Aidan Hartley

More than heaven

A great white hunter takes aim at a few sacred cows in contemporary Africa

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Mount Kenya, at altitude

Among my many defects is the inability ever to be satisfied. We have two children and I want more. I have 29 cattle and I want a lot more. I live in the most beautiful part of Kenya and I covet other people’s big ranches. I walk into other people’s houses and I think, ‘Hmm, I’d like this. I wonder how much it costs?’ I want, I want, I want. And when it comes to big boys’ toys I’m like Toad in Wind in the Willows.

My latest infatuation is a $2 million helicopter owned by Jim on the neighbouring private game reserve of Loisaba. Now, I’ve always loved choppers. I like Black Hawks, Hueys and especially Cobras and Apaches. But Jim’s machine is the ultimate in luxury. Bubble windows all over, even under your feet. Stereo. Fully loaded. Jim has done it up in go-faster stripes with flashes of yellow, red and purple. It also has strobe lights on the rotor blades. The other day Jim and I were drinking a cocktail he mixes called a ‘beauty’ (five parts vodka, one part something else) and I asked him if the strobes flash even during the day. ‘Uhuh,’ said Jim, who’s American. ‘Sucker lights up like a Christmas tree.’

Yesterday Humphrey, the Loisaba pilot, asked me if I wanted a ride in Jim’s helicopter. People call Humphrey the ‘male Mary Poppins’ because of the trips he can take you on. ‘Yeurr!’ I said. This morning he landed on the front lawn. I jumped in and we were off. Humphrey is ex-British army and he does stuff that is pretty scary. He can fly vertically until the machine nearly stalls, then flip to one side and fall towards the earth like a sycamore seed in the wind until the blades kick in at the last moment. Once he’d done it, all I wanted was for him to do it again. With music playing through our earphones we headed for Mount Kenya, flying over herds of elephant, giraffe and zebra. As I surveyed the lands below, my breast heaved with envy at the beauty of it. The plains of Laikipia became thick forest as we climbed the mountain, dodging wisps of cloud. Forest became moorland, up, up, until we were slaloming between spires of rock, the clouds far below us. Humphrey took us around Mount Kenya’s peak so close that the ice off the glaciers was blinding in the sunlight. Then he said, ‘Do you want to catch a trout?’

Trout fishing, together with hunting, was one of the enticements that the architects of British East Africa used to attract settlers to the colony early last century. My father bought his first farm in 1936 mainly because it had two and a half miles of trout-stocked Amboni River flowing off the Aberdares. I was in the Aberdares two weeks ago, where I stalked tiddler brownies on crystal streams way above Dad’s old place. As I was casting, a bull elephant came down to drink and I feared coming face-to-face with buffalo among the giant heather. To me, this is fishing. I once poached on the Itchen and it was so boring, so tame, that it was among the few things I didn’t covet.

Humphrey put us down on one lake at about 9,000 feet. He produced all the fishing gear and before the rotor blades had even swung to a stop I was casting into the blue, cold water. We had no luck, so Humphrey said, ‘Shall we fly to another lake?’ Ten minutes later we were at 11,000 feet and, in this water, even from the air we could see some monsters rising. Within two casts Humphrey hooked up a very fine rainbow, a crimson cock fish, which we decided to kill and save for supper. It was four lbs. Of course I was simply chlorophyll green with jealousy. ‘How about another lake?’ said Humphrey. We climbed to 12,500 feet, spiralled into a hanging valley with a glacial lake fed by a waterfall and set about with giant lobelias, and landed on the pebbly beach. Within three casts I had a strike and brought in a rainbow that fought beautifully. It was just over a pound. ‘Yours is smaller than mine,’ said Humphrey. After a while I put down my rod and looked up at the buttressed cathedral of Kenya. A fish eagle circled in the sky. Wasn’t this enough? Could heaven be any better than this? But when Humphrey said the cloud was closing in and we’d have to leave or be forced to camp, the toad in me, the Gollum, felt I wanted to gather up the landscape and take it home with me. Back in the chopper on the flight back all I could think of was more, more, more.