27 Aug 1996 - Nanyuki, Kenya
"I have been gored by a buffalo and thrown by a rhino, but I am most afraid of a hyena," Tony Dyer says to me. It was on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater and Tony had not wanted to sleep in a smoky hut, so he pulled his sleeping bag outside. In the middle of the night, he woke up with a hyena standing above his face. He yelled and sat up, but then the hyena put its head over his shoulder. Tony pulled his sleeping bad back into the smoky hut. It was not until the next day while driving across the Serengeti that he started shivering.
Tony maneuvers himself slowly from behind the controls of the Helio Courier. I don't think a finer short field bush aircraft has ever been made. The Helio was designed by a group of engineers at MIT. It doesn't stall. At 25 miles and hour, it begins a high rate of descent, but it is still flying. These planes are still used in the jungles of South America for mission work out of short jungle airstrips. It was Tony who first checked me out on one of these planes. As you slow down, leading edge slats slide out from the front of the wings. They act like the jib on a sailboat to pull the air around the top of the wing and keep it flying. The ailerons are large rectangular surfaces out near the end of the wing, and when you are going too slow for these to be effective, spoilers automatically slide out of the top end on the opposite wing to spoil the lift and maintain control. Tony is a man with very fine tastes, and he thoroughly enjoys the skill necessary in flying this airplane.
As he steps out, he places his wide brimmed hat on his head. He is just as stiff as he always was from all the wild animals that have taken their toll from various hunting expeditions. He strides towards me and greets me warmly then takes me to see his vineyard. They have had 7 ½ inches of rain on Ngare Ndare this year. The 35,000 acre farm is named after the Maasai word for "river of sheep". The wine experiment has not been as good as Tony had hoped. He shows me his vines of Sauvignon Blanc, Carignon, French Colombard, and Muscat of Hamburg. The Sauvignon and the Colombard are white grapes, he explains, and the wine is made by a mission station in Isiolo. However, the profits have not been good, so the vines are coming out. Tony spent many years hunting in Africa and was then the head of the East African Hunters Association. He is very well respected in the hunting community across Africa, England and the United States. He is a man of fine tastes and he loves to engage in diverse projects. The last time I was here, he was breeding Ethiopian horses and milking a herd of camels. His past project was flying his deHavilland Beaver for 207 hours on an Elephant tracking project covering 6,000 square miles. One elephant, #66, moved a total distance of 92 miles during the course of one week during the survey. He was working with Chris Thouless on the survey. "Chris is not only a gentleman, he is a man," Tony tells me. Four years ago, Chris beat an elephant with his fist at the London Zoo when it attacked a lady. He was awarded the Queen's Medal for Valor. "He is one of those people who is interested in everything," Tony says.
One month ago, a young female leopard killed 43 sheep in one night on Ngare Ndare. A lion has also ripped a horse and a hyena has killed a calf. Farming in Africa is a little different from farming in other parts of the world. A few nights ago, an elephant took down several electric fences. Tony and I went out in the night with a rifle to track it. It is clever this elephant. It has done this several times and has learned how to use its tusks to break through the high-voltage fences. The danger now is that it can teach other elephants to do this. We follow its tracks and talk to several Africans to try to get a sense of where it is headed.
Prior to 1991, there were almost no elephants seen on Borana. Tony's eldest son Mike runs Boran cattle on the adjacent farm to Ngare Ndare. He is a solid character, but also playful. He likes to call his father "Biggles" after the cartoon aviator. Tony counted 2,331 adult elephant on his previous aerial survey. This is the second highest population in Kenya after the 7,000 in Tsavo. The experts say that the best way to deal with problem elephants is to shoot them. What is 12 out of a population of 3,000, if it will allow the farmers and elephants to live together. Someone tells me that we do the same with hard criminals in our society, so this isn't really that different. Permission is obtained from the Kenya Wildlife Service and we begin tracking the elephant.
Mike has never shot an elephant before. We stop along the side of the road, and Tony pulls an old hunting book out of his truck. He opens it on the front of the truck and shows Mike a picture of an elephant. He begins to explain all the various angles in which the elephant might present itself. He says that you want to aim for a point 1/3 the way up from the belly, slightly behind the two front legs, so that you go through the heart and smash the far leg. The idea is to kill the animal as quickly as possible so that it does not suffer. It is interesting for me to watch this father and son together. This is a dangerous game, and they are both men. The father who has so much experience is trying to pass on some of his wisdom to his son. You need to have the confidence and the force inside to hunt a dangerous animal. If you make a mistake you could be killed, yet for a moment, I watch the son soften and let the father teach him. It is only for a very brief moment; then the lesson is over, and we are hunting a lone bull elephant.
Elephants are clever. Tony tells me that often bulls will fell a tree onto a road or pull large rocks on to a road to block cars. They feel that the road is theirs. We walk for nearly two hours through acacia bush. From the hill, we spot the lone bull, but now we have lost it again. Then a message comes that it has sneaked right past us and is heading away. I have been watching Tony struggle with his limp over the past hours. He and Mike are both carrying rifles. Now Tony is moving fast. This is a different man, and this is the hunt. For nearly 15 minutes we pursue the elephant. Mike is moving to the right and is just out of sight. I am carrying several cameras and stick close to Tony. He seems to sense the elephant, and there is a look in his eye that indicates he has done this many times. The elephant then appears broadside to us about 20 meters away. I am next to Tony. We can't see Mike, but he is about 10 meters to our forward right behind some bush. Tony can't see him, but I can. Mike has a shot, but there is a moment of indecision as to where his father is. Tony would have loved to shout for Mike to take the shot, but the elephant would have heard. The moment is very long, and still the elephant does not move. I am amazed that Tony does not fire, but this is his son's hunt. Suddenly, Mike's rifle cracks and the elephant turns toward us with its ears out. In an instant, Tony has fired a second shot straight between its legs into its heart. The elephant drops. Several more shots are put into the brain to make sure it is dead, and we all pause. I can see that Tony is very proud, but few words are spoken. It is funny among men, how we must be so macho about these things. They are rights of passage in a way, and we seem to shy from the emotion.
Several days later, a lion has crippled a cow on Borana. Mike and I drive out as the sun is setting. The cow is in pain as its back legs have been broken. Mike cuts its throat and bleeds it to death to stop its suffering. One of Mike's farm hands arrives with a second rifle. We back off about 50 meters and lie in the grass behind thick brush to wait for the lion to return. My mind goes back to the many times I visited George Adamson up at Kora. The only reason the Somalis tolerated George up there for so long was because he used to buy all their dud camels to feed to his lions. There was one evening when George had finished telling stories over his evening glass of White Horse whiskey. He picked up an electronic megaphone and called out, "Dennis. Look Dennis, look." I helped him pull a cooler over to the edge of the fenced in camp near the gate. He opened it and walked out into the night with a flashlight in one hand and a piece of camel meat in the other. I was right behind him with my camera, but I am not sure if I fully understood what we were doing. If you hold a flashlight close to your head in the African night and shine it out into the distance, you will see very clearly any eyes staring back at you - they are like rubies and emeralds in the night. The flashlight, however, was in George's hand, so I did not see the 8 sets of eyes staring back at us. George swung his 80 year old arm and released the large piece of meat about 10 feet from us. Then he turned off the light. There was a dead calm for a moment, followed by tremendous roar that would have rattled a wine glass on a glass table. It was all so fast. George turned on his light, and the piece of meat was gone. I was now behind George, and with the flashlight near his head, I could now see the 7 sets of yellow eyes remaining.
The lions are creatures of the night. It is a good experience to lie in the bush and wait for one. They are so much stronger and faster than we are. If they came right at us, we would not stand a chance. The sting of the bullet, if it doesn't kill them immediately, only makes their adrenaline pump harder. It is a humbling thing to face a lion. The only advantage that we have is that they fear us. This is why George Adamson had so many problems. He had raised most of his lions by hand. They were orphans. When they left him, they loved and respected him, but they had no fear of humans. There is a point when the instinct becomes a stronger call than friendship, and this is what made George's lions so dangerous. They would happily saunter up to you and want to play, but if you showed the slightest sign of fear, their instinct would take over and they would attack you. You must never show fear to a lion in the bush. It is strange how this also applies to humans. If you show fear to someone in school or in business, they will eat you.
Eventually, Mike decides that the lion has caught our scent and is not coming, so we pack up the carcass and head for home. The only bad part about lying in the grass out here is that you pick up ticks. I have had tick fever twice in Africa, and I don't like it. I inspect myself carefully when I get home and laugh a little that I am so worried about ticks after waiting to hunt a lion.
"What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over," Mike tells me, so I don't mention the elephant hunt to Kuki Gallmann. I follow the edge of the rift valley escarpment north and eventually find an airstrip next to a house. Kuki's ranch is about 100,000 acres and it is called Ol Ari Nyiro, which is Maasai for "dark spring". Kuki lives here with her daughter Sveva and about 1,000 farm workers and their families. Kuki is a very attractive Italian woman, and she is also very strong. Her husband was killed in an accident, and her son was killed by one of his pet snakes. She has suffered a lot, but she has channeled the pain to try to help wildlife and people. Her farm is unique. She has one of the largest natural populations of black rhino in Kenya; it is teeming with wildlife, but she also runs several thousand head of Boran cattle and cultivates wheat, maize and oats. Kuki is trying to show that modern agriculture is compatible with the preservation of wildlife, and she has set up a wilderness education center to educate young people how to live with the environment without destroying it. She takes me out to mugongo ya ngurue on the edge of her farm overlooking the great rift valley and shows me "her sister" - a lone acacia tree standing on the edge of this precipice. It is here that she has spent many hours by herself feeling lost and quite alone. Sometimes when you endure hardship and loneliness, you can create something that you might not have if your life had been easy. Kuki tells me that when she came to Africa, she came with no connection and yet felt at home. "In man, there must be a genetic memory of nature. No tree can grow without roots," she says, pointing to her tree. "Nature is our roots, and we must know them."
A friend of Kuki's tells me that this is probably the best place in Africa to find the African Honey Guide. He has followed many of them here, and they always lead to honey. This little bird is very clever. It calls and flutters to get your attention, then flies off in the direction of the honey. It will keep your attention and keep directing you to the honey until you are able to locate the hive. The little bird will then sit back and wait for you to arrest the honey from the bees. Kuki tells me that you must then always give some honey to the Honey Guide as a thank you. I think Kuki has come to understand and live with death in a way that many of us won't. I notice a poem in her notes from Kahlil Gibran and write it down. 'For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt in the sun? And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.'
When I land at Laragai, Michael Cecil is busy preparing his autogyro. I think this airstrip is one of the more challenging airstrips in Kenya. It sits on the top of a hill, and it is like landing on the top of a grapefruit. You land uphill, and if you haven't stopped by the midpoint, you are going down again. I have never been in an autogyro, so I am very eager to accept Mike's offer to fly with him. I remember the sensation I had when I was first learning how to fly a helicopter. It was like balancing on a soap bubble. I couldn't keep it still. Then one man told me to squeeze the cyclic control as hard as I could for a minute. My hands were white. He then said to let go. My hand went numb. He gave the control to me, and I was hovering perfectly. I loved that experience of first discovering flight, and this was a chance to rediscover flying again. The rotor on the top of an autogyro does not turn on its own. The air flows up through it and the engine and propeller behind you push you forward. We apply full power to pre-rotate the rotor and then are in the air in less than 50 meters. I love the feeling. We are hanging and moving forward at the same time. I feel like I am hanging way out in space. It would be a wonderful platform to film from. The controls are simple. The stick in between you legs controls your movement up or down, and the rudder pedals beneath your feet slide you left or right. The best feature about this type of aircraft is that you can turn so quickly by pressing hard on one of the pedals. In an airplane if you turn without banking by just pressing the rudders, you can stall one wing if you are going slowly enough. In an autogyro, you are suspended beneath a disk that doesn't care which way you want to spin, and the slower you are going, the faster you will turn. The advantage of an autogyro is that you are in a constant state of autorotation, so if you ever have an engine failure, you just keep coming down, but it is in a controlled manner. The only danger is that if you pull the throttle back and are flying low to the ground you could be surprised by rising ground and not have enough time to build up power in the rotor system to climb faster than the ground. It is not fast, but it is thrilling, and as we come in to land, we flare and stop in about 10 meters.
On the west slope of Mount Kenya, Andrew Garratt pulls his bright red Waco biplane out of a rustic wooden hangar. "I don't know if anyone has told you, but I used to be a dentist," he says. I am wondering why someone would leave a comfortable job like being a dentist to be a bush pilot. "A life of no regrets," he says. Andy tells me that someone once read him a quote from the Talmud at a dental lecture in New Zealand, and it said, 'Man will be called to account for the permitted pleasures he has failed to enjoy.' Andy smiles at this. We are sitting on the front porch of his little wooden hanger surrounded by lush green forest. There are some waterbuck at the end of the grass runway, and I saw elephants as I came in to land. "The genuine things come from the heart," Andy says, "and being a dentist wasn't in my heart." I am amazed at what a smart operation he has set up. There is a little wood stove, leather jackets and silk scarves for the passengers and leather flying helmets complete with goggles. He calls his company "Classic Aerial Safaris" and most of his clients come up from the Mount Kenya Safari Club. The idea is to let them feel the wind in their face and experience what flying must have been like in the days of "Out of Africa".
Andy tells me about his skydiving accident many years ago. He was strangled by a line on the parachute and passed out before he hit the ground. His friend who was jumping with him said that he was blacker than any black he had ever seen. There was no pulse and no respiration. Fortunately, this man had been trained in advanced cardiac life support. Andy tells me that he was about as close to death as you can get without being dead. It was a pleasurable dozing sensation. He felt like he was taking a nap at the drop zone in between jumps. When he woke up, he began convulsing violently. He was still unconscious after he regained his pulse and breathing, so his friend started slapping him. Andy figures that he must have been out for about 3 - 5 minutes with no pulse. He laughs about this now, but I can somehow see how it could change one's perspective on being a dentist. When Andy was in the Air Force, he was considering going into the special forces. "They got to do all the fun stuff," he tells me, "and they also got all the gadgets to play with." Andy thinks he may have been a bit too much of a non-conformist in those days. He looks at me and says, "You must know what I mean. Conformists don't have biplanes and bush planes."
Andrew tells me that no one in Kenya really thought his idea would be
successful, but there were a few surprised looks when he recently bought his
second $ 250,000 Waco. "It is turning into a soft pampered world out there," he
says, "This is why people have an attraction towards Africa. It is an
opportunity for them to take risks. We are animals, and we thrive on risks. It
cleanses the soul." Into the golden light of a sunrise, the biplane climbs
across north Kenya wheat fields, between the clouds and up across the lush
volcanic slopes of Africa's second highest mountain. I am freezing, because I am
leaning out of my window trying to take pictures of Andrew as he dances through
the sky beneath me. The combination of the flying and the "Out of Africa" music
playing in the headsets seems to do something to people. There was one nurse
from British Columbia who wrote in his visitor's logbook, 'Oh, that my life
could have ended at that moment of climax when I touched the hand of God, and he
smiled upon my soul.' Andrew tells me that it is not at all unusual to have
women crying at the end of a flight. He smiles a little at this and says to me,
"How can you be a dentist if you want to be a bush pilot."