Many years ago, we were in what was then called Upper Volta, driving south from Ouagadougou toward Ghana searching for elephants. Seeing elephants in the wild had been a dream of mine for as long as I could remember. At one time, elephants were numerous in the savannahs and forests of Upper Volta, but an extended drought, poaching and human incursion into their habitat, had diminished their numbers considerably. However, our driver claimed he knew where a remnant herd of African elephants could be found. And so we set out into the savannahs and forests of Upper Volta in search of the surviving elephants. We drove and we drove. And we drove. The driver insisted that the herd was just around the next bend in the road. But no elephants. Surely, it was the most expensive goose (elephant) chase ever. It seemed my dream of viewing wild elephants had passed me by.
However, several years later, in Kenya, we were driving north from Nairobi toward a place called Tree Tops, a lodge on the elephant migration route to Mount Kenya. I had always heard it was a place where elephants frequently came to call. And so we set out again, this time with our driver, Peter, a Kikuyu, whose father had been a Mau Mau warrior, hoping for a better outcome than our search in Upper Volta.
It was a beautiful drive. We moved along a wide, smooth carriageway through rolling green coffee plantations. The plants were dark green and beautifully tended as if by the hands of a gifted gardener. One of the plantations was owned by the Kenyatta family. The patriarch of the family, Jomo Kenyatta, had been Kenya’s first president after Independence. The road was lined with tall jacaranda trees, leaves silvery in the sunlight. We passed enormous baobab trees, veritable mountains of wood. Peter told us that in olden days the people buried their dead in the branches of these great trees and that even today the spirits of the dead were said to inhabit the baobab and to cut one down was to unforgivably dishonor the dead. The countryside was so lush and beautiful it was no mystery why the British wanted to hold on to Kenya so badly.
We passed buses loaded with more people than it seemed they could carry, all piled high with bales and boxes and belongings. Some of the buses were of ancient vintage and each had a name like Lovely Lady or Dallas Cowboys or American Success. Soon the road narrowed to two lanes. The hills grew steeper and thatched huts began to appear. We passed patches of papyrus in the valleys and, toward the heights, wandering streams bounded down the hillsides. Everywhere people were walking. The earth was very red with thin ribbon footpaths weaving higher up the green hillsides.
Soon we came to a community of small farms. We passed gardens of maize, pumpkins and beans, scattered orchards of bananas and tropical fruit that I couldn’t identify. When we reached a small compound of mud huts with tin roofs, Peter
slowed the taxi, turned and said: “This is the village where I was born.” He stopped the taxi and invited us to meet his family and rest for a while.
Peter’s father Raphael was born in 1914, drove his own truck and had two wives. He was a wizened old man with clear eyes and an erect, almost military bearing. Unlike the Masai, who were herdsmen, the Kikuyu had been farmers for as long as Raphael could remember. During the Mau Mau wars, Raphael had been in charge of the Home Guard, warriors who protected the crops from British raids. He said that one of the reasons Kenya had been successful in its seven-year war with the British was because the British couldn’t blockade a people who raised their own food.
We talked in the shade of a baobab tree, the day wonderfully warm, chickens wandering by as if they owned the farm. For a long while we talked of religion, farming, the history of the kikuyu people and the changing times. At one point Raphael asked if we had driven the car all the way from America. As we talked, Peter’s father washed his feet, then his head, in a green plastic bowl.
The Kikuyu are champion talkers and neither Peter nor I added much to the conversation. But I remember thinking how delightful it was to be sitting beneath a great tree in Africa talking to an old man born in 1914 who drove his own truck and had two wives.
Later we were invited inside for lunch. Raphael said the house was more than one-hundred years old. There was a single table and a few chairs on an earthen floor, a bench and little else. We listened to John Lennon on a battery-powered radio while Raphael’s second wife prepared and served a meal made from potatoes, roasted ears of maize and passion fruit. After the meal was cleared away, Peter served an extremely alcoholic drink brewed from sugar cane, honey, and other mysterious local ingredients. It was served in a cow’s horn. As each person at the table took a drink, we were encouraged to spit some out on the floor for the spirits of the earth. We passed the horn around the table again and again, drinking and spitting, and I remember thinking I might have found a more profoundly inebriating potion than vodka even though it had to be shared with the spirits of the earth.
Peter dropped us off in Nyri where we boarded a small Isuzu bus for the storied lodge at Tree Tops. As we entered Aberdare Park, the road seemed to rise into the cloud. Although we were swallowed by a counterpane of grey, I could feel the presence of Mount Kenya towering over the countryside. The road became rutted, the way cutting through a serpentine archway of trees. I sensed the coming of rain and although we were almost precisely on the equator, we were more than a mile high, and a chill was easing down from the heights.
Tree Tops was a surprise. It did not look like a lodge favored by Royalty, that legendary place where a young princes climbed into the trees one afternoon and climbed down the next morning as Queen Elizabeth II. Rather it looked slapped together by an indifferent architect, a chaos of rough timber, a rustic three-storied structure, a maze of stairways, dark halls, and balconies. Tree Tops was originally built in 1932 in the top branches of a wild fig tree. But the tree itself was nearly gone, swallowed by the house it once held.
It began to rain when I checked in. I was assigned a room, tiny and spare, no larger than a closet, like a cabin on a sailing ship, dark and cozy. Upstairs, in the lounge, the guests had gathered to hear a lecture on the wildlife of Africa performed by a perfect caricature of the old British White Hunter. His delivery was absurdly practiced, a performance worthy of Monty Python. From the roof and the many balconies you could look out at the forested hills and the two waterholes that drew the animals to TreeTops each evening at dusk. As I waited for the animals, I had a gin and tonic and examined the lodge’s logs of animals sighted over the decades, daily entries of their species and numbers. Several notations mentioned “more than one- hundred elephants on a single night.” Another entry in 1954 was the last before the Mau Mau burned Tree Tops down. The next entry was three years later.
I took my drink onto the roof and stared out into the deep darkness of the African night. Then something magical happened, a series of moments that I will never forget. First came a buffalo, then a bok, an antlered animal like an elk. A rhinoceros came into the lighted waterhole. Then there was a shifting in the darkness beyond the waterhole and two elephants, great grey ghosts, emerged from the night. They were followed by eight more. They trumpeted as if to claim ownership of the waterhole, perhaps of the known world. Finally my dream of seeing wild elephants had come true.
But as I climbed back into my little cabin, exhilaration was accompanied by a touch of sorrow. In the past, as many as 200 elephants stopped at Tree Tops each night on their migration route from Mount Kenya to the forests and rivers to the south. This night there were eight. Perhaps I intuited even then that in a few short years, the free-ranging African elephant would be critically endangered, headed inexorably for extinction. All that would be left of them were dreams. In 2021, Tree Tops, itself, was closed.
Art by Jessica Vogel
If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy my latest novel, “The Lost Caravan.” It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or on my website, Marshall Riggan, Storyteller.