Recently, at the Bath Book Fair, I came across a dealer from Bournemouth whose business was entitled Yesterday Editions and whose books were mostly about Africa. ‘Interested in Africa?’ said the book dealer, as I started browsing. ‘Well, I have just come back from staying with my father-in-law in Knysna, way down the coast along from Cape Town.’ He looked as if I should give him more than that. So I did. ‘He spent years in Kenya as a game warden. He specialised in rhinos and elephants. He even devised a way of anaesthetising rhinos using a dart shot from a crossbow…’ Something in the man’s eyes flickered. ‘What was his name?’ Nick Carter.’ I said. ‘He wrote a book about it, didn’t he?’ he said. ‘Yes. It was called ‘The Arm’d Rhinoceros…’ ‘I’ve got a copy at home,’ he said. ‘Signed copy, I think.’
Nick would have been impressed by that recognition. At least, I think he would. At over 80, Nick is still full of jokes and memories and lively prejudices, and quite compos mentis, but he is less impressed by his own past than the rest of us are, and it is a past that has been more active than I could even bear to contemplate. He was in tanks in the desert and in Italy during the War, and found it very hard to settle down in peacetime. At one point, he has told me, he thought he would go into farming and found himself working as a farm labourer on the Isle of Wight on the place belonging to JB Priestley. I can’t remember now which one he loathed more, JB Priestley or Jacquetta Hawkes, but it was a close call.
Then he re-enlisted in the Army, went back to Africa, left to go into wildlife in Kenya for years and years, went on to Mozambique, and finally ended up looking after a dwindling herd of elephants native to Knysna Forest, before retiring. About the only record of his Kenya days, apart from his book, is a TV programme about him made by Survival films back in 1960, called Bolt from the Blue, which is very occasionally shown again on TV when they’re desperate for something to show. We watched his copy of it when we were out there. It was Nick all right, with the same trim version of Hemingway’s beard, which he still wears, though a lot more active and younger on screen. But it wasn’t his voice we heard voicing his thoughts. Nick’s voice on film was Australian. Nick’s voice in real life is very British.
‘Why did they give you an Australian voice?’ we asked.
‘No idea,’ he said. It’s fair to say that Nick is not interested in the nuts and bolts of TV programme-making. However, Caroline, his daughter and my wife, has spent years making TV documentaries and she spotted something interesting about the sound fairly early on. It was all dubbed on. Although you heard the helicopter noises whenever a helicopter took off, and Africans talking whenever you saw them talking, they weren’t the same helicopters or the same Africans that you saw.
‘Was there a sound recordist?’ she asked him.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you remember a microphone?’
Long pause. ‘No. They didn’t use a mike.’
‘Aha! So they shot just picture and put all the sound on later, including your voice! Which wasn’t your voice at all! Perhaps they tried to make you sound more of a colonial boy than you were and you ended up Australian…’
I was quite impressed by the way Nick seems genuinely unconcerned by his glide through history. One of the more hair-raising jobs he did was to escort some rhinos down from Kenya to a game park in South Africa, a score of years ago. Bad enough trying to move them on land, but he had to take them by sea, in a rusty old Italian coastal tramp ship, which doesn’t bear thinking about. They finally ended up in a game park near Port Elizabeth called Addo, where we went this year.
We had hoped to take Nick with us to see the progeny of his rhinos, but he didn’t feel strong enough for the trip. But we did get to meet a young man called Michael Knight, who is in charge of the rhinos today.
‘The name of Nick Carter is honoured here,’ he told us. ‘We all know about his legendary trek down from Kenya with the rhinos. However, in these days of authenticity we are now trying to regularise the rhino situation by relocating rhinos to their indigenous area, and we are now bringing some rhinos here from Nambia, and returning the grandchildren of Nick’s rhinos to Kenya…’
Not by Italian tramp steamer, I trust.
The Oldie June 2001