Flying in to Elephant Watch Camp

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.


1 comment

  1. Jeff Wilson’s avatar

    very good… the whole story is not over. who needs the other boys? now it’s you and pete. keep up the good work.

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