August 2010

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Calvin Cottar, at head of the table. Over his shoulder are the Cottar great white hunters. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

At dusk, old-fashioned paraffin and kerosene lamps are lit by the the Masai askaris and placed along the red pebble pathway, which gets raked by a young Masai every time a guest walks on it, leading from the individual tents to the dining pavilion, a large white canvas big top, like from a circus, held up with rough-cut poles and staked with rope. Dusty Oriental rugs on the floor and Victorian artifacts—a brass telescope, safari hats hanging over the backs of canvas chairs, a wind-up gramophone record player—are spread about.

There are two linen-covered dining room tables on opposite sides of the tent separated by a little sitting area styled like a colonial corner of the Lord Delamere Bar at the Norfolk Hotel. Most of the guests eat communally at the larger dining table lit by candles and decorated with jars of fragrant wild sage called leleshwa. We sit at a smaller table across the room next to an Edwardian bookcase with antique books, long out of print, like Hunting, Settling and Remembering by the big-game hunter Philip Percival. To the right of that are four framed black-and-white photos of Cottars going back almost a hundred years: the patriarch, Charles; his two sons, Bud and Mike; and Glen, Calvin’s father.

When we dine at this table, Calvin sits with the three generations of Cottar men looking over his shoulder. No doubt he feels them looking at him all the time. There has been a Cottar running a safari camp since 1919 and it goes unsaid that Calvin feels the weight of keeping that going.

After dinner we retire to the comfort of the canvas chairs around the campfire, now burning low and steady, fed every once in awhile with a branch or two of hard wood by the tall Masai crouched nearby in the darkness beneath an umbrella acacia. Now it is time for the whisky.

At one point Calvin gets up and his chair is taken by a dark-haired woman who happily accepts our offer of a glass of smoky Lagavulin. She and her husband, who sits slouched in a chair on the opposite side of the fire, have just gotten back from a night walk looking for leopards. They’d seen three, nearby, and she is still feeling the adrenalin rush of stalking leopards at night, by foot, her euphoria evident in the rush of words as she tells us all about it.

A Masai askari ready to lead guests to their tents. Photo by David Lansing.

She knocks back the whisky quickly and Hardy pours her another while gently flirting with her. She’s a doctor, from San Francisco, specializing in tropical diseases, a bit of an expert it seems. Her husband, who seems to be sulking and has hardly said a word while sipping a diet soda, is also a doctor, though it seems obvious she has the more prestigious job.

There is some strange dynamic going on between the two of them; it’s obvious to all of us. She’s talkative, vivacious, drunk on Africa, happy to be sitting around a campfire surrounded by four strange men, sharing their whisky and their stories. He’s morose, slumped, silent, purposefully sitting alone on the dark side of the fire.

Perhaps they’ve quarreled earlier in the evening. Or maybe he just doesn’t like it that she is so comfortable here. Did something happen while they were out looking for leopards? It’s impossible to tell. But we’re all aware that something is up and, perhaps a touch meanly, we play to it. We laugh with her, ask her for more stories, refill her glass. At one point, Hardy, who has brought a box of Cuban cigars along on the trip, asks her if she’d like one. Her dark eyes get wide. Which is when her husband stands up and goes over to her. Standing behind her canvas chair he says, “We’re getting up awfully early tomorrow to go out with Phillip. We probably should go to bed.”

You can tell from her expression that’s the last thing she wants to do. Without answering him she swallows the last of her peaty whisky, licks her lips, and stands up. “Gentlemen, it was a great pleasure to meet you and share your whisky,” she says, shaking each of our hands. “Have a pleasant evening.”

And then they walk off into the night, her a little tipsy, striding ahead of her husband, being led by a Masai askari carrying a kerosene lantern.



William brings a round of G&Ts. Photos by David Lansing.

Just in front of the main mess tent at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp is a fire pit and around the fire pit are a dozen or so canvas camp chairs. If you happen to be sitting in one of the chairs about half an hour or so before the sun sets, as Hardy, Fletch, and I were, William, a very handsome man who never wears anything but white except for his colorful prayer cap, which he seems to change several times a day, will come down and take your drink order.

When Ernest Hemingway was here in the 1930s, hunting with famed guide Philip Percival (who was called “Pop” in the Green Hills of Africa and, most think, was Wilson, the great white hunter with “cold blue eyes” in Hem’s classic short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”) they drank beer and whiskey. Mostly whiskey.

In the Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway, after a difficult but successful hunt of a great kudu (whose head is still hanging over the dining table in Hemingway’s old home in Havana, Cuba), trudges back to camp in the dark, exhausted, and “In the firelight I sat on a petrol box with my back against a tree and Kamau brought the whiskey flask and poured some in a cup and I added water from the canteen and sat drinking and looking in the fire, not thinking, in complete happiness, feeling the whiskey warm me and smooth me as you straighten the wrinkled sheet in a bed…”

So naturally enough, we all brought fine bottles of whisky along for this trip. Hardy ordered a whisky from William and Fletch, who doesn’t drink hard alcohol very often, asked for a Tusker, and I was going to ask for a whisky as well but the evening was warm and my throat was parched so I asked for a gin and tonic.

William nodded and had started back to the dining tent when Hardy said, “You know what? I think I’ll have a gin and tonic as well. That sounds rather good.” And then Fletch also changed his order to a G&T.

William brought the drinks and I don’t think anything has ever tasted so wonderful to me in my life. I drank half of it straight down, relishing the bitterness of the tonic and the pungent juniper berry taste of the British gin, and had to tell myself to slow down, afraid I’d finish it before William even had a chance to make it back to the bar set up in the back of the dining tent where a linen table cloth was being smoothed by another waiter over a long table in preparation for our dinner.

Calvin had said earlier in the day that it might rain. The sun was holding itself up in a sliver of sky between the dark silhouetted hills and several long, heavy rain clouds. Far away on the horizon, towards Tanzania, you could see a rain shower falling somewhere over the Rift Valley.

Calvin, far right, telling stories about his great-grandfather, Charles Cottar.

We talked about the elephants we’d seen and wondered if the old cow in charge of the herd’s safety really would have come after us if she’d seen Hardy walking around in the bush. It seemed unlikely. Dangerous animals, like elephants, don’t like to feel hemmed in when you’re between where they’re coming from and where they’re going, like a water hole. But although the herd was coming our direction from up the donga, it seemed likely that they’d been in some water down there and were now just moving up onto higher ground to feed in the tall grass. There was no particular reason, as far as we knew, for them to come our way, so the old cow just changed course and went around us.

While we were talking and watching the sky go from gold to burnt orange to dark purple, a very tall, bald Masai, wearing a traditional tartan cloak and heavy hiking boots with gray socks pulled up halfway to his knees, brought an armload of kindling wood over to the fire pit. He put several small twigs in a cross-hatch fashion and, on his knees, twirled a fire-stick between his palms until the twigs started to smoke. He blew on this and a flame shot up and slowly he added more twigs and kindling until he had a proper fire going just as the sun disappeared behind the dark hills.

Calvin came up and asked what we were drinking. He ordered a gin and tonic from William, who seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere from the shadows, and I asked for another and then Hardy said, “Better just bring us four more, William.”

The drinks came, the second one tasting even better than the first, and we sat around the fire asking Calvin questions about the camp and his great-grandfather, Charles, who Calvin said probably came to Kenya with his family in 1915 because “he had some problems back home and needed to make a quick escape. Family legend has it that Charles Cottar was a bit of a scoundrel and probably in trouble with the law.”

We finished our second round of drinks as the night came on and the fire roared and it was almost nine before Calvin suggested that we’d better head up to the dining tent for dinner where the other guests of the camp had already finished eating and were now having coffee. Still, no one immediately got up to leave. The evening was too fine to rush.


Yesterday afternoon, after we got back from looking for smelly ellies, Calvin and I sat down at his camp and I got him to talk about the wildlife we’d seen. I was using my Canon 7D to film him instead of a video camera and the focus is off a little bit in the interview part but the smelly ellies look magnificent and give you a good idea at what we were looking at today.


Greeted by Masai

Some curious Masai ilkeliani stopped by to watch our plane land. Photos by David Lansing.

Hamish spun the Caravan around, guiding it toward a pair of gnarled brown olive trees that stuck out on the otherwise barren field like two elephants on an ice-skating rink. A safari vehicle was parked in the shade of the trees and next to it was a smiling man in a green fleece vest and red velour kufi prayer cap, hands clasped in front of him, standing next to a white cloth covered camp-table. On the table were several glasses of what looked like orange juice just waiting for us. A bit distant from the trees were six Masai ilkeliani, or young warriors, the red ocher in their hair signifying that they had been initiated into adulthood through circumcision, the close-cropped hair an indication that they were not yet morani or warriors.

The mom of one of the young warriors.

At a distance, behind the boys, were three bald Masai women, probably the mothers of the young warriors. Most of the boys had small sticks, the size of golf tees, pushing through the tops of their ears but had not yet had the lobes of their ears pierced, like their mothers, who had decorated the stretched skin with glass beads. One mother was decorated with several beaded necklaces and attached to the string was a key ring with at least a dozen small keys on it, god knows for what.

Pete being Pete the first thing he does is go over to the young warriors and give them a soul shake. “Habari?” he asks the boys and they shake his hand and laugh and within minutes he is taking their pictures and posing for him while their mothers slowly move closer, both curious and protective. In years past you did not take photos of the Masai but these boys are obviously habituated to the practice and while they don’t preen in front of the camera the way many youth will, neither are they intimidated.

One of the moms also lets me take her photo but then makes it clear, by removing the adze from her shoulder and waving it at me in mock threat, that one photo is enough. If this woman’s mother was here she would, no doubt, mock her daughter for allowing me to take even a single picture. And she’d be disgusted by her grandchild for allowing a mzungu to steal his soul. That is how quickly the Masai culture is changing. In less than a generation, it’s quite possible that all the traditions of becoming a morani—a warrior—will be gone as well.


The Cottar family saga

Three generations of Cottars. Charles, in the safari hat on the right, Mike (holding the lion) and his son Glen left of him.

While we’re flying over The Great Rift Valley towards Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp, which is 6,200-feet up the Olentoroto Hills just outside Masai Mara National Reserve, let’s talk about the Cottar family. Our expedition leader, who I have only met through e-mail (or barua pepe, as they call it in Swahili), is Calvin Cottar. Calvin’s great-grandfather, Charles Cottar, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s epic year-long safari a century ago, first came to Kenya in 1909, returning in 1913 for a second safari before settling, with his family, for good in 1915 in what was then British East Africa on a big farm in the Ithanga Hills, midway between Nairobi and Mt. Kenya.

Charles Cottar, along with his sons, Mike and Bud, started up Cottar Safari Services Services for big game hunting in 1919. Charles was gored by a rhino and died in the bush, looking up at the stars (as he’d requested). Mike died of blackwater fever in Tanganyika in 1940. His son, Glen, damn near met his maker in 1965 when he was badly gored by a buffalo. Which leaves Calvin as the Cottar family scion.

The tragically fated Bud Cottar who watched his father die in 1940 after being gored by a wounded rhino.

That’s the nickel version. Which only scratches the surface of the Cottar family story. I haven’t even talked about Calvin’s great-uncle Bud, for instance, who was with his father the day he was trashed by an injured rhino—a rhino that he had been sent into the bush to finish off but failed to find. Not only did Bud shoot the rhino as he tossed his father around like a rag doll, but he then had to convince a couple dozen porters, all scared to death, to help him lift it off his father’s crushed legs. And then watch his father slowly die, knowing there was nothing he could do for him.

Not too surprisingly, Bud developed a drinking problem after that and was never the same (as war was breaking out in Europe in 1940, he volunteered for service and eventually died back in the States of his injuries which were complicated both by alcoholism and a number of undiagnosed tropical diseases).

Martin and Osa Johnson on arrival in Kenya in 1921.

I tell you all this because both Calvin and his great-uncle Bud are central to the reason I have come to Kenya. In 1921, two American explorers, Martin and Osa Johnson, arrived in Nairobi hoping to photograph African wildlife for American audiences. The Johnsons knew absolutely nothing about either Africa or the wild game they were hoping to photograph. So they hired a twenty-year-old white hunter named Bud Cottar. Bud not only helped them organize their initial safaris into the Athi plains and Serengeti, but also drove their Ford truck, shot for meat, oversaw the porters, and stood behind Osa—just out of camera range—when a rhino or lion or elephant charged as Martin was filming, providing cover.

It was also Bud who organized and led their massive safari to a long-lost lake, far up in the Northern Frontier District near the Ethiopian border, that Osa named Lake Paradise. A lake seldom seen and almost never written about since. Which is where we are headed. Led by Bud’s great-newphew, Calvin Cottar.

That is why I’ve come to Kenya—to return to Lake Paradise with Calvin Cottar, following the same route as Martin and Osa Johnson when they were led by Calvin’s great-uncle Bud almost 90 years ago, and to search for remnants of the extensive village the Johnsons constructed and where they lived for  three-and-a-half years in the 1920s while documenting the wildlife there.

In short,we’re going off in search of paradise in Kenya. Lake Paradise.

And now Hamish has just set our Caravan down on the rocky Cottar Camp airstrip and there, sitting in a Land Rover beneath the shade of a brown olive tree, is Calvin Cottar.

Our adventure has begun.


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