TRAVELING IN STYLE : OUR HEARTS ARE IN THE HIGHLANDS

Lamb, The Times' former Nairobi bureau chief, is author of "The Africans" and "The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage."

Coming back to Africa, arriving in the mist of early morning, the land was greener, vaster and even more beautiful than I had dared remember. I realized that I had embarked on a dangerous mission, for tracking the past can be an empty journey filled with the perils of discovering that some memories are best left undisturbed.

It was inevitable that I would return to Africa. Everyone whose heart remains there does. My wife, Sandy, and I had lived in Nairobi for four years in the 1970s, and in all the miles and places since then, hardly a week had slipped by without Sandy making some mention of Africa, as though life there had been lived on some special plateau that only a privileged few will ever know. One day in Kenya her love for Africa had jarred me. We were sitting in wicker chairs on our lawn. The evening was touched with chill and the freshly ground and brewed Kenyan coffee in our mugs tasted especially good. An autumn sunset full of orange fire reached across the horizon. The sky seemed close enough to touch.

"You know," she said, quietly with a sigh, "I could stay here forever ."

Africa does that to people. It speaks in urgent whispers that are at once demanding and pleading. It is as fragile as it is expansive--a maddening, unfathomable, wonderful place with valleys and plains that swallow the travelers under a canopy of stars and makes them feel that they have found the last true frontier of solitude and uncorrupted beauty on earth.

Our favorite hotel in Africa was the Norfolk, a grand place built in 1904 when Nairobi was little more than a railroad village. It was there that we headed for our first breakfast on this return trip. The patio was crowded, and I looked around for familiar faces but there were none. Still, the years had not deprived the Norfolk of any of its charm. I noted in my guidebook that the hotel was still favored by "safari clients and The Rich for atmosphere, character, excellent staff, comfort, congeniality." Amen.

Built around a courtyard with an aviary and gardens as exquisite as those of an English manor, the Norfolk feels as though it belongs in the era of Karen Blixen. It harks back to the unhurried days when no afternoon was complete without high tea, and when dinner was ended not at the table but on the veranda, where Cognac was served in flame-warmed snifters. Nairobi's growing skyline may now be dominated by the circular Hilton and other hotels that could as well be in Cincinnati, but it is still to the Norfolk that world travelers come when they want assurances that they are in Africa, not Ohio.

Teddy Roosevelt had set out with more than 100 porters on safari from the patio where I now sat. He had given each a pair of boots and, never having worn such things, the porters had tied the shoelaces together and worn the boots around their necks. Robert Ruark was a regular here, too, setting up shop in the Norfolk's dark, wood-paneled Lord Delamere bar while writing "Uhuru." Ernest Hemingway was another patron of the Delamere, though he preferred to stay at the New Stanley Hotel on Kimathi Street, a decision that may have indicated that Hemingway was a better connoisseur of tight prose than of gracious living.

Only a couple of miles from the Norfolk, up the hill and just past the National Museum, was the small stone house where Sandy and I had lived until 1980. Our sweeping front yard had been no more than an African jungle when we moved in, and we had great fun on the weekends, cutting and digging and seeding until there emerged a lawn, sloping down to the stream on whose banks we had planted a small vegetable garden. We turned off Riverside Drive and followed the dirt road to the bottom of the hill. The blooming bougainvillea was as blue as the ocean. The lawn had reverted to jungle, but I still felt as though a part of myself belonged in this house that had heard so much laughter and had known the joy of long evenings filled with friends and brandy.

Sandy and I had been married in the backyard on Valentine's Day, 1977, a few months after we arrived in Nairobi. There was a chicken coop there now, and the tree, under which we had stood with a British minister and a handful of African and American friends, needed pruning. Thankfully, the mind's eye is selectively compassionate, and what I saw as I looked at the backyard knoll was what had been. The coop and the overgrown tree evaporated and what remained were the gentle ghosts of six dear friends standing there in an afternoon of sunshine.

The Africa that had seemed so forbidding when we first moved there felt familiar and unthreatening now. There was a gentleness and trustfulness in the people that the writings of Hemingway and Ruark had not prepared me for. And there was a resilience in the Africans that I had never before encountered in other peoples--an ability to endure the most dreadful droughts and hunger and poverty and still not lose the faith that somehow, in the end, everything was going to be OK. If Africa was poor in terms of income and living standards, it was rich in spirit.

But in the travelers' realm of the unknown, Africa was--and still is, I guess--the ultimate enigma, and Dial Torgerson, The Times' correspondent I was replacing in Nairobi, who had also lived in the little stone house, shared his personal Third World survival guide for Africa with me. He did so on one of the last evenings before he left for a new assignment in Jerusalem, and from there eventually on to Latin America, where he would be killed covering a war most Africans had never heard of. There was nostalgia in his tone when he said there was no nicer place for an American to live in the developing world than Kenya.

First, he said, travel light, pack only drip-dry clothes and always carry your bag on board. His premise was that checked baggage on an African airline was synonymous with lost baggage. Dial, in fact, used to shower wearing his drip-drys, then put them on a hanger to dry overnight. Second, he said, never order an extra-dry martini. Instead, carry a miniature of vermouth in your pocket, order a double gin and mix your own on the spot. Dial was a practical man.

Though I never did shower clothed, Dial's advice generally proved sound. But coming back now as a visitor, I violated all the rules, carrying two fat suitcases, which we checked--and which were not lost. I had not had such good luck on a trip to impoverished Mozambique in the 1970s where, sans lost bag, I spent 10 days on business, unable to replace a single item, even my toothbrush. I arrived home unshaven and in clothes that looked as though they had been dug up from our garden. Sandy asked me when I had died.

One of the great pleasures of living in Nairobi is the proximity of weekend retreats, from game parks to up-country manors and seaside bungalows. Most of our friends took off for Mombasa and the splendid beaches of the Indian Ocean when they needed a change of scenery. But Sandy and I used to head north, into the Highlands, a two-hour drive through rolling hills and wooded mountains that reminded me of the Vermont I had known as a teen-ager.

The road north had been widened and repaved since we had last driven it. But everything else was just as I remembered. Freshly picked coffee beans were spread over long, raised screens to dry in the relentless equatorial sun. The villages teemed with children and were ablaze with colorful printed fabrics that flapped on clotheslines strung behind small homes with straw roofs. On either side of the road, the bare, red earth gave way to soft, green pastureland, and then to shrub-covered hills, and finally to a magnificent mountain that--towering more than three miles above sea level, craggy and snow-capped--dominates the Kenyan landscape as only Mt. Kenya can.

Near the village of Mwega, we left the paved road as we had done so often before and followed the fork that winds through sloping meadows to the gate of the Aberdares Country Club. We had spent a score or more weekends here, always insisting on room No. 5, the spacious one in the cottage with the fireplace, and I had joked that when the seeds of The Great American Novel flourished from within, that is where I would write it.

The Aberdares really isn't a country club at all, but a great stone house, built in colonial days, that serves as a luxurious guest home for overnight visitors. A monument to the Kenya that was and is, it is nestled near the forests where the Mau Mau war was fought in the early 1950s, a place where the white supremacy of colonialism had given way to a harmonious accommodation between blacks and whites based neither on love nor suspicion but merely on the realization that times had changed.

Mary was still behind the reception desk when we checked in, and she greeted us with a jambo (hello) and a smile as wide as the crescent moon. She assigned us room No. 5 before we had a chance to ask. Francis, whom I had to taught to make extra-dry martinis, stood behind the bar, beaming, as though he hadn't taken a step in all these years. The innkeeper, Sam Weller, a former British Army officer, professional hunter and now a Kenyan citizen, stepped from his office, his Labrador retriever a pace behind, to assure us that, yes, fresh trout was still on the menu, and no, the club had no other overnight visitors; the dining room with its roaring fireplace would be our exclusive domain.

The very special grip that the Highlands holds on anyone who has ever been there was captured nicely in a book I found that evening in the Aberdares' library. It was written by Weller's father--an accomplished artist, poet and violinist--who had settled in Kenya in 1925 after a career as a builder of railways in India. "There can be no happier, healthier life than that of the settler," Henry Owen Weller wrote. "Even when the future does not smile for a time . . . it is easier to carry a heavy heart with a gun under the arm and a buck to be shot on a hillside than to hang on a strap in the foul air of the tube after lunch on a bun and a cup of tea. It is better to drive a car through colonial mud than to dodge buses in Trafalgar Square."

As it happened, we did not dine alone. Sam Weller and a handful of other once-lost friends joined us for dinner that evening. We talked mostly not of the present or future but of the past--of times and friendships shared in an Eden that perhaps would not last forever. Our friends were considerably older than we; they had staked their lives on Kenya's continuing stability and well-being. If things soured, Great Britain would take them back, though none wanted that and all knew that the Highlands of Kenya was really the only place left where they fitted and felt comfortable. They did not envy the rootless wandering of our ways.

Sandy and I retired early, leaving our friends to finish the last of the wine and homemade apple tarts. The lawn we crossed on the short walk to our cottage swept down past the aviary and reached out to distant hills. The glitter of small fires by far-off mud homes sparkled like lightning bugs. The night was black and there was not a whisper of sound from the deep, dark forest outside our door.

I looked back at the silhouette of the main house, where lights shone in the dining room and the soft laughter of friends drifted into the night like the warm glow of embers. And I remember thinking: "Can I freeze them there in time, huddled together in quiet conversation to await my next visit, or must I return again one day to find that everything has changed?"

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