Lord of the Kenyan Skies
AVIATION EAST AFRICA- Tell us a little about your family – just as little or as much as you would like to say.
LORD ENNISKILLEN: My family emigrated from Cornwall to Ireland in 1600 or thereabouts. My ancestor went over and started a garrison town in Enniskillen and his successors became ennobled.
First of all was Sir William, then it became Viscount and then subsequent ancestors became the Earls of Enniskillen.
The family seat was at Florence Court, nine miles outside Enniskillen, and I was raised pretty much there. I’ll come back to that. More recently, my great aunt Florence came out here in 1898 followed by my grandfather and great uncle. They were actually the first to come to Kenya.
Florence married Lord Delamere and they settled in Njoro, and of course she communicated with the rest of her family and presumably told them how exciting a country Kenya was. And two of her many brothers followed her and they took tracts of land.
When I say took, I mean bought from the British government at the time. I think they paid two shillings an acre, but it was a fortune in those days. In fact, my grandfather lost two fortunes in Kenya.
Q: Lost two fortunes?
A: Lost. He invested in Kikopey ranch, which is now a group ranch. My great uncle, Berkeley Cole, who for some reason seems to be more well-known because of his associations with Karen Blixen, took up land at Solio, which is still a ranch and 10,000 acres has been recently taken up by the Government for the resettlement of IDPs. So that’s how the family first arrived in the country. My grandfather married Eleanor Balfour, who was the niece of the British Prime Minister, they settled at Kikopey and they had two sons, David and Arthur. David was my father and I and my younger sister Linda were born in England. My mother was a paleontologist who worked extensively with Louis Leakey.
Q: Is she still alive, your sister?
Q: Here in Kenya?
A: Alive, living near Molo. So, I was not born in Kenya because at that time there was World War II, my father was serving and I was born in the barracks in Woking, England.
When the war was over, I came out in a troop ship with my family, landed in Mombasa, went straight to hospital with acute appendicitis and finally arrived at Solio, where I was initially raised. My parents sadly broke up pretty soon after that and I went back to UK with my mother while my father remained here and I was then raised with my mother and grandparents at Florence Court in Ireland.
Q: That was a family property?
A: Yes. It now belongs to the National Trust. To complete the story on family background, when I was an officer in the British Army an opportunity for posting to Kenya came up and because I spoke a bit of Swahili and knew the country, of course I was chosen as one of the officers to accompany my regiment to come back here in 1961. I spent 18 months here in that capacity, during which time two fairly momentous things happened.
One was the Kenyan, Tanzanian and Ugandan army mutinies which I was part of reconciling and the other was that I met my wife Sarah and we got married out here before the company went back to London.
So we were married here, but immediately went back to London to serve in London, Germany and all over the place. I left the army, as a short service commissioned officer who extended for a further three years.
So I did six years in the army and I was given the choice either to become the ADC of the Governor of Hong Kong, which, as a married man, wasn’t entirely a suitable job and it was quite unusual to be offered it, or to come and manage for my uncle (my father’s brother) his ranch in Rumuruti and I chose the latter.
I came out here and managed 30,000 acres of cattle ranch up in Rumuruti and the genesis of my flying passion . . . I step back a bit. I broke my leg very badly while I was skiing on duty in the army.
I was in a plaster cast for 18 months, could do very little but I could stick my leg out of a car with the door off and drive and stick my leg out of the door of an aeroplane and fly as long as somebody else operated the brakes of the airplane. I could manage the brakes of the car. So I decided to get myself a pilot’s license at Wilson and . . .
Q: You broke your leg skiing. That must have been in Europe somewhere. So you came to Kenya with your broken leg?
A: Yes. And the reason it was 18 months in plaster in fact was because I didn’t know about these things but I’m told if you go from sea level to high altitude, for some reason bones don’t mend so well and although I was basically on the mend when I arrived, it broke again and I spent some time in the British military hospital down the road.
Q: What is it called now? Is it still a hospital?
A: I don’t know. It’s just down here opposite the ABC on the road going out of town it is now the military barracks on Waiyaki Way, Westlands. Anyway, that’s where I met my wife.
She came to visit a brother officer who was also in hospital. She used to walk past my door with her nose in the air to see her boyfriend next door, but being a well-brought-up General’s daugther, she refused to catch my eye! Eventually she looked in and we went from there.
So, having learnt to fly I bought myself a little canvas aeroplane.
A: Yes. It cost me £1,300 and I used it to take my fiancée, actually not my fiancée, my girlfriend, to Kidepo, because we had some friends out there who were starting Kidepo National Park.
Q: Where is that?
A: Kidepo is in North East Uganda. Trouble country. Rebel country, even now.
Q: Of course, the Lord’s Resistance Army.
A: Yes. And it was a long flight. You know, a small canvas aeroplane and I had no map, just a diagram on the back of a matchbox actually.
So we set off. We had about a week up there during which time we got engaged and we went on our honeymoon in the same aeroplane down to the Coast.
Q: It was a two-seater?
A: It was actually a three-seater, pilot up-front and two passengers behind. I learnt to fly in a similar sort of aeroplane, a canvas two-seater training aeroplane. Both of them were tail wheel.
Q: Tail wheel meaning?
A: Tail wheel means when it’s on the ground or very low speed, it sits back on the tail. You can hardly see outside and as the speed goes up, you can lift the tail and then you can see properly.
So, in some ways, they are more difficult to handle than a nose wheel which stands level on the ground.
Q: Now, you could drive, you could fly; not everyone who breaks a leg ends up developing a passion for flying. So what suddenly made you love being up in the air?
A: I think I may disappoint you, because it was never so much a passion for being in the air doing loops and so on and spending all my time at aero clubs talking about flying.
It was a passion for the technical challenge, the excitement – you know you are up there with the best and the worst that nature can throw at you on your own – and, more latterly, the opportunity for a career in flying.
I’ll quickly explain that. In this canvas aeroplane which I had on a private capacity and had learnt privately, I was now back on duty with my company here in Kenya and I had a forward-looking commanding officer who said, “quite honestly if you were doing duty or recces [reconnaissance] or whatever in your vehicle, we’d be paying you mileage allowance. Your aeroplane is far more useful to us than a vehicle and so we’ll pay you motor mileage allowance for use with the aeroplane”.
And so I was one of the first battalion pilots if you like, but I wasn’t employed as a pilot. But we did a lot of reconnaissance and transport and so on in my little aeroplane. I then left the Army . . .
Q: Was there any accident or a near-miss, any story from those days just to give it a sense of time and place because that’s a very unusual aeroplane?
A: Yes. Two incidents might be of interest; obviously you are the judge of that. This aeroplane had what is technically called a service ceiling of 13,000ft, which means the performance of the aeroplane and the engine capacity wouldn’t normally take you above 13,000ft and I particularly wanted to take it over the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. So I set out one morning very early from Kahawa Barracks with less than 100 hours experience.
A: Alone at 6:30 in the morning, dew all over the grass and my feet were soaked and nearly two hours later, I reached 19,500ft over Kilimanjaro and my shoes were actually beginning to freeze.
Q: Of course, the moisture had begun to freeze.
A: So having got there, 19,500ft without oxygen is not totally sensible, but I was a young man and of course I believe somebody has actually climbed Everest without oxygen, but you need special ability and special training. So I thought I better get down quick and it took me about two hours to get up and about 30 minutes to get down.
Q: So you flew right over it at some point and then came down?
A: Right over the top. The other one, which reflects rather badly on me, is when I took my uncle, who was not a small man, myself, who was not a small man, and a friend, also equally large plus shotguns and a lot of shotgun ammunition from Kikopey to go to, somewhere in Rumuruti, I think, to shoot guinea fowl and we were grossly overloaded and the runway in Kikopey is not very long. We took off and I realized we were not going anywhere except down. So we went down luckily – because the ground fell away – almost to lake level before I got enough speed to begin to climb and we managed to get up and over. She was a remarkable aeroplane. Very forgiving.
Q: What’s the worst that might have happened if you had miscalculated given how much . . .
A: A forced landing on the shore of Elementaita or something . . .
Q: So it was pretty risky in its own way?
A: It didn’t appear so at the time, but it turned out to be.
Q: It’s not something you would recommend anyone should try now?
A: Definitely not. But it’s not the most over-laden situation I’ve been in, only the first.
Q: So, that’s early days as a pilot, very interesting indeed. What came after this?
A: So then I moved to Rumuruti to manage these 30,000 acres of land which was 17 miles from one end to the other. It was not of course anything like so wide but, it was 17 miles, it was fully developed with fence lines every thousand yards and so I bought myself a bigger airplane and used to go farming by air. If there was dipping to be done at the top of the farm – it was a cattle ranch – if there was dipping to be done at the top of the farm, I would fly up. We collected the post by air. I went shopping by air. Petrol was I think something like two shillings a gallon and I had a little folding bicycle in the boot of the airplane and I was very mobile.
Q: So, the cost of fuel wasn’t a major consideration in those days?
A: It was almost the least consideration.
Q: As opposed to now when it is often the key consideration?
A: Absolutely. Not only the cost, but the availability. Sometimes it’s not available.
Q: Okay. So now you are a rancher who happens to have a private plane which is useful in many ways . . .
A: Very useful.
Q: Did you also use to spray crops with it? I know it was not equipped for that.
A: I’ve never done spraying. So, the next milestone, I suppose, and you must cut me short if I’m being too longwinded, next milestone was I was a very poorly-paid ranch manager for my uncle, managing a huge responsibility, I thought.
Three thousand head of cattle, 150 employees, 30,000 acres of land. In those days predators were a big threat and cattle-rustling and theft was a daily occurrence, so it was a fascinating, challenging job for a young man. So I went to my uncle one day and said, ‘you tell me that I’m doing a good job for you. How about showing that in appreciation by raising my salary?’ to which his response was, ‘Never. I will never encourage you to remain as a ranch manager. Go out and do your thing and get on with life’.
So I did. I left and decided . . . at that stage . . . I have been a citizen since I can’t remember and Kenya has been my home, but, believe it or not, at that stage I didn’t qualify for Kenyan citizenship because I wasn’t born here, I hadn’t lived here consecutively for five years, and so I didn’t qualify.
So, I needed to consider a technical qualification that would allow the Government to say ‘you can stay here’ and so I chose aviation and became a professional pilot whilst I remained for the requisite five years and then applied for citizenship and I got my citizenship in 1972.
Q: But surely, there were other ways you could have been a citizen. You loved flying. It isn’t that this was your only path to citizenship.
A: Well it was a path. I suppose there might have been others but they would have required qualifications or the usual (bribery) which is something I’ve never done and never would. So I went off and learnt to fly at Wilson Airport.
Q: Oh, despite having flown all this time, you had to go learn again?
A: This is for a commercial licence, which is totally different. Private pilots’ licenses need 40 hours’ experience and basic handling of the airplane.
Commercial licenses require a minimum of 350 hours’ experience and some stiff exams on navigation, radio technology, engines, et cetera et cetera.
Anyway I took that and passed and I then joined a partner who was a farmer up in Mau Narok, Anthony Lutyens who had his own aircraft, and we formed a commercial charter operation from Mau Narok which was a 9,000ft altitude airfield, 100ft difference between one end and the other so one way it was uphill, the other downhill and our colleagues in the aviation world gave us about one month to survive because it is quite unusual to operate commercial aircraft at that altitude. But we did it and we did it at night and we did it in all weathers and so on and so forth.
Q: Who were you flying since it was commercial? Who were you carrying?
A: All and sundry — anybody who needed our airplanes, which at that time were a six-seater single and an eight-seater twin. Both were financed by a loan from the bank, which in those days was a commercially viable proposition and the bank manager would take the trouble to come and look at your airplane and actually even do a flight. So, we operated from there and it was hugely challenging from the point of view that you’ve just asked, ‘where did you get your business’, because we were away from the city, we were away from most of the tour operators and so on.
Q: Was there already tourism at that time?
A: Tourism, especially by air, was in its heyday. Everybody flew. It was an East African Community free from Customs, immigration, et cetera, and with all East Africa’s attractions available.
But yes, it was a huge challenge and we built the business through personal contacts, through doing everything we could to promote ourselves as being different and also, geographically, slightly more advantageous than Nairobi – more in the centre.
For instance, we were closer to the Mara than Nairobi and as the cost of charter flying is based on mileage, that gave us a certain advantage. It backfired once when one of the major opposing charter companies could not believe that I had charged the full cost of going down to Kilifi to collect some clients and fly them over to Murchison Falls. Why wouldn’t they have chosen a Mombasa-based company or a Nairobi-based company?
And I actually faced being closed down by the authorities because they thought I had broken the rules, but I was able to prove that they were completely wrong and the reason these people had chosen us was that they preferred us and were prepared to pay for us. So we developed our charter company.
My partner then – he was a farmer, but with a passion for flying, possibly even more passion than I, because, as I said, I absolutely love flying and it was a challenge to me but not purely as an exhilarating thing to do. So he finally decided that he wants to leave. He went back to New Zealand, where his family originally came from, where he had inherited this small farm and he flew there in a little single-engine airplane.
Q: Over how many days?
A: I think six weeks or so. I saw him off from Embakasi because he couldn’t have taken off from Wilson. He was so overloaded with fuel and it’s quite a story in itself. Anyway, he got to New Zealand, so I bought him out; I bought the company and built it up from there.
Q: What did you call that company? You haven’t told us so far.
A: When it started it was Sunbird Charters, then it became Sunbird Aviation, then it became Air Kenya.
Q: There’s still an Air Kenya.
A: Yes. Very successful and one or two of my original employees are still employed there.
Q: Is that so?
A: Yes. So I built it up into quite a substantial operation, but when my partner left, this airfield up at Mau Narok was on his farm so we lost that and we moved to Nakuru for a bit and then finally I had to capitulate and join the big boys in Nairobi.
Q: How many planes by the time you came to Nairobi?
A: About 6.
A: Yes. I bought out smaller companies like we were. Other smaller companies, we brought them in and we worked together and we built it up.
Q: This is starting from one plane to how many over what period of time?
A: Our planes were 15 by 1976 and we started in 1969.
Q: So, in seven years, 15?
A: Yes, seven years, including DC3s and King Airs and those sort of airplanes.
Q: Were you doing scheduled flights or only chartered?
A: Scheduled and charter.
Q: Scheduled between where and where?
A: Mainly to Sudan. I operated a scheduled service for the southern regional government all over southern Sudan.
Q: There was a regional government then?
Q: There was no war at the time?
A: Yes there was. There was trouble.
Q: You were taking your planes into a war zone then?
A: Yes, but legitimately.
Q: I meant the risk, I didn’t mean that it was not legitimate. Now, what did it take, in the ’70s, to move from one aeroplane in one corner of the country, which no one would visualize an air charter company being based at – where you and your friend started – to a 15-plane company, with scheduled flights and so on. What was involved in that process? Because, really, this in some way is a history of private aviation in Kenya. Where did you get your pilots from? Were there plenty of people around who could fly or did you have to invite people from the UK or elsewhere who could come in and fly, help with management, all those things?
A: I think, on the positive side, we had a very enabling environment which we certainly don’t have today.
A: The whole of East Africa was there, so Kenya wasn’t an orphan and was able to attract tourists to places like Uganda, Rwanda, that was all there and it took a minimal amount of paperwork to get permissions to go in and land.
It was probably better organized in that; one particular programme I will give as an example is a programme for Lindblad, which was one of the most up-market US-based tour operators.
Q: Do they still exist?
A: They exist in a different form, but one of their major assets was the Lindblad Explorer, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. It was a ship that used to take tourists to the Antarctic.
Q: Yes. He himself was a Norwegian or something?
A: Yes, Swedish. Anyway, he was a remarkable man and he started what we called an East African Wing Safari. It was about a 1,400-mile circuit in one day.
Quite a long journey for the pilot, going through Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and back; dropping ten, picking up ten, dropping ten, picking up ten. So the whole 1,400 miles was full so the price was affordable, the proceeds were profitable for us as the operators and it was a great success.
Q: Explain that a little more please. Give an example and, say, something like, ”We picked up people in Mombasa, then flew here, then fly them there”, et cetera.
A: It would be from Nairobi to Murchison Falls.
Q: So you take ten people from Nairobi, fly them to Murchison Falls?
Q: You would leave them at Murchison Falls?
A: Pick up ten we’d left two days earlier at Murchison Falls, fly them to Seronera .
Q: Where is Seronera?
A: It is in northern Tanzania.
A: Pick up ten there that we had dropped two days before, take them to Cottar’s Camp on the Athi River. And so on to Samburu, Mt. Kenya, all those places were on the circuit and because of his skills in marketing, every flight was usually full.
We bought a Britten-Norman Trislander which was a three-engine version of the Islander. It was built in the Isle of Wight.
We went to collect it and flew it out here from the Isle of Wight. It was the first in Africa.
Q: What were the special features in it?
A: It was built as an 18-seater but, there was no way that it could carry 18 passengers at this altitude, so we reconfigured it to 10 plus two crew.
Q: So you were actually growing enough to require some of the latest models of aeroplanes of that time for your company?
A: Yes. It was first in Africa, as I said, but very underpowered, very heavy and we operated it all day long every day to such an extent that it had to be maintained at night because there was no other time to maintain.
Q: So what you are saying is that demand was huge?
A: Huge for that particular programme. It was completely sold on that programme. We had other aircraft for other things.
Q: So, just from a business point of view, did you buy that plane because you knew it would be sold, or did you buy it and then this came up?
A: No, we took a business risk.
A: Absolutely. So, going back to the pluses, a very enabling environment physically and politically here, relative lack of bureaucracy and massive fees and documentation, which you now have to do, banks willing to lend at reasonable prices and reasonable terms, yes a supply of good young people who also got the flying bug and became available to hire.
Q: But there can’t have been very many indigenous Kenyan pilots . . .
A: Sadly not, not many. But still, we had plenty and a lot of them went on into airlines like Kenya Airways, some ended up in Cathay Pacific and other international airlines. So there was a supply, there were airfields everywhere, insurance was reasonable. Nowadays, sadly, I feel standards in many ways have slipped badly and, as a result, there are far more accidents than there should be, with the consequence that insurance becomes almost unaffordable. In those days it was affordable.
Weather of course is a conducive factor up to a point. The problem is that weather in East Africa is relatively unpredictable. You can’t go and get a weather forecast which is accurate plus or minus ten miles or ten minutes like you can in Europe, and you can get badly caught out and when you get caught out, you’ve got some very high ground to contend with, unlike other parts of the world. If you are caught, for instance, in the Nairobi area, you’ve got the Aberdares at 14,000ft, very close. Much closer at 7,500ft, Ngong.
So those were the conducive factors and I think obviously you had to be a real entrepreneur, a risk-taker. In today’s world when there are so many unbelievably poor people, mentioning any figure is probably a mistake, but in comparative terms in those days, I had no money, none at all, but I was able to persuade my bank managers and my partners and my clients that I was a reliable fellow and, I suppose, to some extent, I proved that by performance and so financing a fleet, purchasing a competitive organization was possible, but I committed myself for life, and, in some ways, put the rope around my neck, because I had to pay these loans off and I had to maintain my reputation.
Q: A rope could only be tightened if something went wrong. But, tell me, going back to the commercial aspects then, in this enabling environment there’s places to take your clients to, there’s financing available and so forth. What you are saying then is that it was in some ways easier to start a charter company from scratch then than it would be now?
A: I can’t really answer that with authority because I haven’t tried to start one now.
Q: But you are a pioneer back then?
A: My impression is, in many ways, it might even be easier today . . .
Q: That’s what I was going to tell you . . .
A: . . . because you can take shortcuts, sadly.
Q: It’s not just the shortcuts. The money is more easily available.
A: Money, yes.
Q: It’s actually much easier to borrow now than it would have been in your time and also there are more rich people looking for somewhere to invest than I imagine there were rich people in Kenya at that time. So, the only thing you had going for you really was the enabling environment. I don’t think getting the money was easier than it is now.
A: Possibly not. And another factor now, I think, is that many companies benefit from the rich people who, naturally, for prestige and for convenience and for good commercial reasons, want executive jets and that sort of thing and they can’t fully justify them, so they place them with a charter company to use. That wasn’t really available to us in those days. But an interesting side to that question I think is that the regulation, although less overwhelming in those days, was much stricter.
Q: What do you mean?
A: To get our license to operate from Mau Narok involved me going to Arusha to appear before the Civil Aviation Board many times, arguing my case against huge objections from the established few in Nairobi.
It is fascinating to me that the Chairman of the Civil Aviation Board at that time was Kenneth Matiba, and, more importantly, the Secretary, who really advises the chairman and does all the paperwork, was Richard Nyaga, who followed me as the Chief Executive of Kenya Airways, and we’ve remained good friends.
I was basically a farmer, and I went to Arusha to say ‘Please, may I have a license?’ And everybody was standing up ‘How can you give these people who’ve got no experience, they are operating from 9,000ft, which is dangerous, how can you give them a license?’
Q: So there were vested interests even within aviation and as an outsider you had to fight your way in?
A: Yes. Anyway, we fought and we won. We got our license and went on from there. So, those were the positives. You’ve touched on some of them, if you like, they are not so easy. That’s what I would say about them.
Scheduled service in those days, I think, was more difficult to obtain, or perhaps I just took it more seriously than today. You could not get a scheduled service licence unless you guaranteed to operate on the published date and time.
Whether you had a passenger or not, you still had to operate. Now, we turn up for scheduled service and they say ‘sorry, for some technical reason, you have to wait till tomorrow’. We couldn’t have got away with that. We would have lost our license. So we had to operate sometimes on almost nil revenue and then we had to make up for the loss.
Q: So, let me get this right, the regulatory structures under the East African Community were stricter but also fairer. What do you say?
A: Simpler but stricter. Fairer in that they applied equally to all pretty much.
Q: You couldn’t take shortcuts?
A: You couldn’t take shortcuts. Sometimes you really wonder nowadays how that person got a license, how that person got away. For instance, that Western Kenya accident.
Q: That was inexcusable.
A: That company would have been closed down.
Q: It shouldn’t have been licensed in the first place.
A: Which reminds me, I think another major difference between those days and now in terms of getting a licence, it’s hard to imagine today that in those days we had a map, a ruler, a compass, and we navigated by our wits. I flew from Nairobi non-stop to the Seychelles on pure navigation.
We didn’t have Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or other aids to navigation that we have today. I’m not saying flying is easier today, but it’s very different.
In those days, you concentrated every inch of the way. Now a lot of the need to concentrate is taken by the machinery, whether it’s the autopilot or GPS or whatever. And if you remember that incident when a jetliner strayed over Russian territory . . .
Q: The one which got shot down?
A: The one shot down. It just seems as though the pilot wasn’t concentrating. How could he have got to that position?
Q: Yes he wasn’t.
A: Because he had all aids possible to tell him where he was.
Q: What about the other one, the Polish one where the entire Cabinet was wiped out when they flew into a mountainside?
A: Yes, now that again I think is another substantial change from those days to these. In those days, everything depended on reputation, on avoiding accident, on paying off your bank loan and so on, otherwise you are finished.
Now, today, I believe an enormous number of accidents are caused by bad management. Initially, of course, the poor pilot is always blamed and indeed if a pilot flies into a mountain, it’s only him to blame, so to speak.
But sometimes the reason he flies into the mountain is because he may be under enormous psychological pressure to get back on time. I believe several accidents recently may have been because the pilot was under an unbearable pressure to be on time.
So, going back to the comparisons then and now, I think that the technical side is important and I’m not saying that it was more difficult in those days; I’m simply saying that it was such a different environment.
Q: Would you say different skills were called for and different attitudes towards work?
A: Yes, I think probably. Certainly, today, you need to be more of a computer operator, engineer, really knowledgeable in electronics. In my day, electronics was a pretty small part of the whole thing and everything was navigation, traditional navigation and basic radio aids.
Q: Now, you mentioned a trip to the Seychelles. What’s the furthest you ever flew personally from your base here in Kenya?
Q: Not non-stop. Even if you stopped several times.
A: Copenhagen, I suppose. Copenhagen and Enniskillen.
Q: You actually landed in your ancestral home? How big a plane was that?
A: Four seats, single.
Q: How many stops would you have to do from Kenya all the way to Enniskillen?
A: There was Asmara, Port Sudan, Cairo, Nice, Gatwick, Enniskillen.
Q: That was just you and your family? Of course it must have been if you were going to Enniskillen.
A: Myself and my wife. Just the two of us. And lots happened on the trip and lots happened on many trips. I mean, we flew the Trislander right from the Isle of Wight and I think that’s the longest non-stop flight.
Q: The Trislander came to Kenya non-stop?
A: No, but we flew non-stop from Port Sudan to Nairobi. But the Trislander is quite a slow aeroplane. Although the distance Port Sudan-Nairobi is less than Seychelles -Nairobi. Seychelles-Nairobi took me six hours, Port Sudan-Nairobi took me ten -and-a-half.
Q: Okay. Just so that I understand, you know we always hear these stories about how planes used to land in Lake Naivasha. That was before your time?
A: Not entirely, but I never actually landed in the lake. My wife did. Naivasha was a seaplane stopover.
Q: Okay. So those were the early days. Now going by this, we now come to the point where you have Sunbird Aviation, which has turned eventually into Air Kenya. At some point you sold it?
A: Yes. I sold it in, I suppose, about 1976, because I had a heart condition diagnosed, which meant that I lost my commercial license. I’ve never lost a private license, I still have my private license, but I lost my commercial license and I felt that if I couldn’t do what I was asking my pilots to do, I would be a less good manager and I just didn’t want to do that. So I decided to sell it, but I retained shares and I retained the directorship for some time and I finally parted with it in 1979, when I was appointed to Kenya Airways because it was a condition; conflict of interest.
Q: But a Chief Executive of a company with 15 aeroplanes, when do you find the time to fly? I would have thought you mostly sat in an office?
A: No, I did a lot of office work while I was flying. I did as much flying, possibly more than any pilot and every time we brought in a new type or a new aeroplane, I would do the initial flying to check it out and to get rid of any problems. I was a hands-on manager: loading myself, everything.
So that answers your question on length of flight . . . right down to Cape Town, Copenhagen. I’ve flown in America, but I’ve never flown to America on a commercial license.
Q: You mean your commercial licence here was valid even in the US?
A: Yes, I went to America to take an airline transport licence. The progression was from student licence to pilot’s licence if you pass the test and from there you have to get your 350 hours’ experience to get a commercial licence which entitles you to fly relatively small aeroplanes only.
In order to fly bigger ones, you have to have an airline transport licence, which I obtained in America. So, at one stage, I had an American and East African airline transport licence.
Q: Have you any idea at all how many hours you must have spent in the air over the years? I’m sure the 300 passed in the 70s. So how many hours would you say?
A: The trouble is hours are pretty meaningless. I always feel the number of flights is more significant. I haven’t logged quite a lot of the hours I’ve done. But actually logged about 10,000. Actually flown, probably closer to 15,000 or 20,000.
Q: That’s a lot of time in the air.
A: It’s a lot of time in the air. I haven’t actually worked out how many miles or times round the globe it is, but . . . close to 3 million miles. The problem of course is, again, if you are logging hours, you can log hours at 60 miles an hour and go nowhere or you can log hours at 500 miles an hour and you’ve covered the world.
Q: It all depends on your speed.
A: It depends on the speed of the aeroplane you are flying.
Q: Are there any unusual adventures you can recall from the time, which might give our readers some idea of what it was like being a leading charter pilot in those days?
A: The ones I could think of immediately were being under house arrest in Somalia for six weeks. I had been flying for an American mining company who were prospecting for uranium and it was very low-level flying with a Geiger counter at tree-top height. We had Somali military pilots with us who were to watch what we were doing and the government of Siad Barre felt that we were spying for the American Government. So I was lucky not to be locked up in a prison, but I was put under house arrest. It took six weeks to get me out. That was one incident.
Q: Roughly what year approximately?
A: Early seventies. Those are the sort of things that are in my pilot’s log book. Another incident was that in those days it took forever to get permission to fly to some foreign countries and I had a trip planned to go into what is now the DRC to look for the gorillas.In those days you had to climb the mountains and find them; they were completely wild.
Q: You are suggesting they are not wild now?
A: They are, but they are easier to find because they are being watched all the time. Then they were completely out in the wild, up in the hills behind Bukavu. So I finally got my landing permission for Bukavu, arrived there and the authorities immediately arrested me because I didn’t have take-off permission.
You would have thought that landing permission implied that you may go, but apparently it meant you are welcome to come but you may not leave. Permission to leave had to be obtained from Kinshasa 1,500 miles away, and very poor communications. It took about a week. So, for that week I was under house arrest.
Q: That was when Mobutu was in charge?
A: Yes, I guess. Another incident was, you remember when Green Monkey disease broke out in Sudan, which I believe may have been a fore-runner of HIV/AIDS? I have a feeling that the human race got these viruses from the monkey population because they were very close; they were living together, they were eating monkeys and so on.
And Green Monkey at that time was a real scare because there didn’t appear to be any cure for it and it was certain quick death. There was some problem, I can’t really remember what
it was, but, officially, Kenya didn’t want anything to do with bringing human and monkey body parts in for analysis. They had to get out to Porton Down, which is the laboratory in England which does these sort of things.
So I was “illegally” but with unofficial approval of the then PS Health, bringing these body parts out of the Sudan and then giving them to captains of airlines that were flying to England and they would take the samples to Porton. As a result of that, the PS wanted to put me in Port Reitz Quarantine Hospital in case I had caught green Monkey disease. But he conceded and I was detained at home.
Q: And were there symptoms, were you feeling feverish or anything like that?
A: Not at all. But I was flying a WHO [World Health Organization] team around and one of the team members started to sneeze in the airplane.There was panic and I was told to land immediately and evacuate the airplane.
In another incident, I ran out of fuel. I had borrowed a friend’s airplane and we went to Lake Turkana for a fishing trip. I had masses of fuel when I took off. I had enough fuel to go to Turkana and back and down to Mombasa.
So on the return, I looked into the tank, I didn’t have a dip stick. The fuel gauges were reading a little low but they were often inaccurate.
They were reading empty by the time we got to Nakuru, but there was no fuel in Nakuru. So I kept going and we ran out of fuel over the Limuru escarpment and I had to do a forced landing. And, you know, when you are in serious trouble in the air, you call ‘Mayday’.
So I gave the Mayday to Wilson Airport and obviously one of the controllers knew who I was and he tipped off the press, the police, the firefighters and you wouldn’t believe the fuss that thousands of people came out. It subsequently transpired that due to a technical fault, fuel was being sucked out of the tanks in flight.
Q: Where did you land?
A: On the new top road to Nakuru that was under construction.
Q: There were no cars on the road, or they stopped them?
A: No cars, but plenty of construction vehicles, power lines and telephone lines. And then the next day there was a cartoon in the press showing a pilot in shorts, because I had come straight from fishing, trying to get some fuel and someone else saying ‘you are better off in a Nissan.
Q: But no one was hurt?
A: No. I had on board a former professional hunter and I said to him ‘get into the back and strap in’ and he said ‘no way, this is more exciting than hunting buffalo any day’.
Q: So this was in the seventies?
A: No, it must have been in the eighties because I had just left Kenya Airways. I would guess it was about 1982.
Q: So he may have been a professional hunter but he can’t have been hunting because hunting had been banned by the Government.
A: Yes, but hunting is still going on in neighbouring countries.
Q: Yes it is. Was that the only time you landed an aeroplane on a road?
A: No, I can think of at least one more. Whilst Isaac Omolo Okero was Minister of Power and Communications, he asked me to fly him to Gem, so that he could visit his constituency and home.
When I remarked that there was no airfield as far as I knew anywhere near Gem, he said, ‘What’s wrong with the road?’ I pointed out that one required special permission for that sort of thing and his response was, ‘I hereby give you permission!’ We had a very successful visit and were greeted by thousands upon arrival!
Q: So there was much more to flying back then, than just the routine charter or scheduled flight?
A: I suppose so. Those were the sort of things that happened. Another incident was when I was called to rescue a mechanic working up in Southern Sudan at Yei.
He was doing some welding and a piece of metal exploded and went into his brain and he was on the point of death and it proved impossible to get permission to go in to get him, so I had to go in without permission and it involved James Bond stuff, telling the authorities where I was whereas in fact I was somewhere different. We were not allowed to overfly Uganda, but I did. I got him to hospital and his life was saved.
Q: Roughly what year was this?
A: That would be in the early seventies.
Q: Was there ever a possibility a military aircraft would have come out and shot you down?
A: Very much so. Uganda had surface-to-air missiles up in the northern part and we had to go round Uganda, but in order to get to him quickly, I did overfly, I took a chance.
Q: That’s a great story. I’m glad you remembered it.
A: That just gives a sort of impression of the way life was in those days. Now it is easier to get medical emergency clearances. The guy who was my co-conspirator with the Green Monkey business was Wilfred Koinange, do you remember him?
Q: Yes. The former PS, Health?
A: That’s right. We were working together on this stuff to go out to Porton, but, basically, it was against WHO regulations and it was against Kenya’s bilateral agreements. I went to him and the minister and said, ‘Look, I’m witnessing people coming down from Sudan, no quarantine, no nothing and yet this disease is spreading south, it’s threatening Kenya.
What are you going to do about it?’ And then we got going on this programme and I like to think it helped prevent the Green Monkey disease coming to Kenya.
Q: Anything else, at all, that might count as being part of the history of aviation in those days?
A: In the mid-seventies one of Sunbird’s aircraft – a Piper Aztec 5Y-ACS was leased out to Bruce McKenzie and Keith Savage to fly to Uganda to meet Idi Amin Dada. What their business was I am not sure, but could guess!
On their departure from Entebbe back to Nairobi they were given a gift by Amin – a stuffed lion’s head! You probably know the rest of the story – the bomb inside the lion’s head designed to detonate over Lake Victoria delayed and aircraft, pilot and the two passengers were blown to bits over the Ngong Hills. Apparently the bomb had detonated later than intended – the aircraft was meant to fall into the Lake without trace.
Q: I remember that very well. It made global headlines. Most tragic of course. So back to your story then?
A: Yes. So, I went into Credit Finance Corporation as it was then, now CFCStanbic bank, as Chief Executive for a short time and, while I was there, I got a call from Mr. Okero, who was then Minister of Power.
Q: Transport and Communications or Power?
A: Power and Communications. So I got a call from the Minister, saying ‘can you spare me a few minutes?’ and I thought he wanted a loan, because I was in that business and I’d already turned down a rather prominent Cabinet member.
So I said, ‘Yes, certainly, sir. Do you want to come to my office or should I come to yours?’ And he said, ‘Probably better you come to mine if that’s alright’.
This was at 4 O’clock on a Friday afternoon. So I went to his office and he said in his usual very brief and to-the-point way, ‘How would you react if I said I’d like to appoint you Chief Executive of Kenya Airways?’
I was actually stunned and I think my first question was ‘When do you want an answer?’ and he said Monday morning.
So I had to get back and think and told my employer, who was CFC, there’s a possibility that I might join Kenya Airways. I didn’t know what my terms would be or anything, but I was young enough and naïve enough to think that surely this is an opportunity that would never come again and which I must take, although I had seriously doubted my ability. I was only 38.
Q: Are you saying that you were only 38 by the time you had finished with Air Kenya and all this?
Q: So, the heart condition was diagnosed when you were that young?
A: It was diagnosed in 1976 at which point I was 34. By the way, Air Kenya, it became Air Kenya long after I had sold it. It was Sunbird Aviation and the people who bought it from me then sold it on and it became Air Kenya. But it retained the original Sunbird logo and it still has it today.
So, he said, ‘I’ll give you the weekend’. He didn’t indicate what a problem it was going to be, but I did say yes. And then he had to convince the President, the Minister of Finance and the Attorney General, principally.
And of course I didn’t know the inside story, but I believe the Minister of Finance, who is today’s President, was the most difficult to convince and it took quite a while.
At that time I had to negotiate with the Attorney General’s Chambers for my terms. I was to be a government employee but my terms had to be in line with the commercial world because I had children at school and I believe the terms that were finally negotiated made me one of the most highly paid people in the Kenyan Government, which is not something to be proud of, by the way.
Q: But it was a legitimate salary?
A: But it was for that reason of course that it was very difficult to persuade the politicians, because they had to know and also I was a young man. But the honour was to be the first Kenyan national to be appointed to head Kenya Airways.
Q: Who was there before you?
A: I took over from Donal Downing, who was an Aerlingus appointee. Anyway, they finally convinced the Big Three and I was appointed and I took over my duties in May 1979, or thereabouts. But, tragically for me and for possibly the airline in that respect, the Minister of Power lost power.
Q: Voted out?
A: Voted out at the elections. So my mentor, if you like, had gone and I inherited in his place Mr. Henry Kosgey, straight from the laboratories of the East African Breweries. And basically from then on, I had minimal political support and again the threads began to tie together because, by this time, Richard Nyaga, who was the Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and directly responsible for aviation matters, so I had a lot of dealings with him, although, of course, hierarchically speaking, I dealt with the Permanent Secretary.
And fairly early on in my time at Kenya Airways, I felt that this job was actually too big for one man because it was a fledgling airline operating long routes with short- range aeroplanes, trying to capture the high revenue clientele in domestic-configured Boeing 707s and dealing with three different militant unions and I thought this was a full-time job for a Chief Executive and that he didn’t therefore have time for the necessary networking and politicking that had to be done not with the Kenyan Government alone, but with world governments.
So I begged to be allowed to recruit Richard Nyaga as my co-Managing Director, not working for me but working with me on the same platform so that he could deal with those matters that he was so incredibly good at, as was shown in his career path because he became the Deputy to the Secretary General of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and in fact a candidate to be the Secretary General.
Anyway, it was turned down flat and so I had to deal with the bank, which was on my neck because we had no money, I had to go and beg for the salaries every month, I had to deal with the politics, I had to deal with the unions, foreign governments over traffic rights, I had to deal with the operational side and I was still 38-years-old with a Board of what I considered grumpy old wazee to deal with. So it was a difficult time.
Q: Would you go as far as to say it was a nightmare compared to the relatively straightforward way in which you had built your own airline?
A: No, I would say it was an experience I’m hugely grateful to have had, with hindsight.
Q: With all that stress?
A: Yes, with all that stress. I mean it was huge stress in running your own large airline with the responsibilities and so on, but, from my own point of view, from the experience point of view, I’m hugely grateful.
Of course I will remain forever honoured to have been selected and it gave me an opportunity to see a different side of aviation which I would never have experienced, like travelling to Hong Kong for the launch of a new route with the chairman, Eliud Mathu, in those days.
But it was difficult to do the sort of hands-on management that I was used to at the same time. And I inherited a team. I inherited about 4,000 workers altogether and one of my briefs given to me by the minister was ‘get this workforce cut down and get the airline profitable’.
Well in the face of political intervention from every side, in the face of three militant unions and so on, it wasn’t that easy just to get rid of people. But we did get it down to nearly 1,800 by the time I left.
Q: From 4,000 to 1,800? That’s a huge difference.
A: After I left, it built back up. But then it became legitimate to do so because it was now a much bigger airline with more routes, more aircraft and so on.
Q: Apart from reducing staff, what were the other – of course that was one specific brief you were given which you carried it out – what were the other briefs to make it more profitable, to make it bigger, meaning you took the job when you were told ‘this is what we are hoping you will do’. How many of those things were possible, how many proved impossible?
A: From my recollection, compared to today’s world when we don’t buy a company without doing due diligence and looking into everything, from my recollection, all I was given was a set of Board papers from recent Board meetings, and a balance sheet which was horrible, but I probably didn’t have the experience at that time to realize how horrible, and a sort of naïve expectation that the Government would support me; government including the bank, which was the Kenya Commercial Bank in those days.
John Michuki and Philip Ndegwa were the Chairs that I had to deal with.
And from the bank’s point of view, we were a total disaster. We were making losses every month, we had no assets, the balance sheet was appalling, but either the Government had to make the decision to close the airline or we had to be kept going somehow.
And I personally, as I said, feel that I didn’t enjoy the political support that I naively expected. For instance, I would do my duty every time the President left or came back to the country and I’d be in the line at the airport and he would walk down and shake hands and talk to others but would just walk on past me.
Q: That was Moi?
A: Yes. Probably not on purpose, probably sub-conscious. But it was quite obvious to those surrounding me that I didn’t enjoy too much political support. So, forgive me, what was the core of your question?
Q: The core of my question was one – it was overstaffed, you managed to reduce the staff. What was the second problem?
A: It was vastly underfunded, so we relied on an overdraft, it was totally ill-equipped, we were flying to London on a vapour . . . because the range of those aircraft that we inherited was basically regional, not really long-range and had bad galley and toilet facilities for those long-haul journeys.
And so we just simply couldn’t compete with the other established airlines. So we were tending to be de facto a package tour operator rather than, as today, a business airline with lots of business traffic.
Package tours, of course they pay very little, based on the assumption that your aeroplane is going to be filled with lots in the back seats paying little, a few in the middle seats paying more and a few upfront seats paying a fortune. That mix didn’t happen in my day. So those were some of the difficulties. Also the huge interference from politicians; we’d have incidents of cabin crew behaving absolutely outrageously in public in uniform and they would be fired. And I’d get a call from a minister that very night, ‘reinstate my daughter’, which I, of course, refused to do. One of the incidents that I suffered was political. I had a licensed firearm, which I used to carry and one day I went to meet my wife who was coming in from London and rather than leave the firearm in my office, I had it in my briefcase with me but I never went anywhere near going through Customs.
I was waiting for her outside and for some reason which I subsequently feel was due to the fact that Paul Ngei and one or two other bigwigs were in the crowd, the Customs officer saw me standing there and demanded that I open my briefcase. I said, ‘since I’m not going through to airside, why do you want to look into my briefcase? I’m waiting for my wife’.
He insisted and I said, ‘Okay, happy to do so, but I have a gun with me, licensed and I really don’t want to produce my gun in public. I’m the Chief Executive Kenya Airways, so can we go into an office and you can look at my briefcase there?’ He said, ‘No, open it here now’. And he pulled out my revolver, held it up for all to see and Paul Ngei was one of those who saw it.
And if you look at the news clips of those early days, when Njonjo was impeached in Parliament, Paul Ngei stood up in Parliament and said Andrew Cole imports arms for Mr. Njonjo. And because he had immunity of Parliament, I couldn’t sue him.
Q: Of course you were set up, someone set that man to come and do that. There was no way that was an accident.
A: Anyway, I then got very embroiled in the Njonjo case as reported in The Weekly Review.
Q: Which was then published by Hilary Ng’weno?
A: Hilary Ng’weno. He tried to make out that I was Mr. Njonjo’s Mr. Fix-it.
Q: Hit-man or armourer?
A: No, much more than that. That I was a partner with him in Solio because he had bought Solio from my father, but I had nothing to do with it. In fact, if it had been me, I would have said to my father, don’t sell. There was a huge airfield on Solio built by the new owner Parfett.
Q: Parfett owned it before your father or?
A: No, bought it from my father.
Q: Okay. But Njonjo and Parfett bought it together?
A: I think Njonjo remained a partner. So, then Sunbird was accused of taking mercenaries into the Seychelles to stage that coup, which indeed we did, but we didn’t know it.
Q: You didn’t know who they were?
A: They registered as a rugby team.
Q: So, would you say, looking at the incidental details, someone may have mistakenly thought you had these things or do you think they knew that Sunbird had no part in it but were determined to make the case?
A: But there were other coincidences — CFC, that was Mr. Njonjo’s bank. Because he got involved with CFC. He bought into CFC by the time I left. Hilary Ng’weno did an exemplary job of investigative journalism, but coming in every case to the wrong conclusion.
And I actually had to appeal to the President to get this stopped somehow, because it was affecting my reputation as the Chairman of the Mount Kenya Safari Clubs, as I was by then, and also as the former Chief Executive of Kenya Airways. I could imagine the Government might be embarrassed having retained me, given the scandal. I felt my phone was being tapped, everywhere I was being followed because Hilary Ng’weno was making the case that I was the man behind Njonjo.
Q: You see, to the average Kenyan reader, someone like you would seem very mysterious. White Kenyan who is a Lord and goes to the House of Lords and yet runs Kenya Airways and runs a bank. It can easily be cooked up to seem as something very, very mysterious and suggest you are not an ordinary person at all; you are one of these mysterious people who pull strings behind the scenes. How much longer did you get to stay then?
A: I stayed for about three years.
Q: Three years? How many years after the Njonjo trouble started? His problems I believe were in 1983.
A: No I had left by then. I left in 1982. But the incident that caused Paul Ngei to mention me in Parliament was the one that he saw when I was in Kenya Airways.
So, I left and went back to Sunbird Aviation for a short time as chairman and then I went and joined Intercontinental Hotels and we built the Nairobi Safari Club to add to the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, which was already in place.
Q: Tell us a little more about this incident at the airport. This is bound to surprise many readers. The insistence that the gun had to be taken out of your briefcase; waving it around in the air in a fairly public place and so on. Looking back, what would you say that was about? Was it about branding you as a dangerous man? Was there an agenda focused on just you or was it your friend Charles Njonjo they were after? Why was all that drama deliberately created?
A: Well, I must say I never thought of it as such. I always thought of it as the officials being particularly diligent about their duties because they were in the presence of bigwigs watching them.
But yes, with hindsight, I suppose there’s a way people connected me with Njonjo. I was being watched all the time. Maybe Paul Ngei was after me for turning down his request for a loan when I was in CFC?
I couldn’t really tell you. But my impression until recently was just an officious Customs officer who was being watched by big politicians and therefore felt that he must show that this mzungu wasn’t beyond the law.
Q: You really don’t think so? The airport was a smaller place then. There’s no way he could not have known who you were.
A: Maybe. You are a wiser bird than I am.
Q: No. I wouldn’t say that I am. But we can leave that at that. Then you gave the impression that there was a media campaign thereafter . . .
A: The Weekly Review specifically.
Q: What do you make of that, looking back?
A: Well, looking back, first of all I knew Hilary Ngweno, I respected him and The Weekly Review was a good publication and much of the link with Njonjo was theoretically correct.
To give a couple of examples: I ran CFC and, as I left, Mr. Njonjo and others bought CFC, so the link between me and CFC was correct.
Solio: I was raised for the first few years in Solio before my parents split up. It belonged to my father, so you could say it was a family property, and it was bought by Mr. Njonjo and Mr. Parfett. Sunbird: the fact that we flew Mike Hoare and his crew into the Seychelles was in fact true.
So, in a way, I thought it was a remarkable piece of investigative journalism which just went on and on and on. I was on the cover page of The Weekly Review and you can’t stop a journalist. I appealed to him, people acting on my behalf appealed to him, but it went on, and so, finally, I had to appeal to the President. It was the most uncomfortable period. I was actually once stopped from leaving the country.
Q: Can’t have been pleasant at all. But eventually you were allowed to go?
A: I was going to London with my family and the immigration officer who took my passport, looked down at his secret list and said, ‘I’m sorry, you are not allowed to travel’.
Q: Well, at some point all this drama did end. What did you do then?
A: Then I decided to buy my farm on Lake Naivasha, Mundui, and go out on my own, but realizing that I had to keep a job in Nairobi to pay for it because it was too small; 1,200 acres as a cattle ranch and as a wildlife conservancy, it was too small really. So we had to go into the paying guest business, which was quite successful for quite a long time and I also had to get employment in Nairobi to help. I was with AAR Health Services for 15 years, commuting daily to Nairobi by air. I put all my salary back into Mundui, where we lived for 30 years.
Q: Very happy years I should think. Beautiful place.
A: Very happy. Wonderful. Absolutely unique.
Q: Surely, you miss not being at Mundui.
A: You’ll never know.
Q: Do you think you made the right choice in deciding to sell it?
A: The place was becoming an island. Mundui itself was an absolutely world class paradise, but what was going on around it was not nice and I couldn’t do anything. I tried; for 20 years I was the chairman of the Riparian Association. Sometimes I wonder if that wasn’t 20 wasted years.
Q: There are certain things which only change when government policy changes and government policy unfortunately tends to be determined by the vote, which means it tends to be determined by population and in Kenya population means mostly the interests of the poor. Not in any fundamental way, but anything which calls for leaving large spaces open usually flies in the face of government policy.
A: But also, we’ve just got to learn that if we go on building on wetlands and building in swamps we are going to lose more and more people from disasters. Look at Bangkok. We just don’t seem to learn, and one of the things we don’t seem to have learnt is how to have a sustainable human population.
Q: That’s very far from being done, but the only positive sign I could give you is I was shocked the other day when I was checking on some site. Uganda, the average woman still has seven children. Kenya, we are down to four.
A: We are progressing.
Q: That’s progress, exactly.
A: And the key to the solution is things like education, health, water, which are longer-term things.
Q: I want to pull you back to Lake Naivasha. First, what were your hopes for the Riparian Association, then what were your successes and finally what were the frustrations which made you resign, because you did resign?
A: Yes. I did resign, but I like to think of it more as handing over. My hopes were to conserve the riparian land in its near-natural status, because I have a passion as an environmentalist and I passionately felt that some areas of our country should be left pristine for future generations, Lake Naivasha was unique and, being a major body of freshwater should be conserved.
There’s a big difference between preservation and conservation. Preservation means hands off, conservation means manage, use but use wisely for the long-term future. And what was beginning to happen was that encroachment into the riparian land was going unchecked Buildings were going up, unlimited herds of cattle and sheep and goats were going down to the water to drink instead of the water being brought to them and so forth. And there was no management.
The Naivasha Council in Chotara’s day, he planted trees and good luck to him and he did many good things, but I don’t think you can say that when he was there, there was a focus on conserving this unique body of water, Lake Naivasha.
Q: I don’t think it was within his range to understand the need to conserve. That was one of Moi’s problems. There are people he found politically useful who had no idea of public policy whatsoever.
A: Right. So, I and a couple of others, and I emphasize a couple of others because we were not many, saw that unless we do something to help ourselves, we can’t expect the Government to do it and we will lose this gem. So, we turned the Lake Naivasha Riparian Owners’ Association as it was called then from a merely statutory body that had a certain agreement with government to keep off the riparian land and whose only function really was adjudicating between land disputes, we turned it into a more pro-active conservation organization focusing on ways and means to keep the water fresh, the riparian land as a kidney for that water because, without it, it just becomes a recipient of everything that runs off, et cetera, et cetera, and I think I was appointed chairman in about 1986 and, by 1999, we had built this organization up to world recognition standards.
We won the Ramsar Award in 1999 for our efforts and my understanding why we received the award was that it was considered as an exemplary example of what a community can achieve to conserve the natural environment and it was a model which others copied. I remember I gave the keynote speech to the Ramsar Convention in Costa Rica, which was one of the highlights of my life. Most challenging, effectively like addressing the United Nations.
Q: It is. From an environmental position, definitely it was exactly that.
A: At that conference, several nations represented came up and said, ‘can we have copies of your management plan?’ or ‘we have already got copies of your management plan and we are putting it in place’ — Vietnam, for instance.
So it was a great success but, unfortunately, the flower industry had by then become so big, so powerful, such an employer of people and created so many problems indirectly, which, of course, they were not willing to acknowledge and yet were not willing to fund our organization.
And, probably, I and my committee were guilty of not going about fundraising in the right way. We had very limited funds and support, once the success had been achieved, implementation of the plan just evaporated. I always knew that was going to be the most difficult part.
People who had supported the plan in principle to say ‘yes we will respect the riparian land, we will not build on it, we will not plant flowers on it’, were now saying ‘why should we keep off the riparian land, the lake is three kilometers away. We are wasting time’.
They started building and putting up greenhouses and pit latrines and all that. And we started to exercise our muscle in a purely voluntary way. The implementation committee, I think it’s important to emphasize, was not just a few of us locals. It was with official representation from many government ministries.
The committee was about 15, of which virtually half were government. And we worked extremely well as a team, trying to do things on a voluntary basis. Trying to get people to voluntarily pull back rather than going in with a gun and saying ‘you get out or you go to jail’.
But it didn’t work. They weren’t currently willing to consider these appeals for voluntary action so our focus then had to be to get the management plan made official so that we had some teeth. It finally happened when Mr. Musyoka, the current Vice President, was then the minister and he got it gazetted and the management team, of which I was the elected chair, was gazetted as official.
Within about three weeks of that happening, a few disgruntled characters went rushing to court under a certificate of urgency to restrain the minister from implementing this plan.
Q: The Kenyan Judiciary back then wasn’t what we hope it will be under the new Chief Justice. You could get an injunction for anything, absolutely anything.
A: What amazed me was the Government, with all its might, apparently was unable to bring this case forward. My expectation and my plea to minister after minister after minister, to the Attorney General, Solicitor General, was ‘let us hear and determine this case’, because I knew they had no case and all I needed was to take it to court and have it heard. To this day it hasn’t been heard.
Q: So, the restraining order is still in force?
A: The Government has found a way around. The original committee has been . . . I wouldn’t say it has been disbanded, because I think you have to de-gazette if you were gazetted, you have to be de-gazetted. We’ve never been de-gazetted but a new committee has been formed. It’s now called the Imarisha Naivasha Board under the initiative of the Prime Minister, because nobody else seemed to be doing anything so he took it over.
Q: Having spent so much of your life, a surprisingly large number of hours up in the air, looking down at the country, seeing the changes, population patterns, the deforestation, is this fired your passion for the environment?
A: I think the answer to that is no.
Q: Even if you had never flown at all, you would still be interested?
A: Absolutely. However, for sure, seeing it from the air gives you a different perspective, especially because most of my flying has been at low level, not up in the stratosphere like an airline pilot.
But the point is that I was brought up on large acreages. I was brought up in a family that valued its land and looked after it for future generations, didn’t exploit it, and I was brought up as a Christian. I walked to church every Sunday even in the snow. But, truth be told, and with the risk of offending fellow Christians, I think my religion is really the natural world.
Q: Let me understand that because it might be clear to you, it might not be clear to the reader. First you are saying, given the upbringing, if you never flew at all, you’d still have a strong . . .
A: I’d still have a strong feeling for the land, trees, the animals, the birds and water.
Q: And, in that context then, given the population pressures that a country like Kenya has had, doesn’t that by itself limit the Government’s options on environmental issues?
A: I think yes for sure, but it probably also creates a greater responsibility on all of us to conserve and preserve a little of the natural world because it is part of our heritage and, more importantly, it’s one of the pillars of our future and Vision 2030. Economic development; tourism.
We are not going to bring tourists in this country if they simply sit on the beach and behind the beach, rather like Spain it’s just row-on-row of concrete buildings. They are not going to come here if the only wildlife they can see is on a private farm and no access allowed. We have to conserve our natural world in Kenya and worldwide. That’s the way I see it.
Q: If you could influence the Kenyan Government policy on just one issue, what would you give your focus to?
A: I’m on record as saying, ‘prioritize the environment; give it a bigger consideration in the Budget’. If you read Vision 2030, there’s hardly a mention of the natural environment, yet without the environment, manufacturing isn’t going to be possible because there is no water. Agriculture is not going to be possible because there is no sustainable land. How are we going to get it done?
Q: So you are saying considerations of the environment should be the priority and indeed the foundation of all economic planning?
A: Yes. And this is how the primitive people thought. Like the American Indians, their gods were the trees and the prairies and the mountains and the seas and the lakes.
Q: Even my ancestors believed there was a god in Lake Victoria. They never actually saw him but they knew when he was angry.
A: And the Kikuyu, Mt. Kenya.
Q: But you know why you would have a hard time selling that is you are preaching that to people who are running as fast as they can from the idea that there was a god on Mt. Kenya or there was a god in Lake Victoria and it’s not just that the missionaries did a great job, but people want to be modern.
A: Churches are fashionable, aren’t they?
Q: Yes, that’s more or less what I’m trying to say. But your view then is that there isn’t enough weight given to environmental considerations in long-term planning.
A: It’s improving, it’s coming but it’s taking too long. And I’m not saying Kenya alone. Of course it’s the world. I’m saying that we need a better example of what’s wrong with building in wetlands in Nairobi. Just look at Bangkok. Bangkok is in the papers today, sinking into a swamp.
Q: One last thing. Not every reader will understand how it is that you were Andrew Cole (or Lord Cole) in your early days as the owner of Sunbird Aviation, and later CEO of Kenya Airways; and then later on you were Andrew Enniskillen (or Lord Enniskillen) as you are now. Also, one would wonder how it was possible that you actually attended sittings of the House of Lords, while you were in fact a Kenyan citizen. Maybe you could explain this a little bit.
A: The Earl of Enniskillen is the hereditary title of the head of our family and he has several other more minor titles – Viscount Cole, being one. It is the practice to allow the eldest son to use that title while his father is alive, but upon his death the eldest son, or closest male relative if he has no son, becomes the Earl of Enniskillen.
I am the 7th Earl since the title was created in the 18th Century. By Writ of Summons from the King that gives me a seat in the House of Lords. There are about 700 Hereditary Peers and at that time about 400 Life Peers – appointed for their lifetime but their peerage ceases upon death.
The main function of the House of Lords was to act as a check and balance for legislation coming from the House of Commons – the elected politicians. Bills were reviewed, often improved, and sent back to the Commons. They would usually accept those changes, but if they refused they could overrule the House of Lords after about a two-year process of negotiation.
Not all Hereditary Peers attended the House of Lords. Some would attend but not take part in debates. In order to be allowed to participate, you had to make a maiden speech first – a rather intimidating affair. There were, like me, a very few Commonwealth Peers, neither UK citizens nor resident in the UK but that was allowed under the rules of the House. I informed President Moi and got his permission to participate.
It was obviously difficult for me to attend regularly from this distance, but I did as much as possible to learn the ropes and feel less of a new boy. I inherited my seat in 1989 and attended every year since then but I didn’t make my maiden speech until November 1996. I was participating in a debate on the opportunities presented for young people to gain employment. I drew on my experience in the Lake Naivasha Management process, highlighting opportunities for graduates to assist in environmental education and monitoring. Judging by the unusually high number of subsequent speakers who congratulated me, it went down okay. From then on I was entitled to speak in debates.
Of course in 1999 all Hereditary Peers were thrown out by the Blair government and we were rather unceremoniously asked to return our keys and passes and pack up. I refused in protest at what I considered an unconstitutional and unnecessary act, although the House of Lords certainly needed reform – but the new system is no better. The Hereditary Peers did a huge amount of the work and some were among the very top debaters and with wide experience.
A great deal of the work of course was done behind the scenes, reading up on subjects, communicating in writing and so on and thus I was able to contribute without necessarily speaking. Time in debate was always very limited anyway. The few Commonwealth Peers brought added experience from overseas. So I had 10 years there in all and consider myself very fortunate to have had such an opportunity and to meet and listen to so many great people.
The great and vaulting conversations between Enniskillen and Muga, of Aviation East Africa held in Nairobi in November.