I was three years old in 1952 when young Princess Elizabeth learnt of the death of her father, George VI. She was staying at Treetops Hotel in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park.
Jim Corbett, the famous white hunter, later charmingly wrote: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”
Fifteen years later a young Scotsman on a gap year climbed into a neighbouring tree after having had one of the most dramatic experiences of his life.
On my way back from South Africa I had arranged a three-day stopover in Kenya. In the short time available, a night at Treetops offered the best chance of seeing game. We drove out from Nairobi, a party of about 20 tourists, and arrived in the middle of the afternoon, stopping the vehicles some distance from the hotel, whose flat wooden roof we could just see over the tops of the grassy mounds behind which we had parked.
The original hotel, built in a huge fig tree on the edge of a water hole and salt lick, had been burnt down in 1954 by the Mau Mau in retaliation for the British attempt to dislodge them from their hideout in the Aberdare forest. Its larger replacement surrounded a chestnut tree and spread out on stilts at the edge of the same water hole.
The hunter, our guide and protector, set off to reconnoitre and quickly returned saying there was a herd of elephants milling about by the hotel. Two porters were dispatched to bang pots and pans – the customary method for moving on reluctant animals. But on this occasion nothing happened. The hunter went off for another look and returned with the news that an elephant calf was stuck in the mud right in front of the hotel. The mother seemed to have given up trying to get it out, and since she wouldn’t move, a mood of elephantine solidarity had settled and none of the rest of the herd would either.
It was clearly not safe to lead a party of 20 people into the middle of a herd of wild elephants. But it was a long way back to Nairobi and the hunter, Ken Levet was his name, would have had a lot of disappointed tourists on his hands, not to mention a hefty loss for his employers. He had a decision to make.
I somehow don’t imagine that today he would have been allowed to take the one he did; and that’s a thought that goes against everything he and his ilk stood for, namely superb bushcraft, steel nerves and years of experience. But in May 1967 risk assessments were, happily, a thing of the distant future. He decided that he would lead us all to a ground-level viewing hide, halfway across the 300-yard stretch of open ground between the vehicles and the hotel; then take us on the final leg, under the stilts and up the ladder into the hotel, in pairs.
With the first part of the mission safely accomplished, we crowded into the hide. It was a circular palisade of bamboo, about three metres high and three metres in diameter, erected around the base of a tree. We could see out through slits in the bamboo, but while we were invisible to anything beyond, we were certainly not invincible. One nudge from a disgruntled buffalo, let alone an elephant, would have flattened the whole thing. We settled down to wait. Being the youngest of the party by about 20 years, I knew I would be last out. But we were in good hands. Rifle at the ready, Ken Levet led the first pair on their way.
To be continued …