POSTCARD FROM PARADISE; Stuck in Traffic? Maddened by Noise and Stress? for Five Weeks Max Hastings Lived a Million Miles from 'Civilisation' Deep in the African Bush. Here, in This Evocative and Magical Dispatch, He Provides a Tantalising Glimpse of a Simpler, More Spiritual World Modern Man Has Long Forgotten .

Daily Mail (London), March 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

POSTCARD FROM PARADISE; Stuck in Traffic? Maddened by Noise and Stress? for Five Weeks Max Hastings Lived a Million Miles from 'Civilisation' Deep in the African Bush. Here, in This Evocative and Magical Dispatch, He Provides a Tantalising Glimpse of a Simpler, More Spiritual World Modern Man Has Long Forgotten .


Byline: MAX HASTINGS

EACH morning began with the chiding chuckle of Henry the Hornbill, as we christened him, high in an acacia beside our room shortly after six. Soon afterwards, Henry fluttered down to perch on the window frame, and hammered fiercely on the glass.

He did not tap. Instead, addressing his own reflection, that bird's big, ugly beak banged so hard that we expected him to break through at any second and shooed him away.

The sharp, glittering early light is one of the greatest beauties of Africa, a revelation each time the sun rises beyond the hills.

Pulling on jeans and boots, we walked down to the stables - no more than a framework of rough timber supporting a sunshade of corrugated iron - led out the horses among the ducks bickering in the dust underfoot, and set off for two hours in the saddle which were among the most precious joys of the day.

The view of the bush seemed to stretch for an eternity. In reality, we were gazing perhaps 30 miles towards the low, blue mountains on the horizon.

As we breasted the hill that led up to the dirt airstrip, the zebra stirred, trotting idly to put a few yards between themselves and us. There were clusters of gazelle and oryx; the odd ostrich strutting pompously; a waterbuck.

Gazing from end to end of our vision amid the dusty yellow grass riffling in the breeze, we reckoned we could see at least 500, perhaps nearer 1,000, head of African plains game kicking dust within a mile of our horses, or silhouetted on the horizon.

On and on through them we rode, as the sun began to lift. 'Snake,' said Mutegi the syce, monosyllabically, abruptly jerking his reins sideways, and gesturing us to do likewise.

Most ranches pay a bounty for puffadders, which kill a lot of sheep because the poor woollies are too stupid to be frightened of them. Syce is the Indian word for a groom. Like so much else to do with empire, it travelled from the subcontinent to Kenya, and has stayed there.

Mutegi saw everything maybe 20 seconds before we did: snakes, impala, giraffe, elephants. How can one miss a dozen elephants? Amazingly easily, until, after seeing them out there week after week, our eyes, too, began to attune to the muted shades in which the bush hides even its outsize fauna from intruders.

And so home, to breakfast in heaven. I have loved Africa, and especially Kenya, for years. I have always nursed a dream of not merely holidaying there, but living the bush life for a while.

Because I am a writer, and writers can write anywhere, a day came when there seemed absolutely nothing to stop us fleeing from the rains and frosts of England's February, to pass five weeks writing a book in a farmhouse we rented on a cattle ranch high on the Laikipia Plateau, five hours by road from Nairobi - and an eternity from all the troubles of mankind.

The homestead is a cluster of thatched stone buildings set around a garden laid out to borders of exotic plants and shrubs, looking out upon a reed-fringed lake, with only the bush beyond. It was built by a Northern Irish army officer who bought the ranch on a whim half a century ago, and whose family have lived there ever since.

We fell in love with it at first sight. It is a perfect example of the British genius for creating an island of Britishness, full of the absurd bric-a-brac of a family home, in the heart of Africa.

There are elephant bones on the dining table and polo sticks in the sitting room, school photographs everywhere, forgotten novels and crates of vodka and a grand piano and dogs and old tennis rackets and - well, what more do you want to feel at home in Africa, for heaven's sake?

We settled into a routine that remained unbroken day after day: swim, ride, eat, work, eat, sleep, work, drive out to find animals, play tennis, drink before the blazing wood fire, eat, sleep. After a few weeks of this, we were more absurdly healthy and even fit than we have been for years. …

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POSTCARD FROM PARADISE; Stuck in Traffic? Maddened by Noise and Stress? for Five Weeks Max Hastings Lived a Million Miles from 'Civilisation' Deep in the African Bush. Here, in This Evocative and Magical Dispatch, He Provides a Tantalising Glimpse of a Simpler, More Spiritual World Modern Man Has Long Forgotten .
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