When there are so many beautiful places on earth which I have yet to visit it is hard to explain why I keep returning to East Africa, yet I do. It is of course partly the extravagant beauty of the region which calls me back but it is also my past. My visits here link me back to a time when I first began to understand that life itself is a glorious adventure, punctuated of course with some inglorious episodes. Looking back over the 50+ years since I first arrived in Africa I know that it was my nine years living here, from my mid-twenties to my mid-thirties, which gave me the confidence to have a career largely unconfined by the conventional boundaries of British middle class professional life.
We arrived in Sunday evening and early Monday flew out of Wilson Airport as the only passengers in a 12-seater Cessna Caravan, the single engined 12-seat work horse of the air safari. Wilson Airport lies couple of miles from Nairobi city centre and begun life in 1933 as Nairobi Aerodrome to service the Imperial Airways mail flights from the UK. Since Embakasi, now Jomo Kenyatta International, airport opened in the late 1950s Wilson has handled only light aircraft and some internal flights. I first flew from Wilson in 1968, in a 6-seat Cessna 182 to do the audit of the Serengetti Research Institute, where the handful of scientists and researchers lived in a circle of small bungalows far from any other human habitation, maintaining their European standards by dressing for dinner in the evening.
As we flew over the Athi Plains I recalled a magical afternoon decades earlier when, visiting friends at Athi River, wanting solitude I took myself off with a fishing rod to a nearby pool. I sat in the shade of the acacias, the same fever trees lining Kipling’s great grey green greasy Limpopo river, their yellow bark glistening in the afternoon sun, completely alone but for the many beautiful birds and a small family of giraffes browsing on the other side. I felt a level of peace and contentment which I remember to this day. I forget what I used for bait but it was completely ineffective – I got not the slightest nibble, but that wasn’t the point.
I am now back in the country I love with the woman I love and in that small plane I felt infused with warm honey, a strange metaphor but was the one that came unbidden to me as Kilimanjaro grew from the horizon off to the right, crystal clear in the early morning sunshine. We landed at the Finch Hatton airstrip in Tsavo West National Park, some 20 miles from Kilaguni lodge where we were to stay. There is a strange and asymmetrical circularity in life (that’s an oxymoronic phrase but I know what I mean): A couple of days ago I was discussing with the director of a Danish literary festival a house on the coast north of Copenhagen once home to Karen Blixen, a towering figure in Danish literature, and today I land at a remote airstrip in the African bush named for her charismatic lover.
Tsavo has recently had a month of heavy and unseasonal rain, water is widespread and the vegetation is thick and lush, the worst possible conditions for game viewing. On the drive from the airstrip to the lodge we saw nothing exciting, although it is still wonderful to drive past giraffe, zebra, waterbuck and several species of small antelope going about their everyday lives with a backdrop of snows of Kilimanjaro. In amongst the larger animals we saw baboons, hyrax, mongoose, squirrels and the colourful agama lizards, hornbills, hoopoes and a beautiful lilac-breasted roller. There is of course no such thing as an ugly lilac-breasted roller.
We arrived at Kilaguni where the reception area opens out to the restaurant and bar, all under a palm-frond makuti roof. There are no windows and the front wall is only three feet high, looking out over a water hole, floodlit at night. We wandered through, below us was a mean-looking buffalo slouching moodily around, watched by a bunch of marabou storks, surely the ugliest of birds, looking for all the world like a bunch of Victorian undertakers, while giraffe browse in the background.
The routine is similar at all game lodges: an early morning drive in a Toyota (always Toyota – Land Rover really missed a trick) from 6.30 till about 9, relax at the lodge, another game drive from 4 till 7, then a drink and dinner watching the constantly changing parade of animals coming to drink or just hang out. While we saw little game we had some beautiful drives. One, around the Ngulia Hills, was spectacular. The hill we drove over is topped with a cone of old lava from which there is a solidified flow a mile or so long, on which trees continue their slow colonial mission to establish a toehold. This has been going on for several hundred years and with the powers of nature to recuperate the trees will eventually win. This river of old lava is contemporary with the better known Shetani, Satan’s, lava flow which erupted from the Chulu Hills a dozen miles away and although some hundreds of years old is still within the tribal memories of the Wakamba people who now live a little to the North West. The Shetani flow covers 50 square kilometres and I can hardly begin to imagine what the area must have looked like, with great rivers of molten rock erupting from these children of Kilimanjaro, spreading across the plains like a scene from Danté’s inferno, consuming everything in their path.
After the rains the bushes are covered in small white flowers some of which erupt into the air as clouds of butterflies, for all the world like a Disney animation. Back at the compound our driver took a detour to the rough staff football pitch where a female leopard had taken to visiting with her two cubs. A trap had been set for her, a baited cage with a trapdoor, and we waited for no more than 10 minutes when a male, presumably her mate, came silently out of the bushes, pausing every couple of paces, his left hind leg extending and twitching nervously.
He sniffed cautiously around the cage before moving off, not fooled by the bait inside. I got some excellent photos and video before we returned to the lodge, watched the dying rays of the sun purpling the skies around the razor sharp silhouette of Kilimanjaro, and had a fairly early supper. Back at the room, as we were closing our curtains for the night three elephant ambled past the waterhole, looking leisurely but covering the ground surprisingly fast. I love being back in Africa.