Maestro of the Masai: Bartle Bull book review

September 01, 2015

Maestro of the Masai
Soda for Warren Buffett as he floats down China’s Li River? Victoria’s Secret models at your dinner party in Paris? Not a problem.
Sept. 1, 2015 7:15 p.m. ET

If there was anything more grueling than being married to Elizabeth Taylor, it may have been divorcing her. Even practice, it seems, did not help the otherwise rugged Richard Burton on his second go-round. In 1976, exhausted from the process, wishing but to enjoy the delights of engagement to the model Suzy Hunt, Burton met a man for drinks at the San Francisco Trader Vic’s.

There was only one fellow to ease the pain of the world’s most desired man at his lowest ebb. That was Geoffrey Kent, a 34-year-old Kenyan, swashbuckling king of the silver-ice-bucket safari. Forty-eight hours after putting down their last Mai Tai, Burton and Kent were rattling over Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve in a Land Rover. That night, three lionesses chased a buffalo into their camp. As ashtrays and martinis flew, Burton finally forgot about Elizabeth Taylor. That the scene probably resembled an average morning during their marriage seems to have escaped both Burton and Mr. Kent. “Africa,” Mr. Kent writes in “Safari: A Memoir of a Worldwide Travel Pioneer,” “never fails.”

Mr. Kent’s mother had been a London debutante and his father an officer in the King’s African Rifles. When, in 1962, the newly independent Kenyan government nationalized the family’s small farm in the Aberdare highlands northwest of Nairobi, Kent Sr. took up work as a “tour guide” in a local travel firm.

In 1965, when Geoffrey returned to Kenya after a few years in the British cavalry, where he discovered a knack for logistics, safaris were becoming big business in Kenya. He and his parents founded Abercrombie & Kent, a small safari provider. The “Abercrombie” was made up. They wanted to be at the top of the alphabet; “Aardvark & Kent would make for a horrible logo”; and Abercrombie had a posh ring to it.

The tiny business jogged along, and one day Mr. Kent’s parents went off for a holiday in the Khyber Pass. By the time they had returned, their son had emptied the bank account and spent it on linen, china, silver and large custom tents. Most important, he had designed and installed in a truck what he calls the first “mobile refrigeration” unit in the safari trade. (Some of Mr. Kent’s claims of pioneering luxury are at least a little bit exaggerated: Randolph Churchill brought a piano on safari in 1892, and my father has a photograph of a refrigerator on a safari of his own predating Mr. Kent’s.)

Returning to all of these luxury goods and more—mahogany privies, carpets for the tents, Punch and Country Life for the privies—“Mummie and Dad” were furious, especially when Mr. Kent nicked the barman and cook from Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club, a move that was not popular with their friends. The whole thing was a major risk for a family of dispossessed settlers whose hard-won nest egg now fitted in the back of a truck. A new drink was born at Nairobi’s smartest watering hole: the A&K on the Rocks. Gin and bitters, naturally.

But Africa’s most commercial outfitter had been born, for rich Americans were starting to travel to East Africa in numbers. As Mr. Kent swiftly learned from lurking around Nairobi’s airport and hotel bars, there is no way to offend a Texan quite like offering him a cheap safari in front of his wife.

Within a decade, Mr. Kent had made his first million dollars. By 1978, married to an American and running his business from joint headquarters outside Chicago and Palm Beach, he had built a polo team that became the first ever to win the U.S. Open and U.S. Gold Cup in the same year. Inspired by David Niven, during a chance meeting in Egypt, to open a business on the Nile, Mr. Kent soon had four ships plying its lucrative waters.

What could be more profitable than providing the “Death on the Nile” experience to the Neiman Marcus crowd? Selling ice cream and providing porta-potties in Saudi Arabia. With the help of one Joey Jaipur, brother of a maharajah nicknamed Bubbles, Mr. Kent opened India to his kind of tourism. In 1979 he prospected a still-closed China, attaching himself to a delegation of Ethiopian Communists on the basis, accepted with bemusement by the authorities, that his sister had been born there in Addis.

Fifteen years later, heroically weathering the pedantic do-goodery of Bill Gates and his family, Mr. Kent managed to make sure that Warren Buffett was kept well stocked with Cherry Coke as the billionaires floated down China’s Li River.

The Galapagos, Oman, the Amazon and New Guinea; Alaska, the Antarctic and the Russian Arctic: The man goes everywhere. Wives, war, arson, a face crushed by a polo pony, recession, kidnappings, and holidays with Joan Rivers and Jeffrey Katzenberg ? Mr. Kent can handle it.

If more and more tourism, high and low, more or less everywhere, is one modern scourge, the war on editing at major publishing houses is another. “We at Abercrombie & Kent have worked to refine this most rugged experience,” Mr. Kent cribs from a brochure, hopefully his own; another offering described in the book provides “a holistic experience with true sustainability.”

There is a lot of this, all of it easily avoidable if editors gave half the attention to their work that Mr. Kent has given to his. He is not a writer; he is an entrepreneur who tells a good story, and this book is all about stories. (But only some stories: Mr. Kent’s bout of IRS trouble, his first marriage and his only child do not feature.)

The underlying subject is the industry that Mr. Kent has helped develop into an enormous business. A couple of decades ago, well into Mr. Kent’s prime, the Abercrombie & Kent safari was looked down on by insiders in East Africa as mostly the preserve of tabloid stars and a certain benighted type of wealthy American. The Masai Mara that Mr. Kent popularized is now for that reason too much of a traffic jam to be part of any serious travel plans. Today, Mr. Kent’s firm will arrange Victoria’s Secret models to come to your dinner party in Paris. Meanwhile, tourism now accounts, he reminds us, for nearly 10% of the global economy.

Mr. Bull’s next book is a history of Iraq.