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Traveling In Style : Our Hearts Are In The Highlands

March 20, 1988|DAVID LAMB | Lamb, The Times' former Nairobi bureau chief, is author of "The Africans" and "The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage."

Coming back to Africa, arriving in the mist of early morning, the land was greener, vaster and even more beautiful than I had dared remember. I realized that I had embarked on a dangerous mission, for tracking the past can be an empty journey filled with the perils of discovering that some memories are best left undisturbed.

It was inevitable that I would return to Africa. Everyone whose heart remains there does. My wife, Sandy, and I had lived in Nairobi for four years in the 1970s, and in all the miles and places since then, hardly a week had slipped by without Sandy making some mention of Africa, as though life there had been lived on some special plateau that only a privileged few will ever know. One day in Kenya her love for Africa had jarred me. We were sitting in wicker chairs on our lawn. The evening was touched with chill and the freshly ground and brewed Kenyan coffee in our mugs tasted especially good. An autumn sunset full of orange fire reached across the horizon. The sky seemed close enough to touch.

"You know," she said, quietly with a sigh, "I could stay here forever ."

Africa does that to people. It speaks in urgent whispers that are at once demanding and pleading. It is as fragile as it is expansive--a maddening, unfathomable, wonderful place with valleys and plains that swallow the travelers under a canopy of stars and makes them feel that they have found the last true frontier of solitude and uncorrupted beauty on earth.

Our favorite hotel in Africa was the Norfolk, a grand place built in 1904 when Nairobi was little more than a railroad village. It was there that we headed for our first breakfast on this return trip. The patio was crowded, and I looked around for familiar faces but there were none. Still, the years had not deprived the Norfolk of any of its charm. I noted in my guidebook that the hotel was still favored by "safari clients and The Rich for atmosphere, character, excellent staff, comfort, congeniality." Amen.

Built around a courtyard with an aviary and gardens as exquisite as those of an English manor, the Norfolk feels as though it belongs in the era of Karen Blixen. It harks back to the unhurried days when no afternoon was complete without high tea, and when dinner was ended not at the table but on the veranda, where Cognac was served in flame-warmed snifters. Nairobi's growing skyline may now be dominated by the circular Hilton and other hotels that could as well be in Cincinnati, but it is still to the Norfolk that world travelers come when they want assurances that they are in Africa, not Ohio.

Teddy Roosevelt had set out with more than 100 porters on safari from the patio where I now sat. He had given each a pair of boots and, never having worn such things, the porters had tied the shoelaces together and worn the boots around their necks. Robert Ruark was a regular here, too, setting up shop in the Norfolk's dark, wood-paneled Lord Delamere bar while writing "Uhuru." Ernest Hemingway was another patron of the Delamere, though he preferred to stay at the New Stanley Hotel on Kimathi Street, a decision that may have indicated that Hemingway was a better connoisseur of tight prose than of gracious living.

Only a couple of miles from the Norfolk, up the hill and just past the National Museum, was the small stone house where Sandy and I had lived until 1980. Our sweeping front yard had been no more than an African jungle when we moved in, and we had great fun on the weekends, cutting and digging and seeding until there emerged a lawn, sloping down to the stream on whose banks we had planted a small vegetable garden. We turned off Riverside Drive and followed the dirt road to the bottom of the hill. The blooming bougainvillea was as blue as the ocean. The lawn had reverted to jungle, but I still felt as though a part of myself belonged in this house that had heard so much laughter and had known the joy of long evenings filled with friends and brandy.

Sandy and I had been married in the backyard on Valentine's Day, 1977, a few months after we arrived in Nairobi. There was a chicken coop there now, and the tree, under which we had stood with a British minister and a handful of African and American friends, needed pruning. Thankfully, the mind's eye is selectively compassionate, and what I saw as I looked at the backyard knoll was what had been. The coop and the overgrown tree evaporated and what remained were the gentle ghosts of six dear friends standing there in an afternoon of sunshine.

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