November 2010

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An aerial view of the new road leading to the Mathews Range in the distance. Photo by David Lansing.

It was an odd feeling to leave Lake Paradise. I had been thinking about it and reading about it for so long and then to simply get in the plane at Marsabit and fly over it and head south to Samburu—well, I felt like I was leaving something important behind me.

On the other hand, it was interesting to fly over the Kaisut Desert and see the Chinese road we’d driven up. It looked like a muddy river flowing through the flat landscape below. The road seemed to stretch all the way down to the Mathews Range and not once did we see a car or a truck on its still unfinished surface. Still, you can’t help but wonder what is going to happen to this still rather pristine section of Kenya once the road is completed and there is a highway connecting Nairobi to Ethiopia. Certainly it will bring more commerce to the Northern Frontier District, but it will also bring more people and more pressure on this rather fragile ecological area. I can’t help but think that it will not be a good thing for the animals either.

As we neared Samburu, we flew over Ol Doinyo Sabachi, the odd flat-topped kopje whose name means “the mountain where the child got lost.” Our pilot told us that years ago Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who runs the Save the Elephant organization and, along with his wife Oria, the camp where we are headed, Elephant Watch, climbed to the top of the rock and cleared a landing space so he could fly his plane there. It seems like an incredibly foolish thing to do because you either had to stop your plane very, very quickly or it would just go over the edge at the end of the runway. But then again, Iain, who just turned 68 in August, has always had a reputation as a bit of a mad man.

In The Tree Where Man Was Born, the great novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen writes of several reckless encounters Iain has miraculously survived over the years  including several small plane crashes.

Iain’s plane is twenty years old, and looks it, but it “came with all sorts of spare parts—ailerons and wings and things. I shan’t be able to use them, I suppose, unless I crump it.” We took off from Voi at a very steep angle—a stalling angle, I was told later by Hugh Lamprey, a veteran flyer who once landed his plane on the stony saddle, fifteen thousand feet up, between the peaks of Kilimanjaro. Despite thunderheads and heavy rain, Iain chose a strange route through the Teita Hills, and I sat filled with gloom as the black rain smacked his windshield. There are bad air currents in the Teita Hills; it was at Voi that Karen Blixen’s friend, Denys Finch-Hatton, crashed and died.

We crossed the Ardai Plain beyond Arusha and the smooth Losiminguri Hills, flying westward toward the dark cliffs of the Rift. But Iain would not suffer the flight to pass without incident, for just as we reached the cliff…he wigwagged the tourists taking tea on the lawn of the Manyara Lodge, on the rim of the escarpment, and no doubt caused a click of cups by banking in a violent arc over the void and plunging in a power dive at the ground-water forest, a thousand feet below.

A year later, when I got back to Ndala, I found Iain in a state of some chagrin. A month after my departure in the spring before, he had walked away from the wreck of his new airplane, which was far beyond the help of his spare parts. And it had scarcely been repaired when he nosed it over in soft sand while attempting to land on the sea beach at Kilifi, on the coast of Kenya. At present he was unable to accompany me on a planned climb of Ol Doinyo Lengai, having been warned by his sponsors and superiors that his reputation was outstripping his accomplishment.

He was silent for a while, then said abruptly that he expected to die violently, as his father had, and doubted very much that he would live to see his fortieth year. Should he maintain his present habits, this romantic prediction will doubtless be borne out. Yet people like Iain who hurl themselves at life with such generous spirit seem to rush untouched through danger after danger, as if the embrace of death as part of life made them immortal.

Well, obviously Iain has made if far past his fortieth birthday. But I wondered, as we began to descend towards the Elephant Watch Camp airstrip, if he was still the same rather maniacal egotist Matthiessen had written about back in 1972. We would soon find out.


Taking stock of paradise

The boys smoke a farewell cigar at Lake Paradise. Photo and video by David Lansing.

It’s interesting that Lake Paradise is so close to the 3-million-year-old Koobi Fora paleontological site first discovered by Richard Leakey and his team in 1972 and now thought of as the “Cradle of Mankind” and the most likely site of the biblical Garden of Eden. Koobi Fora may be the cradle of mankind but to me Lake Paradise feels like the Garden of Eden.

Which, frankly, came as a bit of a surprise to all of us. The purpose of this expedition was to see if any sort of Paradise, literally and figuratively, still existed in Kenya. And the short answer is, yes, it does.

On this trip we’ve visited several different types of African paradise, the first being the pristine environment near Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp in a corner of the Mara-Serengeti and even that was unexpected. When we’d first discussed going on this expedition there was a certain resistance, particularly by the photographer Pete McBride, to visiting the Mara. Pete was worried there wouldn’t be much to see (or, for him, to photograph) in the Mara and that Calvin’s camp would treat us, as he wrote me, like “elderly British folk who are more interested in tea time and china than seeing an elephant up close during musk.” He also warned me that there would be a million mini-vans running around chasing animals up one ridge and down another.

But that wasn’t the case. What we got instead was a close-up view of thousands of animals, from elephants to wildebeests to cheetahs, and never once came across another game-viewing vehicle. Paradise indeed. Even Pete the Cynic was shocked by how pristine Calvin’s little corner of the Mara was and how much game life we saw.

From there we traveled to Sarara, in the Mathews Range of Central Kenya, and found a different sort of paradise. As a friend of mine who was there before us wrote, “The highest parts of the range are behind the camp, covered in lush tropical forest, but looking the other way the countryside is quite dry and covered in acacia trees. The contrast is amazing. It really is stunningly beautiful.”

The focus here for us wasn’t so much on the animals (although we did see elephants and giraffes and various members of the antelope family such as gerenuks) but on the setting and the Samburu people. To visit the Singing Wells and to watch the young Samburu warriors dance in a sand river at sunset was to confuse time and suddenly find yourself swept back into a world that existed hundreds of years ago.

Then we got to Lake Paradise, a place very few people knew about and no one we met had visited within the last ten years. As Martin Johnson said, “It is Paradise, literally as well as figuratively, and if it were charted it would appear on the maps as Lake Paradise. And I know of no place in all the world that better deserves the name.”

Some 80 years later, I can echo Martin’s words.

Is it like it was when Osa and Martin first came here in 1921? No. There are not nearly as many elephants and the ones that are here are not the famous ancient beasts with tusks so large that, for at least two of them, they had armed game wardens protecting them from poachers. The rhinos that used to drive Osa Johnson crazy because they seemed to be everywhere have disappeared completely and the large herds of buffalo have diminished greatly as well.

And the lake, with its “unsurpassable beauty” has mostly disappeared and probably will never return.

Still. The ancient forest of old cedars and figs and African brown olive trees are still here. The great number of birds and waterfowl that made such an impression on Osa are still here, perhaps in even greater number. As are the clouds of butterflies she wrote about. Calvin estimates that there are hundreds of different species of butterflies here, many of them unidentified, and that there are probably some unique species of plants and trees that have evolved over millions of years that are no place else in the world.

“It’s an island of species development,” he says.

It is, in fact, Paradise. One I hope I get back to one day.

Here’s a short video of Calvin Cottar discussing our discoveries of paradise in Kenya.


Everything has an end

Our final look at Lake Paradise. Photos by Chris Fletcher.

When I got up, Eddie and Kurani were already breaking camp. It was very sad to sit around the smoldering campfire knowing this was our last morning at Lake Paradise.

While Julius was making a final breakfast, cooking up the last of the sausages and bacon, we all packed. Even while I was stuffing clothes in my duffel bag on my cot, Kurani was pulling up the tent stakes. By the time I was done, the tent, which had felt like home, was sagging around my head.

The plan was for Calvin to drive us into Marsabit where a small plane from Tropic Air would, we hope, be waiting for us, and then the four of us—Hardy, Fletch, Pedro and myself—would fly to Samburu where Pete and I would get off and spend some time at the Elephant Watch Camp and Hardy and Fletch would continue on to Nairobi. Calvin and his crew would then drive the two vehicles down to Elephant Watch Camp and join us for an evening before continuing on.

We headed out of camp with the dew still bright on the grasses and the sun having just risen over the rim of the crater. The woods were alive with baboons and birds and all the little dudus that hum and whir in the first heat of day. Clouds of waterfowl were coming in from their evening roosts in the trees and guinea fowl ran across the road in front of us, cackling in their indignity of our disturbing their pecking of insects in the short grass over the road.

Me in front of our plane at the Marsabit airport.

It was just a gorgeous morning;  so gorgeous my heart felt heavy and I could hardly breath. Once we were off the mountain, Calvin was in a hurry to get us to the Marsabit airstrip. He’d coordinated the time of our arrival with Tropic Air and his thought was that he wanted to be pulling up with us two or three minutes after the plane had landed. He didn’t like the idea of us or the pilot having to wait around. As I’ve said before, this is a very troubled area what with the shiftas and all and there’s no need to invite trouble. When we got to the airstrip the little 6-passenger Cessna was waiting for us. The wind was blowing sharply and it was cold enough that all of us were wearing jackets. We quickly loaded our gear and took off, waving at Calvin.

I was in the co-pilot seat and Pedro was in the back where he could lower one of the rear windows and stick his head out to do some aerial photography. He asked the pilot to fly north over Lake Paradise. The wind was blowing so hard that the pilot was nervous about slowing the plane too much, afraid it might stall, but he dipped his wing and we came in low over the extinct crater, low enough so that we could see the elephants drinking from the shallow pools one last time. We circled all the way round the caldera, slowly, slowly, with Pete hanging out the window and the rest of us with our faces pressed against the glass trying to get one last view. And then the pilot straightened out the plane and turned it south, towards Samburu and Lake Paradise was behind us.

In December of 1926, Osa and Martin Johnson closed down their camp at Lake Paradise and began the long journey home over the Kaisut Desert. They went first to Nairobi and Mombasa before sailing to London and New York where they began working on their film together and arranging a world lecture tour. But they never forgot about Lake Paradise.

Martin Johnson wrote, “I have been home just four months, and as soon as I can, I am going back. I know exactly the spot I will make for. It lies away out in the blue, a good thousand-mile trek from Nairobi, in British East Africa. It is Paradise, literally as well as figuratively, and if it were charted it would appear on the maps as Lake Paradise. And I know of no place in the world that better deserves the name.”

The Maasai have a saying: Epwo m-baa poking in-gitin’got, which means basically “Everything has an end.” Martin Johnson never made it back to Lake Paradise. He died in a plane crash on January 12, 1937.


Tug-of-war in camp

Pedro, left, takes on Calvin in tug-of-war game. Photo and video by David Lansing.

It’s late in the afternoon. A little too early for cocktails,  a little too late for a nap. We’re all just lazing around. Pedro is taking some photos of Calvin holding his elephant gun (Calvin tells us that each bullet for his rifle costs $40). I’m reading a scrapbook Calvin’s mother has put together about the Cottar men—Bwana Charles (his great grandfather), Mike (his father), and Bud (his great uncle). Some interesting stuff here. (From a 50’s sporting magazine story Bud Cottar wrote about his father’s death from a wounded rhino in 1940: “The lions will grunt at night, the hyenas laugh and sob, the vultures watch from on high, and the wild elephants drift on silent feet through the vast forests…but Bwana Cottar has gone away, and we will not see his like again.”)

When Pedro gets done with his photo shoot, he challenges Calvin, eight years his senior, to a sort of tug-of-war camp game. He gets a length of rope about 25- or 30-feet long and the two stand facing each other on camp stools, each having about ten feet of rope behind them. The goal is to either pull your opponent off the stool or have them run out of rope. It’s more mental than physical. The game is as much about feints and quick reactions as anything. You’re trying to figure out if your opponent is going to try and jerk you off your stool or just take little tugs at the rope trying to get you off balance. Calvin seems immediately at a disadvantage but then he starts to figure out what Pete is doing and almost topples him before losing.

Then Hardy takes on Pedro. Now, the thing is that winning this game once doesn’t give you much of an  advantage against your next opponent. You’re winded, your opponent has been watching your moves, plus, you’ve got a bit of rope burn already. So not too surprisingly, Hardy knocks off Pedro. And then takes on Fletcher, who now has the advantage of having watched the tactics of three different contestants in two matches. Fletcher easily conquers Hardy. And now takes on Calvin. Who, not too surprisingly, defeats Fletcher, knocking him back against a log so he scrapes up his leg. So now all the boys have rope burns and a couple of them have twisted an ankle or scraped a leg, and all of them are sweating and winded.

Meanwhile, I read my book and finish my cold beer.

Here’s a short video of Pedro taking on Calvin.


Football at the Marsabit Lodge

A lodge employee and our armed askari playing checkers with beer caps. Photo by David Lansing.

Lake Paradise is actually an extinct volcanic crater known as a gof (the named given to them by the local Borana people) and it’s not the only gof on Mount Marsabit. In looking at my map of the area I count at least a dozen others. One, called Gof Sokorta Diko, is about a 45-minute drive away on the windy road that goes through the forest. The thing that’s interesting about this gof is that there’s a lodge there. Or so we think.

When I was first researching this story and trying to figure out where we were going to stay, I came across this lodge which was variously described as either “refurbished” or “grungy.” Some sites even suggested that the lodge was now closed. So on Saturday we decided to go on an outing to the lodge to see what was there.

The short answer is, not much. In fact, when we first pulled up to the lodge, which is just a simple rectangular structure with a corrugated tin roof, we thought it was closed. But the front door wasn’t locked so we walked in and started yelling “Hello!” which must have scared to death the two caretakers who were sitting on the veranda outside playing a game of checkers on a home-made board using beer bottle caps for pieces.

There was a little bar in the lobby of the lodge and a seating area around a low table covered with a yellow check tablecloth atop which were four or five magazines that were at least three or four years old. Most of the other furniture in the lobby was covered with green sheets. We asked the caretaker if he had beer and he said he had Tusker lager or Tusker premium lager (which accounted for the two different types of beer caps being used in the checkers game).

We ordered a couple bottles of each and went and sat on the veranda that overlooks a meadow that, like Paradise, used to be a lake. We knew that because there were old B&W photos in the bar of the lake with water going almost all the way up to the lodge. Still, it was a pleasant setting. When the caretaker brought our beers, they were warm. We asked him if he had any cold ones and he said he didn’t. “No electricity.” He told us that the lodge had a generator and when they had guests, they turned the generator on, but right now they had no guests.

“Have you had guests recently?” I asked him.

“Oh, yes sir.”

“This week?”

“No, sir.”

“Last week?”

“No, sir.” He said he couldn’t remember exactly when they last had guests but he was pretty sure it was sometime this year. Or maybe last year.

Hardy trying his best to annoy me. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

There was a small TV on a table in the bar and Hardy asked him if it worked. The caretaker said they could get one or two channels—when the generator was on. Since it was Saturday, Hardy joked that perhaps we should pay to have the generator fired up and see if we could catch a football game. He was only joking, I think, but it irritated me and I told him that we had not come all the way to Lake Paradise so that we could watch a Saturday afternoon football game at the Marsabit Lodge.

This was a mistake on my part. Whenever I get indignant, Hardy gets amused. So he started to make a big deal out of it. He talked to Fletcher and Pedro and asked them if they were willing to chip in on the cost of the fuel for the generator so they could get the TV fired up. I said we needed to get going. Hardy said that was fine. They’d stay and watch a game and walk back to camp. Of course there was no way they were going to walk back to camp. It had taken us almost an hour to drive here through the forest and it was already late in the afternoon and there was no way Calvin would ever let them walk back to Lake Paradise at twilight which is when all the big game starts moving towards the water. I knew that and Hardy knew I knew it, but I was annoyed none-the-less, which gave him great satisfaction.

Eventually we paid our bar bill and got back into the Land Cruiser and headed back through the forest to Lake Paradise, but even then Hardy wouldn’t let it go. He was having too much fun. Maybe when we get back to camp, Hardy said, we could drop Lansing off and then go back to the lodge and watch a game. What do you think Calvin?

At this point, even Calvin could see how annoyed I was so he played along and said, Sure, great idea.

“Goddamnit,” I said angrily, “nobody is going to watch football at Lake Paradise. Nobody.”

And that was the end of it. Except for the barely suppressed chortling in the back seat from Hardy and Fletcher and Pedro.


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