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Status anxiety

Taking on cattle raiders with a Macbook Pro

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

One of my reasons for coming to Kenya was to visit Tango Maus, the farm of Spectator ‘Wild life’ columnist Aidan Hartley. I’ve read so much about this mystical place —the skirmishes with the local elephant population, the troublesome livestock, the Gunga Din-like farm manager — that I was dying to see it. And having spent last weekend there, I’m happy to say it doesn’t disappoint.

First, there’s the drive. When Aidan describes the farm as ‘remote’ he’s not exaggerating. I don’t think I’ve ever travelled through more inhospitable terrain. The last part was the worst — a 100-mile crawl along a track that’s so threadbare it frequently disappears altogether. This is in the heart of the African bush, mind you, so at any moment you might be charged by a rhino or mauled by a lion.

To add to my anxiety, Aidan had gone on ahead in a different vehicle, leaving me with some cursory directions. He’d assured me the drive would take three hours at most and I’d set off after lunch with my wife and family, confident of arriving for an afternoon swim. Four and a half hours later, with the sun sinking below the horizon, I was beginning to panic. Had I gone wrong? There was no mobile phone reception so calling for help was out of the question. I just had to soldier on and hope we got there before dark.

In the end we made it, but that didn’t mean we were out of danger. Far from it. At about 10.30 p.m. that evening, in the middle of a very drunken meal, I heard two loud bangs in quick succession.

‘Is that gunshots?’ I asked.

Seconds later, the faithful farm manager appeared — out of breath from running — and told Aidan that some bandits were trying to steal his cows. They were armed with rifles and had already opened fire.

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‘It’s a cattle raid!’ said Aidan, staggering to his feet and trying to shake off the effects of the alcohol. ‘Let’s go.’

I thought he was talking to me — and I was eager to see the action close up — but when I rose to follow him he placed a restraining hand on my shoulder.

‘You’d better stay here,’ he muttered.

I protested, saying I was perfectly capable of looking after myself. But I’d got the wrong end of the stick.

‘It’s not you I’m worried about,’ he said. ‘It’s your family. You’ve got to stay here and protect them in case the bandits get into the compound.’

With that he was gone, leaving Caroline and me looking at each other across the table. We rushed over to the building where we were quartered with our four children and locked the door to their room. We then extinguished all the lights and locked ourselves in our room. I frantically looked around for weapons in case a bandit tried to come in through the window, but the best I could do was my aluminium Macbook Pro. We spent the next 15 minutes sitting in the dark, listening for intruders.

Luckily, when we did hear footsteps they belonged to our host. ‘We saw them off,’ said Aidan, eyes shining with exhilaration. He’d gone roaring up the hill in his Toyota Land Cruiser, headlights on full, and then driven in circles round the area where his cattle are kept looking for the raiders. ‘I was terrified they were going to take a shot at me, but they ran off,’ he said. ‘Let’s have another drink.’

I’d uncharitably thought that Aidan was exaggerating when he wrote about the perils of living out here on the frontier, but not a bit of it. It’s exactly like the Wild West, except instead of the Apache and Sioux, Aidan has to contend with the Samburu and Pokot. He’s like Big John in the High Chaparral.

The rest of the weekend was less eventful. We went for a long morning walk, taking in the enormity of Aidan’s 2,500 acres, and then he gave each of the children a driving lesson on the local airstrip, including four-year-old Charlie. More manly men than me might have objected to Aidan assuming the paternal role in this critical rite of passage, but I have long since resigned myself to being judged inferior to him by my children in almost every way.

As we embarked on the five-hour drive back to Gilgil, I felt more than a pang of jealousy about the life Aidan has built for himself out here. There aren’t many opportunities left in the modern world for men to exhibit old-fashioned masculine virtues, but seeing off gun-toting cattle raiders is surely one of them. Trying to protect your family with a laptop doesn’t come close.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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