The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

11 March 2017

9:00 AM

11 March 2017

9:00 AM

After he left the Blues and Royals in 1981, the young Tristan Voorspuy drove a motorbike from London to Cape Town. Thus began his love of Africa. He also learnt to fly, and arranged to travel alone to Kenya from England in a single-engine aeroplane, using only a schoolboy atlas. Luckily, his brother Morvern, a professional pilot, heard of this plan and prevented it. But Tristan reached Kenya by other means, and became a Kenyan citizen. For 30 years, he was a leading conservationist there and set up and ran the accurately named firm Offbeat Safaris, which allows guests to ride among the great beasts of Africa. Recently, armed hordes and their cattle invaded the land on Sosian, the Kenyan ranch he jointly owned, and whose land and wildlife he had rescued after the environmental degradation they had suffered from overgrazing in the 1990s. In an email he sent last month, before the Sosian invasion, Tristan warned of the effects on wildlife he had seen in recent attacks on other estates. He said that the invaders were reviving the status rituals of the Pokot tribe, which involve the killing and mutilation of elephant, giraffe etc. Last weekend, they burnt out the house of one of Tristan’s business partners. He got on his little white stallion Loita and rode off alone to investigate. The horse was found injured. Tristan was later found dead. He had been shot.

It would be wrong to call such a shocking death ‘fitting’, but its drama did reflect Tristan’s life and character. Whether illicitly growing cannabis in his parents’ garden as a teenager, riding in the Grand Military at Sandown, or out in the bush, he was always bold — never bolder than when trying to defend the land, fauna and flora of Africa. His attitude to everything, including riding, was forward-going, confronting danger rather than avoiding it. A few years back, I went on one of his safaris. Tristan was our guide. The risky bits were the best. It was wonderful, for example, to ride very close to a family of elephants and watch their peaceful grazing, and then, when the senior mother had decided we had got too near, to see her flap her ears and lead the charge against us. But it was wonderful only because Tristan knew how to get us out just in time. I have an excellent photograph of him shouting our retreat as 20 elephants loom behind him. On a different holiday, at which I was not present, he led his party through a defile and surprised a gathering of hippo, which, for human beings, are the least amiable of African mammals. Because of the narrowness, the passage back was difficult. Tristan naturally stayed until everyone else was safe, but in the melee his horse reared and threw him. He lay on the ground, rolling himself in the recommended ball for 20 minutes while hippos pushed him around and took a few chunks out of his back. Then they got bored and left. He was both skilful and lucky to have survived.

I could not have enjoyed the Mara more, so it was natural to want to return. But conversation with Tristan made me wonder. I sensed that, because of population pressure and bad politics, everything was getting more adverse. Nothing could break Tristan’s spirit, but he was encountering ever worse headwinds. So I thought I should content myself with my one visit, in case later ones seemed sad, and to treasure every memory of it. I may have given above the impression that Tristan was a typical gung-ho Englishman. He was not only that. It was attractive, for example, that when we were just about to begin a wild gallop, he would stop to note an obscure wild flower and tell us about it. And it was a delight in camp, at evening, to hear him recite poetry by heart — ‘The Fox’s Prophecy’ was a favourite. He could be rude and angry; he was always funny; he was kind and interested and, in matters of nature, learned. All this was because he was passionate, filled with the fatal love of Africa.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is a slightly sinister body. Behind the banner of fairness, it is doctrinaire. I recently received its press release: ‘Hereditary by-election: world’s most elitist election described as “ludicrous” by campaigners.’ The society purports to be upset by the system in which the remaining hereditary peers in the House of Lords elect a new member if one of the sitting ones of their party dies. Just now, the Conservatives have such a by-election. Evelyn Waugh once famously remarked, after surgeons had cut out a growth from Randolph Churchill and pronounced it benign, that it was typical of modern science to find the one bit of Randolph that was benign and remove it. Similarly, the ERS condemns the one bit of the House of Lords (otherwise ever more stuffed with placemen) which is in any sense elected. In fact, there is a way of getting rid of these by-elections, though one the ERS might not like. A knowledgeable MP points out to me that if Theresa May wants to flood the Lords in order to get enough votes for Brexit, there is no need to create fresh titles. Much simpler to reinstate the full 800-plus hereditaries who, though they have lost their automatic right to sit and vote, remain peers.

I have never been to the South Lakes Safari Zoo, which has just lost its licence. In media reports, it sounds unpleasant. But two points are worth bearing in mind. The first is that it is under attack by fanatical opponents who want to close all zoos, so their criticisms should be treated with caution. The second is the amazing gullibility of my trade when it comes to statistics. Every report repeated that, over the past four years, 500 animals have died in the zoo, as if this were shocking. To know whether it is, one needs to be told how many and what sort of animals were in the zoo, and what sort of death rate is normal. Without such information, it is like saying that ‘500 people died in X hospital in the past four years’ and then pulling a long face of disapproval, when in fact that rate of expiry might be the lowest ever.

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