I Fly Balloons
Root’s first letter to me began, “We’ve got to stop not meeting like this.” Postmarked Nairobi, it arrived in my cubicle in New York’s Graybar Building. As the only USA employee for Survival Anglia Ltd., I was the point person for post production and duct tape. The Roots’ first prime time film was shot in the Galapagos and featured Joan fending off mocking birds at camp, riveting stuff. With the best of intentions, the program “host” was Prince Philip, because of his support of conservation efforts. The organization HRH supported, the World Wildlife Fund, would eventually endorse the Survival series, and Survival Anglia Ltd. would win the Queen’s Award to industry. But when Roots’ film about the Galapagos, “Enchanted Isles” was broadcast in 1972, the top British export remained Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Alan Root had another vision for wildlife films, to focus on nature, with precious few people on-camera. Production qualities were high in so-called blue chip films, a genre the Roots helped establish. Among the dozen film teams at Survival Anglia, Alan Root was the only cinematographer ceded control of the edit and script. Alan also had the power to select his own music. Consequently, “Thus Spake Zarathustra” pounded under the opening shot of his balloon rising, in “Balloon Safari.”
To film buffs, it was a salute to Kubrick’s, “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.” To John Heminway, it was a home movie; the Roots featured prominently. To other baboons in the troop, it was an ego trip that began much better than it ended, like Alan’s balloon flight with Mrs. Onassis. Flying the former first lady over Naivasha, the theory of Lighter Than Air was tested when the gondola drifted too close to a massive industrial smoke stack. The silk envelope collapsed in the warm air. Telling the story over dinner, Joan gently mocked, “I fly balloons.” Ironically, she did, but it was Alan who came up with the notion of being the first to float one over Kilimanjaro. “I’m the guy who’s got the ideas,” he told me for a profile of the couple in PEOPLE.
“Balloon Safari,” narrated by David Niven, was seen by 98 million people in 26 countries. After crossing the crown of Africa (Kilimanjaro tallest peak at 19,340 feet) the balloon, named “Lengai” after Ol Doinyo Lengai (Mountain of God) a volcano in Tanzania, was put out to pasture in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. On January 3 of 1976, near Keekorok Lodge, Alan Root piloted the inaugural flight of Balloon Safaris, Ltd. The dawn flight remains a highlight for travelers to Kenya, and inspired other balloon companies in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.
Tonight Alan Root is in Nairobi, but Joan will not sleep alone. A wild caracal has access to the master bedroom at Naivasha. A sleek big cat with tufted ears, the caracal has been cast for a Root documentary. It was Joan’s particular gift to acclimatize wild creatures, to diminish their fear of humans, especially the cameraman and his imposing gear. In a country where a cheetah sat in the passenger seat of a convertible zipping about Nairobi, or friends lived in a cage surrounded by free roaming lions, sleeping with a caracal did not raise the bar for eccentricity. Transported to the Serengeti, the caracal leapt skyward, struck a bird out of the air with its paw, and became a star in slow motion. Joan was out of frame, but back in the groove.
Wildlife documentaries produced by Alan & Joan Root often rivaled feature films and in some cases surpassed them, although the actors were animals and birds that did not always stick with the script. This is where Joan’s skills were essential. As Wilbur E. Garrett, former editor at National Geographic (which published several articles and photographs by the Roots;) said, “It’s not like sending a film crew to Africa. Their films are an extension of their lives. Somehow, you think the animals can understand them.”
Joan certainly understood the needs of the many orphans brought to her, and was so wise about behavior that she persuaded me to help her capture an 8 foot long python, later released on Crescent Island. The menagerie at Naivasha convinced visitors they had stepped into a Disney film. The 88 acre nature preserve is frequented by 200 species of birds, including African fish eagles that use towering yellow-barked acacias as a perch to survey for a meal, or build a nest. Snakes and tortoises were part of the bestiary, and newcomers were treated to The Egg Trick: the weekly feeding of a serpent, otherwise unique décor in Roots’ home office. During tea time on the verandah, a wooden box resembling a casket was opened to reveal a supply of meal worms, which one could toss to birds hovering for a hand out. The cook’s son, a Kenyan boy with learning disabilities, was given the job of tending the aardvark, named Million by Alan, after the song, he dead-punned, “Aardvark A Million Miles for One of Your Smiles.” A pair of magnificent black and while colobus monitored human conversations from aloft; every where you looked, there was a candidate for Noah’s Ark. George Plimpton noted when what he thought was “a water bed” on the far side of the living room “got up, walked out the door, across the grass, and into the lake –a pet hippo named Sally.”
The setting for the Roots’ Lake Naivasha home was originally chosen by Ewart Grogan, who considered this landscape the most beautiful he encountered in his walk from the Cape to Cairo. Grogan undertook the survey in 1898 to persuade his potential father in law that he was worthy of his daughter. The two were married in London, but Naivasha lured Grogan back. East Africa became his playground for business ventures, including the area’s first classy hotel. Grogan also did his part to establish the old saw, “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?” Cape to Cairo Grogan eventually had three separate families. So would Alan Root. Not simultaneously, but close enough to make tongues wag in Langata, the Nairobi suburb where I made my base camp. I invited the most sensible neighbor I knew to join Joan and me for dinner.
Dr. Mary Leakey offered to divulge an ultimatum she gave Louis Leakey, if Joan would keep the advice confidential. I took Mary’s cue, and slipped away to tend my charcoal fire. Joan, true to her promise, would never tell me Dr. Leakey’s secret. Whatever it was didn’t work for either of them.
Knowing her divorce was imminent as we set out on safari, Joan held on to the magic, describing with fervor her last working safari with Alan, to capture an erupting volcano in Central Africa. Throughout the night, missiles of small hot boulders landed around their tent of cloth. “No one will ever beat that!” she exclaimed.
The daughter of a coffee farmer, Joan Thorpe was born in Nairobi. At 16 she left Kenya for school in Switzerland, but her love for African wildlife drew her back to East Africa. Although she attended the same high school as Alan Root, they didn’t meet until 1960, in Tanzania, where Joan was helping her father run a photo safari. Her affinity for animals, and her ability to successfully rear a young orphaned elephant, appealed to Alan, who she married in 1961.
It was the beginning of a partnership that demanded a unique mix of skills from Joan, from sewing up a balloon envelope to flying it. Joan also earned a pilot’s license for a single engine Cessna, and shot photos published by National Geographic. She could speak porcupine, and inspired her prickly pet at Naivasha to shake his quills. “I don’t know what I’d do without Joan,” Alan told John Heminway; “I’d probably have to marry three women at the same time.”
Modestly describing herself as Alan’s assistant, Joan served as a target for a spitting cobra while Alan filmed the venom in slow motion, and narrowly escaped being blinded by a hippo that ripped off her diving mask with its tusks.
Alan Root is a “walking testament to the hazards of life in the East African bush,” I wrote in 1981. His right index finger is still missing, the result of an encounter with a puff adder; (“Makes it difficult to focus the camera.”) I never really confirmed that his left buttock bears the scar of a leopard bite, earned when he frightened the cat by jumping down in her space on a kopje rock, the Serengeti outcrops. I have seen his right calf where the same hippo that attacked Joan bit out a chunk of flesh –“enough to make a reasonable hamburger” a metaphor Root revised in 1999 to “a hole you could put a Coke bottle through,” for George Plimpton’s New Yorker profile, “The Man Who Was Eaten Alive.”
Mzima became the subject of a sequel by Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble, who again followed in the Roots footsteps with a documentary about a tree, the African fig, in “Queen of Trees.”
The inspiration for this was “Secrets of the African Baobab,” an enchanting story about the distinctive, big-trunk trees which legend holds were planted up-side-down. “Baobab” grabbed the attention of other wildlife filmmakers because of innovative scenes filmed inside a hornbill’s nest. The interior sequences were cinematic breakthroughs in 1976, and required a patience filmmakers are no longer allowed. Two years passed before hornbills returned to the nest where the Roots had placed a pane of glass. For another film, they spent 30 nights waiting for alates to hatch from a 15 foot tall termite mound. Termites, however, did not appeal to advertisers, needed to sponsor the program on the main commercial networks. So the Roots film was not considered a contender, despite the need for another program to satisfy a contract with NBC-TV. No one in the New York office had seen the film. I volunteered to be a captive audience.
During my first visit to Naivasha in 1977, Alan Root projected a rough cut of the termite film.
Alan told the story in his soft voice, a barely audible level favored by both Roots, so often in the presence of animals they didn’t want to frighten. But the power of the film was loud and clear, and did not evoke pests, but architects and soldiers, loyal to a Queen. I was enthralled, and wrote a memo praising the film when I returned to New York. Root was invited to fly over to present the film to NBC, just as he had to me, no music, his voice. Once sold, “Mysterious Castles of Clay,” was narrated by Orson Welles.
The great director refused to allow our producer to attend the recording session, held in his personal hotel room, near Los Angeles. Normally, narration is recorded in a sound booth, with the film projected so that phrases fall in a place to help viewers understand what they’re seeing. Really good narrators lend a rhythm to match the pace of the action. An editor is on hand to stop the film and rewind for a second or third take. Welles read the script blind. The need for valium in the office was a running joke until a message arrived from the London editing room: “Cut perfectly.” As publicist for the film, I place a photo spread in TV Guide entitled “Feat of Clay.”
The film was nominated for an Oscar as best documentary during a time when 60 minute TV films were accepted in that category. It was part of my job to submit Anglia films for awards, and it wasn’t uncommon for the hour specials to win a Peabody, a Christopher, even an Emmy. But this was our first nomination for an Academy Award, so I insisted on watching the Oscars while a guest of the Clintons’ at the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock. The Roots had chosen John Heminway to accept the award, but the acceptance speech by the godson of Clark Gable was never read.
By 1979, I was back in Kenya, on location with Alan and Joan as they filmed the story of “The Lightening Bird.” Joan managed the camp on the Mara River, and while I learned how tedious wildlife filmmaking can be, I also learned how to watch birds. Joan and I could roam freely off the beaten path. We spent hours driving in an open Land Rover, watching hippo, birds and stumbling upon the nest of a plover. Fearless, Joan picked up an army ant to show me its pinchers. The Roots often said they were my guides to Africa because of the way I had escorted them around New York, particularly during a record snow storm when we sought shelter at 21 and the Russian Tea Room. The last time I saw them together in Manhattan, they appeared on CBS Morning program. In a role reversal, Alan seemed to freeze when asked a question, but Joan jumped in, articulating all the right Talking Points, and sparkled on camera.
After their divorce, Alan shifted his projects from East Africa to the Congo, and Joan, out of character, joined the Muthaiga Club. Because of shared profits from Balloon Safaris, Joan could afford to travel, and did –to Ethiopia, and in the Sahara to assist David Coulson, the photographer of Africa’s Rock Art. During my last visit to Naivasha, Joan was not among a gathering of lake residents, so I sent my card to her via a neighbor, scribbling: “Send me an e-mail!” She had been a lousy correspondent by post, and wasn’t the type to spend her time in front of a monitor, unless it was a lizard. Friends provided updates, none more stunning than this thunderbolt, from a marine biologist: “Lake Naivasha is so dirty, fish eagles can no longer see the fish.” The haunting cry of fish eagles had been an intrinsic sound effect to the Eden quality of Naivasha, along with hippo munching grass outside my window at night.
Shortly after midnight, on Friday the 13th of January, 2006, Joan Root was shot at her home at Naivasha. Bullets from an AK47 were fired through the bedroom window as Joan spoke to John Sutton by phone. Young Sutton was not only a tenant in a little house she had built at Naivasha, but head of a security company. Helpless in Dar Es Salaam, he listened as additional shots were fired, and talked to Joan as she tried to staunch the bleeding with bed sheets. This was not the first attack; newly installed metal doors meant to deter intruders delayed rescuers. Neighbors from around the lake rushed to the scene, many by plane. Friends from Nanyuki brought bloodhounds that tracked scents from the scene; two suspects were arrested. Over a decade later, no one has been charged with her murder.
If the killing of the 69 year-old naturalist was an assassination in retaliation for her leadership of a local anti-poaching Task Force, Joan Root joined a growing list of conservationists murdered by poachers or people who profit from poaching. Not far down the Naivasha Lake Road from the Root house is Elsamere, once home to George & Joy Adamson. In 1989, George Adamson’s Land Rover was riddled by poacher’s bullets as he and two assistants were killed near his lion sanctuary at Kora, which the Roots visited at Christmas time. Like Dian Fossey, murdered after she taunted gorilla poachers with voodoo, Joan Root was attacked alone at night.
“She was a superb field naturalist,” wrote Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who with his wife, Oria, were among Naivasha neighbors who flew to the scene. Alan Root arrived in his copter. The master bedroom floor was covered with bloody bed sheets, “like a movie” more than one witness said.
The sad news found me in an office on Friday the 13th. Over the weekend I pulled together enough details for a decent obituary and sent them to the Nairobi bureau for The New York Times. As a recovering reporter, I consider obits a natural tribute to lost friends, and had previously submitted several to the Times, including news about the fatal accident of filmmaker Dieter Plage, which I thought was too small and ran without a photo. I rang Martin Bell, who had worked with the Roots on the Mzima film. His wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, provided a lovely black and white photo of Joan holding the caracal in her arms.
Watched by resident gazelles, waterbuck, and dik dik, Alan Root buried Joan’s ashes at her favorite spot in her garden. A young fig tree was planted over her remains. An hour later there was a heavy rainstorm – the first for many months –considered a sign of blessing and fertility at Kenya weddings. The fig tree grows, and the Root Naivasha 88 acres will be conserved by a trust, an important patch of green in an environmental quagmire. A watercolor portrait of the Naivasha lawn where Sally the hippo, Million the aardvark, and this author thrived, was featured on the memorial program for Joan Root, held at Naivasha March 4, 2006. Center stage in the portrait is a pair of African crowned crane, a male and a female. Joan had found the bird a partner, but for her, no partner could match Alan, her first and last.
“Many of you know what a wonderful helper Joan was to me, but she was much more than that,” Alan Root told the friends who gathered at Naivasha. “She was really the producer of all the films we did together. Joan was my right arm. She made it all possible. And if we flew high and far together in those years, it was because of her.” Alan could say no more, and wept.
On May 21 in Cannes, it was announced that Working Title Films & Julia Roberts plan a movie about Joan’s life, which ended when she turned on a light.
May the movie illuminate this concept by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
“True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it. “
copyright 2007 Delta Willis. Kindly do not use as a resource with attribution.
More about Joan Root
- Excerpts from John Heminway’s No Man’s Land.
- “A Flowering Evil,” by Mark Seal, Vanity Fair, August, 2006
- The Other Roots (Alan and Joan) Document Africa’s Wildlife,” by Delta Willis, PEOPLE Magazine, 1981
- Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, personal communication, January 14, 2006
- “The Man Who Has Given His Life to Love and Africa,” by Mary Riddell The Times July 17,1996
- “The Man Who Was Eaten Alive.” by George Plimpton, The New Yorker, August 23, 1999