Why this Book: I was scheduled to travel to Tanzania to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and then afterward participate in a follow-on safari tour of the Serengeti and other wild animal parks in northern Tanzania. Though this book takes place mostly in Kenya, it was suggested by the tour operator as providing good insights into the culture, wildlife, and environment we would encounter in Tanzania.
Summary in 3 Sentences: The author Rick Ridgeway is a renowned mountaineer and adventure writer who has been all over the world. He and a good friend who leads safaris in Kenya hatched the idea of making a foot safari from the peak of Kilimanjaro through Kenya’s famed Tsavo wildlife parks, out to the Indian Ocean, a distance of about 250 miles. While the book does describe the trek and their adventures along the way, Ridgeway uses the trek as a backbone around which to share engaging stories about many fascinating personalities who have been involved in managing the parks, the movement to preserve wildlife, the fight against poachers, and various legends of man’s interface with wild animals in the region.
My impressions: I really liked this book – very well written, and I liked the humility, curiosity, insights and perspectives of the author. In many ways this book is as much about the history of the white man in Kenya – beginning in the early 19th century- as it is about the trek from Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean. Given that Ridgeway is a professional mountaineer and adventurer, a journalist, travel writer and amateur naturalist, it is also very much about the interface between man and the environment – especially as it has related to the impact of Westerners on the previous balance between native African tribes and the wildlife in the area. The encroachment of humans on what had been previously shared habitat has had a profound impact on wildlife – but humans have clearly suffered as well.
Ridgeway’s three main companions are the subject of much of his narrative. His good friend and fellow mountaineer Iain Allen was “widely regarded as the most experienced mountaineer in East Africa,” ran a safari business, leading climbs, safaris and other adventures in East Africa. And as experts and guides, he brought along Bongo and Danny Woodley, brothers and both hunters and park rangers themselves, following in the footsteps of their father Bill Woodley, one of the great hunters and park rangers in Kenya in the 20th century. Many of the stories he shares are from them – about their experiences in the bush, as well as stories from their father and his friends and acquaintances. Fascinating stuff. Additionally he had two armed Kenyan park rangers with them and a cook and driver who met them with food and provisions at various campsites throughout the trek.
The book is filled with a fascinating narrative and vignettes from their trek. But as I’ve noted, a highlight of the book was the many digressions he made into the history and stories of the area through which they were hiking. Some of the stories I found most compelling were:
- The fascinating story of the man-eating lions that plagued the effort to build the railroad into the interior of Kenya at the beginning of the 20th century. Two lions had developed a taste for human flesh, and nearly every night would stalk, kill, and devour one (occasionally two) of the railway workers, eluding all attempts to capture them, defeating all attempts to protect the workers from the lions. These lions killed and ate nearly 30 railway workers before effort to kill them finally succeeded. The account of the personal efforts of the head of the railway project to finally defeat these very clever predators was a great page turner. Based on accounts of other people disappearing without a trace, it was estimated that these lions may have killed and eaten over 100 human beings. The stuffed skins of these two lions are in the Chicago museum, and one member on our safari had seen them.
- The fascinating story of the focused efforts to defeat poachers in the Tsavo parks of Kenya, culminating in the 1980s. The park rangers had been up against native Kenyan tribes, small time criminals, as well as corrupt officials who were profiting from the ivory trade. The poacher issue seemed to be more or less under control, when armed Sudanese rebels realized that poaching ivory was an easy and profitable source of revenue, and began sending fairly well trained and ruthless para-military criminals into Kenya. At this point, the park rangers, with the support of some influential government leaders, created a para-military counter-guerilla force which fought back. It has been an on going battle, which at the time of the writing of this book in 1997, had reached a delicate level of stasis. But Rhinoceros populations were decimated and elephant populations remained under threat.
- And finally, related to the poaching stories, the park rangers struggled to find accommodation with a native tribe of African bow-hunters whose culture for centuries had evolved around the art of hunting and killing elephants for ivory. The ivory trade had existed for centuries, and the Waliangulu tribe were among the most proficient big game bow hunters in the world. They had shared the environment with elephants for centuries and their culture was built around hunting elephants as an ethos. They were poachers only as defined by the game laws that came into being in the 20th century. The story reminded me of Alaskan Eskimos and whales, or native American cultures built around following buffalo, and warrior tribes counting coup against each other. Ridgeway sadly notes how population growth in Africa, the encroachment of 20th century civilization on tribal and wildlife lands, and the legal prohibitions on hunting had already led to the demise of the once proud Waliangulu culture.
Throughout the book Ridgeway sought to understand the relationship between hunting and wildlife conservation. Ridgeway was not a hunter, hadn’t had much sympathy for big-game hunting, and was somewhat surprised to find that a large percentage of strong advocates for protecting and preserving wildlife were indeed hunters. And getting to know some of the most prominent of these men, he realized that their efforts to preserve wildlife were due to more than a selfish motivation to simply preserve targets for their hunting. The experience of hunting, and the delicate relationship between hunter and hunted is much more complicated than that.
When stalking game and being on the hunt, the hunter must venture into the wild lands and the discomfort of being in the field, and enters the primordial food chain, putting him/herself at risk in the search for game. The hunt is very often unsuccessful, after much effort. Serious hunters experience a primal connection to nature in which one eats only what one is able to kill, and which we in our comfortable and civilized lives don’t often experience. Hemingway alluded to this several times in Green Hills of Africa and some of my best and most environmentally conscious friends in the National Outdoor Leadership School are also hunters and have partnered with hunters for years in lobbying to preserve wild lands and protect wildlife.
I really enjoyed reading Shadow of Kilimanjaro. I like Ridgeway’s voice, how he wove fascinating stories from the history of the interface between white Western culture and the local tribes and wildlife into his narrative. As something of a small time adventurer myself, I found Ridgeway to be a very appealing character, and I loved his descriptions of the many interesting and eccentric characters who populate his book. As an adventure and travel writer, he has a well-respected gift for writing and description. Whether one is going to Africa or not, this is a really good read.