap Samoei in Nandi as he continued his escapades on behalf of the British empire.
This increases the significance of the Nyeri Hill as part of our heritage.
Situated six kilometres East of Nyeri Town and at 1,260 metres above sea level, the hill is one of the main physical features within Nyeri.
It dwarfs Kamatoongu and Sangare hill (also known as Thung’aari) in Kieni, Nyambugichi hill near Taanyai trading centre, Karima Hill in Othaya, Tumutumu hill and Nyena Hill in Mathira.
It’s the place where Col Meinertzhagen and Dr Sidney Hinde are credited with founding the modern-day Nyeri Town in October 1902 even as the Colonel waged provocative raids against the locals.
From the top of the hill, he felt secure. This was after he, as commander of the 3rd East African battalion of the King’s African Rifle-KAR, defeated a strong resistance from Kikuyu warriors in Murang’a that was led by Chief Wang’ombe wa Ihura.
The Kikuyu were defeated, giving way to the battalion to move further north to wage more wars.
The KAR, which was a multibattalion British colonial regiment, needed to set up a base where they could have an upper hand against local warriors and full control of the area security due to their growing interests, and Nyeri Hill was ideal.
The area was not only convenient, but also strategic for a base due to its high elevation and the central location to monitor the vast and prime highlands.
Nyeri people call it different names depending on which area they are from.
Those living at Ihururu in Tetu call it Kamuhoya, which means Muhoya’s hill; while those living on the upper side of Tetu call it Githuuri, meaning a huge man, due to how it stands out like a big man. In other areas, it is widely known as Kianyiri, which simply means Nyeri Hill.
Standing at the top of the hill, one can see the Aberdare range on the west and Mt Kenya on the east.
At a 360 degrees turn, one can enjoy a breathtaking and pristine view of Kieni plains, Tetu, Othaya, Nyeri Town all the way to Mathira and a section of Kirinyaga County.
No wonder it was the choice of the colonial military post.
With sufficient security in the area, White Settlers trooped in in large numbers and occupied the fertile and virgin highlands and immediately started farming and engaging in other activities.
Some of these areas were not just privately owned by the settlers, but they were part of the Crown Land, a territorial area belonging to the monarch, and proceeds from the land were sent directly to the UK.
From the period, a number of relics still stand, including Nyeri golf course, which is the second oldest in the country.
It was started by Reggie McClure and G. Sandbach Baker in 1910. The others are the White Rhino hotel founded in 1910 by Berkely Cole, Lord Cranworth and Sandy Herd, Outspan, which was built by hotelier Sherbrook Walker, Aberdare Country Club and Seremai House (now Sere Mwai), formerly owned by John Carberry and his wife Mary.
A resident who declined to give his name said the Nyeri Hill military camp was closed a year after the declaration of the state of emergency in 1952 after Chief Muhoya complained to then-colonial district governor following rampant claims of soldiers flirting with local girls and women at a local spring known as Nyaithenyu as they fetched water.
Muhoya won over the colonial administrator by telling him that there were no Mau Mau fighters in his jurisdiction, and therefore there was no need for a military base.
The chief’s home was also at the foot of the hill near Ihururu town in Tetu and is remembered for pioneering dairy farming, and being the first local to built one of the oldest cattle dips in the county in 1936. The facility is still there but it has been neglected.
At the same hill, the Consolata missionaries from Italy set a centre on the northern side of the hill at Mathari where they introduced coffee farming and evangelised residents around 1906.
It was here where the first wet coffee mills technology was established in Kenya along the manmade river, Kalondon.
The technology was later applied in setting up other coffee factories, not only in the region but also in other coffee-growing zones.
The hill offers one of the best picnic sites.