11 Aug 96 - Timau, Kenya
Phil Snyder always liked T. E. Lawrence's sketches of the crusader castles in the Middle East, so he built one. The castle is called Kilimia after the Swahili word for the pleiades star constellation, and it looks over the Nairobi National Park. I think this must be the only park in the world where you can see a black rhino with a skyscraper in the background. Phil's castle has the same military architecture that Lawrence recorded in his letters. The machikilations stepping out at the top kept people from climbing up, and the alcove protruding off the side used to be the toilet in the original castles. Phil came out to Africa in 1969 to climb all the mountains. The three highest and most challenging mountains - Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya, and Ruwenzoris - are all in East Africa. Bill Woodley was Phil's mentor, and eventually Phil ended up as warden of Mt. Kenya park.
He recruited a young Luo-Basuba man from Mfangano island in Lake Victoria named John Omirah Miluwi. John had the heart of a mountaineer. On their first ascent of the west face of Mt. Kenya, they were intending to reach the hut on Nelion. It was grade 5 with ice, but by 5 p.m. on the last pitch, Omirah dropped his mitten. They were snowed in and took shelter in a cave, cold, thirsty and hungry. They spent the night looking down on Nanyuki. "This is not so bad," Omirah said. "It is the same as fishing with my father on Lake Victoria when the fingers go black." Omirah had frostbite on his hand. When they got down Phil took Omirah to Cottage Hospital in Nanyuki. This is an old colonial hospital. They said that Omirah had gangrene and that they would have to cut off his fingers. Phil took him to the district hospital which is supposed to be of a lower standard to get a second opinion. "Always, the African's first question after an accident is about compensation," Phil tells me, so he was waiting for Omirah to ask about this. On the way, Omirah was looking at his hands, then he said, "Mr. Phil, does this mean I will not be able to climb the mountain again?" When they arrived at the hospital, they found Dr. Dikshitt from India. He unwrapped Omirah's fingers, took a scalpel out of his pocket and trimmed all the black stuff off. He was known as "Fixit Dikshitt", and Omirah kept his fingers. Phil laughs lightly as he tells me that Cottage Hospital is now commonly referred to as the "Exit Club" - it is for people checking out. Phil says that what he misses the most about the mountain is the mental freedom. "I was above the emotional sea. The lower sections were inhabited by people governed by social convention. Mount Kenya was an island for me. On the mountain, you learn to know yourself. You can separate your thoughts and emotions from those around you. In the wilderness, there is a deeper law. There is no social dress code, nor chain of command with authoritative figures. It is not a social law; it is a natural law."
I remember Omirah telling me about his climbs with Phil when we were on the North Face of Mt. Kenya. We spent 19 hours climbing from a bivouac up to Batian and back almost exactly ten years ago. The moon had set on our way down and our ropes were covered with ice. We used a prussic knot on our rappels, so that we could rest and warm up our fingers. We forgot to tie a knot on the end of the double rope as we threw it off the edge of the ridge down into the black emptiness below. We were not aware that the rope had been blown off the ridge by the wind. Omirah disappeared. 45 minutes later, I was getting impatient. Finally, the rope went limp, and I descended. Omirah was the whitest he could possibly be. He had felt the end of the rope pass through his left hand. He tried to stop it going through the clog, and the tiny prussic knot had grabbed the last 8 inches of rope. He was dangling in pitch black with a lot of empty space beneath him. It took him some time to swing himself over to the ridge next to him. It was 3 a.m. and we were lost on the side of this cold black mountain.
I think an experience like this brings you very close to a person. For many years, Omirah and I wrote back to each other. He would always sign his letters, "Your faithful mountain friend". Then I received a letter from him posted in Rwanda. This humble mountain man had been selected to play the starring role of Dian Fossey's tracker in the feature film "Gorillas in the Mist". His letter was not so much about the film, it was about climbing in the Virunga mountains. When the film studio flew Omirah to New York for the premier of the film, there was no one there to meet him. He had no money, so he followed the signs along the highway and walked to New York City.
After the film, Omirah went to Phil Snyder and asked him what to do with all the money he had been paid. He sent one of his brothers to University in India, built a shop for his two wives on Mfangano island and bought a ferry to operate on Lake Victoria. When his ferry later sank, he asked Phil what he should do, and Phil said, "Buy another one." Even with all this money, when I find Omirah, he is living in a tin shack on the edge of Nairobi Park taking climbers to Mount Kenya. He has less hair on his pointed head and a rounder stomach, but he has the same cool manner and philosophical eyes. It was Omirah who taught me how to climb the big mountains. You go pole mzuri (slow sure), he said. The tourists with no packs on their backs used to speed past us, but two hours later, they would all have headaches, and we would pass them slowly with our heavy packs full of food and climbing equipment. Omirah calls me "Mr. Tom", and we sit and have tea looking out across Nairobi park as the traffic passes on the highway behind us.
We talk about the mountain. Omirah says, "From the mountain, you become tired. Things are not normal there. Through the hardship, you find out about someone. You strain and then your character comes out." Omirah tells me about some of his past clients on the mountain. They were angry with him because he took them up the wrong route, and they couldn't reach the summit. "If there is hardship and you look at things in a negative way, this is how we find out easily from the mountain. By this way, I find out the truth hard from you. If I put you on that big strenuous job and then problems, you squeeze your teeth, and you do it." The conversation turns from the mountain to me. Omirah thinks I am wild. There was a woman who once liked me and Omirah told her, "Mr. Tom needs to go on a long run." In the Luo culture, they have what is called a jagam. This person is a go-between for the man or woman. It is their system for marriage, and you do investigation through this person, because they tell the truth. Omirah tells me that he feels my journey is like being back on the mountain. "You must squeeze your teeth, and keep going."
One of the more interesting sports in Africa is polo. It can't afford to be expensive here, and you find great characters playing it. I have discovered that the more money there is around this game, the more uptight everyone becomes. In Kenya, from the President's son to the Maasai syce, black, white and Indian all play together. I think this is the one athletic competition that comes the closest to conventional warfare, but at the same time can be the most gentile. Your team of 4 competes against another team of 4. Your mallet is your weapon, and the ball keeps score. It is really a combination of 3 sports - combining the ball sense of squash, the physical contact of ice hockey, and the fine art of driving the horse. It is also the only sport in the world where you can make physical contact with your opponent 100% of the time. It is fast, and if you don't know what you are doing, it can be dangerous.
My early lessons in polo were from Major Hugh Dawnay. He always loved the expression, "There are no problems in life, only adjustments." The same goes for polo. The Major, as we called him, was a man of tactics, so he would tell us, "If you are good rider who doesn't know where he is going, you will go twice as fast in the wrong direction." Tactics are key. He also stressed the "3 don'ts" for where to go, how to get there, and what to do on arrival: you don't chase the ball; you don't look at the pony; and you don't hit too hard when you get there. The secret of this game is anticipation and to make the ball chase you. If you are in position and you turn quickly, you can do this. A polo field is the 3 times the size of a soccer field, so according to the Major, a polo player is worth 8 soccer players. A good team will use all of its players. They are on a "string", equidistant from each other and constantly adjusting to maintain the string. The only way to do this is to look all around you all the time.
The North Kenya Polo Club sits high on the northern slope of Mount Kenya. It must be one of the most beautiful clubs in the world with the mountain on one side of the field and the vast bush country of north Kenya falling away on the other. The horses come up early from Nairobi or Naivasha to acclimatize to the high altitude. Bob Entwistle has lent me his 4 horses for the tournament. Many of the players fly in with small airplanes from all over the country. There is a certain amount of excitement in preparing for the game. I don't know these horses, so I stick and ball with each of them at the far end of the field to warm them up and to cool me down. I don't get a chance to play this game often, so I rehearse all the complicated rules of rights-of-way and line-of-the-ball in my head. The star of our team is a dentist named Griffiths who thinks I work for the CIA. He is playing number 3. Number 3 is usually the one with the best anticipation, so if you watch him, some of it will usually rub off on you. We are playing against the President's son's team. This is the first time I have met the President's son, and I find him very pleasant. I had been told that if I hit him once, he would shy away, but that is not the case. He is a good player.
The nice thing about this tournament is that it is only "local" players. There are no ringers from the outside, so you have the very good playing on the same team with the not-so-good. It is wonderful to watch, and it brings everybody together. Saskia Bruins has come up with a team up from Arusha, Tanzania. She tells me that she is named after Rembrandt's mistress and that they have just started a club in Arusha. There were many logistical problems getting enough horses together for them to come up. Rolf Schmid is another character. He is more round than tall, but he is probably one of the most enthusiastic players in the country. He is a German cook who came out here and started a restaurant called The Horseman. Now, he also has his own polo club on the outskirts of Nairobi. Rolf has a very rough manner about him, but he knows a lot of interesting people. He introduces me to Dr. Rodrick Stone. "Dr. Stone has found the cure for AIDS," Rolf tells me. Dr. Stone tells me that he has been conducting his research for some years now. On March 4th 1990, they had the first person go from HIV+ to HIV-. He can guarantee "clinical regression", he says. His corporation is based in the Bahamas and the basis of the "clinical regression" is polyatomic apheresis. I am not sure what this is, but he explains that it is a sophisticated form of O2 (an O3 and an O4) and dialysis without a membrane and that they have had several hundred "clinical regressions" to date.
One of the traditions of polo in Kenya is Pimms. This is a sweet and powerful drink in a very large mug that comes stuffed with fruit. You sit in the wooden club house after your game and drink this stuff until you can't remember which team is winning. It doesn't help that the teams switch ends after each goal scored, but that is part of the fun. There is a very strong sense of community here. Everyone pitches in. They all live so far apart on various farms, and yet they are all so close together. Gossip is a part of this. Everyone knows what everyone else is up to. It is like a big family. If there is a problem, everyone will discuss it for you and help you think about it, whether you like it or not; but when you are in trouble, they will all be there to help you.
Wilson airport is the busiest airport in Africa. It is chaos with tall grass and airplanes parked everywhere. Every year, I have to do an annual inspection on my airplane. If there is any reason that I am still flying, it is because of Mission Aviation Fellowship. You find these people in all the wild places. They are missionaries, but they are also extremely competent pilots and mechanics. From the desert of Timbuktu to the mountains in the Kingdom of Lesotho, they have taught me many things about flying and about maintaining my airplane. In Nairobi, I pull out all my tools again, and we begin another inspection. Two of my cylinders have low compression in them - about 50 psi over 80 - but for some reason, I am only using about a liter of oil every 20 hours. This is not much. I think the most important rule I have followed on this journey is that of preventing maintenance. Most pilots I meet don't really know about their engine. They are afraid of it. It is like that storm over the jungle - fear of the unknown. The more you look at your engine and the more you learn about it, the less afraid you become. If a wire is chaffing, fix it and secure it in such a way that it will not chaff. If you ignore it, it will only get worse, and then one day you will lose your electrical system.
This airport is a good place to meet people. There is a lot of politics though. Some pilots are members of the Aeroclub, and some aren't. Some could really care less, and those are the ones that I like. When I first came to Kenya in 1986, I went to meet a woman named Beryl Markham. She lived out by the Ngong race track. She was a bush pilot in East Africa in the 1930's and she was also a trainer of horses. Horses and airplanes seem to go together in this part of the world. In 1936, she was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from Europe to America. She called her book "West with the Night", and it is a beautiful story of a woman who grew up hunting with the Nandi in the wilds of Africa. She was also very beautiful, but as my friend Omirah would say, with a wild heart. When I met her, she was very old. Her hair was straight and white. She lived alone in a small concrete house. She had been robbed 4 times and most recently had been hospitalize from an injury incurred during one of the robberies. Every time I visited her, I would tell her about some flights that I had done in Kenya. Her eyes would light up. If I had been down to Oloitokitok, she wanted to hear about all the things I had seen - the more detail the better. She couldn't remember the name of dog, Buller, in her book, but she wanted to hear the names of the places where I had been. She sat slumped in her chair as she listened to me. Apparently, she drank a lot of vodka and orange, but her eyes were alive. One day, as I was getting ready to leave, she said to me to go to her room and bring a small rusty metal box from beneath her bed. I did so and placed it on the coffee table before us. "Open it," she said, and I did. As I looked in this box, suddenly, this woman became a different person for me. These were all the newspaper clippings and the photographs from her life. She had maps of her flights in Africa with bush strips marked on them and notes in the margins. She had charts of the North Atlantic and her route across the Ocean. She had her old plotters and her rulers. These were her treasures from the air. I read some of the clippings to her and she listened. I would have loved for her to talk more, so that I could listen, but this was not her way. I kept waiting for a signal from her that I should leave, but she didn't seem to want me to leave. When I did eventually put all her things back, she pointed to a small ivory plotter. She asked if this was mine, and I said no, it was hers. She said that I must take it, because I would need it for my flights. I still have this plotter, and I'm not quite sure what to do with it.
My grandmother was a pilot. I used to sit listening to her in the evenings by
a fire as she would tell me about her Waco-F and how she went solo after only 4
hours. Perhaps, it was all these early stories of airplanes that developed my
interest in flying, but I have always had a great respect for women pilots. One
of my favorite Aviatrixes is Dr. Anne Spoerry, and she is still here. I walk up
quietly behind her at the flying doctors hanger in Nairobi. She is dressed just
the same with baggy pants, a vest jacket and her flying cap. She is nearly 80
years old now and still flying. I tap her on the shoulder, and she looks at me
and says, "Oh, it is you. I was wondering when you were going to come back." Her
face is smiling with so many wrinkles, and her bright eyes are glowing from
beneath the peak of her hat. I have flown many hours with Dr. Spoerry through
the deserts of North Kenya. We visited the Gabbra, the Rendile, the Molo, the
Turkana, The Somalis, and half a dozen other tribes in the middle of nowhere. We
would usually land on the desert airstrips and have to walk some distance if
there was not a vehicle to meet us. I always carried the bags. I remember one
time as we were walking Dr. Spoerry said to me that she was like a little old
engine. "I may not go very fast," she said, "but I just keep chugging along. If
you stop, you get rusty." During World War 2, Dr. Spoerry was interred in
Ravensbruck concentration camp by the Germans. I believe she was in the French
resistance, but she never spoke about this time with me. After the war, she came
to Africa with her medical degree and learned to fly. The most fun for me was
when she used to fall asleep while we were flying. It took me a long time to
learn how to do this myself. Your eyes are closed, but your ears are open - so
you're not really asleep. I used to pretend that I didn't notice. The plane
would gently climb and then descend and then climb again all by itself. The
heading was on autopilot, so we never got lost, but there were a few times that
I used to watch a distant inselberg bob up and down along the horizon. However,
I never dared to touch the controls. There was one time that a clinic along the
coast had stopped functioning because no one had been paid for several months.
Dr. Spoerry ordered everyone back to work in her unique combination of
French-English-Swahili. She pulled a fist-full of money out of her pocket and
paid them. Then we jumped in the plane and flew to Lamu where she marched
immediately to the DC's office and demanded to be reimbursed for the money she
had paid. There is a great respect for elder people in Africa and Dr. Spoerry
knows how to wield her power. I have never known such a tough and compassionate
person wrapped into one package.