For filmmaker Alan Root, danger is never too farBy KAMAU MUTUNGA | Monday, June 25 2012 at 15:55
It was just another normal journey to school that turned the attention of Kenyans to Alan Root, the pilot who last week made an emergency helicopter landing at a farm in misty Kahara village in Mathira, Nyeri County.
Foggy weather was to blame. As Root explained, “we experienced very low clouds and it was difficult seeing ahead. We had no choice but to come down and find somewhere to land safely.”
Those among us who can afford shoes but not tyres were shocked that Root was flying his children, Myles and Rory, to Nairobi’s Banda School from the Lewa Downs Conservancy in Laikipia.
That the unscheduled landing occurred as the nation was mourning the deaths of six Kenyans, among them Internal Security minister George Saitoti and his assistant Orwa Ojode in a helicopter accident only nosed interest in the incident in which the Roots appeared to be calmer than the anxious onlookers milling around their Hughes 500 helicopter.
“This is normal for us,” offered 11-year-old Myles, “as we are used to flying and landing whenever the weather gets foggy.”
Their mother, who often flies with them, was at home, taking care of their two new puppies.
Their father, who took up flying choppers when he turned 60 some 15 years ago, was no ordinary pilot.
Alan Root is a globally celebrated wildlife documentary filmmaker.
For starters, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) during Queen Elizabeth’s birthday honours for 2008.
The recipient of over 60 global recognitions, including two Emmys, a Peabody, and several “Lifetime Achievement Awards,” was awarded the O.B.E. for “services to wildlife film-making.”
We tried to interview him at the time, but Jean Hartley, one of Root’s co-directors at Viewfinders Ltd, the wildlife documentary company and author of Africa’s Big Five and Other Wildlife Filmmakers, politely responded that “Alan is rather shy, and probably wouldn’t welcome a full feature. I’d say ‘one step at a time.’”
Another request sent last week had not received a response by the time we went to press.
Root’s emergency landing was a minor inconvenience considering other incidents he has been through: surviving two previous chopper crashes, a bout of river blindness here, an underwater hippo attack on his leg there, a leopard and gorilla bite, and even losing a forefinger to puff adder fangs at the Meru National Park in 1969.
Root was injected with 20ccs of antivenin to stop the vomiting and near bout of fainting.
But another 20ccs at the hospital triggered an anaphylaxis (serious allergic reaction) attack that almost killed him.
Root had to move some of the buttons from the right hand control to the left so he could fly his chopper.
Root’s documentaries, still screened on the National Geographic channel, are one-hour, ecologically themed affairs devoid of human beings. Nature takes centre stage.
If you have marvelled at the spectacle that is 1.5 million wildebeest migrating from the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya, crossing the crocodile-infested Mara and Grumeti rivers to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, then it was Root who paved the way when he spent two-and-a-half years from 1972 filming the “immigrants.”
Root’s resulting documentary from the Survivor series was The Year of the Wildebeest, which was screened by America’s CBS television in 1976.
It was one of more than a dozen such documentaries on the relentless sequence of life and death among “the clowns of the plains.”
Root concealed cameras in tortoise shells to get a snake’s eye view close-up of thundering hooves as famished lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards clawed after their new, exhausted meals.
Another of his novelties is the use of “time-lapse” photography in which flowers bloom right before the viewer’s eyes, while birds build their nests twig by twig in 30-second frames on screen.
Both styles have been widely imitated.
Then there is the scintillating footage, unfussy or no use of soundtracks interspersed with perceptive, sparse, terse, sarcastic narration.
Sample some from The Year of the Wildebeest: “The wildebeest haven’t changed in two million years. They haven’t needed to for, though they may choose some bizarre ways to die, they have found a fantastically successful way to live.”
No Man's Land
And another in which narrator James Mason is baritoning; “Whenever there is a creature behaving strangely on the plains there are always other animals alert to wonder why.”
Bernhard needed a replacement to complete the filming. Root was recommended.
Serengeti Shall Not Die won the 1959 Oscar Award for Best Documentary Feature that made Root, then 21, famous besides putting Serengeti on the map and alerting the world on the plight of African wildlife.
It was during flying while filming Serengeti that he fell in love with flying, including hot-air balloons which he pioneered when he became the first Kenyan to get a licence to handle one in the 1970s.
Most of the ballooning was done under Root and Leakey Safaris, the photographic safari outfit he founded with Richard Leakey, the controversial Kenyan politician, world famous palaeontologist, and conservationist.
He preferred filming using the balloon since aeroplanes were too fast to film animals adequately, while noise from slower choppers scared them away.
Root and Leakey Safaris was disbanded in 1976 due to “personal differences.”
That flying bit also included powering a single-engine Cessna over the Congo forest, where he was the first to film mountain gorillas for television in 1961 — the year Root married Joan Thorpe, a tour guide and only child of Kenyan coffee farmer, Edmund Thorpe, who had immigrated down these shores in 1929.
During their camping honeymoon next to the Tsavo River Bridge, Joan was stung by a scorpion in what American travel writer John Heminway notes in his 1983 book, No Man’s Land: The Last of White Africa, as the beginning “of an accident-prone but very happy partnership.”
Indeed, the Times newspaper called them “one of the world’s greatest photographic teams.”
Of Joan Root, who was murdered in Naivasha in January 2006, Alan admitted; “I don’t know what I’d do without Joan…I’d probably have to marry three women at the same time.”
But in their almost two decades of marriage, they teamed up on almost a dozen critically acclaimed films including The Year of the Wildebeest and (Mysterious) Castles of Clay, the documentary on the inner workings of a termite mound.
Alan and Joan travelled much of Africa in their single-engine Cessna, their amphibious car and hot-air balloon in which they took Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, former US First Lady, during her trip in Kenya.
Their “marriage on safari” went south in 1981 when Jennie Hammond came into the picture.
American journalist Mark Seal was granted access to Joan’s letters and diaries while writing her biography, Wildflower: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Murder of Joan Root published in 2009.
Sample one letter to Alan: “A part of me says it would be better for myself if I was free of the distress you cause, but I also know the fulfilment I feel when we are together. I don’t want to throw away the chance to have that pleasure ever again.”
Alan replied: “We had something unique and very special and I am heartbroken that I screwed it up. I want you to know that no one will ever fill that gap in my life. It will always be empty space.”
They divorced in September 1990. Root married Jennie, who succumbed to leukaemia in 2000.
According to Wildflower, Alan later married Fran Michelmore, a biographer, artist, violinist, and cartographer.
Root wrote to Joan at the time: “I know it’s bloody late, but I can’t move on without finally saying thank you for your love and support back then…”
Just to pick another line from The Year of the Wildebeest: “There is a saying in Africa that somewhere there is a place where the grass meets the sky, and the name of that place is ‘the end.’”
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