WE'D PAUSED ATOP a high crest between Kenya and Tanzania, at one of the cement cairns that mark the border. We were en route to the dirt airstrip where I was to catch my flight out of the Masai Mara. Up here, at this barely visible border point, Wilson — dear Wilson Mpatiany, bosom buddy and guide extraordinaire — could get a few bars of cell service to check in with his family. The eagle-eyed Salaash, meanwhile, stood tall in the back seat of our topless Land Cruiser, a vehicle specifically adapted to permit the widest, IMAX full-surround experience on game drives. We’d watch the chalky charcoal elephants on a distant slope, looking for big cats, exotic sightings, danger, and dazzle while I took pictures.
We had dawdled too long, too indulgently, as it turned out, Wilson receiving a panicked phone call from a colleague at the airstrip while we were still a good 10 minutes out. His fellow guide was parked at the dirt landing track, wondering where we were as he watched our plane land. At once flooring the gas pedal and raising his finger to point at the whining Cessna, no more than an insect in the sky ahead of us, Wilson said, “Oh boy,” and proceeded to push the Land Cruiser to the red line, skidding and bouncing across the packed dust track.
Grabbing the roll bar above me, I turned to look back at Salaash, hoping to find a bemused smile, a shake of the head, some wizened expression of annoyance or here-we-go-again sort of aplomb. Instead, what I saw in his face did nothing to comfort me. Quite the opposite. And then, as Wilson began to lose control of the vehicle, time sort of slowed to an ooze. Reality itself seemed thick, tangible somehow — and every action seemed to me almost inevitable, predictable, as if I were in a dream or experiencing déjà vu.
As you do in these sorts of moments, I zoomed all the way out of my body, out of the truck, up into some observation post from where, out of habit, occupation, or as a defense mechanism, I started writing the story of the moment — started writing this story.
I had come to Kenya, to this very part of the Masai Mara, in fact, to retrace the footsteps taken by the late photographer, playboy, and wildlife activist Peter Beard, about whom I was writing a biography. On a fateful afternoon in September 1996, while walking a field here, Beard had been attacked by a new-mother elephant, not much more than an adolescent herself. She had taken particular umbrage with what she perceived as Beard’s pestering of her and her baby calf. At the time, Beard was quite well-known in the art and fashion worlds for his enthusiastic (if somewhat outlandish and controversial) ideas about how to protect this landscape, and especially the elephants within it. Under the feet and crushing forehead of his assailant, wriggling and sliding around to evade her thumping blows for nearly five minutes, Beard suffered a crushed pelvis and several broken bones. One strike of the elephant’s tusk had gone clean through Beard’s left thigh, and by the time Beard’s companion, a third-generation safari guide named Calvin Cottar, could scare off the marauding animal with his own Land Cruiser, Beard was very near death.
On that day in 1996, Cottar had loaded Beard into the back of his Land Cruiser and radioed ahead to the very same strip where I was now headed, arranging for an emergency plane that would ferry Beard to the hospital in Nairobi. Not an easy drive. And as Beard bled out (by the time he reached the ER in Nairobi, he had no pulse), he still found time to make jokes, to muse on the point of pain, of life, and the ways his reputation would change. The famous elephant man, whose embrace of these animals became something of a crusade in the art world, would soon acquire a kind of ironic asterisk. He would become almost as well known for being trampled by an elephant as for his activism on their behalf, maybe more so.
From my observation perch, somewhere out ahead of myself and the Land Cruiser — anticipating everything as it happened in what felt like both space and time — I watched as our back wheels lost traction and spun off the track. And I watched as Wilson then oversteered in compensation, whirling us toward a ditch on the other side of the road. I was well out in front of my own experience, leaving the body, the car, and Kenya, screaming, “Oh god! Oh god!” I had no Peter Beard–like chill. Though, I was somehow also weirdly calm in the knowledge that I wasn’t there anymore, halfway bemused by the irony of coming all this way to have an experience that mirrored the one I was researching. My knuckles might’ve been white as they gripped the roll bars, as we started to pitch over, but my self — the seat of my soul or my experience or whatever it might be — had hit the ejector seat, and I was somewhere else. Not far, but a safe distance away as the Land Cruiser slid into the ditch and started to roll at 60 miles per hour.
In the days leading up to that eventful car ride, I had spent an incredible and fruitful time with Cottar and his crew at his family’s 1920s-style tent camp on the edge of the Mara overlooking Tanzania. We had walked in his and Peter’s footsteps, recreating the fateful day in 1996 so that I might infer what I could about Peter from the experience. I also took bubble baths, ate like a king, saw a pride of lions, walked among elephants, and watched, from about 20 paces, as a leopard and her two cubs had a leisurely breakfast of antelope.
This was April 2021, in what to me still felt like the deepest, darkest part of the pandemic in New York. After barely leaving my studio apartment in Manhattan for more than a year, I had flown halfway around the world. As such, during my days and bubble baths at Cottar’s camp, staring out on the most unbelievably gobsmacking vistas (and interacting with legendary creatures out of Disney’s wildest dreams), I spent a lot of time thinking about why it is that we travel. And about the aesthetic experience we seek, or seek to re-create. What our experiential appetite looks like, what stimulates it, and the ways in which we approximate satisfaction in that arena.
Why, for example, I asked Cottar, does safari occupy such a powerful place in our psyche? Is there something retrograde about wanting to wear linen and ride a Rolls Royce through the bush on the lookout for lions, before laying out a silver and china picnic? And where does that even come from?
To this, Cottar said, “Well, obviously, ‘Out of Africa.’” The Sydney Pollack movie brought to the screen Karen Blixen’s romantic memoir about her time in Kenya between the wars. It also illustrated much of what appealed to Peter Beard about this place, this world, this lifestyle. And Peter had actually sought out Blixen shortly before her death — at a time when she was famously refusing an audience with movie stars and dignitaries from all over the world. But she had seen Peter, more than once, he believed, because he reminded her a bit of her great love Denys Finch Hatton, brought to life so vividly by Robert Redford in the film. For Peter, as for Finch Hatton and for Blixen, this part of East Africa was a kind of oasis, a place where they believed they were utterly free to be the people they wanted to be. For Peter, at least, there was something a bit retro about this — a nostalgia for the great-white-hunter fantasies he’d read about in pulp novels and Teddy Roosevelt stories as a kid, an embrace of the grand colonial notion that here, in this place where man was born, he might be able to re-wild himself. To unlearn all of his so-called civilized notions about how to live. And to return to something more primal — what he liked to call “wild-deer-ness.”
And so I spent a lot of sudsy time thinking about this too in the copper tub Cottar’s crew had set up for me on the porch of my luxury tent. It occurred to me that Kenya, specifically, and the rift valley more broadly, where humankind was living three million years ago, feels like home in ways that New York and Los Angeles, or wherever, cannot. It seems somehow tailored to our particular dimensions, and aptly suited to our reaches, physical and otherwise. And maybe it is this sense of safari as an approximation of our original lives, of our native activities and abilities, that appeals so deeply to us. I thought of all the exercises we do at home, in the gym or on a rubber track around an artificial grass field — all the exercises I had been missing for a year in near-catatonic lockdown — and figured them to be so obviously pale reenactments. All of that running and jumping rope, hoisting molded iron shapes around, seemed to me now just a distant echo of our efforts to survive, eat, create shelter, and protect one another here all of those millennia ago.
Perhaps I was floating in a bit of this freshman philosophy on the way to the airport, thus primed to accept, at a remove, whatever was to be the fate of the puny, fragile body I inhabit, whatever spark of recognition with which my physical cargo recognizes itself as a self; and so I just let go. To the point that it felt as if I almost went to sleep. With enough adrenaline pumping through my veins to lift a car or attempt to outrun a lion, I was something like drowsy and utterly content with whatever outcome our slipping and sliding Land Cruiser brought about.
While I was in my head or off on whatever cloud, the Land Cruiser slid diagonally into the ditch, pitched as if to roll, whacked its back right wheel against the bottom of the ditch and somehow righted itself, fishtailing first one way and then the other, before finally sliding to a swirling dervish of a stop, safe and sound, no harm done but for my reveries. By the time we were finally able to get back on the track — to speed the rest of our way to the airstrip, to board what turned out to be the very last plane out of the Masai Mara before domestic lockdowns in Kenya shut down all travel for many months to come — I had reentered the mundane reality of life (being annoyed at the drunkenness of my fellow fliers, for one) with a bit of a shock. I had come down from the mountaintop or back from the spear tip of experience for this? To be once again bored and annoyed and physically uncomfortable and tired?
The next leg of the trip was to Shela, a village on the island of Lamu in the Indian Ocean, to visit Beard’s longtime compatriot, estate manager, and drinking buddy. It brought me back further still from the reptilian brain fight-or-flight mindset on safari, out of the sudsy philosophizing I’d done in camp, and back within reach of the real world with all of its complications throughout the early part of 2021. Upon landing in Lamu, for example, I learned that travel was shut down — and, subsequently, that political posturing between the Global North, where wealthy countries were hoarding vaccines, and the Global South, where they were less readily available, was adding a layer of complexity to all movement about the planet — and so I was stuck in paradise. And as I sat at the lone hotel bar in town, while panicked foreigners around me begged and bought seats aboard private jets for the cost of a new car, I sort of luxuriated in the Rick Blaine-y exile-in-Eden feeling. I wandered the magical dusty streets with the donkeys, taking pictures, writing about Beard, and writing about whatever it was that had happened to me, or not, in leaving the bush.
Looking back, I thought about luck, how we interpret it good or bad, the way we tell ourselves stories about what has happened, and how we shape our own memories. And so I thought about the little Cessna leaving the Mara, about my still-fizzing nerves as I sat looking out of the window, as it climbed and banked and my stomach went right up into my brain. About how I looked down on the spotted plains of the Mara — the desert date trees freckling the landscape that are the source of the name Mara, “spotted” in Swahili and Ma — thinking about why I had come all this way. If nothing else, I thought, my little scare in the car ride, that pale little peek into the sublime stratosphere of experience, had given me a better sense of why Peter Beard had chased that feeling throughout his life; why he continually walked so close to the edge of the abyss, thrumming the chord of survival; why that feeling could become so addictive, so necessary even. But, god, I thought, I am glad I am not that adventurous.
Header image: Looking south, toward Tanzania, from Wallace’s bubble bath reverie on a tented porch at Cottar’s 1920s camp.
Chris Wallace Writer
Chris Wallace is a writer, photographer, and editor based in New York. His forthcoming biography of the late photographer Peter Beard will be published by Ecco Press.