Shooting epic wildlife movies from the 1960s, the Roots films are, even today, unbeatable
Published: Nation newspaper 21 August 2021 Saturday magazine
It’s a fitting welcome to Kilimandege House on the shores of Lake Naivasha to have a stately giraffe standing at the entrance, nibbling on his favourite Acacia and allowing us to walk past. This was the house of Joan and Alan Root, the amazing couple who gave wildlife movies a fresh twist, researching their subject(s) and then using ingenious methods to film them. They broke ground by being nominated for the Oscars for their amazing wildlife movies featured by the BBC and their Survival series from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Think about movies like the ‘Baobab: Portrait of a Tree’, that they were so intrigued by – Africa’s largest succulent that can live for more than 2,000 years. For the first time, the world saw a pair of hornbills nesting, the film taken through a piece of glass inserted in the tree. Then there’s the Mysterious Castles of Clay, a 1978 film about a termite colony; ‘Mzima: Portrait of Spring’ which shows how, in the midst of the arid Tsavo National Park, underwater springs nourish wildlife; where Alan’s clip is the first of a hippo walking underwater; of Joan crouched feet away from a venomous spitting cobra while Alan shoots that unforgettable shot of the serpent’s venom spat from fangs to face at the brightest spot – Joan’s eyes shielded by her glasses.
They took the world by storm and were considered the best wildlife-film making team in the world.
Then in the 1960s, while shooting around Lake Naivasha, the newly-weds saw an advert about a lakeshore house for sale – the house that we are in Kilimandege. “Kilimandege was a radio beacon code between Naivasha and Nairobi when Alan was flying home,” narrates Shiv Kapila of the Naivasha Raptor Centre on the grounds of ‘Kilimandege’ – translated into English, it is the hill of birds.
At the time, Naivasha was open country minus the plastic sheets of the flower farms and the shanties that grew up around them. The lake was a jewel in the valley.
The white-washed single storey house stands in a large lawn with the freshwater lake spread beyond. In the evening, Eburru is bathed in the soft hues of a setting sun and the cool air rents with the piercing shrill of the African fish eagle. The giraffes are joined by the waterbuck and the zebra. “We’ve never had to trim the grass – the hippos and the waterbuck do it for us,” states Kapila.
We’re enjoying a refreshing cuppa tea in the verandah fitted with enormous doors to the living room and the dining room – filled with the tropical light and very spacious. “The doors were for Sally.” Pause for effect. Was Sally so obese?
“Sally the hippo,” continues the raptor biologist.
Visitors who arrived – like Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Sir Richard Attenborough – would be startled to see the ‘bean bag’ on the floor move as Sally made herself comfortable in the living room in front of the fire. There are other hilarious stories from the Roots – like when Jackie asked Alan if he would fly her over the paradisiacal lake. Alan couldn’t refuse such a request and with his famous passenger took off into the skies …only to get entangled into nearby telephone lines – and fall out of the aircraft with Jackie landing on top of Alan.
At the time, President Jomo Kenyatta was at the State House, Nakuru. When he asked why he was unable to make calls on the telephone, the witty response was, “Sir, Alan Root is on the line.”
At Home at Kilimandege House https://www.kilimandege.com/
The five-bedroom house is by the lake, private for family or friends. It has intriguing memorabilia like the snorkel Joan was wearing while shooting Mzima. An aggressive hippo bit through it, missing her face by millimetres.
All you got to do is take your food and the staff will help with the rest, or order in fresh supplies from Longonot Farm, right next door. A chef is available on request.
While at home at Kilimandege, visitors are welcome to visit the Naivasha Raptor Centre – KBoPT centres https://www.kenyabirdofpreytrust.org/ by appointment.
Drive to Hell’s Gate National Park, Oserengoni Wildlife Sanctuary https://www.oseriantwolakes.com/oserengoni-wildlife-sanctuary, boating or just enjoy quiet time at this house of wonders.
You can drive into Aberdare National Park via Mutubio Gate – about 2 hour drive away.