A Kenyan Love Story
Joy and George Adamson

©Shem Compion

The lasting legacy of Joy and George Adamson is the Born Free story, which is about how they raised and then de-habituated the lioness Elsa and her cubs. 

The two eventually went their own ways, Joy helping to rewild Pippa the cheetah and then Penny the leopard. At the same time George, a busy man through and through, went to Kora National Park in the north where he lived with and rewilded male lions, the most famous of which were Boy and Christian - as close companions as any man ever had. 

Born Frierderike Gessner in what is now the Czech Republic, "Joy" married the aristocratic Viktor von Klarwill at a young age. He sent her out to Africa to scout for a place where they might live out the impending war in the late 1930s. On the boat trip over She met the handsome but introverted botanist Peter Bally, who was to influence her to become an outstanding botanical and ethnographic artist. It was also he who coined her name "Joy" and soon after coming ashore, he became her second husband. 

Early in the 1940s, the newly married couple went on safari with a dangerously dashing game ranger George Adamson, and that sealed their fate for the rest of their lives. George was born in India and came to Kenya as a young man. His first job was as a nomadic goat salesman along with the country's hostile Frontier Territory in the far north. From that, he progressed to minerals prospector and ultimately to a game ranger in the borderlands.

He was devilishly handsome, with long hair and (eventually) a silver beard. In his later years, he came to resemble the full-maned lions that were his closest companions. While on safari he met Joy and was strongly attracted to her, but managed to put her out of his mind until they saw one another again sometime later at a Christmas party in Nairobi. Like numerous men before as well as after him, he was smitten.

My Pride and Joy

©Shem Compion

Joy was variously described as lascivious, neurotic and worse. She was probably all the things said of her. One thing was certain: when this Austro-Hungarian vamp set her sights on a man, he was a goner. All of them remarkable men! But then ordinary people seldom lead extraordinary lives and it took an exceptional woman to live the "born free" story. And for that she needed an equally strong partner, which she found in the tough-as-old-camel leather hunter turned conservationist. 

After they were married Joy moved into George's extremely sparse tent in Kenya's arid northern frontier, and much to everyone's surprise she took to the life like a lion cub to the great outdoors. But he was rock solid in his ways and she was flighty and so eventually their ways parted: she to work with spotted cats and he with lions. 

Her vices were mainly men while his were whisky and his ever-constant pipe. Still, they remained bound to the end by the spirits of the animals they lived with, none more so than Elsa. Joy's autobiography is titled The Searching Spirit, George's second autobiography was My Pride and Joy (the first being Bwana Came). 

In the end it was her irascibility (some people said craziness) that was her undoing. She was murdered in her home in Shaba Reserve in 1980 by the gardener, who killed her with a machete in her kitchen. George came to grief nine years later in a hail of bullets from Somali Shifta bandits when he went to the aid of one of his assistants and a tourist who had been ambushed at Kora. 

Everything about the Great Rift Valley seems to vibrate with the essence of all that is wonderful and untamed, both wildlife and human, about the African continent. And if you do go there, a visit to Elsamere near Lake Naivasha should be high up on your itinerary: it will give you new eyes with which to see the region. The documentary they show on the lives of the Adamsons - much of it George's "home" movies - is likely to bring out deeper feelings than you bargained for.

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