Woken, with tea, at twenty past five. Dawn comes like an old television set warming up.
Every time I look outside there’s a little more light in the darkness. By six-thirty we have the full picture and Kilimanjaro is clear enough for Richard to suggest we fly out to the mountain and get our pictures as soon as possible. By ten o’clock it will be hidden again.
As we drive down to the airstrip at the bottom of the hill the cattle are being moved out of the bomas to catch the morning dew on the grass. The Masai way of life looks idyllic on this dry, sun-sharpened morning, but Richard says it is much more like the Wild West than it looks. Twenty per cent of the Masai own seventy per cent of the cattle. These cattle barons are rich by African standards, some owning a truck or even a tractor.
Once we’re airborne we head south-east across grass so dry it seems to take on the colour and texture of sand. This prairie soon gives way to green scrub and thorn tree cover, but as the mountain comes nearer, the landscape changes with dramatic speed from lush, tropical farmland through rainforest to timber plantations, moorland and eventually alpine desert. The transitions are fast and exhilarating, but not without a cost. As we rise through ten thousand feet I feel the disadvantages of an un-pressurised cabin, shortage of breath, difficulty in writing, a touch of nausea.
We shall never be able to fly high enough to look down on the mountain (it’s just short of twenty thousand feet, and the safe operating altitude for our two small planes is no more than fifteen), but we’re close enough to see vivid detail.
In geological terms Kilimanjaro is a baby, formed by massive volcanic activity less than a million years ago, and far from extinct. On closer examination it is in fact two mountains in one, the wide table-top dome, called Kibo, and on the eastern edge, the much more jagged and dramatic outline of Mawenzi, with sheer sides and precipitous plunging crevasses. The north face of Kibo rises steep, black and fissured to the highest point on the African continent. A glacier runs down from the summit and I can see thick snow walls. It was in these snows that the carcass of a leopard was found in the 1920s.
No one knows what the leopard was doing at such an altitude, but the legend inspired ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, one of Hemingway’s finest short stories.
Not that Richard regards the story as legend. He says his father pointed out the bones of the leopard when he took him up the mountain as a child. If we have time he can show me the remains of a Dakota aircraft that smashed into the side of Mawenzi with a valuable haul of emeralds on board. Part of the fuselage still hangs there, and no one has yet been able to reach the emeralds.
One man recently hauled himself up to the top of Kilimanjaro to attempt the world para-gliding record.
‘And did he do it?’
Richard makes a quick adjustment to keep us alongside the camera plane.
‘He was never seen again.’
By now the cloud is rolling up the walls of Kilimanjaro like a shroud and there is no time for Dakotas or emeralds. By ten o’clock it has enveloped us and the mountain might just as well not be there.
Richard turns the Cessna and heads back across the plain. On the way home he takes me low over game grazing on the salt licks and skims the tops of the acacia orchard where the white rhino which Hemingway hunted were once found in abundance. Now they’re virtually gone. Poachers have reduced their numbers from several hundred to six, maybe ten. The demand from Asia for rhino horn has killed its source.
Richard raises his voice over the noise of the engine, ‘The days of the wild rhino are over. Finished.’
Back on the ground he’s rewarded with the news that the two Masai children are safe. Their goats did a runner in the night and they went after them. But there are other headaches for the Honorary Game Warden. Cattle poachers are laying traps in the hills and he will have to take a group of rangers to investigate.
When Hemingway first came to Africa in 1933, the idea of him becoming a game warden was faintly ludicrous. His wife Pauline’s diary of that trip hardly reveals a conservationist at work: ‘They killed four Thompson gazelle, eight Grant, seven wildebeest, seven impala, two klipspringers, four roan, two bushbucks, three reedbucks, two oryx, four topi, two waterbuck, one eland and three kudu. Of dangerous game, they killed their licensed limit: four lions, three cheetahs, four buffalo, two leopards and two rhinos. They also killed one serval cat, two warthogs, thirteen zebra and one cobra. For amusement forty-one hyenas were also killed.’
Twenty years later Hemingway, though famous enough to be gratefully offered the title of Game Warden, was less desperate for trophies. And there were other diversions. He became infatuated with a girl called Debba, from the Wakamba tribe. She and he canoodled and at one time broke Mary’s bed when she was away. There are rumours, only partly cleared up by True at First Light, that they may even have undergone a sort of marriage ceremony.
I think of this as Richard shows me lethal cattle traps of tree trunk and coils of wire left by today’s Wakamba who kill the trapped cattle and ship the meat back over the hills to their territory.
As Richard and his rangers dismantle the traps he tells me that poachers would not have been called poachers in Hemingway’s time. What the Wakamba were doing then was practising the right to hunt, part of a long and ancient tradition. Now the law has separated them from their hunting grounds without recompense and without an alternative way of life. The traps are cruel but almost inevitable. Rivalry with the neighbouring two tribes has always been intense. They have always been different, the Wakamba hunting with bows and arrows, the Masai with spears (which they cannot make for themselves, they are forged by another tribe on the foothills of Kilimanjaro).
In True at First Light, Hemingway, even allowing for a bit of romantic bias, has his own characteristic views on what makes the Wakamba different.
Their warriors had always fought in all of Britain’s wars and the Masai had never fought in any. The Masai had been coddled, preserved, treated with a fear that they should never have inspired and been adored by all the homosexuals…who had worked for the Empire in Kenya and Tanganyika because the men were so beautiful … The Wakamba hated the Masai as rich show-offs protected by the government.
In the evening, back at Ol Donyo Wuas, it’s chilly enough for a log fire. As we discuss the sort of day we’ve all had, Alex, the young Englishman who runs the lodge, rolls up his sleeve to show a mass of claw marks, sustained whilst trying to befriend the con-stipated cheetah.
Maybe I should look at my wound again. With a stronger magnifying glass.