Matthew Parris

All was calm at the elephant safari camp. Then the river began to roar…

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

When Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, ejected from the aeroplane he was flying solo to Scotland, he parachuted to the ground and, injured, was taken to the local police station. This was 1941 and he had come on a doomed mission to draw the United Kingdom into peace negotiations. Hess’s aim was to deliver his proposals to the 14th Duke of Hamilton, another keen aviator and the first man to fly over Mount Everest, whom he fancifully supposed might be sympathetic. Douglas Douglas-Hamilton met him, then flew straight to England to report to Churchill.

When Iain Douglas-Hamilton flew into the Samburu national reserve in northern Kenya at the beginning of this month, he landed his plane on the gravel without incident and, carrying no secret plans for peace negotiations, made his way without incident to the Elephant Watch camp his family have built by the banks of the river Ewaso Nyiro.

The 14th Duke was Iain’s uncle — Iain (now 75) having been born the year after Hess crashed into Scotland. As enthusiastic an aviator as both his father and his uncle, he says it’s years since he has driven anywhere in Kenya. On the afternoon in question, he and his wife Oria had flown back to Elephant Watch after a grand luncheon gathering of what remains of white Kenyan society, near Lake Naivasha, hundreds of miles away.

But Iain is no high-society gadfly. If any one man can be called personally responsible for the gathering of knowledge and the raising of international awareness of the plight of the elephant, it is he. Over half a century he has pioneered and advanced the techniques of tracking and recording the movements and migrations of these noble beasts across sub-Saharan Africa, giving us a digital abundance of the data we need if we are to understand what Douglas–Hamilton calls ‘elephant choices’. He is world-renowned both for his expertise and his tireless campaigning against the ivory trade.

Elephant Watch camp is a few miles from Iain’s busy and professional Save the Elephant research centre, and there’s an umbilical cord between them. Elephant Watch, home to Iain’s television-presenter daughter Saba and her husband, my former Times colleague Frank Pope, is run as a luxury tented lodge for the lucky clients who can afford to stay. It provides work for local Samburu tribesmen and women, and funds for the research centre nearby. And it’s quite simply the most beautiful marriage of European elegance and African art and design that you’ll ever encounter. Nothing’s quite outdoors and nothing’s quite indoors; there’s thatch and there’s canvas; there’s Saba’s and Oria’s wonderful swirls of vividly coloured textiles sweeping to the straw ceilings, no walls — and bright rugs on the floor. Monkeys peek in, elephants meander by, and if you listen carefully you may hear the discrete splash of a crocodile slipping into the water from the river bank about 50 feet away.

And only ten feet below. Every few years the river rises in spate, Saba told us. Not long ago they’d had to evacuate the whole camp and put the furniture on the roof. In the national reserve they were still waiting for the rains and the land was bone dry — but there were reports of rain elsewhere, and everyone was hopeful. Tonight, though, the river was low, a quiet gurgle, when my partner and I sat down with Iain, Oria, Frank and Saba for dinner, on the night the Douglas–Hamiltons had flow in.

The sun had long set, the stars were out and the heat of the day had yielded to cool as tall, lean, ebony-skinned Samburu staff in scarlet robes and beads and silvery chains served the meal. Saba had been temporarily called away for an urgent phone call, but returned unflustered. Conversation came easily in the quiet of the night. There was no breath of wind.

So why that curious rushing sound? I looked at Oria, and she at me. For a moment, talk ceased. Then Saba said, ‘I didn’t want to worry you, but I’ve just had news that it’s been raining hard, though way upstream…’

We padded down to the riverbank. The water was rising: a muddy brown now, its surface angry, sticks and logs and clumps of vegetation bouncing by. Horribly rapidly by. Oria arrived. A veteran of these scares, she calmly poked a long stick into the wet mudbank just above the level of the water. ‘Back to dinner,’ she said, with complete composure. We were British. We would pretend nothing was happening. Another course arrived. Wine glasses were replenished. Conversation flowed.

But so did the river. I tried to peer beyond our pool of light to see if the current was yet visible. The rushing was now a gentle roar. Every now and again one of us would peel off and walk down to check. The news was always the same. ‘Still rising.’ Orla’s stick was now a couple of feet below water level. I’ve seen rivers in spate before but never rising so fast. Within an hour the current was licking the top edge of the river bank.

Saba slipped away, then Frank: I now know it was to prepare for evacuation, and they worked until the small hours. Iain stayed, chatting, at ease; Oria was a master of campfire tales of the old Kenya; and my partner and I took our tone from theirs: relaxed. Well after midnight, and with a last check on the river, we tottered off to our palatial tent and, beneath the mosquito nets, snuggled down, tired, happy, calm. Almost.

Except that four times before dawn I awoke and padded to the riverbank. The current still raged; the water was high, very high; but a few feet below the level of the camp, and it didn’t seem to be rising any more.

I stuck in a stick. And on my fourth visit, the level had very slightly dropped. After that I slept soundly, well past the sunrise, my dreams filled with aviators and floods and monkeys, and Rudolf Hess.

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