In the annals of 19th century African exploration, when the white man first began probing from the seacoasts to the interior of what for so long had been the Dark Continent, a special place is reserved for Desborough Cooley. He was a distinguished and articulate member of the Royal Geographical Society, and when reports reached London from central East Africa that German missionaries had sighted mountains with snow and ice at their summits it was Cooley who led the denunciation of such foolish tales. For, as he pointed out, the locations described lay on or near the equator! Clearly, the alleged snowfields must therefore be only expanses of light-colored rock shining in the sun. So adamant was Desborough Cooley that arctic conditions were out of place at the equator that the other honorable members of the society generally were relieved of doubts, and it was not until later in the course of other explorations—some financed by the society itself—that he was shown to be dead wrong. Not only were there snow-fields, there were glaciers. Since temperature decreases with altitude, all that is needed for an equatorial mountain to acquire snow and glaciers is that it be tall enough, as several East African mountains in fact are.
The story of Cooley's Error, or the Case of the Inappropriate Glaciers, is especially apt in connection with the Mount Kenya Safari Club. For one thing, Mount Kenya was one of the mountains: it lies directly on the equator but is 17,040 feet high and hence supports several large glaciers. For another, the club has the same dumfounding quality as the glaciers. In several ways it seems so misplaced, implausible and contrary to the dictates of common sense that one might easily fall into Cooley's Error and swear that the whole thing is an illusion. It lies on the low western slope of the great mountain, about 125 miles north of Kenya's capital and main city of Nairobi and a few miles west of the provincial trading center of Nanyuki. It is not inaccessible—Nairobi is only 20-odd jet hours away from Los Angeles, for example, only eight hours from Rome, and the trip up to Nanyuki is an easy half-day drive or an hour by light plane. The peculiarities begin with the other two words in its name—"safari" and "club."
In Swahili, the common language of East and Central Africa, safari simply means a trip or journey, and in a literal sense one can "go on safari" to the corner grocery. But to generations of sportsmen it has meant African adventure: Africa with its array of beautiful and often dangerous wild game, its primitive tribal peoples, strange landscapes, mysteries and hazards, heat and dust and biting insects and sweaty discomforts which, although unwelcome, were in a way exciting, for they were part of the peculiar and deep satisfaction of pitting oneself against elemental nature. Obviously, there were limits to this kind of satisfaction. They were overreached in what might properly be considered the very first safari, exactly 100 years ago, when the English big-game hunter and explorer Sir Samuel Baker took his beautiful blonde bride into the wilds of Uganda. They endured fever, starvation, attacks by savages armed with poisoned arrows and countless other perils, including, for Lady Baker, lustful attempts on her honor by a native king and near-fatal sunstroke while wading through a swamp with her husband, who looked back (he related in his memoirs) and "was horrified to see her standing in one spot, and sinking gradually through the weeds, while her face was distorted and perfectly purple." Things have changed for the better since. In modern times, with safari companies to supply motor transport, guides and such niceties as refrigeration and cookboys to whip up five-course dinners, suffering is minimal. The safariing sportsman nowadays expects amenities. But nothing he has read or heard of will have prepared him to expect the Safari Club.
One drives over from Nanyuki through a pleasant, rolling green landscape, perhaps seeing a few giraffe or buck or other plains game along the way, and enters grounds that have a carefully tended look. Then, suddenly, there it is, a lovely apparition in white: a splendid big central manor house, looking somewhat like one of the stately homes of England transplanted from Kent or Sussex, with a long additional wing of rooms at one end and, starting near the other, a line of 12 large white "cottages." They all face out over a lawn of perhaps 30 acres, which slopes away to a swift little river; beyond this rises the great flank of Mount Kenya, heavily forested with acacia and bamboo, and then, soaring from this green bulk like a single jagged tooth, the mountain's peak, with its glaciers and snowfields glittering in the sun.
In front of the manor house is a big, kidney-shaped swimming pool. It is built into the side of the sloping lawn and hence is partly above ground—and here are a beauty salon, a Turkish bath and a cozy bar. In another area is a series of water-filled terraces: trout-breeding ponds so designed that the fingerlings in the uppermost pond proceed by orderly stages to become the plump two-pounders that lie waiting in the river. There are natural ponds on the grounds also, their banks landscaped with ornamental shrubs, and in one is an island with eucalyptus trees in which lives a colony of monkeys. There are formal gardens, too, where peacocks strut and spread their fans. Entering the main building, one encounters spacious public rooms including a central bar, and here, at any rate, one finds things reminiscent of Africa: painted war shields, silky black-and-white colobus monkey skins, pillars sheathed in matched zebra. Against the white walls all this vivid decoration is a bit dazzling. But the effect is sumptuous, too, and the same air of damn-the-expense is maintained in the row of cottages, each a family-size dwelling with bedrooms, a big living room (the front wall of sliding glass panels, for the view of the mountain) and a bathroom with a tiled sunken bathtub big enough to float a hippo.
In all this sybaritic profusion only one element is missing: people. To be sure, one catches sight of a human form now and again: a pretty blonde girl sunning by the pool, a woman and her small son inspecting the rose garden, two young men in white who appear on the lawn and practice cricket. At cocktail time ("sundowner" time here), when there is a general movement toward the bar, one discovers that there are perhaps a dozen or more people in residence, mostly Americans or British.
At this hour, too, the bar attracts Kenyans from Nanyuki and the nearby farms, and a rather festive air develops. If, by chance, a hunting party has rolled in that day from the game lands there will be a good deal of drinking and jollity and comparing of notes on game conditions and swapping of stories. But the club has housing for at least 60 people, and the staff to serve them-Europeans (a term that in Africa includes all whites) in the office, behind the bar and in the kitchen and numerous barefoot African "boys" gliding about in white burnooses and red fezzes. If the crowd is small, the sensation becomes somewhat eerie. One wonders, where is everybody? Where are the members?
In particular, where are the several dozen charter members, whose glamorous names are listed on the club's letterhead? One looks around hopefully for Sir Winston Churchill. And for Jack Dempsey, Liz Whitney, House Speaker John McCormack, Joan Crawford, Henry J. Kaiser Sr., Bobo Rockefeller and the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. They sound like a fun group.
Actually, there are a number of possibilities as to where they could be. At any given time during the safari seasons (mid-December through March, and mid-June through October, coinciding with the dry weather) a member might be off on any kind of safari—shooting, fishing, photographic, bird-and game-watching—in a radius of anywhere from a few to several hundred miles. If, for instance, his mood of the moment is for deep-sea fishing, he would be 300 air miles east on the Indian Ocean at Kalifi. This partially owned affiliate, known as the Mnarani Club, measures up to the Safari Club's standards of comfort, with its fleet of powerful eight-passenger Striker boats, luxurious living quarters ashore and, of course, a swimming pool. If instead he feels like a go at those legendary African freshwater giants, the Nile perch, he would be in the Northern Frontier District at Lake Rudolf, where the club has an interest in an existing fishing camp and is building an elaborate one of its own. Either place is a few hours away in one of the club's two airplanes. If he has come to Kenya for a full-scale shooting expedition with a full bag of trophies to show for it, the kind of venture that requires a month or two of traveling in the game areas in pursuit of the wily bongo, the suitable lion and the right pair of tusks, he could be at any quarter of the compass—dropping in at the club at intervals, using it as his forward base, a place to soak his tired muscles in a hot bath and replenish his strength with the delicacies produced by the master hand of the club's Viennese chef. Or if his time is limited he might be on the sort of trip for which the club's press representative has coined the evocative term "instant safari."
One handy locale for instant safari is the mountain: the slopes that rise across the river are a game reserve. The animals are protected, of course, but are fine subjects for those who enjoy game watching or photography. The lower regions are negotiable by the club's photographic-safari car, which is equipped with its own small darkroom, and by following foot trails one can get almost all the way to the summit—though this is nothing to undertake without a guide, an elephant gun and stamina.