Kilimanjaro: Genius in an African dawn

Ondaatje, Christopher

10 Nov 2001

Book ID 948

See also

Ondaatje, Christopher Kilimanjaro: Genius in an African dawn, 10 Nov 2001
Page Number: a
Extract Date: 2001

Kilimanjaro: Genius in an African dawn

Thousands of tourists have journeyed to Africa in search of the Hemingway Experience, inspired by 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro'. Sir Christopher Ondaatje got closer than most

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai', the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

This is the riddle that Ernest Hemingway poses at the start of his strangely prophetic and almost autobiographical story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Hemingway was the first great American literary celebrity of the 20th century. By the time of his death in 1961 he was a legend. The white-bearded visage of "Papa" could be recognised all over the world. Countless magazine articles chronicled the adventures of the hard-drinking, tough-talking, much-married action man.

Yet there is relatively little discussion of Hemingway's love of Africa a continent that was an obsession for him all his life. As a boy, he longed to follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who made a famous safari expedition in Tanganyika [now Tanzania] in 1910. On frequent trips to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, young Ernest was entranced by the stuffed elephants brought back from expeditions in Africa by the hunter and photographer Carl Akeley, a man said to have killed a wounded leopard with his bare hands.

Extract ID: 5382

See also

Ondaatje, Christopher Kilimanjaro: Genius in an African dawn, 10 Nov 2001
Page Number: b
Extract Date: 1933

First African Trip

Before Hemingway made it to Africa, he had been wounded in the First World War, driving an ambulance at the Italian front; he had earned a living as a journalist; married Hadley Richardson; lived in Paris, where he mixed with the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce; been seduced by Spain and the bullfight; divorced Hadley and married Pauline Pfeiffer, a young Vogue reporter whom he met in Paris. By 1933, he had gained an international reputation as a rising star in the literary firmament. Now he was ready for a new adventure; now he was ready for Africa.

Hemingway, his wife Pauline, and Charles Thompson his friend from his home in Key West set sail from Marseilles on 22 November 1933. Seventeen slow, sick, rainy days later they arrived in Mombasa, a town one of Hemingway's biographers, Michael Reynolds, described as "the lush green island of Mombasa with its huge-trunked baobab trees, coconut palms, white lime-washed houses, shaded verandahs, shuttered windows, palm-thatched roofs and ebony faces".The bustling metropolis I drove through could not have changed more.

Hemingway travelled by train on the route informally known as the Lunatic Express from Mombasa to Machakos to stay at Potha Hill, the home of the legendary white hunter Philip Percival, who was to lead the safari. Hemingway was to admire him all his life, and immortalised him as the gentle but commanding Pop in the book Green Hills of Africa.

Hemingway spent his stay at Machakos getting used to the altitude, making preparations and getting his eye in for the forthcoming hunting. On 20 December 1933, Hemingway's safari set off for the Tanganyika border. They pushed on through the customs post at Namanga, spent a last night of luxury in Arusha before finally reaching the great Rift Valley, moving up to Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro game reserve. From the top of the rift wall Hemingway could see "the heavy forest below the wall, and the long, dried-up edged shine of Lake Manyara rose-coloured at one end with a half million tiny dots that were flamingos". The description glows with a sense of wonder that was easy to share as I nibbled biltong on the road from Arusha.

Hemingway's awed aesthetic appreciation of the game sits uneasily with his desire to shoot it dead. Green Hills of Africa is structured around his all-consuming pursuit of the elusive greater kudu. When he finally succeeds, he rhapsodises over the animal: "I looked at him, big, long-legged, a smooth grey with the white stripes and the great, curling, sweeping horns, brown as walnut meats, and ivory pointed, at the big ears and the great, lovely heavy maned neck, the white chevron between his eyes and the white muzzle and I stooped over and touched him to try to believe it... he smelled sweet and lovely like the breath of cattle and the odour of thyme and rain."

The mainspring for Hemingway's greatest African story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, however, was a far from pleasurable experience. The safari, as Hemingway presents it, was a happy occasion, but there was one negative amoebic dysentery, a debilitating illness. Hemingway could not continue hunting, and Percival decided he needed hospital treatment. The plane which came to take him to Arusha passed the amazing snow-capped peaks of Kilimanjaro on the way.

Here is the source of one of Hemingway's most autobiographical tales: the almost actionless account of a writer who has wasted his talent, who has given himself up to a life of luxury, living off his rich wife, who is dying slowly of gangrene in the shadow of the great mountain, recalling all the experiences he should have written down and now never will.

Extract ID: 5394

See also

Ondaatje, Christopher Kilimanjaro: Genius in an African dawn, 10 Nov 2001
Page Number: c
Extract Date: 1953

Second African Trip

Hemingway planned to return to Africa the very next year, but in fact his plans were stalled for 20 years. Once again he landed in Mombasa in the autumn, though this time with a different wife in tow, and once again he was to be led by Percival, now in his late sixties, who came out of retirement out of loyalty to his old client.

Hemingway was fortunate to survive his second trip to Africa. As a late Christmas present, he had arranged for a pilot, Roy Marsh, to take himself and his wife Mary on a sightseeing journey over Africa in Marsh's Cessna. All went well, until they reached Murchison Falls in Uganda. As Mary photographed the falls, Marsh suddenly swerved to avoid a flight of ibis and ripped into an abandoned telegraph wire which sliced off the rudder and radio antenna. The plane crashed in the bush about three miles from the Falls, but incredibly, all three emerged relatively unscathed. Next day a boat took them safely to Butiaba.

After such a lucky escape, no one could have expected lightning to strike twice, but almost as soon as Reggie Cartwright's 12-seater de Havilland took off from the short, ragged landing strip, it crashed and burst into flames. Mary, Marsh and Cartwright managed to squeeze out through a window, but Hemingway, too bulky to get through, was forced to bash the stuck door open using his head his arms still bruised from the previous day's crash exacerbating his wounds with every battering attempt to save his life.

Blessed with the constitution of an ox, Hemingway was used to bouncing back from the blows his active life dealt him, but recovery was slow and some biographers have seen the African crashes as marking the beginning of his physical and psychological decline.

Extract ID: 5395

See also

Ondaatje, Christopher Kilimanjaro: Genius in an African dawn, 10 Nov 2001
Page Number: d


At the end of my trip, I made a flight around the peak of Kilimanjaro. As we approached we saw on the right the jagged peak of Mawenzi, and to the left the unique square-topped peak of Kibo. And then the bright sunlight on the snow-capped peak. We circled past Leopard Point the place where the leopard carcass was actually found by Donald Latham. Suddenly, so close to such formidable, unworldly beauty, it seemed clear how the Masai could think of the peak of this extraordinary mountain as the house of God, how it would have struck Hemingway, flying past on his way to hospital treatment, as a symbol of immortality.

I came closest to Hemingway's Africa not during any leopard hunt, or while interviewing people who knew him, or even driving through his green hills, but in the early morning, waiting for coffee and the day to begin. The joyful anticipation of a morning in Africa is like no other Hemingway wrote that, "Every morning when you woke it was as exciting as though you were going to compete in a downhill ski race or drive a bobsled on a fast run. Something, you knew, would happen, and usually before 11 o'clock."

On my last morning, spent by Lake Naivasha, I heard the morning chorus the fish eagles crying to each other over the water, the shriek of the hadada ibis, and the melodic tones of the African bou bou. Long yellow streaks of sun cast equally long shadows behind the acacias on to the glistening grasses and darker papyrus. Above me, the sky was a hazy grey, waiting to be turned blue. Africa in the morning holds out a world of potential. It is a time and a place where the idea of attaining one's best self and achieving one's best work seems quite possible.

Extract ID: 5396
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