They used to say that sooner or later you’d run into everybody of importance in Africa at the Thorn Tree Café in the New Stanley Hotel which has been there, more or less, since 1902 (I say more or less because the original Stanley Hotel burned down in 1905 and was reopened a few years later as the New Stanley). The hotel was where Hemingway recuperated from a severe case of amoebic dysentery while on safari in 1933 and where he began imagining the story that would become “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
The real crossroads of Kenya, if not Africa, these days seems to be Barney’s at the Nanyuki airfield. Okay, I can’t see Prince Charles and Camilla being feted at Barney’s the way Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth) and Prince Philip were at The New Stanley back in 1952, but in the hour or we spent there having lunch while Calvin ran around Nanyuki buying final supplies for our drive north, a lot of interesting people came through, nobody more so than the wildlife cinematographer Alan Root.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Alan and his wife, Joan, were to wildlife movies what Disney is to animation. As Vanity Fair writer Mark Seal wrote in his book about Joan Root, Wildflower (which is supposedly being turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts even as I write this), “They were pioneers, filming animal behavior without human interference decades before films such as Winged Migration and March of the Penguins were made. Their movies were often narrated by top movie stars, including David Niven, James Mason, and Ian Holm, and in 1967 one of their films had a royal premiere in London, where the couple was presented to the queen.
“They introduced the American zoologist Dian Fossey to the gorillas she would later die trying to save, took Jacqueline Kennedy up in their hot-air balloon, and covered much of Africa in their single-engine Cessna and their amphibious car. Then, for reasons the public never really knew, they suddenly vanished from the screen as mysteriously as some of the endangered species they had documented.”
Interesting, no? But it gets better. They divorced and Joan retreated to her home on 88 acres along Lake Naivasha “where she devoted herself to saving the ecologically imperiled lake just beyond her home. It was there, in her bedroom at one-thirty a.m. on January 13, 2006, that she was brutally murdered by assailants with an AK-47. Screaming in Swahili that they would fill her with so many holes she’d “look like a sieve,” they pumped bullets through the glass and the bars of her bedroom windows until Joan—who, at sixty-nine, had become one of the most indomitable conservationists in the world—lay dead in a pool of her own blood.”
The murder was never solved, though most everyone, including the police, had a pretty good idea who did it. And what the motive was (hint: it has something to do with roses). Which is why, I suppose, Julia Roberts is making a film of the story. Sort of a more violent, but undoubtedly just as beautiful, Out of Africa.
The murder was four-and-a-half years ago. And now here was her ex-husband, Alan Root, sitting at the table next to me at Barney’s drinking a Tusker and eating a cheeseburger. Just like me. You can imagine how badly I wanted to introduce myself and have a little chat. But just then Calvin and Keith pulled up in front of where we were eating, honked the horn, and the four of us climbed into the Land Cruisers, leaving Alan Root to finish his lunch in silence.
Comments are now closed.