East Africa’s best kept secret
For all of its silliness and excess, Roosevelt’s expedition kick-started the world’s love affair with safari and its seductive cocktail of luxury and danger. It inspired a generation of smooth-talking European aristocrats and grizzled American pioneers to look upon East Africa as a playground – a wilderness in which to set about importing the trappings of Western life.
One American inspired by Roosevelt was Charlie Cottar – an Iowan maverick who envisioned East Africa as a new Wild West, and decided to found his own safari service here in 1919. Cottar’s Safaris were among the first to bring photographic equipment to the bush, the first to bring cars on safari and the first to dredge these cars out of the sea when the ship carrying them sank off Mombasa.
Our plane dips below the clouds and grinds to a halt at an airstrip near Cottar’s Camp – a cluster of tents on the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where Charlie’s great-grandson runs what’s now Africa’s oldest safari business.
‘Some of those guys were nuts,’ says Calvin Cottar, gesturing at a portrait of his great-grandfather mounted on the canvas wall of the tent. ‘They’d do anything to collect scars.’
Calvin recounts stories of Charlie’s experiments in the early days of safari – from lassoing almost every beast in the bush, including a lion, to his colleagues forming a conga line in a bid to creep up on confused animals. The safari business has grown up somewhat in the years since, but the lavish traditions of Roosevelt’s era are preserved at Cottar’s Camp. Scattered about our tents are antiques: Persian rugs, pith helmets, four-poster beds, and gramophones that crackle and squeak to the accompaniment of the chirping crickets outside.
I flick through an old scrapbook and happen across an article by Charlie Cottar, bragging of his antics: ‘Three times I was mauled by leopards, stomped on by elephants, to say nothing of minor brushes with lesser species. If you keep on taking chances, sooner or later some wild thing will get you.’ Sure enough, Charlie Cottar was killed by a charging rhino close to this camp in 1940. Having managed to discharge a fatal gunshot before it hit him, Charlie and the rhino died side by side.
‘Africa had a dangerous animal behind every corner,’ Calvin tells me, watching clouds gathering on the horizon. ‘There’s something special about living at the edge of human existence. This is a place where you could walk off on your own in any direction and you’d be guaranteed to be shit-scared within half an hour.’
A little more than half an hour later, we are driving through the Cottar’s Concession – a stretch of crumpled green hills on the edge of the Maasai Mara, where lions, leopards and elephants roam freely.
The scent of wild mint hangs in the air as we pass dusky ravines where baboons swing from the fig trees, swerving past brilliant white bones stripped of flesh by vultures. Here, Mother Nature goes about her business on a blockbuster scale – insects built like tanks on wings buzz past and mammals leave dinosaur-size footprints in their wake. It is the same wild landscape early safari-goers would recognise.
‘There are some things you see here that you can’t explain,’ says my guide, Douglas Nagi – a man so accustomed to the bush he was once bitten by a poisonous snake and didn’t notice until days later. ‘One time I saw a leopard fighting a reticulated python for two hours for an antelope carcass. If I had put it on YouTube I’d be famous by now.’