Yellowing Africa Memories And Shades Of Dark Safaris


There are the experiences we had, and the ones we think we had: so many versions of the ‘truth’. And much like conscious memory, the Kodak negative from which this image comes, is much degraded; the colours distorted. I’ve had to do some de-saturating to reduce the negative’s livid cast. Not very successful, but the result, I think, is all my own  ‘Out-of-Africa-nostalgia’ effect.

Naturally my writer-self loves the romance of this and related yarns of the old safari era. And yet these are not the real story. They never were. That’s one of the problems with nostalgia, particularly the Anglo-African variety. It’s usually a longing for something that never was. It was the kind of longing that brought British settlers of the gentry class out to East Africa in the first place. Anything would grow there, they said. Fortunes would be made. And until the predicted riches rolled in – from ostrich feather farming, flax, wheat, coffee and tea –  the hunting potential for the sporting man (and sometimes woman) was limitless – herds of wild game from sky to sky, and a country full of cheap household servants and farm labourers. And all so handily available just when home supplies of both (animal and human) were on the wane.

Here’s a poster of the time, pre-1920, summing things up. The similarity to a Punch Magazine cartoon was apparently deliberate.

Uganda Railway and aristratic game resort

As railway advertisements go, this one truly takes the biscuit, and on so many fronts. Please note the very small print towards the bottom: ‘Arrival of the first Cook’s excursion and the result of carefully preserving the big game’. Also I’m not sure what the bipedal beast behind the train is meant to be. It looks like a bear to me. Perhaps he came with the aristocrats, captured on one of their North American shooting expeditions – also popular at the time.

So: elite settlerdom in East Africa seemed a fine idea. And as long as the European lower classes were kept out, the incomer Indian labourers and traders kept in their place (these mostly the survivors of the 18,000 ‘coolies’ imported  from India in 1896 to build the Mombasa-Uganda Railway), and the local Africans did the field work for minimal pay while their own traditional hunting practices were outlawed, then, by Jove and St. George, it would be paradise on earth. The British East Africa Protectorate (Kenya Colony after 1920) was, and forever would be, a dedicated White Man’s Country. A lordly sporting estate writ large. The happy hunting ground of new white landowners who believed that only they, gentlemen (and under certain circumstances, gentlewomen) had the god-given right to hunt. All the game was theirs.

Uganda railway poster

But hang on a minute. In this safari story the real protagonists are invisible, or overlooked, deliberately excluded; these, the many African hunters and expert trackers who facilitated the pursuits of their white overlords on the imperial safaris of the early 20th century; they who risked arrest for the crime of poaching if they dared to hunt for their own pot as their people had done for countless generations before the British invaded.

It is not for nothing that the settlers referred to their African workers as boys, reducing them to beings of little or no account. From such aristocratic notions of superiority and entitlement – a mind-set that persisted among many until Independence in 1963 – does the modern state of Kenya derive. In some ways little has changed. Ever since Uhuru, the post-colonial rulers (and with a similar sense of dynastic entitlement) have been intent on commandeering all resources for themselves, and ignoring the needs of those they rule.


But back to the aging photo of magnificent beisa oryx. It  was taken nearly 20 years ago. The Farrells were, in the manner of Kenya’s  well-honed, post-colonial tourism model,  ‘on safari’; flown in a twenty-seater plane – out of Nairobi and into Lewa, winging left at Mount Kenya.  Touching down on the airstrip cut from bush you could spot elephant and the strangely foreshortened view of Mount Kenya’s summit.

Scan-130608-0028 - Copy

Our destination was a small tented camp in Laikipia, northern Kenya, a three night sojourn out in the wilds. I should say at once that when we stayed at the Lewa Downs safari camp it had not accrued the expensive, life-style look it has now, nor the uber-nouveau-colonial glamour of Lewa House and its secluded guest cottages. (Prince William apparently proposed to Kate Middleton while staying there as a family guest). In our day we had a big green tent, one of a dozen. There was a small shower room and WC attached, and the whole lot camouflaged by a thatched canopy. When the flaps were back we could lie in our bunks and gaze at miles and miles of Africa  and inhale the sweet aromatic scent of thorn brush. The accommodation was simple and functional although we naturally thought a tent with its own clean, running water and a flush loo was a great luxury. But then as many travellers in Africa before us, and in pursuit of our own pleasure, we chose to ignore any moral issue associated with this provision. The camp was otherwise low-key, mostly set up to attract birding photographers, and one of several similar small camps run by the East African Ornithological Society.



The camp we stayed in occupied a small corner of the Lewa Downs estate, once a colonial cattle ranch staked out from former Maasai grazing territory in 1922 under the British government’s post-war Soldier Settlement Scheme. The colonial administration’s plan at that time was to double the colony’s European population. Meanwhile the Africans’ side of the story was as follows. All Kenya’s indigenous peoples had to live on their allotted tribal reserves unless they were working for Europeans. They could not acquire land outside the reserves. All men over the age of sixteen had to wear the kipande pass book containing their work record. All Africans paid poll and hut taxes, which had just then been increased to recoup costs from the European war effort. Taxation also had the aim of impelling Africans into the labour market. Africans who had served in the Great War were not eligible for the new settlement land (10,000 soldiers, 195,000 porters of whom 50,000 had perished).

For Europeans, however, that it is to say for ‘men of the officer class’, there was on offer by lottery or at cheap rates, large blocks of land in the fertile Central Highlands and the Laikipia Plateau below Mount Kenya. Officials apparently believed that such men, newly returned to civilian life and most with little or no practical farming experience, would in an untried African environment,  produce export quantities of cash crops. This trade in turn would fund the upkeep of 600 miles of now largely purposeless, but very expensive Mombasa-Uganda railway that the colonial administration had built between 1896 and 1901. (Also known as the Lunatic Line).

The railway’s original purpose was to provide access to land-locked Uganda, then believed to be the future source of vast natural resources. There were strategic reasons too. In the last decades of the 19th century, during the big European land grab of Africa, relations with Germany had become increasingly scratchy, and especially over possession of Uganda. British paranoia raised the spectre of the Germans sabotaging the source of the Nile at Jinja in Uganda, thereby scuppering Britain’s major shipping lanes in the faraway Suez Canal which relied on Nile water. Once thought of, only a railway would serve to bring troops swiftly to the scene to defend the vulnerable head waters.

Africa 1914 (St. Francis High School website)


Twenty years later, these functions unrealised or redundant, only large-scale European settlement would make the best of a bad job. Along with this ‘House that Jack Built’ mode of thinking was the idea that veteran officers, used to handling men, would be well fixed to manage and ‘civilise’ (i.e. instil discipline in) African labourers, this despite knowing nothing of their employees’ traditions or way of life or their language. Also if things went wrong at some future time, an uprising for instance, the officer chaps would usefully know how to handle a gun and not be afraid to use it.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that it sounds like a very bad joke with a dollop of Wodehouse daftness thrown in. But this is how the British Empire did things in East Africa. They were not prepared to invest in indigenous Africans, but they were prepared to take a punt on the ‘right sort’ of Europeans of whose farming prowess they knew not one single thing.


Roll forward 96 years…

Today Lewa Downs is still owned by descendants of the Craig/Douglas families who began the ranch. But now, and in cooperation with local indigenous communities, and the Kenya government, the owners use their 62,000 acres not for farming, but to protect threatened wildlife. Among their wards are populations of black and white rhinos whose territory is watched over around the clock by vigilant rangers, and whose horns are defended from poachers by armed Kenya Police Reservists.

lewa a

It is an award-winning, avowedly non-profit-making enterprise that has set out to demonstrate that up-scale tourism can serve both wild life conservation and local community development. Other funding comes from donation and sponsorship, and a big proportion of the total income is spent on community projects including clinics, education,  water management schemes, and low-interest loans to kick-start women’s small businesses.

Anyone who stays at Lewa Conservancy can be guaranteed unforgettable experiences – the full-on African wilderness, magnificent game viewing in breath-taking country, the chance to see how some of the tourist dollars are being spent. There are bush breakfasts, night game drives, camel riding, and star bathing. It would seem to be the 21st century eco-socio-sensitive take on the self-serving champagne safaris  of the 1920s and ‘30s when white hunters – John Hunter, Bror Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton et al – ran commercial shooting expeditions for the elite of Europe, India and America.

And while the trophies these days are photos and memories, and not elephants’ feet, tusks and antelope heads, and while the safari guests’ presence may help to fund laudable causes, and not the free-booting life-styles of maverick aristocrats and misfit adventurers, still the packaging of today’s safaridom evokes something of the old elitist romance. If we don’t watch out it clings like a parasitic infection and blinds us to the many ironies.

But have a look for yourself at what the Lewa Conservancy is doing for people and wildlife. The model is not without its critics. Other settler descendants have pointed out that big landowners who stayed on in Kenya after Independence have been increasingly under pressure to start sharing their acres if they were not seen to be doing something very useful with them. The Craigs and their management team seem to have come up with quite a solution. The safari story continues…

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell




51 thoughts on “Yellowing Africa Memories And Shades Of Dark Safaris

  1. I enjoyed reading your post on a very sad chapter of colonialism in Africa. I learned that the indigenous people of Africa did not fare any better than the aboriginal people in the Americas. I like the way you defined nostalgia as a false memory of a reality that never was. A well written and informative post!

  2. A post to absorb Tish. I must read this again. I love that old railway poster though and the notice “… the big game are to be carefully preserved. By Order” Oh, if only they had been. You have to weep when you look back at colonialism. And not just in Africa. Thank you for taking my mind off the gruesome weather here today.

    1. Thanks, Sue. I find myself both fascinated and infuriated. So much of it was just plain bonkers, and it left many unresolved matters, particularly re land ownership. One bizarre thing I picked up somewhere was that the 1952 State of Emergency instigated by the Brits in the so-called Mau Mau years has never been rescinded. A nasty piece of official carte blanche to be left standing.

  3. A very poignant reminder of the colonial attitudes and how the continent was carved up. Who were the real sh….holes? Really interesting to read and certainly worth reading again and the posters are real signposts to an inglorious past of exploitation and destruction.

  4. Ah, yes. Whiteys trying to make good after Whiteys made bad.

    Even Viagra hasn’t helped the poor rhino. What will the Chinese and Vietnamese do when they run out of horn?

    No rhino horn, no Chinese or other assorted Asian erections?
    Ah, well, one way to curtail the population, bless ’em.

  5. Very interesting and nothing new under the sun. Man has been taking over man since time began. We may never know our real history until we get to the other side.
    On a lighter note..One of my favorite movies is Out of Africa. Probably because it came out about the same time we lost out on our own farming adventure .

  6. I don’t have first hand experience of Africa, Tish, and it’s so hard to understand how these attitudes and ‘God given right’ to superiority came about. To me what LEWA is doing is absolutely the right thing yet I sense critisism? We can’t turn back the clock so it’s a case of finding a model that works. You’re suggesting an element of elitism in the current arrangements and, of course, it’s only some who can afford a holiday like this, but what would you put in its place? I enjoyed reading your thoughts. 🙂 🙂

    1. That is a very good question – what would one have it its place? Of course most of this kind of work would be happening if it weren’t for private initiatives since the Kenyan Government does not do that kind of work unless a donor is paying for it. But one problem with Lewa apparently is it is now so high profile, the small indigenous eco-camps seem to be struggling to get a look in when it comes to attracting clients. They can’t offer the comforts or perhaps give visitors the sense of security and cache that the European operations can. It will be interesting to see how Lewa continues over the next decade.

      1. I hadn’t thought of that. At least the money seems to be going to a good cause and also educating African youth but noone anywhere seems to have all the answers for the mess we’ve gotten ourselves in, by one means or another. I do find the sight of armed guards a little disturbing- a private army!- even though I recognise their purpose. Good luck to our youngsters, Tish. They’re going to need it.

  7. Tish, I’m keeping this to re-read in more depth when I have the time, but it really illustrates that POV is important to consider when reading, both history and present! A very similar story could (and has been) written about India as well as other places with other countries. Fascinating and all too often merely read for the story and not for “learning from.”


    1. You are very right about the POV angle, Janet – in all history come to think of it. So many people tend get completely missed out. It’s good that more recent historians have concentrated on ‘ordinary’ people history.

  8. Fascinating, as always, Tish. I understand the thought of elitist tourism. It often puts us, as they say, between a rock and a hard place. The tourist dollar supports the economy and many private/public initiatives. At the same time, it provides a lifestyle most locals can’t afford. I particularly felt this when I went to Cuba last January. I did feel a bit of a colonial. And the same in India and to some extent in Sri Lanka. Strangely enough, all places that had been European colonies. I do wonder, though, why LEWA is considered a European operation. Hasn’t the family been there for a long time? I wonder if one camp operation, and it sounds like it must be an expensive stay, can impact the success of the wide variety of camp types/costs?

    1. Thank you for all those thoughts, Marie. There are so many issues that impact on Kenyan tourism, most of which is of the mass-tourism variety. Security/bad international press coverage are the biggest. The racial divide in Kenya in the terms that are used there – African, Asian, European – even if the people concerned are Kenyan citizens – seems to be another left-over from colonial times. The Brits did an efficient job of promoting tribalism of whatever ethnicity. It was part of the divide and rule policy, and still has impact today. But there is a problem for the European-Kenyan big landowners who stayed on after Independence. Some are the descendants of the original settler aristocrats, and still have their British titles, which inevitably keeps the colonial connection going in people’s minds. The fact that have such landholdings at all unavoidably suggests colonial origins. Their lands are highly desirable because of where they are, and there is increasing hunger for land among the majority who are rural poor. Access to water sources is a growing issue too. In other words, there’s an awful lot going on under the surface of the high-end tourist destinations of which Lewa is only one. But you can’t fault them for trying to give visitors the best holiday experience. By making it exclusive, they are attempting to limit visitor impact on the environment, something that has become a problem in places like the Maasai Mara with all the tour trucks. Tourism is of course one of Kenya’s biggest earners. It employs a great number of people, and they do it very well and are ever welcoming, whatever scale of hospitality they are providing.

      1. Namibia is a very interesting country. I liked the way its first president Sam Nujoma (1990-2005) imposed English as the national language (over predominant Afrikaans and German) so everyone would have an equal struggle to master it. Namibia, though, has the very darkest of colonial histories. A few years ago the German ambassador did a public apology for what they did there.

  9. What an interesting and thought provoking post Tish. I think we do tend to romanticize our past, glossing over the bad times. You take us from the bad times of colonialism to modern day trying to right some of the wrongs. Lewa seems to be a good model but I notice that you mentioned in a reply to Jo that it is also creating a different set of problems. What an amazing time you must’ve spent in Africa. How long were you there? In Australia the Aboriginals were not considered human by the early settlers, but looked on as animals and hunted almost to extinction in some parts. That video was a very well presented promotion of the Lewa story with stunning views of wildlife and the African scenery. I look forward to the continuation of the safari…

    1. We were in Kenya 7 years and 1 year in Zambia. And before that Graham spent 2 years in Tanzania. The Kenya tourism industry has done a good job repackaging the safari model for the mass market. But it does have an impact on the National Parks – on the terrain, wild life etc., and of course on the over -all visitor experience e.g. watching wildlife with 20 or 30 tour trucks, their occupants intent on getting the best photos. The private reserves thus have a lot going for them in that they can maintain wildlife habitats, and by making the tourist bit expensive, keep visitor numbers small. Many urban Kenyans of course never see any wildlife. The parks are too expensive and you need a vehicle.

      1. I think it must be the same story in many parts of the world now that tourism is big business. The idea of wilderness and the experience of you and nature is marketed as unique. But in fact it is tightly controlled in many of the “unique” sights. With the tourists in convoys of buses. Of course there are still many places to discover on your own but not the iconic places ie Uluru

      2. I agree with all your points, Pauline. The tourist’s experience is managed like a performance – but then both tourists and locals need to be safe. One of our weirdest experiences of this was in the Maldives. We were boated out to an unpopulated island, where we stayed in great ‘desert island’ luxury. All the staff were male, because they wished to protect their womenfolk from foreign influences/predation – which is perfectly fair enough. We could go on a boat trip into the capital, but we foreigners all had to leave at sundown. I admired the way the Maldivians had fixed this up, to stop us polluting the place too much, but we went away with little sense of being anywhere real. They’d got us all taped though.

      3. The “tourist” experience is often rather sterile and takes away the atmosphere of a place and meeting locals. I must admit I prefer to travel independently but as I get older the organised tour group has its advantages

      4. Yes and doesn’t it help to be part of the WP community getting first hand information and photos of all the wonderful places in the world.

  10. Oh how I would love to visit Lewa Conservancy! Maybe, just maybe when we are in South Africa – not too far from there. Fascinating post. Stunning photos and entertaining railway posters.

  11. hindsight bonkerism for sure but for its time as mad as the military who promoted by class and not talent and hence the need sometimes for officers to be shot in the back! All very sad – the whole game hunt of which Hemingway was so fond and the removals of peoples from their own lands. Your negatives though are very positive! You and Mr F were trailblazers for the Royal engagment moons!

    1. Now you mention it I suppose there was some ‘natural selection’ at work in the WW1 officers who survived to go to Kenya and elsewhere – in that they hadn’t been shot in the back. Some, so local legends go, shot themselves when their African farms got the better of them, conditions just too capricious to make the dreamed of fortunes – drought, storm, locusts, rusts, army worm etc etc. You know about the pests!

      1. Kipling has a tale of 4 DCOs who meet once a year from their distant districts to play cards – when they arrive at the home of one of them he has committed suicide – we are left feeling any of them could be next and their meetings serve as head count

  12. The Australian aboriginal people have had similar experiences. Even today Uluru is set up for international travellers with lots of cash. There is some bush camping but most of the accommodation is luxurious. Many of the traditional landowners live some distance away in a very impoverished settlement. The tourists never see this place or countless others like it across the Australian outback.

    1. You have pinpointed the area of my own concern. Tourism is such a hard thing to manage with respect and consideration for indigenous citizens, and also between cultures who have very different ideas about land and ownership, and how the land is used or not used.

  13. Our colonial history is shameful Tish and I suspect that the majority are still unaware.Thank goodness for places like Lewa, which the average person cannot afford to visit, but at least the conservation work is happening.

    1. I think you’re right that most people don’t know about our colonial history, or the fact that it still affects the politics and lives of the countries we once ruled. We did not do good exit strategies. I think Lewa is doing a lot of good work. But what Kenya really needs is a change of government. The things learned at Lewa and in similar operations could then be part of a national programme. Inevitably though there will be ever more conflict between wildlife and ordinary people’s livelihoods. Elephants can destroy a small farm in half an hour. And they kill people. Likewise crocs and buffalo. It is not an easy situation – having your nation run as one big safari park for the benefit outsiders. With the exception of the city perimeter in Nairobi Park, none of the vast parks are fenced, and it is said that there is more wildlife outside them than in them.

  14. That conservancy has been on my “oh how I wish” radar since it opened. It’s not going to happen, of course, but it is a dream.

    All the local — ignored, forgotten, disrespected — local men who made European life in Africa possible remind me of all the forgotten Sherpas who schlepped and hauled for Mallory and everyone else who “assaulted” Everest. And around here, all the Native guides who had no names, long forgotten by all by their own people. The white way kind of sucks.

    Have you tried converting the pictures to black and white? Sometimes, that works better for me, especially when the picture is yellow.

    1. You’re so right about all the forgotten/ignored local expertise without which nothing much would have happened on Everest, or even with the first European settlement of America. Thanks also for the tip about B & W. I’ll have a go.

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