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On Safari

The farmland surrounding Mount Kenya, the Olympus of East Africa where the gods legendarily bequeathed the Kikuyus their land, is a farmer’s utopia: On its sumptuous loam, assured of large punctual rainfall and drained to perfection by the land’s gentle slope, wheat and oats can be harvested at tenfold the yield of any English field. My favorite landscape is the ascent to Mount Kenya, reached through sumptuous stands of cedar and dense groves of high bamboo which for many years provided the Mau Maus’ safest shelter. Kenya’s birds are a microcosm of their land’s splendor. Even the starling, the most plebeian of our species, is cloaked there in a blinding irridescence of orange, viridian, and cobalt. Sights of the Lilac-breasted Roller, the Emerald Cuckoo, the flame-red Turaco, spoil one’s bird-viewing for some time to come.

On March 14 we cross the Kenya border into Tanzania to enter the Serengeti, Africa’s most spectacular national park. We instantly sense an austerity that contrasts with Kenya’s opulence. Within the first few hours we observe that shortage of basic staples which can afflict young socialist countries: no soda water or beer to be had in the province, there are no passport forms at the frontier post—the guard has to improvise some on blank paper—no petrol is to be found in the vicinity of our camping site. Our guides rage at these deficiencies: “Great fun, socialism, what? Ha ha!” This is their last time in Tanzania, they proclaim, they’ve never had anything but annoyance in this bloody Maoist country. “Chinese communist lorry,” they mutter every few minutes, pointing at any vehicle on the road. “Chinese communist tractor.”

We hear that several cheetah have died of heart attacks in the past months from being chased by tourist vehicles; that lion cubs are going hungry from too much close observation; and that the new African warden of the 6,000 square mile Serengeti has forbidden all vehicles to go into the plain, where the best game viewing has traditionally been had. Notwithstanding these restrictions the Serengeti animals live up to legend. In these “photographic blocks” which now make up the major part of national parks and game reserves, where no shooting has been allowed for years and where guides are not even allowed to bear weapons, the walls of our nursery come alive: which is why we are here.

Animals come close and stare, having no memory of aggression on which to base their fear. Buffalo gaze at us trustingly from below their large flat coiffure of horns, noses placidly drooling, making it hard to believe that they are the leading man-killers in Africa, and that one of their species killed Big Hunter’s partner just last year during a shooting safari. Another of our guide’s best friends was carried off this very year by an elephant in hunting territory. But here elephants walk closely past us in sublime and weightless serenity, allowing us to discover their surprisingly long, flirtatious eyelashes, their trunks affectionately reposing around a tusk instead of trumpeting alarm. And we observe the beauty of the smaller African antelopes—dik-diks, duikers, klipspringers, whose great expanse of liquid eye, half the size of their heads, dominates the landscapes of their bodies like enormous lakes.

Our camping site is in a flat plain filled with euphorbia and the bright yellow-barked acacia, alongside one of the beautiful tree-festooned kopjes, or rock outcroppings, that dot the Serengeti landscape. Our ten African safari boys have arrived a few hours before us in their truck and have already completed pitching camp. They are all Kikuyus, members of that largest and most powerful of Kenyan tribes, numbering over one tenth of the population, to which Jomo Kenyatta belongs. The kitchen fire has already been lit and alongside it the cooks are baking bread in an ingenious oven composed of a flat piece of metal, a large over-turned pan, and a strategic sprinkling of smoldering coals. The refrigerator has been plugged into its canister of gas. Each tent is flanked by a small out-house, in which portable seats are posed over a deep hole. And in the middle of the camping site stands a tented shower which functions smartly on a string-and-bucket system.

Fantasies of primitiveness: Like the camping trip of Abercrombie and Fitch executives who recently spent a week on the rooftop of their Madison Avenue office building, the classiest safaris are the most naturalistic. The cheapest mass tours go around in posh zebrastriped minibuses and confine their clients to East Africa’s extraordinarily luxurious hotels. Many treat their groups to a meal at the outlandish Mount Kenya Safari Club, which matches the Westchester Biltmore for its profligate vulgarity. Whereas the more elegant tented safari outfits rumble around in shaking Land Rovers, rigidly avoiding these modern hostelries. Meanwhile we hear of Niarchos’s improvisations on the new primitivism: a private plane daily flies his mail up from Nairobi when he is in the bush, and two large swimming pools are immediately dug out wherever he pitches camp, one for himself and another for his entourage.

The Kikuyus are notoriously gifted cooks, and a typical menu on our safari might consist of a hot fish savory, cream of avocado soup, a roast, three different vegetables, a cold passion fruit soufflé. I read that a modest safari meal in the 1950s, as described by Alan Moorehead on a fairly rough shooting trip, consisted of duck gizzards savory, wild turkey soup, nile perch, and roasted eland. It is not a question of luxury, since even a billionaire could not conjure up such fare in the disorder of French West Africa. It is rather a Kenyan safari tradition composed of the British talent for importing comfort into wilderness and the East African’s prideful need to exhibit his great talents. Laundry is done daily and pressed with immense hot coal irons. One changes several times a day. It is bad form to miss tea.

I visit the cook by his fire as he is deftly whipping egg whites with an old wooden whisk. By him stands the chief steward, a powerfully built Kikuyu who has been in Big Hunter’s service for some ten years. The safari boys speak little English beyond the necessities of food and laundry, and earn between one and two dollars a day. “Fair but firm,” Big Hunter pronounces whenever he discusses his staff. “I’ve kept them from joining those blasted new safari unions by being fair but firm.” Over dinner one night, our guide tells me that his chief steward is a former Mau Mau. I ask him if he is joking, and he seems offended, swiftly coming to the Mau Maus’ defense. “But they’re splendid old blokes actually—always were jolly good chaps—I admire them tremendously—admire anyone who’s willing to fight for his country. Damn rotten lot, those who don’t.” Nationalism dominates all, and the former major seems to have as much respect for the Mau Mau he’d come to shoot as he has for the animals he’s made a career of hunting.

Today the cook and I chat about the famous Serengeti lions. He tells me that like most of his colleagues he had never seen a wild animal until he had started on this safari job. The entire staff is so terrified of animals, he says, that although bwana provides tents, seven out of ten of them sleep jammed together in the lorry to be safe from marauding creatures. Wainugu also expresses great nostalgia for the hunting safaris of old which gave him so much good game to cook. The staff quickly grows despondent, he says, without the sight of freshly shot meat. He speaks longingly of gerenuk, that long-necked and most graceful gazelle of the northern plains, which makes the finest steaks, of Thompson’s gazelle chops and impala roasts. Do I really like to just go out and look at animals? Wainugu softly laughs. He cannot imagine anything sillier and more boring.

A few days later we are startled by some unannounced rifle shooting close to camp. We discover that our guides, who nowadays do not shoot more than one or two big game animals a year, have shot an impala and a gazelle to reassure their servants of their sanity and manliness. To Africans—who look upon wild animals as enemies rampaging their crops and herds, enemies to be killed and eaten—a “looking” safari seems the maddest to date of the white man’s many mad inventions.

Some items in the East African Standard, Nairobi’s leading paper: There are some eighty licensed hunter-guides working in Kenya, all Europeans…. Since independence the term “big White Hunter” has come into disfavor and they are now called “professional hunters….” Notwithstanding this change of nomenclature the tradition of white hunters is so ingrained that the few Africans or Asians training for the profession will say, “I am becoming an African White Hunter” or “an Asian White Hunter….” Kenya’s second largest safari firm bore the unfortunate name of “White Hunters, Limited,” and a few years ago was forced to change its title to “Africa Tours….” Among predictions that East Africa will have to accommodate one million visitors by 1980, the Kenyan government last year declared a policy of “Africanization” in its booming tourist industry. Yet as of March, 1973, the Standard reports, only one safari firm in Kenya (Kibo Tours) is totally African-owned.

With the new policy of Africanization, several European hunters are losing their work licenses on the grounds that they do not employ enough Africans. In an unguarded moment, one white hunter I met confided to me that in order to ensure the renewal of his license he had made his chief steward a partner in his safari firm. “We did it just on paper, actually,” he remarked. “We didn’t tell the poor bloke anything about it.” Meanwhile, in case Africanization becomes militant and his license is revoked, one of our own white hunters has started a successful grouse shooting safari outfit in Scotland to fall back on.

Throughout this trip I suffer from claustrophobia, a curious sensation to have in the vast open plains of Africa. Severe laws dictate that the tourist on a “viewing” safari stay inside his vehicle any time he ventures out of his tiny tented camp, and forbid him to move many yards beyond his hotel room. Homo touristicus is continuously imprisoned behind the metal bars of his Rover, in a new kind of ambulatory zoo. The tables are turned. We parade our captivity before the disinterested eyes of the free beasts, and apprehend their whereabouts by seeing where other motorized cages have congregated on the plain. Even Africa’s most famous hotel, Treetops, is a nightmarish prison in which one is incarcerated in an aerial cage, sentenced to staring for eighteen hours at an artificial pond and salt-lick frequented by obliging beasts.

Being addicted to hiking, jogging, and other forms of strenuous activity, I find my physical captivity difficult. It is even more tedious psychologically. I had suspected that the pleasure of White Hunters’ company would be limited. Their racist diatribes, their disdain and ignorance of all things African besides its wild-life, are even worse than I had feared. They rush us through every village under the pretext that such places are dangerous or that we shall miss the evening game viewing. Young Hunter never passes an African farming cooperative without exclaiming, “Poor bastards, they don’t know the first thing about land.” Big Hunter cannot drive by an Asian family on a picnic without derisively mimicking the Kenyan Asians’ lilting English, and insults African waiters with an imperiousness worthy of Major Grogan.

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