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Hemingway legend lives on in Africa

Published Feb 22, 2011


Screeching howls and a satanic-giggling – the sound of hyenas, and they seem to be right outside the tent.

But then the sounds turn into those of someone heartily laughing. “Good morning,” a voice says. “Your wake-up call. Tea is ready.”

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Humour is as much a part of the service in the camp at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro as the Sundowner vehicle the group is travelling in. It is 6.30am, time for the first safari excursion, coming barely 30 hours after this visitor had flown out from Europe.

It has been almost 80 years since writer Ernest Hemingway made his first foray into Africa. He ended up spending a total of 10 months in eastern Africa over two stays, in 1933 and 1953-1954.

From these experiences came such works as Green Hills of Africa (1935) and the posthumous True At First Light (1999). Two short stories – The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1936) and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (1936) are also based in Africa.

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“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already,” Hemingway says in Green Hills of Africa.

Even two crash-landings within 48 hours – with serious head injuries which would result in bouts of depression, and possibly, his suicide on July 2, 1961 – could not dampen Hemingway’s enthusiasm for Africa.

When he headed out, at 34, on his first major safari, the writer already enjoyed cult status. By that time he had not only given the world some prime works of literature, but also the stuff from which legends are made.

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As the German magazine Stern wrote in 1999 for the 100th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth, it was a life where “bottles are constantly being emptied, fish caught, women loved and animals of all kinds shot, no war-zone is left out and then, a new miracle drug is discovered – Africa”.

In Oloitokitok, on the border with Tanzania, Hemingway fans don’t have to search for long. Everyone here knows Darshan Singh, who as a child had experience of “bwana Ernest” and whose father, Darshan says, ran “the only store this side of Kilimanjaro where there was beer and whisky”.

“Ernest came here often” and was generous in buying rounds for the men. Darshan’s eyes glisten mischievously through the deep lines of his face. “And he also went to bed with a girl from here.”

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Many people think the story of an African lover is an invention, a macho fantasy of a womaniser getting older. Debba was the name of the girl from the Kamba people in Hemingway’s posthumously-published novel. Hemingway’s wife Mary is said to have closed her eyes and ears those times when Debba crept into their tent.

Truth or fiction?

Darshan swears that the girl really did exist.

Thundering water, foaming spray, a rainbow: the Murchison Falls in north-western Uganda may not be the tallest waterfalls in Africa, but they are enormously powerful.

It was this setting from the 1951 film that Mary Hemingway absolutely wanted to see from the air. On January 21, 1954, Ernest and Mary took off from Nairobi, with veteran pilot Roy Marsh at the controls. Taking off from Costermansville – today’s Bukavu – the tour was to continue to Entebbe via Murchison Falls.

“But then it happened,” recalls Emmanuel Eyenga, who has brought some guests in his boat to a point near the waterfall. A post with a sign on top it is jutting out of the water. Written on it is “P.B.M. 9026”.

“That was the registration number of the Cessna. It came down right here,” Eyenga says.

While approaching the falls, Marsh had overlooked a telegraph line at the lodge. The pilot managed to make an emergency landing, but the civilised world was far away.

Headlines like “Ernest Hemingway lost in deepest Africa” were splashed across newspapers and obituaries on Hemingway were already appearing in the US even as the search for him continued.

Then, as a passenger plane on a flight from Entebbe to Sudan changed course, the pilot looked down and saw the Cessna.

The trio were picked up by the SS Murchison which took them to Butiaba on Lake Albert. There, they ran into a pilot named Reginald Cartwright, who convinced Ernest, Mary and Roy to fly with him to Entebbe where the world’s press were waiting.

But Cartwright crashed the plane while taking off. Hemingway managed to escape the wreckage only by smashing a door open – with his skull.

His kidneys, spleen and liver were torn, his spinal column was crushed and his body burned. He so narrowly escaped death that it was like something out of a work of fiction and fitting for a genuine adventurer. – Sapa-dpa

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