Eccentric empires in the sun

Scriven, Marcus

4 Feb 2006

Book ID 878

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Scriven, Marcus Eccentric empires in the sun, 4 Feb 2006
Page Number: 2

Margaret Kullander, Tanzania

The elephants are moving full tilt towards us, trumpeting in fury. “They’re still hunted in this country,” says Margaret Kullander as the driver gets the four-wheel drive into gear and accelerates away, deeper into Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park.

Kullander has survived many more abrasive encounters. Once, travelling with her first husband, Jim Gibb, and two friends (“and their two children and my three, all young”), she survived successive charges by a rhino. “Jim had good reactions — he turned and it hit the door,” she says.

Her family story is vivid, embracing a maternal grandmother (the 13th of 16 children) who left England for South Africa; a maternal grandfather who fought in Tanganyika during the First World War and opened a general store there; and a father who she describes, not unfondly, as a “bit wild and a great drinker”.

He had arrived in Tanganyika in 1924. Kullander’s first decade was spent in colonial comfort, roaming about on the family’s sisal farm. Early in 1946, she and her mother boarded the Winchester Castle and sailed through the Suez Canal to England, then to Aberdeen, where her education continued in the care of her paternal grandmother. “It was a disaster. I was an African child with all the freedoms of an African child; she was a Scottish, narrow-minded Presbyterian, worried about the neighbours.”

She did not see her parents for seven years, till she flew home a fortnight after the Coronation. Another seven years elapsed before her marriage to Jim. Independence, which followed soon after, seemed to be welcomed; the fag-end years of imperialism had had little to commend them (“we were objects, not subjects”). In 1967, however, sisal production was nationalised — the first step towards impoverishment.

“Tanzania was the world’s premier exporter of sisal; it had huge, very well managed estates. The moment (the Government) took over, sisal collapsed.” Five years later, many of the country’s coffee farms were seized. The Gibbs, whose farm was spared, decided to take in paying guests. A fortuitous introduction to the anthropologist Mary Leakey on their first night, December 26, 1972, was crucial, Leakey lending them money to buy five bungalows. Farmhands became waiters and porters. “They had no idea what they were letting themselves in for,” says Kullander, laughing.

The setting was unrivalled, an astonishing sweep of coffee-planted valleys and hills crowded with eucalyptus and wild banana, with a gentle walk to waterfalls near by. James Stewart and Sally Field were among the many guests.

In 1977 Jim died suddenly. Kullander now had a coffee farm and a small hotel to run alone, and three children. She also had to contend with the Government’s antagonism towards Kenya and the closure of the border. Tourists flying from Nairobi now went via the Seychelles and Dar Es Salaam. Tour operators advised them to take loo rolls and light bulbs. “On their last day, our guests handed over what they had left — then we handed them a bar bill. They paid a fortune to come, but those who bothered came because they really wanted to see the Serengeti.”

A plea for help on the farm was answered by Per Kullander, an old friend. They married a few years later and today live less than a mile from Gibb’s Farm, which Margaret sold last year. She is still seen there frequently, however. She and her older son Malcolm run a safari company, for whose clients Gibb’s Farm is an unmissable port of call.

Cazenove & Loyd (020-7384 2332, www.cazloyd.com) has a fortnight in northern Tanzania, including two nights at Gibb’s Farm, from £3,500pp, flights included. Margaret Kullander’s safari company is Amazing Tanzania (www.amazingtanzania.com).

Gibb’s Farm: 00 255 27 253 4397, www.gibbsfarm.net.

Extract ID: 5118
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