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!

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