Sunday 27 August 2023



Many years before I came to Kenya Mike started an incredible project bringing American students to live in traditional Samburu dwellings - which resemble igloos, built of wattle and daub.

He had learned their language which I understand is derived from “Maa”, the language of the Maasai people.

After fifteen years, about three years after I came to Africa, he decided it was time for a change. He had visited Maasai Mara a few times and had made contacts within the Kenyan Department of the Environment and got a lease to use a plot of land there as a base while conducting a census of the wildlife in the area. He used an Ordinance Survey map (very precious) to identify a perfect site - where three different habits joined. He reckoned correctly that it would connect him with a much greater variety of species. It was on an ox-bow of a tributary to the main river. Plenty of shade trees and the twenty-foot deep, usually dry, ravine around three sides reduced the probability of wild animals wandering in.

A comfortable tented camp was created with a big mess tent and enough accommodation for twenty people. As I remember it he was constantly accompanied by a spear-carrying Turkana warrior, Lokoi. Mike also spoke Turkana! He told me that on one occasion he was walking into some dense woodland and he heard a “whoosh” as Lokoi’s spear passed his ear - followed by thuds as the spear hit a buffalo which then collapsed. The buffalo had been camouflaged in the shade and would certainly have charged him. Buffalo actually kill more humans than snakes or crocodiles. Only mosquitos are more deadly! 

The ground in the Turkana region is incredibly hard and rocky and I still remember Lokoi’s glee if asked to dig a hole in the soft turf at the Mara campsite.

Mike bought two ex-army Mercedes lorries, one 3-ton and one 5-ton. The latter was equipped with balloon tyres and I loved driving it because it could cross soft ground easily and without damaging the turf. Mike had a Land-cruiser but was looking for an extra guide with a 4WD so took me on. 15 visitors from the New York Zoological Society came over for a month and every day would divide up between the four vehicles and be assigned a quadrant to survey. We each had a copy of the precious map and an enlarged master copy was put up in the mess tent. We would zigzag across our sector and use clipboards to record numbers of impala, zebra, wibdebeasts, etc. When driving my LandRover I would have one companion. The LandCruiser took three, the 3-ton took five and the 5-ton six. The back of the lorries had the canvas sides rolled up and mattresses and cushions on the floor in the back.

I had one memorable encounter with a herd of maybe 20 elephants. Most herds are run by matriarchs and this was no exception. I very gently crept towards them and when we were maybe 100 yards away she charged us - trumpeting furiously!! I stopped and she stopped. She sniffed the air between us and then slowly backed away. When she had rejoined the herd I resumed my slow approach. The next charge was at 50 yards - just as furious but with the same result. The 25 yard charge had less conviction and ten minutes later we were creeping along in low gear alongside the herd looking almost like a member of the family. My NYZS crew in the back had maintained a stunned silence all through this experience but then I heard an awed stage whisper from the back “How the hell did you know that would work?” I cheerfully replied I had no idea - because I had never done it before!

We all carried folders with a page for each lion we knew (identified by Mike’s scheme of ear clocks!) We would mark their location and at tea time update the position of each using a named pin on the master map, leaving a coloured dot according to which pride they were in. Each week a line was drawn around the pride area and Mike was responsible for identifying that pride areas are not static - as conventional wisdom had it - but were dynamic! And between the pride areas there was a 1km “buffer zone”, a corridor that never had pride lions but did have bachelor males, hyenas, jackals etc!

I became very good at spotting hidden wildlife - including snakes - but I surprised myself when I stopped, went “PSST!”, (SOP), and pointed to what I thought was a snake moving in long grass. As I followed the line of what I thought was its body I suddenly realised it was the tail of a leopard. Very, very unusual to see a leopard in the long grass during daylight and it sighed, got up, loped to the nearest tree and leapt gracefully up to lie on a high branch - its normal daytime spot!

One day I spotted movement and stopped. Whenever I stopped all chat ceased and all eyes started scanning to see why I had stopped! After a few puzzled moments someone whispered to me “What?”. I left a dramatic pause then whispered back “Mice!”. Even longer pause - then I had point because they were so small no-one else could locate them. To be honest this was the only time I’ve made such a tiny identification.

Mike had taken on a young American student, Jerry, as an intern. One morning I was woken at dawn by what sounded like a train going through the camp. I stuck my head out just in time to see the back of a buffalo charging out of the camp. Unusually (most wildlife don’t like the scent of humans) it had grazed into the camp during the night and had charged Jerry when he got up to go to the latrine. Fortunately he was very athletic and shot up a tree! As I turned my head away from the exiting buffalo  I heard leaves rustling and looked up to see Jerry 20 feet above me!

On day Mike asked me to drive about 30 miles to another oxbow campsite to collect two scientists who were coming over to give a talk about their research. As I recall, Laurence talked about hyenas and Bob talked about baboons. They shared our evening feast before their talks and Laurence was very charismatic and dominated the conversation - in a very enjoyable way. I was intrigued that when they delivered their talks he was quite dry and almost boring while Bob suddenly came to life and was really fascinating. Someone asked about baboons’ diet and he said that they are described as herbivores and he had never seen them hunting but he had recorded a couple of incidents where they had apparently accidentally encircled a small gazelle and suddenly, without any obvious signal, switched into a hunting pack. It always ended badly for the gazelle! Another behaviour he had recorded was mutual grooming and at one time he saw ten baboons in a line each grooming the one in front! Very efficient. He had also realised that they were ranked so each one was grooming a bigger one and the biggest boss was just chewing grass whilst being groomed. At one point the baboon grooming the boss seemed to touch a sensitive spot - and was rewarded with an instant smack from the boss. As quick as a flash the second baboon turned and passed the smack on - and it went all the way down the line - then normal service was resumed! They stayed the night and the next day I took them back. Their oxbow had no shade - but did have an extra-ordinary 360 view for miles in all directions over grasslands. They had three tents, one each with a mess tent in the middle. They offered me tea and biscuits which I happily accepted. I knew that the ravine around their site was a border, they were inside the park and the oxbows on either side were outside. I also knew that the opposite oxbows were campsites that could be booked. I asked how often they had neighbours and they said, happily, never - because there were seven more which were closer to the road that led into the park and most folk camped near the road. At which point an overlander lorry rumbled along and parked in the opposite site. The driver got out, threw down a mattress, turned on a tinny transistor radio (playing “Nakupendaa Malaika” (- a big hit - you can hear it on YouTube) and went to sleep. It was really, really annoying. After a couple of minutes Laurence got up, went as close as he could and called across “Excuse me?”. Tried again, slightly louder “Excuse me!!” No response. Laurence actually swelled up like a regimental sergeant major (I know this species very well and have been a CSM) and bellowed “TURN THAT DAMNED RADIO OFF OR I WILL COME OVER AND SHOVE IT UP YOUR ****!!” As his last expletive echoed away there was a huge explosion - of thunder - as a blast of lightning hit a kopje (rocky outcrop) about half a mile away! The driver shot up into the air, grabbed the offending radio in shaking hands and turned it off. Laurence walked back, sat down, lifted his teacup and said “What were we saying?” I said “That was very impressive!” He shrugged modestly, “It’s not difficult - but it does drain one’s batteries!”

At the end of one rotation Mike and a driver took the visitors back to the airport and went to restock our larder. They were due to return the next day but the river flooded and we were cut off. We had one mouldy cabbage left and were seriously considering how to snare an antelope in order to survive! Then we heard an engine, it was a big LandCruiser from a well known luxury safari company. It was the advance crew and they moved two oxbows down and very efficiently set up camp. Jerry and I hiked over to be greeted warmly and offered tea and biscuits by the campfire. I knew a few of the guides and asked the crew who their boss was as I knew a few. I didn’t know his name and was wondering if he might look kindly on visitors begging for rations. Shortly afterwards he rolled up in his magnificent LandCruiser, parked, got out, saw me, ran over with outstretched arms bellowing “HOW WONDERFUL TO SEE YOU - YOU WILL STAY FOR SUPPER?” It turned out he had six very large, very loud, very old American ladies in his care and they were driving him mad. We had a magnificent feast and dutifully took on story-telling duties to give him a break.

 Alison was running a wonderful kindergarten in Nairobi while I was gallivanting around. We arranged for her to fly down for a weekend. There was a grass airstrip about twenty miles from our camp. It served two or three permanent luxury tented camps, the most famous being “Governors’ Camp”. When she landed there were two minibuses from the camps - but no sign of me! The river had flooded again and I had to make a two-hour detour to get to her. The minibus drivers wanted to give her a lift but she insisted she was fine - after all, she would be collected by me! They reluctantly drove off and she sat happily on her case with a welcoming smile. Slowly she realised that the grass strip actually had no boundaries. (The minibuses would drive up and down before the plane was due to drive off the impala and gnus!) 

And now the wildlife were returning to graze. Little dik-dik, gazelles, impala, even a giraffe. After an increasingly nervous half-hour she heard the sound of an engine coming from the opposite direction to the camps - a 4WD - and she started wording her thoughts to share with me . . . Then she realised the driver was bigger than me - was wearing a smart uniform with pilots’ wings - and had an extraordinary handlebar moustache. He was actually a balloon pilot. They would set off early, in still air, and when they landed the following ground crew would feed his passengers a champagne breakfast and pack up the balloon while he set off on his own, back to camp. 

He pulled up. “Awfully spiffing to meet you - may I buy you a drink?” She fluttered her eyelashes and agreed and set off to Governors’ Bar. When I found them three cocktails later I tapped her on the shoulder and said “Hello love, I’m sorry there was a detour”. She said “Hmph!”, turned back to Captain Fantastic and said “As I was saying . . . “

Sunday 23 July 2023

Proper Campervan!

 This awesome, 1975 model is now part of our family - 

and is available for hire as a wedding venue star! 

Backdrop or coffee haven?

Saturday 15 July 2023

Armed Forces Day, Scarborough

 In June, 2022, we heard that Scarborough was to host an Armed Forces Day. We saw signs posted all along the North and South Drives (about three miles!) saying “If your vehicle is parked here early Saturday morning it will not get a ticket - it will get REMOVED!”

One of our students had risen through the ranks in the Navy and when I asked him if he would be there he replied that he now had a role setting up a display trailer - and would actually be located on the West Pier. Since this was about 300m from our house in the Old Town we were able to go down and visit him. He is very tall and looks great in his uniform. He had been given a stunning king-cab pickup with a big boxy trailer that opens out into a very smart display area. All done up in a smart dark navy blue with very elegant legend and graphics!! He was standing on the trailer looking towards the lifeboat station and didn’t see us approach. I stood below him and said “Permission to come aboard sir?” He lit up and was delighted to see us. We had a great chat and he told his crew that we were the best teachers!!!

I then spotted an armoured car. It was exactly the same model that I had been on (and died in) in the movie “Sheena, Queen of the jungle”! I got my phone out and showed the troopers a zoomed-in picture of me in uniform on it. They were VERY impressed. “Where did you serve sir?” “Africa!” Confusion appeared on their faces. I explained that I had never served in an active sphere - and that I had had something they never would have. “What’s that sir?” “A blonde in a leather bikini with a bow and arrow on her back, sat on an elephant!” At which point I zoomed the photo out so they could see her - and they were even more impressed!

The day was amazing. The whole length of both drives was full of marching bands, display vehicles, stands, etc. There were dramatic parachutists dropping onto the south beach with flags and coloured smoke. And a half-hour display from the Red Arrows! Later a single Typhoon fighter zoomed in very low from behind the castle. It dived down towards the surface of the south bay and pulled up so sharply it blew a hole in the sea. It then shot up and up and up - into the sun! Then, when it appeared to have reached the sun, it turned its engine off! And fell like a leaf - until we thought it would land in the sea - when it re-ignited and soared all the way up again! This plane is so powerful it screams through the air.

In 2023 I was really excited to hear there was to be another Armed Forces Day. However, this year they only roped off 100m of one lane of the south drive! There were no regular forces at all - each service was represented by their territorial units and/or cadets. There were displays along the front and quite a crowd attended. There were three flying displays (but no Red Arrows or Typhoons!) - they were well done - and one of them was an auto-gyro! We were attempting to get to the one area of the beach where dogs can run and I aimed to get through the crowd near the VIP area. I was wearing my combat trousers and a camouflage hat - and a very enthusiastic young cadet raised the red rope and waved us in!!We sort of instinctively obeyed but then spotted a bunch of very VIPs - and my Mrs was not amused. “Get us out of here!” she hissed! I led her - and our dog - through the area - and then spotted an ancient chap in a wheelchair - sort of isolated at the far end. He had a para regiment beret and some campaign ribbons. I went down on one knee next to him, took his hand and said “Thank you for your service sir!” He gave me a lovely smile. His companion said “He can’t speak but I can tell you he is grateful for your words. He is 104! And he was dropped into Arnhem during WWII. He was captured - but escaped and made it to Dunkirk. He managed to get on a boat but as it was pulling away he spotted 18 nurses on the jetty. He dove off the boat, swam over to them, managed to find an abandoned craft, get its engine going and got them back to Dover.” I said it was an honour to meet a true hero! And in my humble opinion the VIPs should have all been saluting him!!



Friday 8 May 2020

Tana river trips

Almost forty years ago I was between safaris and ran into a Dutch friend and neighbour in Karen, Nairobi. He said he hadn't seen me for a while and I said I'd been on safari. He immediately replied "We are setting off on a six-week safari next week - would you consider coming along?" :-)

He explained that he was in charge of a project sponsored by the Dutch government to collect enough data to make a computer model of the Tana river so they could calculate the effects of irrigation pumping and hydro-electric projects.

He showed me the brand new LandRover LWB wagon they had flown out from the UK. It had an immense roof-rack with supporting pillars down the outside of the shell to the undercarriage! I asked why they had added this. "We carry two 50kg 'bombs' on top - they have spring-loaded doors under them and when we throw them in the river these doors snap shut on the bottom and we get riverbed samples".

"Wow!" I replied. "So what have you done to uprate your suspension?" He said they had done nothing - and why did I ask? I said if he had that amount of weight up that high and went around a corner the vehicle would fall over. "Yes it did!" he answered!

Pieter and his team had already collected data down as far as Kora so we started there (after visiting George). We drove south from Kora, crossed the river at Garissa and refuelled. I had tricked out my 1968 ex-army LandRover which had long-range tanks under the front seats - with two 5-gallon cans inside the extended front bumper and bullbars and seven (!) more cans across the roof (!) then we had two 50 gallon drums in the back (!). After taking almost an hour with a very slow pump we had almost 200 gallons of petrol on board. I couldn't resist asking the (very bored) petrol pump attendant who had done the job - "Do you think we will make it to Sankuri?" - (15km) - he sighed, spat, shrugged and said, laconically, "Maybe!" 

We then headed north (15km) to Sankuri on the other bank. We were given accommodation here, in what was then a very small village with a police post and a water-pumping station. As the sun went down Pieter was sitting outside our hut working with a (very precious) Ordnance Survey map. I was walking towards him when one of the policemen started playing the National anthem on a trumpet and another policeman lowered the flag. I naturally stopped to watch and then looked aghast as two policemen came running over and started to pull Pieter away. I asked what they were doing and they said he had committed a serious crime by not standing for the anthem! I sprang to his defence and explained that because the wind had just got up he had to hold down the maps - "which we were personally trusted with by the president" so they didn't blow away and get damaged. Fortunately, any mention of the president was a powerful argument and he was released. The fact that the “President’s Award Scheme” (another story!) was emblazoned on my Landrover also helped!

The next day we drove up to a point opposite Kora to start taking measurements. Pieter had a theodolite and his Dutch friend was to hold a red and white pole in several places across the river - which was less than waist deep here. As we pulled up we could see a huge croc sunbathing on a sandbank in the middle of the river. Pieter checked it with his instruments and declared it was at least 6m long. We had hired a local boatsman with a dugout canoe in Sankuri and he was going to travel downstream with us from there but Pieter decided that he would be useful here so the pole-holder could sit in the canoe to be safe from crocodiles. As it was near lunchtime he asked me to drive back to Sankuri, load the canoe into the back of my landrover and bring it back. I set off and found the guy who was happy to comply - but shook his head when I pointed at my 4x4. "Too heavy" he said - and when I tried to lift the end of the dugout I realised it was thoroughly "waterlogged" and weighed what felt like a ton! Being young and resourceful I remembered seeing a Bedford 4x4 lorry in the police station so I went to ask if they would help us (as we knew the president!) They were very, very keen - but had no diesel fuel to use. I knew it would take too long to drive to Garissa (we had over 300l of fuel but both our vehicles were petrol) - but then one of the policemen told me the water pumping station had diesel "but they don't like us". I went and played my "friends-of-Moi" card again and liberated a jerrycan full. The police were ecstatic and got their jungle fatigues on, came down and lifted the canoe into their truck and we drove triumphantly back to Pieter. We pulled up and they carried the canoe down to the water. The boatsman then stepped into the river and waded across to the other side, splashing the water with his paddle. We watched open-mouthed and when he got back asked him what he was doing. "I am checking that the stream is deep enough for my boat to cross!" We asked why he had been splashing his paddle - "To keep the crocodiles away"!!!

On our third safari we took along a microlight aircraft to complete a photo-mosiac of the delta area of the river. All attempts to complete this had failed because clouds would form so often. Even when the crew on the ground reported the sky was clear it would cloud over again before the photo-plane could reach the site. In this photo we had just crossed the river using a ford created by the army below a broken bridge. We were the first vehicle to cross in a week!

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Nigel Slade

I had the great good-fortune of working for Nigel when he was the Headmaster of Hillcrest Prep in Nairobi. He was a truly inspiring leader and I remember that I used to hurry to school and be reluctant to leave at the end of the day. It was also one of the few schools I worked at where there was never a shortage of volunteers for any extra activities - and the volunteers were often from the parents of the students. The relationship between the parents and the staff was very strong and many long-lasting bonds were formed in those days.

The physical structure of the school was quite unique. The staffroom was a converted classroom that still had a blackboard. This was often used by parents to leave messages for the staff:- "David & Alison! Don't forget you are invited to Clare & Batuk's for supper at 8!" The leaving of these notes was facilitated by the fact that the room had a door directly in from the car park. It had a second door - which led into the rest of the school - directly through Nigel's inner sanctum! His little room had three doors. The one you had just entered - which was to the right of his desk, a door to his secretary's office - which was opposite his desk and the third door - into the main part of the school, on the left of his desk! I have never, ever known a school where the staff would all walk through the Head's office several times every day! 

I was told that if he had a visitor or was making an important phonecall the door would be closed and I should walk out into the carpark and around to the main entrance to go to lessons. This didn't happen to me for weeks and then one day the door was closed and I got up to go and take a class. I absentmindedly put my hand on the doorknob - and realised that (a) the door was vibrating because he was bellowing on the other side of it "AND IT BETTER NOT HAPPEN AGAIN - BECAUSE IF IT DOES IT WON'T BE HERE BECAUSE YOU WILL BE GONE!!!" I let go of the handle as if it was redhot! Another teacher laughed at me! "That was close!" he said. "It sounds as if he is roasting one of the students!" I said. "Oh no!" came the reply, "Nigel would never talk to a child that way - it is one of the parents! They sent their child to school two days running in a non-regulation sweater!" Now bear in mind, this was a fee-paying school!! 

I struggle to put his philosophy into words partly because he didn't. But his passion for doing the best for his students was palpable. In most schools that I have worked in, at some point a member of staff will make a joke about a student, maybe imitating an accent or a mannerism. That NEVER happened in Nigel's school because we all knew subconsciously that he would tear us limb from limb! As well as being incredibly protective he also had a huge belief in the potential of his young charges. And he expected them to conform to a very high standard of behaviour. He never threatened or punished them but would show such intense personal anguish if he thought they weren't meeting his standards that they would correct themselves instantly! I vividly remember one morning assembly when he had dragged a throne onto the stage and was sitting on it with his head in his hands. The whole school filed in with everyone (including the staff) taking one look at this devastated figure and falling silent as they took their places. After a very long wait he finally raised his face and looked out at us all. "My heart is very heavy!" he whispered, followed by a long pause. At least two students (and probably a couple of members of staff) broke into tears at this display of raw grief. "This morning I looked out into the playground . . . ." another great, sad pause, more muffled sobs from us . . . . "and some of you had not pulled your socks up!" Cue more tears - and some furtive adjustments of clothing. I share his philosophies to this day - but I never had the purity of passion to hold a whole school in that magical grip!

We didn't have to keep lesson-plans but we did have to keep a diary with a brief note about what topics we covered in every lesson and we were encouraged to record reactions from any students. Nigel religiously collected our diaries every three weeks and would read every word and sometimes leave notations. If one of these ended in a questionmark then you had better make sure you wrote an answer because it would be checked on the next three-week inspection! With hindsight this was a really ingenious way of keeping his eye on his school.

Another brilliant habit was that he took every teacher out for lunch roughly once every halfterm. These one-on-one sessions were mainly devoted to non-school conversations but it was a very powerful way for him to be aware of the morale of his staff. Nigel was very well connected in Nairobi. His father had been the last governor before independence. (His official title wasn't "Governor" but in effect that was his role!) Nigel had also taught many of the leading characters in Kenya, up to and including the Vice-President! He belonged to all the best clubs and would take me to Nairobi club when my lunch-date occurred. He knew that I was very interested in the history of Kenya and that I knew people like George Adamson and Beryl Markham. He would apologise that because of my timetable we didn't have time to drive out to the Muthaiga Club because he felt we were more likely to meet notable characters that he could introduce me to there. Then we had a break because one of my classes was cancelled on the day I got the lunch call. We went to Muthaiga and en route he was wondering who we might meet (and happily reeling off a very impressive list of possible candidates). We arrived and were admitted to the magnificent Members' Bar . . . which was empty except for one, rather disreputable-looking guy leaning on the mahoghany bar with a cigarillo. We arrived at the bar with Mr X on Nigel's right and me on his left. "My dear David! I am so sorry there are no VIP's here for me to introduce you to!" he said. "Well Nigel, maybe I can do the honours! Can I introduce you to this chap behind you? Dorian Rocco?" because by some weird fluke I did know the guy - and he was a very unusual character whose father was an Italian Count who settled on 5,000 acres at Naivasha and who had worn dark make-up to infiltrate the Mau-Mau during the rebellion! I had spent three months managing the farm for his sister, Oria. Dorian said "Nigel Slade? Was your father called Humphrey by any chance?" When Nigel nodded, Dorian said "Ah! My father proposed your father for his role in the colonial government! I am astonished that we have never met!"

Nigel had many facets and the theatre was very dear to his heart. He wrote a regular drama column in the national press and he wrote a play called "Mostly Moses" which was performed while I was at the school and was an excellent production. I would heartily recommend it to to any school drama department as a project. One entertaining feature (for me) was that my oldest son was one of the shepherds. In the play they are somewhat rough, tough characters with studded leather wrist-straps and stubble. They visit the waterhole where the maidens are collecting water. "Ho Ho!" they rumble - "So what have we here?" The maidens are alarmed and shrill "Oh No! It is the shepherds! We should run away!" Which is all fine - except that at the age of ten the boys actually had higher voices than the girls!!

Tragically Nigel passed away at the very early age of 50. He was immensely proud of the fact that there were over 30 nationalities among the student population and that there was a complete spectrum of skin tones with no one shade predominating! After he had his terminal diagnosis the school put on a concert in his honour which culminated with every child in the school filing onto the stage in national costumes and then joining together to sing "We are the World" to him. I was sitting next to him - and if there was a dry eye in the house I certainly couldn't see it through the tears pouring down my leathery cheeks!

Tuesday 11 September 2018


In 1984 I had to choose between taking a job as a cowboy on a 20,000 acre game-ranch or managing a 500 acre farm on the shores of Naivasha. I had stayed on the ranch for a couple of days. The owner had formed a relationship with a cheetah (we were not allowed to say it was a pet because of the local game laws) and when it visited it was a unique experience! My accommodation was in a bunk-house and on the first evening I smelled burning. I asked another cowboy what it was and he said they had been noticing it for a couple of days but no-one knew what it was. I got a torch and got into the roofspace - where I found a wiring junction that had come loose so one wire was arcing and had been charring the rafter. As the whole building was wooden I hate to think what might have happened! I fixed it. On another occasion, one of the cowboys used the toilet in the bunkhouse and, unknown to him, a scorpion crawled into his pants as he sat there. When he pulled them up he got a very dramatic sting. I didn't offer to fix it. The scorpion didn't survive - it was about an inch long - and when the foreman heard the news he came and poured boiling water into a crack in the floor. Two more 1 inch scorpions emerged - followed by a very irate 3 inch parent!!! The ranch had a contract to supply the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi and I knew the owner so had a solid reference. However, the accommodation at Naivasha was on a different plane!* The farm belongs to Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton. Iain still works tirelessly for elephant preservation and I commend you to consider staying at their lovely camps - or just donating! Oria's sister, Mirella, is a beautiful and talented photographer, adventurer and author and I recommend all of her books! 

This is the first of her books which I read and it was very special for me (not just because it is a gripping read) because it has some pictures of her father's house - which became my accommodation!

Every morning I would wake up and look over the end of my bed, along a planted avenue of trees, across the lake - to see Mount Longonot framed perfectly on the horizon. I am sure Count Mario Rocco chose the location and orientation for this reason!

Oria is a superb cook, designer, mother, organiser . . . I would drive over to their modern farmhouse for breakfast and then start my chores. Which one day included going up in Iain's plane* to take photos (this was before Google Maps) of the fields to identify which areas needed the most fertiliser. We took my door off and ascended to about 2.000 feet. Iain asked if I was ready, I nodded and he flipped the plane by 90 degrees so I was facing straight down, out of my open door. I took a reel of images and then he levelled up so I could reload the camera and we did it again. I had no problems with this because I had done helicopter training in the army where we used to jump out of helicopters 100ft up and slide down ropes! After the second reel, and with the camera stowed, he put it into a power spin - downwards. I couldn't give any opinion of this because I was welded into my seat by what felt like 10G of force. The flesh on my face was pulled back to my ears! The wings bent upwards by what looked (out of the corner of my eye because I couldn't move my head) 45 degrees. Then we reached the ground and he faultlessly flicked into horizontal flight - at ground level. I could see the workers in the field in front of us - and hear the "SPLAT" sounds as they dived into the mud to avoid the plane. I should explain that one of his uncles was an ace fighter pilot in WWII and Iain has his genes . . . and has crashed three planes. But I guess the fact that he walked away from each one implies he is as lucky as I am! :-)

On another day I was asked to arrange a lunch at "my" house for some visitors - who turned out to be the director, locations director and casting director of the film Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. They were considering the house as a location - which it became - as the king's house in the film. After the meal the casting director asked me if I would consider signing up as an evil, cruel mercenary in the movie (you can see what a good host I was) and I agreed! To round the circle a bit more, Mirella was one of the stills photographers for the film and her very entertaining husband, Lorenzo, was another mercenary!

And to add yet another arc - 20 years later I was working very long hours (yes - we DID need long holidays) as a teacher/technician/housemaster at Ackworth School. I got home to our school house at about 11pm one evening to find that everyone had (wisely) gone to bed. I flicked on the TV and went to pour a glass of wine. Out of the darkness of the sitting room I heard Mirella's lovely voice saying something along the lines of "I have tried to fit in and in many ways I envy the simplicity of life here but because they speak a language I struggle to learn . . . ". And the tone of her voice was pitched at a discreet level so it was just loud enough for me to hear without waking anyone upstairs! I almost dropped my glass. I swung around - and there she was - on the TV, sitting in a tent in a village in the Amazonian jungle where she had been staying alone for a week and keeping a video diary!

Monday 7 March 2016


I used to be in the CCF when I was in school. During my first Easter as a cadet I went, as a 13 year old, to Exmoor for ten days with the aim of hiking 20 miles a day with a sixty pound "manpack" on my back. This is a kind of aluminium frame to which you strap an army duffle bag. My dad was chuffed and raced up to the loft where he had a folding wood/canvas army bed. "You can take this!!!" I didn't want the extra weight but he was adamant and I figured I wouldn't have to carry it every day. My mates thought it was hilarious as we hiked 2 miles to our campsite but I was consoled by how much more comfy I would be. As soon as it was set up I got in to try it - and the canvas ripped from end to end! 

We lived in a big old canvas tent with a separate groundsheet. It was actually quite comfortable to sleep on the groundsheet because the turf underneath us was so soggy it was like being on a water-bed!

We certainly got some miles in - but being fit meant we thought nothing of setting off to the pub in the evening. Exmoor village pubs took a relaxed view of the licensing laws in those days. I recall one evening after hours when someone said "The bobby is coming!" and all the lights went out. We heard his bicycle squeak up to the door and a loud knock followed by "ANYONE IN THERE?" To which the regulars chorused loudly "NO!" I distinctly heard the bobby say "Well that's alright then!" And he squeaked off. One day our hiking took us past the pub at noon and I saw him having a free pint at the bar. The publican later told me that if they had loud "grockles" (city folk) in then he wouldn't turn the lights off and the bobby would tell everyone to go home. From our camp to the pub was almost 3 miles by road. One evening as we set off back to camp someone moaned about the distance. A local overheard and said there was a shortcut up a track by the church. As we took it the moon clouded over and as we only had one small torch we each held onto the tail of the cape of the guy ahead and snaked our way along the narrow track hearing a stream nearby. when we crested the hill we could see the hurricane lamp that was always left out as a beacon. Next day our hike ended near the church so we were happy to use the track again - and horrified when we saw the stream was actually in a ravine, with a 30 foot vertical drop off the side of the track - that we had been totally unaware of!

We usually hiked without supervision and had to reach checkpoints where one of our officers would do a head count - and give us the reference for our next rendezvous. One day a thick fog came down and,  without any visual clues, we became seriously lost. We actually found ourselves on the edge of a cliff - and there was no such feature on our intended route! Suddenly one of our officers appeared out of the mist - furious - and pointed to a path that led us down and out of the mist. He hadn't spoken a word and had disappeared as eerily as he had come. I never did figure out how he did it.
I rose through the ranks to Sergeant Major and remember two occasions with great fondness. When I was 16 I used to shave the (very light) fluff off my chin about once a week. On a trip to a training camp in the Brecon Beacons I was on rising duty with the regular army Guards RSM. I was two days into my need to shave. As we set off on our rounds at 6am I was very proud of my immaculate uniform - and that I was in step with this GIANT of a man! Me, 6ft, 110 pounds (wet!) Him, 6ft 6 inches, 300 pounds (+) Each with a baton under our left arm and our right arms going back and forth to horizontal - with vigour! He flicked a glance over me and then ahead. He did it again and I was hoping for a word of approval when he bellowed "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOUR FAICE!" (The extra "I" is intentional because it sounded as if he had made a new word) Still in step I apologised and promised to be better shaved the next day.

A year later I took a squad to Chelsea Barracks to see how the Guards lived and I had four sergeants who were then allowed to drill our squad on the hallowed drill square. I placed one sergeant in each corner and they took turns in controlling the squad until one sergeant's voice broke and the squad kept going - out of range. I was (once again) standing next to the Giant RSM and although we were as far as we could be from the errant squad I bellowed "SQUAD - HALT!!!" And they did (!) and the RSM muttered to me "Well done lad!"

Two years later, now at university and in the OTC with the interesting rank of Officer Cadet (not holding a commission so not entitled to be saluted but should be addressed as "Sir" by Other Ranks - which led to entertaining moments such as being inspected on parade and having an RSM bellow into your ear "GET YOUR F*CKING HAIR CUT -  . . . . . SIR!!!") 

In the OTC we did weekend duties - and got paid - big deal for college students - and we had the option for a two week posting with a regular regiment over summer. I signed up - with a Gung Ho buddy. Sign-up sergeant said "Do you want full-on or lazy?" Germany or Cyprus? I said "Lazy" and my buddy said "Germany". So in their infinite wisdom the powers-that-be sent him to Cyprus and me to Germany. I am eternally sorry to report that when he got to Cyprus, not only weren't they doing Gung Ho - they were actually locked down! A squaddy had been in a fight in a local bar! Meanwhile, lazy me was in Germany having a blast driving APC's and commanding a squadron!!

I had a ticket to a ceremonial dinner at Senate House in London where the guest of honour was our Honorary Colonel, the Queen Mother. I rented a tux and got the train into town - but the train was late! We were supposed to be there at 19:00 hours and it was 19:45 as the taxi approached the entrance square in front of Senate House. I said to the driver - who I had promised a big tip for going as fast as he could - "OK - now just let me out in front" meaning on the pavement rather than the formal entrance square. He misunderstood and flung his cab right up to the front door. This was the time that VIP's were due and those of my mates who were on the guard of honour outside the front door all snapped to attention and presented arms. Our adjutant opened the door of my cab and our CO leaned into the open door and put out his hand to welcome the next VIP. When he saw who was in the cab his smile froze (but stayed in place - scary) and through gritted teeth he hissed "Palmer - get out of the cab and get into the hall!!" I did - and later had the great honour of being close and bowing to the wonderful Queen Mum!