In October I went on a wild life safari, for the first time if one excludes the wonderful times I had had, generally with my aunt Ena, in Yala and elsewhere in Sri Lanka. I still had a slight puritanical streak about such indulgence, and felt that, if travelling vast distances, there should also be some cultural input. So it was that I decided to go to Tanzania, salving my conscience about pure pleasure because of the historical importance of Zanzibar.
The trip turned out to be more than satisfactory in all dimensions, the exotic wild life of Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, and the elegance of Zanzibar. We left a couple of days later than originally planned, since Kithsiri had fallen ill, but I thought it worth waiting since in countries where one might worry about security it seemed best to have a travelling companion. I had to admit that this was weakness, given how I had travelled extensively on my own when I was young, but I thought that at the age of 60 I should have no qualms about needing support.
Dar-es-Salaam was a charming city, from the National Museum with its vintage cars, used by various colonial plenipotentiaries, to the teeming fish market. And I was lucky to find in the cheap hotel we stayed in an enterprising travel agent who booked us what turned out to be a splendid tour to the wild life parks.
But first we went to Zanzibar, on a ferry, and found an exquisite hotel in the old Stone Town, cobbled alleys, a splendid mix of Arab and Indian architecture, ornate balconies and latticework. The former Sultan’s palace was a joy, with splendid photographs and a larger than life junk, and I found fascinating too the Anglican cathedral which had been built on the site of the slave market. You could visit there the awful cells in which the chained victims of that appalling trade had been interned. And given my interest in history from a romantic perspective, I was glad to have seen the place where Livingstone was supposed to have stayed in the course of his various exploratory journeys, and to which his body was brought by his ‘loyal companions’ (who had removed his heart where he actually died, in Zambia, and buried it beneath a baobab tree).
After just over a night and a day we flew via Dar-es-Salaam to Kilimanjoro and took a bus to Aruja where we were supposed to meet the tour company. I was a bit startled when there seemed to be no booking at the hotel that had been arranged, but we were told to go next door, and were met there by a delightful man called Richard Kilonzo Papa, who restored my confidence. He introduced us to a sweet Namibian girl called Nita who was our companion on the safari (a fourth person who was due never turned up), and to the driver/guide called Frank who seemed dour but turned out immensely helpful, and professional to his fingertips about ensuring maximum sightings. He also had an assistant who put up the tents and cooked the most delicious meals at the campsites where we stayed in Serengeti and Ngorongoro.On the first day however we stayed in a very comfortable lodge. We had left late, after the loading of the van, and gone to the Lake Manyara Park where we were overwhelmed by a plethora of game, lions and giraffes and zebras, which I had not seen before in the wilds. There were also hippos a plenty, wallowing in muddy water, and flamingoes in the distance.
But all this was nothing to what we found next day in the Serengeti. There were more than twice as many lions, some perched on a rocky complex, others hunting in the grasslands. Frank tracked a leopard for us, and we understood what was meant by the migration of the wildebeest, hundreds of them trotting along in lines until one decided to break ranks and others followed, leaping all over the place. All this more than made up for the tiny tent we stayed in, and the freezing showers. And despite the primitive nature of the place, the cook rustled up an excellent dinner.
The next day was even more wonderful, for we saw a pack of lions hunting, tracking the stragglers of a herd of wildebeest and then trying to pounce in tandem. Thankfully their intended prey got away, through panic running, and the ladies gave up the chase. Frank also found a cheetah, and we saw too a large herd of horrendous spotted hyenas.
That night was at another camp, on the edge of the Ngorongoro crater, with elephants coming at dusk to drink from the water tank. That place had hot showers, and a superb sighting of lions just before we got there, though sadly we also saw the carcass of a zebra which had not been able to escape.
The next morning we went down into the crater, magnificent scenery and magnificent sightings, the lions putting on a grand show beside our jeep, a few large males and several females with delightful cubs. Ostrich were closer to us than previously, though sadly the only rhinos we glimpsed were far away. We saw hippos ambling along on the grass, and the beautiful Thompson’s gazelles. And at the pond beside which we ate, we were preyed upon by kites, who swooped down to pluck the sandwiches from our hands.
After than fantastic trip, I had to change gear as it were almost immediately, for a couple of days after getting back I went to England. There were several reasons for this, none of which would have decided me by itself, but together they added up to justification enough to make the journey. First, I thought it would be good to see some of our close relations for a sort of wake for my father. Second, an old friend was launching a book in London. And finally, my tutor, who had done more for me academically than anyone else, was going to be 95, and my College in Oxford was celebrating this.
The wake, for which I took a vast quantity of lamprais, was sad but brought the sort of closure that those who had loved him welcomed. And I also saw my cousin, with whom I had stayed when I first went to England, with whom I felt I had a special bond. I had been with her when she lost her husband, and then two children in rapid succession, and admired how she had kept going, and ensured that Amal, her youngest boy, survived all these traumas. He had done very well, and looked after her as she aged, though she was fiercely independent and stayed on her own. Now she was in hospital, and not likely it seemed to recover. But though in great pain, she greeted me with the sweet smile I remembered well.
I also saw Chris Nonis, who had not recovered from the trauma he had suffered, in being attacked by Sajin Vas Gunawardena, and then finding that the President took Sajin’s side. We had to make elaborate arrangements to meet, for he was evidently frightened of further persecution, and I suspect this was a principal reason for my feeling that the Rajapaksa government should not go on. I had by then written to him on behalf of the Liberal Party to say that we could not support him if he offered himself for re-election unless he went through with various reforms he had pledged and which were long overdue. But I suspect that I might not have thought it necessary to campaign for another candidate were it not for the astonishing manner in which Chris was treated, along with the support the government seemed to evince for the Bodhu Bala Sena in its attacks on Muslims.
But all that is another story and, apart from the upsetting meeting with Chris, I was able to forget the troubles we were going through at home. There was though another interesting political dimension to my trip, for I was given an appointment with Philip Hammond, who was now Foreign Secretary. He had been a few years junior to me at University College, but I had known him slightly, and had written to him when he was made Minister of Defence. He had been polite in his acknowledgment of the email, but I did not think he would remember me well enough to meet me. However Amal, who had helped found a group of Sri Lankan friends of the Conservative Party, told me that, when he had met him, he had spoken fondly of me, and claimed that I had taught him Latin.
This struck me as strange, because my Latin had certainly not been good enough to teach anyone. But spurred on by Amal I had sent an email asking if we could meet, and he gave me an appointment the day after I landed. The night before I was given a clue as to what the claim about Latin might mean, when I had dinner with a couple of friends who now worked in St James’ Palace. One was the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, and the other Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, having retired from the Foreign Office after he had been High Commissioner in Zambia and then Governor of Anguilla. Alistair had a prodigious memory, and thought it possible that I might have helped Hammond read the Grace, which was in Latin.
So it proved, for Hammond had been of the first generation at Oxford that was not required to know Latin. As a top scholar he was expected to read the Grace, and he told me that he had been worried about this until the Dean told him to ask me how to do it. I suspect this was because, though I had read Classics for my first degree, my Latin pronunciation was amateur, and it might have been thought that someone so obviously not an expert would put the freshman at ease. That had happened, but Hammond also told me that he had sat next to me on his first night at the university, and I had helped him to feel at home.
I was deeply touched that he remembered all this, and also by his professionalism. He made it clear that we should not talk about Sri Lanka – I had wondered whether this was why he had agreed to meet me, given the British interest in our internal affairs – because that would have to be done with officials present, and this was a private meeting. And it was just as well that the topic of Sri Lanka was avoided because, though I had previously done much to defend the government, by now this had become difficult.
Ceylon Today 13 Dec 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=11044