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On Safari

The Long African Day

by Norman Myers
Macmillan, 404 pp., $25.00


Ten years after Kenya’s independence, the main bar of Nairobi’s venerable Norfolk Hotel is still called the Delamere Room, after Kenya’s legendary settler, and is decorated with the mounted heads of His Lordship’s trophies. An eager hunter thrice mauled by lions, Lord Delamere used to ride through the streets of Nairobi shooting out the lights of streetlamps with a pistol. He once bought a hotel for the sole purpose of staging window-smashing contests in it, using oranges as ammunition. What a good sport, his fellow settlers said, he bought the hotel first.

Another settler, Major Grogan, walked all the way from Capetown to Cairo to win his bride. Once married and settled near Nairobi, he held a public flogging of three African rickshaw boys on the ground that they had insulted some European ladies “by holding the vehicle’s arms up too high.” Grogan was one of twenty children. Traveling through Kenya, one repeatedly hears that its earliest English colonials, who came before World War I, were the younger sons of small landed gentry with large families, the kind of men who in previous years had to settle for modest regiments and parsonages. Were their eccentricities forged in the injustice of the nursery, by that dearth of attention which is often a Benjamin’s lot?

Lord Delamere, the largest landowner in Kenya, acquired 350,000 acres; plantations considered adequate contained thirty or forty thousand. Under Jomo Kenyatta’s capitalistic, conciliatory leadership, Europeans might to this day have kept most of their land if Kenya’s future had been more predictable.

On the terrace of the Norfolk Hotel, in front of the Delamere Room, there stands in desultory splendor a large black lacquered rickshaw. Its story was told to me the morning I arrived in Nairobi by one of the two Big White Hunters who were about to guide us—a party of family and friends—on a photographic safari of East African wildlife.

In the old days in Kenya,” our guide says, pronouncing it Kee-nya, “there was this lovely old bloke who used to keep a sweet tame lion on his lap when he went riding in that rickshaw. When the rickshaw boy pulled too slowly he would tickle the lion’s throat, the lion would roar, and the boy-ee would truly hurry up. Ha ha!”

The hunter guffaws mightily, slapping his great naked thigh, ruddy and muscled below his khakhi safari shorts. He is a hulking, blond, frenetically jovial Englishman in his middle forties, who came out with the British army at Emergency time to quell the Mau Mau rebellion and stayed on in Kenya to hunt big game, marrying into an old white settler family of Major Grogan’s circle. His family’s land in Surrey was bequeathed to an older brother. His father had also been an army man, a colonel in India’s Gurka regiment. We sit over Pimm’s Cups alongside the rickshaw on the Norfolk Hotel terrace, going over the schedule of our forthcoming journey.

A portrait of Kenyatta stares down at us with an inscrutable, shrewd gaze. Our guide has driven us in from the airport past thoroughfares named after many revolutionary African leaders: Sékou Touré, Nkrumah, Lumumba, Nyerere. In the large colonial dining room next to the Delamere Room is spread out a buffet more elaborate than any I have seen in the States in some decades, comparable perhaps to Sunday lunches at the Newport Country Club in the 1950s. Africans in red and white livery hover over hams, turkeys, fish in aspic, innumerable salads, and a dozen curries set alongside a battalion of puddings that includes some ten varieties of trifle. A few blocks away, in the vicinity of Independence Avenue, more than sixty safari firms are in business to serve the quarter of a million tourists flocking yearly to Kenya to gape at the animals of the Pleistocene Age. Throughout Nairobi, in bars closed to non-Caucasians until a decade ago, old-time British settlers sip their pink gins and curse the proliferation of African bus drivers in the game reserves. One comes here not for revolution any more, but for nostalgia.

An impulse to restore innocence on the planet we have despoiled, a fantasy of returning to some nonviolent state of nature. All this strikes me as pertinent to the current stampede toward East Africa, and to our predilection for building safari parks in London, Florida, and New Jersey. The peaceable kingdom of Adam and Eve in Eden—Milton put it this way:

About them frisking play’d
All Beasts of th’ Earth, since wild….
Sporting the Lion ramp’d, and in his paw
Dandl’d the Kid; Bears, Tygers, Ounces, Pards
Gambold before them….

Sweet lion out there, six yards from my minibus, we are friends again! Few men hunt you any more save some Texans willing to pay a thousand dollars a trophy, we have come to Kenya just to look at you. Dear giraffe, it is your thick-lashed eyes that best answer our longing for innocence, taking us back to that prehistoric purity we search for. You stare back with a gaze of metaphysical surprise which seems to ask all men: How did you reverse the clock of history? I have been here for forty million years. Are you for real, or a joke?

Six AM, waning darkness, at the Masai Mara Game Reserve where we camp on our first day out of Nairobi. The zipper of my tent is brusquely opened, the ripping sound tears violently through my sleep. A Kikuyu safari boy, his ear lobe elegantly looped through a hole in his upper ear, brings a kerosene lamp into my tent. “Jambo Mensahib,” he booms cheerfully, “chai, mensahib.” He puts down a pot of very black tea flanked by large canisters of milk and sugar, and disappears with that faint salaaming gesture that the Arabs have bequeathed to East Africa.

Dawn is the most beautiful time in Africa, providing that glimpse into the world’s morning which we have traveled to recapture. One is plunged into a euphoria of cleanliness. The grass itself smells more sweet than a tropical blossom. The trill of the palm weaver bird sounds like spring water gurgling from a narrow-necked jar. Even the dewy hyena loping under the flat-topped acacia trees looks pristinely fresh-coated. I am in an appropriately trancelike state, having slept lightly, woken repeatedly by the distant groan of a lion or the hurried panting of a leopard, and hoping always to hear the subtle sound of the elephants, creatures so soft-footed that they can walk through camp emitting no noise other than the faint rumbling of their digestive tracts.

Our guides—whom I shall call Big Hunter and Young Hunter—herd us into the Land Rover for our early morning viewing of the game. Big Hunter is perpetually in a state of exuberant cheer, and commences his voluminous commentary on the animals in the same clipped, booming tones in which he trained the Kenya Rifles. “Lovely bushbuck over there, three o’clock of where the zebra is spending a penny…look at that splendid ely, five legs and all that…we’re going to circle the river bed and look for some more mating lion, the old dears put on quite a show yesterday….” When he is not driving, lecturing us, or diligently organizing camp, our guide concentrates on living up to the myth of the Big White Hunter, which dictates that he be a proficient raconteur and Don Juan, besides being a great shot and an impeccable naturalist. (Hemingway, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”: “Robert Wilson carried a double-sized cot on safari.”)

He regales us with a repertory of hair-raising tales that all end with the phrase “And that chap lived on to tell the tale!” He boasts of his military expeditions against the Mau Mau, which sound curiously hedonistic and sporting. Being the British army’s top star on the East African rugby team, he was picked up in the Aberdare Mountains every Friday by a patrol truck so that he could take part in the weekend games in Nairobi, then on Sunday afternoon he was returned to his command post in guerrilla country. Alternately his wife and his girlfriend accompany him throughout our trip. The women are remarkably civil to each other at their moments of encounter, as if machismo in the bush were part of the safari package, like the assurance of seeing elephants in erection.

Young Hunter, our other guide, is a slender, blond athlete in his early twenties whose grandparents settled in the Kenya farmlands in 1911. His family still owns 27,000 acres at the foot of Mount Kenya. There is a strange bitterness about this spoiled and gifted youth who looks as if he had never endured misfortune. He expresses in an extreme form the white settlers’ fears for their future after Kenyatta’s death. For although our guides regard Kenyatta as “the leader of the Mau Mau” (displaying an astonishing ignorance of their own history), they also look upon him as a man totally reformed by jail, “the greatest African leader, a splendid bloke who’s been frightfully decent to the Europeans.”

What will happen when Kenyatta dies and we all get thrown out?” Young Hunter murmurs to me every few days in that polite Kenya version of a public school voice which barely ever rises above a mumble. “I’ll go to Rhodesia or South Africa, only decent place for a white man to live these days. How long do I have there? Ten or fifteen years, at the most. But I’d rather get thrown out of Rhodesia after fifteen years of happiness than be miserable in England now….”

A good part of the two guides’ conversation is devoted to expressing their nostalgia for the privileges of pre-independence Kenya, to deploring the proliferation of African drivers at the wheels of tourist vehicles, and to cursing that unspeakable day when they will have to share a meal with an African. “Do you know,” observes Young Hunter, “I’ve heard that some European women tourists actually have a drink at the end of the day with their drivers….” Big Hunter shudders: “Bad show, that.”

In my tent, I often reflect on the varieties of colonial behavior. The French were as bestial to the Africans as they are to each other. The French and the Portuguese were as carnally drawn to black women as were our own Southern plantation owners. Ten years after independence, the British managing Kenya’s leading industry—tourism—are still rigid with fear of the black man’s entering their club.

Still, how bitter it is to have found such beauty and then to lose it! Traveling through Kenya, discovering its splendor and variety, one senses the depth of the settlers’ sorrow upon having to leave. Morocco, Mexico, Greece, all other landscapes pale before Kenya’s. Besides the game-filled savannahs and plains of the reserves there are deserts of sublime austerity; tropical rain forests heavy with guava and mango trees; rolling upland moors thick with waterfalls, trout-filled streams, and fields of heather. There are Indian Ocean beaches rivaling the Caribbean’s for their beauty, and lush riverine terrains such as Samburu, where wide streams placidly flow through groves of Doum palms, wild lilies, and eucalyptus trees.

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