My Africa – “Born Free”

Fact:  I have Visited Africa Over 50 Times, but my First Trip Changed my Life   

Africa…. This wild and mysterious continent with its amazing creatures and bold explorers, such as Sir Richard Burton, Dr. David Livingstone, Paul Du Chaillu, and my personal favorite, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, has always enchanted me.  Seeing the incredible life-like dioramas by Carl Akeley in the African Hall of Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History sealed the deal.  I made up my mind after a second grade field trip that Africa was going to be part of my destiny.

My first trip was the longest, and a life changing experience.  I had just graduated Cornell in 1974 and right after a summer job at a New Jersey drive-through safari park I boarded a Pan Am plane to Nairobi via London in early September.  I was 22 years old, on my own, with about $1,500 in Traveler’s checks.  I had no plan and no place to stay in Nairobi.  I did however, have a letter of introduction to Joy Adamson the author of Born Free.  She lived just outside of Nairobi (more on that later).

After a day at the London Zoo, lunch with some friendly zookeepers and an overnight stay, I settled into my seat for the nine-hour flight to Kenya.  I recall looking out over the vast Sahara desert, then the green forests and blue lakes of East Africa, and noting those in the journal that I kept for the entire trip. I had no idea what was to happen next but my dream was coming true and I was trembling with anticipation.

Stepping onto the tarmac of Jomo Kenyatta Airport I was greeted by a smiling airport worker and a big “Jambo”, the Swahili word for hello.  I had taken a crash course in Swahili my last semester at Cornell so knew a little of the official language.  Turns out that most everyone spoke English after 68 years of colonial rule by the British, which ended with independence in 1963. 

Nairobi in 1974 was still a pretty safe city (as opposed to today) if you knew your way around.  Fortunately, my New York City upbringing instilled a “street smarts” that served me well.  After a few days in a small hotel someone told me that the YMCA, on the north end of the City was the best bargain for a long-term stay.  For $100 a month I got a double room, three meals a day, afternoon tea and free laundry service.  This was my home base for the next four months and where I made many new friends. 

My first order of business was to meet Joy Adamson and get her advice on working for a wildlife veterinarian.  I was invited to Ms. Adamson’s house in Lake Naivasha for lunch, about 65 miles northwest of Nairobi.  I was told that the local buses were the best and cheapest way to go.  Turns out it was cheap but not without its consequences.  This was my first introduction to Matatu’s, private minibuses that pick up anyone and anything until people are hanging out from all sides.  They also make frequent stops and pile luggage and livestock on the top of the bus.   I seemed to be a source of curiosity and amusement as I was the only white person on the bus. 

After a four-hour bus ride I finally arrived in the town of Lake Naivasha at noon.  When I asked at the local post office where Joy Adamson lived, I was told it was another 10 miles along a dirt road to the shores of the lake.  I attempted to hitch-hike but the cars were few and far between and no one wanted to pick up this mazungu (white person) dressed in a yellow polo shirt and blue bell-bottom pants.    Then a little African man on a bike stopped.  He motioned for me to get on the bike and pedal while he sat on the handlebars proudly displaying a gleaming white smile.

My new self-appointed navigator directed me to a turnoff where a small crowd of people and vehicles were congregated around another group of people with lights and cameras.  As I approached the crowd a lady in a safari outfit greeted me and politely asked what I was doing here.  “I am looking for Joy Adamson, do you know where she is”?   The lady gave me a strange look but replied that Ms. Adamson would be here this afternoon as she had a lunch appointment.   When I told her I was that lunch appointment and was terribly late her expression turned to pity as she realized just exactly how much trouble I was in for when the guest of honor arrived.

I had unwittingly popped in on the set of a BBC TV series about Joy and George Adamson, based on the book and movie, Born Free.   The lady that first spoke to me, Eva Montley, was one of the producers and introduced me to some of the people on the set including Gary Collins, the actor who played George Adamson.  She then gave me some very strategic advice…”when Joy Adamson arrives stay out of her sight and wait until I introduce you.”

So I waited on the sidelines practicing what I would say when I met the most famous lion lady of Africa.  When Joy did arrive she was greeted warmly by the entire movie set and then sat down to discuss the script with the directors and actors.   She was not what I expected, looking much older than the actress that played her in the Academy Award-winning film.  I also detected a heavy German accent.  She was actually Austrian and her given name was Friederike Viktoria Gessner.  She was given the nickname “Joy” by her first husband.

Finally, after about an hour I was waved over by Eva so she could introduce me.  When Joy found out I was the impetuous young man who stood her up, she immediately cut off my feeble apology in mid-sentence and walked away.  I was devastated, having screwed up my best chance to get her advice and recommendations for working with wildlife in Kenya.  Eva, having witnessed the brief interaction, turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, she’ll calm down and be back”.

Eva was right!  As the crew were breaking down the set and calling it a day Joy looked at me and motioned me over.   She was still speaking with Gary Collins, which helped to break the tension.  Both of them were very nice and listened to why I had come to Africa.  Joy quipped, “You must meet Dr. Paul Sayer, the veterinarian who saved my Elsa”.  

Elsa was an orphaned female lion cub that Joy bottled-raised and eventually reintroduced into the wild with the help of her husband George Adamson.  Turns out he was the wildlife expert but Joy was an excellent storyteller.  Her book about Elsa, “Born Free”, was published in 1960 and spent 13 weeks on top of the New York Times Best Seller List.

I found out later that Dr. Sayer was the senior professor at the Veterinary College in Kabete, a division of the University of Nairobi.  The University staff was on strike so classes were cancelled.  This created an opportunity for me to spend more time with him.  He was kind enough to allow me to tag along for five days each week as he treated animals, both domestic and wild, for the entire time I was in Nairobi.

Joy – we were now on a first name basis – had made this possible.  After our conversation she drove me back to Naivasha and wished me well.  I was able to get a ride back to Nairobi from some tourists who had rented a car but all I could think about was what an amazing roller coaster of a day I just had and imagining all that was to lie ahead.

Joy, Gary Collins and Me.

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