No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa

No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa

Heminway, John

1983

Book ID 107

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Extract Date: 1961


In 1961 Alan married Joan Thorpe, the daughter of a coffee planter and herself a safari guide. Alan had noticed her on several occasions but had never been able to cut through her shyness until one day he heard she was bringing up a small orphaned elephant. Elephants under six months are usually impossible to raise. Joan had been more successful than most people, and Alan, in his own words, "liked winners."

A master of the deadly pun, Alan recalls: "Before we were married, she wore a monocle and so did I. Together we made quite a spectacle. " On the first night of their honeymoon, for instance, Joan was stung by a scorpion. They were camped next to the Tsavo River Bridge, where in 1898, the rail-laying crew had been terrorized by two man-eating lions. The Roots sat up until dawn, he comforting her, both listening to the howl of the passing trains and to a lion, perhaps a descendant of the maneaters, roaring nearby. It was the beginning of an accident-prone but very happy partnership. "I don't know what I'd do without Joan," Alan admits today. "I'd probably have to marry three women at the same time."

Extract ID: 4158

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 168a
Extract Date: 1950’s

all the bongos the world needed

For years zoos had been clamoring for bongo, but the catching methods of the time, usually involving dogs and bloodcurdling chases, had almost always ended with dead bongos. Alan invented a humane self-triggering enclosure, and within a month, he had collected the first bongo then in captivity. It was sent to the Cleveland Zoo and soon Alan was swamped with orders for more. Apart from the money. Alan's rationale for continuing this enterprise was to establish a breeding pool of bongos in zoos so that the wild bongo population would never again he jeopardized by encroachment. For the next live years, animal catching became Alan's hobby. He collected more than thirty bongos. The breeding stock that today supplies nearly all the major zoos throughout the world. Just as he promised, one day he folded up the entire enterprise. "I'd caught." he explained, "all the bongos the world needed."

Extract ID: 4153

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 168b
Extract Date: 1950’s

It was just a home movie

During his expeditions into the bush Alan had made an 8 mm film of snakes and charging rhinos. "It was just a home movie." he recalls, but it fell into the hands of John Pearson. an East African Airways pilot and would-be film maker who was so impressed by it that he summoned Alan to the Nairobi Museum and offered him £20 a month to film lily-trotters on Lake Naivasha. It seemed inconceivable to Alan that someone would actually pay him to sit beside beautiful Lake Naivasha. He accepted and a week later he was living in a shredded tent next lo a school of hippos. He rose with the lily-trotters, fretted with their problems and watched the growth of their young.

Extract ID: 4154

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 168c
Extract Date: 1950’s

Armand and Michaela Denis

In the late 1950’s few wildlife film makers in East Africa could live without the patronage of Armand and Michaela Denis. Commercial wildlife filming, then in its infancy. had been more or less launched by the Denises' highly popular British series called On Safari. It offered measured dosages of armchair travel, glamour (the extravagantly coiffed Michaela), cuddly pets and wildlife homilies. No one in England could have realized that Armand and Michaela were not in fact the sole camera operators since the film credits noted only their names. In reality they employed up to six wildlife film makers, the entire roster of cameramen in East Africa at the time.

As soon as Armand Denis saw the lily-trotter film he hired Alan and assigned him straightaway to the Serengeti - then a remote expanse of grasslands where the concentrations of game were dizrying. With a sweep of the eye. one could take in several hundred thousand wildebeest, prides of lions often more than thirty strong, creation and extinction balanced against one another with eerie logic.

Alan was one of the first professional cameramen to film here: within a few weeks he hid already exposed the first footage ever of a leopard hauling a carcass into a tree and of a zebra giving birth. "In many ways it was the easiest filming I'd ever done - merely a question of pointing the camera in the right direction."

Extract ID: 4155

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 169
Extract Date: 1950's

Serengeti Shall Not Die

Alan's work with the Denises was interrupted one day by a zebra-striped Dornier aircraft that circled the Serengeti headquarters and landed next to the game warden's house. The plane was piloted by Bernhard and Michael Grzimek. a father-and-son team from Frankfurt. Germany. They wanted to record the movements of the herds of wildebeest and zebra over the course of a year, in hopes that the legal boundaries of the park would one day contain their migration. The first order of business was to hire a cameraman. Did the game warden happen to know one? Myles Turner, a man of fierce loyalties, made it clear that they could do no better than Alan Root, who happened to be filming nearby. Before Alan had even heard of the arrangement. Myles had successfully negotiated his contract.

The film they made with Alan was called ‘Serengeti Shall not die’. Of the few collaborations Alan has made, he can remember none so pleasant. He and Michael were much alike, not only in age. but in their approach to the game. They both were curious about the complex set of debts and promises that connect predators and prey: they both were consumed by the extravagance of life on these plains: and both of them were comics and daredevils.

The fun came to an end one day when Michael, flying alone, struck a vulture in midflight. With the ailerons and flaps jammed, the plane went into a dive. Michael was buried on the lip of the Ngorongoro Crater and the epitaph on his gravestone is simple: "Michael Grzimck - 11.4.1934 to 10.1.1959. He gave all he possessed for the wild animals of Africa, including his life."

Extract ID: 4156

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 170

Death had begun to assume a place in life

Nick Forbes-Watson had died tragically a few years before, Armand Denis would have only a handful of years to live, John Pearson would be shot by a trigger-happy game guard and so many of Alan's friends, particularly the game wardens of East Africa, would meet similar, usually violent ends. For Alan, death had begun to assume a place in life.

Extract ID: 4157

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 171

The balloon ride had been a success

A month after they were married Alan was invited to join Douglas Botting and Anthony Smith, two BBC producers, on a hydrogen balloon expedition across East Africa. When Alan asked Armand Denis for a leave of absence to help out the two Englishmen, Denis fired him on the spot. "It was a bit rough for Joan," Alan admits today. "She obviously thought she had backed a loser."

The balloon was called Jambo, and every launching led to an adventure. From the island of Zanzibar they crossed to the mainland and floated across much of Tanzania, with an unforgettable drift over Alan's beloved Serengeti. Their last ascent was an exhibition for a large crowd of aviation buffs at the Nairobi Airport. Egged on by the pretty girls, the balloonists unwisely lifted off in a high wind. To avoid an RAF squadron just ahead they had to throw out most of their ballast in the first few minutes of flight and by the time they were over the Ngong Hills they had little left and were virtually out of control. They hit the peaks three times and on the third impact Alan was pitched forward from the basket, his head smashing against a stone, then hauled back in as the balloon climbed to ten thousand feet. At this altitude the balloon leveled off and then started to descend, faster and faster. The three balloonists frantically heaved out the remaining ballast, then their lunch, the first-aid kit and finally their personal belongings. They were left with only the precious camera equipment, and just as Alan was throwing out film, battery, a telephoto lens, the basket smashed through a thorn tree and hit the ground. Alan looked around. No one was dead. The balloon ride had been a success.

Extract ID: 4159

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 176
Extract Date: 1970~

I knew I needed a balloon for filming

Before returning home, Alan was invited by his ballooning friend, Anthony Smith, to test the latest toy in the field of wingless aircraft. It was a hot-air balloon - far less dangerous and expensive than the hydrogen version he and Tony had flown over Africa. Alan made his first ascension from a village green in Hampshire: "As we lifted off I created a camera shot by cupping my hands around my eyes, limiting their field of vision as if they were a lens. I began by focusing on a daisy growing next to the basket. As we began our climb I could see people's legs, then all the village green. Pretty soon the entire village came into view and, after that, all of England. Before we landed I knew I needed a balloon for filming."

The difference between humdrum and interesting camerawork is often a matter of perspectives. Alan is always trying to find the novel angle, not just to be arresting, but to heighten the truth of the action. To film a herd of animals moving across a plain by holding the camera at eye level would have abused all the magical opportunities of Africa. Instead, Alan would bury the camera in their path to film their progress from a snake's point of view. In Alan's films, flowers are not just in bloom; they begin as petals and bloom before one's eyes. Similarly a bird's nest does not just appear; it is built on the screen, twig by twig, in a mere thirty seconds. The technology of this process is known as time-lapse photography, and it is a hallmark of Alan's films. Hot-air ballooning would add still another startling perspective to his Africa. It would also be the most hair-raising fun he had had in a long while.

Alan was to obtain the first hot-air balloon license ever issued in black Africa. His training period at Naivasha had not been all that easy: On several occasions he had performed "underwater" flying in the lake, once he had snagged around the telephone lines beside a road and on another occasion he had even "gift-wrapped" a thorn tree.

Extract ID: 4160

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 178a
Extract Date: 1975

"The Year of the Wildebeest" - "Brave Gnu World"

"The Year of the Wildebeest" - "Brave Gnu World," as Alan liked to call it - appeared on CBS in May 1975 and was rerun by NBC in July 1976. Almost all of Alan's film colleagues consider it his finest film. Throughout, there is pounding energy, hammered onto the screen by the wildebeests' hooves, heightened by the terse, sometimes ironic script. By the film's end one is cowed by the wisdom of death. The spare language is often so good it draws attention to itself:

"The white-bearded gnu - an animal apparently designed by a committee and assembled from spare parts."

"Whenever there is a creature behaving strangely on the plains there are always other animals alert to wonder why."

"The wildebeest haven't changed in two million years. They haven't needed to; for, though they may choose some bizarre ways to die, they have found a fantastically successful way to live."

"There is a saying in Africa that somewhere there is a place where the grass meets the sky, and the name of that place is 'the end.' "

Extract ID: 4161

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 178b
Extract Date: 1975

Verbal badinage

In Kenya, a country not noted for its verbal badinage. Alan's plays on words have become passwords to his life.

His pet aardvark is named Million. Why? Because "Aardvark a million miles for one of your smiles!"

On the front of his car the Range Rover lettering has been changed to read "Hang Over. "

When asked by a Walt Disney producer if he liked the name of their new film about bongos. ‘The Biggest Bongo in the World’, he was quite abusive. "Awful," he said. They challenged him to come up with a better one and in a second he solved their dilemma: "Last Bongo in Paris."

On another occasion, he was drinking with his friend, Dr. Mary Leakey, who was pondering what to name her exhaustive monograph on the stone tool cultures of the Olduvai Gorge. Alan advised her to call it: "I Dig Dirty Old Men."

Extract ID: 4162

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 178c
Extract Date: 1975

Ballooning for the public

Ever since Alan had learned to fly a balloon, nothing gave him greater pleasure than offering his friends joyrides: a dawn departure from the lawn in front of the house to the strains of "Up, Up and Away," a climb into clouds, a descent onto the roof of a neighbor's house to wake its occupants with a few bars of "Born Free," out across the lake to surprise a sleeping herd of hippos, up again to search for plains game and to open a bottle of champagne, and a finger-barking landing in an onion field just as the rescue crew, driving a Land Rover, sped into sight.

These flights were so successful that Alan decided to go public with lighter-than-air travel. For years he and Richard Leakey had been partners in a photographic safari company, and when it was disbanded in 1976 because of personal differences, he formed another partnership with the leading hotelier of the country to take tourists across the Masai-Mara Game Reserve in his balloon. "The fun was getting Balloon Safaris going - convincing the local aviation authorities that it was okay to have regular charter flights to a destination never certain until you got there."

Extract ID: 4163

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa, 1983
Page Number: 179-181
Extract Date: March 25, 1976

Balloon Safari over Kilimanjaro

Looming above the business enterprise was an even greater challenge. Kilimanjaro, at 19,340 feet, was the highest point in Africa; ergo, ballooning over the peak would represent the highest physical achievement in Africa, the ultimate seduction. Most people could have tossed aside this challenge but Alan presumably was taunted every time he saw the silver dome floating above late-afternoon clouds. By now he was a living reminder of other such dares. The index finger on his right hand was missing because of an indiscretion with a puff adder. A portion of his right buttock had been deeded to a leopard in the Serengeti, and most of the cartilage in his right knee was missing because he had once tried to set a Kenya record for motorcycle jumps. Now whenever he entered the Nairobi Hospital he was greeted as an old friend.

None of Alan's friends was terribly surprised to hear that he was preparing to be the first to balloon over the top of Kilimanjaro. Now that the wildebeest film was finished Alan had given himself four months before his next production. He gathered together some friends who were eager to serve as the ground crew and readied his balloon, Lengai, for the assault. From the lower slopes of the mountain, Alan calculated he would have to head away from the peak because of the winds, and then at about 24,000 feet, hope to catch an alternating wind that would carry him over the top. There the winds would be treacherous and the air nearly one-quarter its density at sea level.

The "shakedown" was spent test-flying the equipment, purchasing special gear and dickering with the meteorological service. One day the flight was off, another on, and much of Nairobi joined in speculating whether or not the madman would make it. In a society that warmly takes heart from others' misfortunes and rarely admits to heroes. Alan's apparent death wish had captured the imagination.

On the morning of March 25, 1976, the ground crew inflated the balloon on a farm to the west of the mountain. The clouds were down to the ground and nobody was laughing. Until the last moment there had been a question whether or not Joan could accompany Alan. It was generally agreed because of the load factor only one passenger could make the ascent. Joan had not said a word but it was clear that she would gladly have amputated an arm to meet the required weight. By now Alan was inside the basket firing the burner. He looked out at her. "You ready?" he asked, seconds before the balloon lifted off.

For the first half-hour of the flight Alan and Joan flew through dense cloud, never certain where they were bound. Just before they saw sunlight the flame on the burner blew out and for a frightening second Alan fumbled with matches to relight it.

Alan has coined an expression, "The Root Effect," to describe the illusion of the sides of the basket lowering, the higher the balloon climbs. At five thousand feet the basket's walls are at waist level, but at twenty thousand feet they seem little higher than one's ankles. Now as the balloon drifted over the top of Mawenzi Joan was behaving strangely. For a second Alan considered "The Root Effect." She was uncharacteristically snappy and clumsy. "What's the matter?" Alan asked. "Nothing," she shouted back. Suddenly he noticed the tube from her oxygen supply had gotten fouled. As fast as he could he reconnected it and soon she was her placid self.

Borne by a friendly monsoon, and with hardly a ripple, the basket sailed across the roof of Africa, its two occupants Phineas Foggs of a new sort. The altimeter registered 24,000 feet and directly below was the broken cone of Kilimanjaro. Old glaciers and the remains of last season's snows lay in pockets along the rims. Alan looked for climbers, but at nine on a March morning the mountain was deserted. The mountain and the sky made the balloon seem very small. When he and Joan had successfully flown over Kilimanjaro, they were forced to make a landing in then hostile Tanzania. Minutes after their moment of triumph, both Roots were arrested as "astronaut spies."

Of all Alan's films, the one-hour special about his balloon exploits seems the most flawed, possibly because he was dealing with humans (particularly himself) instead of animals. The humor that abounds in his life seemed out of context in the film, and at times the commentary runs to unmitigated conceit: "Flying a balloon takes a bit of getting used to - but Alan Root is one of those naturally well-coordinated people who gets the hang of this sort of thing very quickly. . . ." On television ‘Balloon Safari’ seemed an uneven pastiche, but when it is shown at the farmhouse on Lake Naivasha it is colorful and very funny. It seems to be an indulgence, an amusement for his friends. "Precisely," Alan admits today, "it's a home movie."

Extract ID: 4164
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