Joan Root

Name ID 1582

See also

Heminway, John No Man's Land: The Last of White Africa
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
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