As promised in my previous post, I have finished reading wildlife film-maker Alan Root’s rollicking autobiography.
It’s taken a while, I know, what with magazine deadlines and other office-related matters, but what a roller-coaster ride of a book this is. You’ll laugh, get a lump in your throat, be horrified and, above all, be enthralled by the energy of one of Africa’s wilderness legends.
I have a passion for Boy’s Own adventure stories. So it came as no surprise that I tucked into Alan Root’s Autobiography Ivory, Apes & Peacocks with glee. If you’ve ever seen film sequences of wild animals in Africa, the chances are that you have encountered the work of this talented man. Not for him the rehabilitation of animal orphans, but instead the discreet investigation of what went on in the daily lives of our wildlife. Root is simply one of the Africa’s greatest film-makers and, as his agent remarks, is responsible for a great many firsts – to realise that hyaenas hunt, to devise techniques for filming hornbills and termites within their nests, and to find and record seven species in the Congo jungle, including the elusive Congo peacock. He has swum with crocs (recording the hair-raising underwater encounter with a matter-of-fact lack of drama), survived maulings by a hippo, a leopard and a silverback gorilla, and lost a finger (and almost his life) to a puff adder. He has filmed African wild dogs regurgitating food for their youngsters, flamingos building nests on the soda Lake Magadi, and baboons killing antelopes. Some of his wildlife memories are heart-breaking: a giraffe, it’s neck caught in a snare, having its back legs being eaten by a pride of lions while still alive.
Born in London’s East End just two years before Hitler arrived so publicly on the world stage, Alan and his family were uprooted and moved to the safety of the countryside, where he developed an abiding passion for birds. ‘It was a magical place of peewits and larks, in a wide sky unsullied by barrage balloons and the trails of warring aircraft.’ The war ended, the family moved to Kenya and the continent crept into the young boy’s blood. Here the birds were plentiful and the wealth of other wildlife species was enough to keep anyone happy.
As an adult, he developed his filming skills and gained a pilot’s licence, and has flown and filmed with the renowned zoologist Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael, who died so tragically when a vulture flew into his aircraft. It was Root who managed to crash a hot-air balloon, sending US First Lady Jackie Onassis tumbling unceremoniously from the basket … luckily unhurt. He showed Dian Fossey her first gorilla and, along with his first wife and long-time collaborator Joan, was the first to fly a hot-air balloon on a white-knuckle journey over Mount Kilimanjaro. He formed close links with well-known wildlife personalities: the Leakey family (he formed Root & Leakey Safaris with Richard Leakey), George Adamson (with whom he spent many evenings drinking litres of palm wine), Joy Adamson, Daphne Sheldrick, Jane Goodall and David Attenborough (who is said to have had him on speed-dial). Attenborough certainly thinks highly of the man, describing him as ‘almost single-handedly’ making wildlife films ‘grow up’.
Root has had his fair share of tragedy too … Joan was murdered in her home on the shores of Lake Naivasha, and his second love Jenny lingered for 12 years before dying of leukaemia. Now in his 70s, he lives peacefully in Lewa Conservancy with his wife Fran and their two young children and is still involved in filming the Serengeti and its animals.
Ivory, Apes & Peacocks is a tale of hair-raising adventure, personal joy and sorrow, savagery and tenderness. As I said, it’s Boy’s Own stuff, for adults.
Ivory, Apes & Peacocks by Alan Root, Chatto & Windus, Random House Struik, 2012. R250.