Wanderings in Kenya With an Old Africa Hand

Modzelewski is a free-lance writer living in Napa, Calif

We were comfortably seated on a flight from London to Nairobi and awaiting our first African safari when, midway into the trip, I met a passenger who shared his just-finished copy of "Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure" by Bartle Bull.

In chapter two, "The Old African Hands," I read: "The great majority of early African hunters and adventurers were British and, though they tended to be eccentric and often lonely individuals, they had much in common.

"For many, the sporting, imperial and military ethics all flowed together in a boyish enthusiasm for outdoor adventure. . . . Confined by Victorian conventions at home, they agreed with the Arabist and Nile explorer Richard Burton that 'the gladdest moment in human life is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands.' "

As the wheels touched down in a puff of smoke, I sensed we had started such a journey, and were to meet such a man.

Robert Carr-Hartley was in the Aberdare Mountains with his father, trying to live-trap lions when he was asked to guide our safari.

He met us at the Nairobi airport, whisking our jet-lagged and baggage-laden group quickly through customs and out into the bush.

As we bounced along over corrugated roads we learned that the history of the Carr-Hartley family spans the entire British colonial era in Kenya. Robert's great-grandfather, a veterinarian, administered to the domestic stock that helped build the railroad from Nairobi to Mombasa in the late 1880s.

His grandfather was Kenya's first official "Elephant Controller," trying to keep the pachyderms out of the pioneers' crops. The Carr-Hartley clan evicted elephants by banging pots and pans and firing shots into the air; then running for their lives--grandmother chucking her boys into the bushes and sprinting flat-out amid the stampeding, trumpeting herd.

With such a family history, desk jobs would be death sentences. The current Carr-Hartleys make their living guiding safaris and live-trapping and transporting big game for Kenya's national parks.

The road fronting the family ranch used to be the runway where Denys Finch-Hatton parked his plane when visiting Karen Blixen ('Out of Africa' author Isak Dineson) at her nearby estate. When not leading Monaco's royal family on safari or trapping lions, Robert lives in a small house on the ranch, with servants providing him the free time to paint lavish wildlife murals on his walls.

He earned his fixed-wing and helicopter pilot licenses (graduating from the Bell Ranger Helicopter School in Florida in record time). Robert drives a Range Rover and speaks fluent Swahili, which he learned before English from a native nanny.

"My family is always surprising me," Carr-Hartley said. "I was looking through a scrapbook the other day and saw snapshots of Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. They filmed most of 'Mogambo' at the ranch."

When asked about his most unusual safari clients, Robert told about a certain producer from Paramount Pictures and his wife.

"When I met them at the airport in Nairobi--I couldn't believe it. His wife was in high heels, a satin jump suit and rhinestones--looking like never in her life had she stepped off concrete.

"But the first night out in the bush they got me good. They went to bed ahead of me. All of a sudden the producer lets out an almighty scream. He comes running out across the camp--a short, tubby guy--toupee falling off to the side, holding up a big snake by the neck. 'Oh my God!' I thought, 'I'm going to lose a client.' The snake turned out to be rubber. Every day we played some sort of gag with it.

"Then there were the five women: the wife of a famous Las Vegas casino owner and four of her friends. I had to wake them up at 4 a.m. for the first game drive; took 'em two hours to get ready. I said, 'The wildebeest won't mind what makeup you have on.'

"One of the women bought a batik tablecloth in a market along the way. I told her to wash it in salt water so the colors wouldn't run."

"You do it," she said.

"No way," I said. "I've never washed anything in my life. At the end, Elaine thought I was 'it'--Tarzan or something. She still writes to me, wants me to come to Las Vegas. No bloody way!"

And like the great white hunters before him, Carr-Hartley didn't want us to think he suffers fools gladly. Tongue-in-cheek, he told us that "Whenever a guide has a difficult client, he'll shoot a zebra and, at night, tie the carcass to the client's bed. Straightens him right out--when a lion takes hold of the meat!"

At Larsen's Camp in the Samburu Game Reserve we stayed under luxurious canvas: tents with plump beds, camphor furniture, thick rugs and polished wooden decks overlooking a river alive with crocodiles.

In the center of a green lawn we sat in canvas chairs, sipping aperitifs while vervet monkeys chattered above us in the trees. Lunch was grilled chicken, beef and a melange of baby vegetables served with vintage French wines.

The camp and restaurant staff were composed of native warriors waiting tables--temporarily exchanging spears and blankets for starched whites--to earn money to buy more cattle, their "bank" out in the bush.

As we dined, Carr-Hartley talked with the staff--not just in Swahili but using each man's specific tribal dialect. The wine steward, who spoke English, marveled: "How many tongues does this man have?"

Modern-day Africa is full of conundrums. Robert is a "watch doctor" to a tribe of Samburu. "They love our watches. They'll trade a sacred cow for a digital watch. When I visit them every few months back in the bush--I bring them fresh batteries and show them how to switch modes. . . ."

"Since the natives gained their independence in 1963 they want what they see Americans and Europeans have--especially T-shirts," Robert said as two of our camp staff walked by wearing "Bon Jovi World Tour" and "Chicago Bears" shirts.

"I was with a native man who was dying. For his last wish he wanted to go to California. When I asked him why, he said: 'Before I die, I want to go to the Hard Rock Cafe!' "

We drove on, into land that echoes the past, where the natural order prevails. One day, Carr-Hartley asked if we wanted to see rhino "up close and personal." Being avid photographers and naturalists, we all jumped into the Range Rovers and headed for the depths of Meru National Park.

Robert had told us that his uncle had pioneered the noosing of rhinoceros from open trucks, so we buckled up and held on. Suddenly Robert stopped and pointed out the window. Only 50 yards away were five white rhinos.

They were huge--packed from heels to horns with enormous prehistoric power. Robert explained that the white, or square-lipped, rhino is second only to the elephant as the largest living land mammal.

Robert greeted two guards in Swahili. We followed Carr-Hartley away from the vehicles, walking closer, very slowly. My every instinct said to flee. Scenes from the TV series "Daktari" flew through my mind: ornery rhinos charging the hunters' trucks, horns knifing through metal doors. Here we were, on foot, shooting with motorized cameras!

The guards explained, via Robert, that the five white rhinos had been relocated in 1962 to Meru from South Africa. Since the move the only white rhinos in Kenya had been under 24-hour guard. During the day the rhinos grazed in the open, then spent the night in a coral.

One of the guards asked if I would take his picture.

I nodded and lifted my Polaroid camera. He moved in tight, clasping the end of a rhino's tail.

Carr-Hartley laughed. "He thinks Nikons are cheap and useless, but that your camera must be very expensive because it spits the picture out right away."

As we drove away in the fading light I saw the guard slip the picture into his breast pocket and button the flap. He patted it as if it held a treasured possession.

Twenty-eight year old Robert Carr-Hartley is often the emissary between the old Africa and the new. While capitalizing on the present, Robert longs for the African past.

Like Livingston, Finch-Hatton and Burton before him, Carr-Hartley is addicted to a life of personal freedom and adventure. He knows, on a daily basis, the joy and despair of trying to keep at least one continent wild enough to take a man's full measure. And in keeping with his English ancestry, he projects civility amid the wild, raw land.

"When I die I want to come back as a Bateleur Eagle," Robert said. " 'Bateleur' is French for 'tumbler.' They're incredible fliers. There's an old African legend that they never touch the ground; they do everything on the wing. I want to come back as a Bateleur, but wearing a Sony Walkman, cruising over Africa while listening to Stravinsky going full blast."

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