I love the thought that unicorns, one of nature’s most noble and mystical creatures may still exist, living in just a few well hidden and protected spots on the planet in spite of having come very close to extinction.
Sadly, many people seem to think of them as belonging to the world of legends – or perhaps they aren’t so sure and don’t want to be caught out saying so!
I have come to accept the idea that most myths and legends are made up of forgotten memories – that any being who keeps cropping up over and over in stories of the past most likely has its origin in physical reality somewhere or other!.
Lets explore this idea in relation to unicorns, and I suggest that a good place to start is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, either by visiting it this month to see a very special exhibition there, or viewing it at any time via the internet. It is currently on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
It consists of a splendid collection of six room size tapestries – a series called the Lady and the Unicorn. each one illustrating one of the five senses – taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell, while the sixth sense is called ‘Mon Seul Desir ‘my one desire’ and relates to the heart – the source of courtly love.
I was very fortunate to see the exhibition last February which is still on display in Sydney till June 26th, but a warning – ii is now so popular that it is necessary to book a time to view it.
There is so much detail to explore in the gallery’s presentation of this mediaeval story, its symbology and relationship between the Unicorn and the Lady – and the Lion as well. Not surprisingly, the implication being conveyed throughout suggests that the beautiful Unicorn is but the stuff of legend, serving to express varying aspects of human sensibilities and mysteries.
This seems to be the commonly accepted view of unicorns amongst those who have an opinion on the matter, but it doesn’t sit well with me, so, on returning home from Sydney, I was eager to reacquaint myself with a very rare and precious book I had found at an open market several years ago called “The Unicorn of Kilimanjaro – by Robert Vavra”. which brought the Unicorn very much alive for me, and I wondered how I could share the discovery with others!
Robert was already recognised as a brilliant photographer, writer, naturalist and explorer before recording this extraordinary adventure in mid 1987. Born in California, he moved to Europe in his early twenties and began his ‘quest for the unicorn’ in 1959, bringing it to completion nearly 30 years later.
It was in Spain that he had two major break-throughs, firstly in 1960 on viewing an authentic reference to unicorn sightings in the Archives of a Cortez expedition to the New World,
The second and most important one was in a battered old journal he picked up in a flea market in Madrid in 1961. (you never know what you might find in markets ! ). It contained the first known complete Unicorn Behavioural Study, compiled by one Rudolph O. Springer, a remarkable frail red-headed American explorer who had spent years in the mid 1800s dedicated to close-range studies of African wild-life that included sighting many unicorns, particularly in the the volcanic mountain areas of Eastern Africa.
The study covered details of Unicornuus Africanus – its history, appearance and habits, and supported with detailed drawings – a sufficiently authentic scientific study for Robert to take it seriously, and, for him, ‘freeing the magnificent Unicorn from any longer being caged up in mythology!’
It was Springer’s journal that provided Robert with the basis for his wonderful book called “Unicorns I have known” which he published in 1983. It has since circulated world wide in many languages, spreading knowledge of a precious but almost forgotten species.
It was not until 1886 that even more information came his way when he received a package in the mail from a woman who had read the book and was astonished to realize that the same Rudolph O. Springer cited in the book was, in fact, her great-great uncle.
Searching through old records left to her by her grandmother, she discovered 64 missing pages of a hand-written document written on identical paper to the Unicorn Behavioural Study that Robert had discovered 30 years earlier and realized what a treasure she had found !!!
It had a heading written in capitals on one of the battered pages that read: “EAST AFRICAN ELEPHANT, LION AND UNICORN FIELD NOTES INCLUDING FORMULA FOR APPROACHING THE ABOVE LISTED SPECIES AT DISTANCES UP TO THREE INCHES WITHOUT DANGER TO THE HUMAN OBSERVER.”
The directions that followed provided the secret procedures that Rudolph O. Springer had perfected that allowed him to study these wonderful wild animals so thoroughly and at such close range. They included what he called The Approach Formula, a 4 phase plan, one involving smell, using, an oil mix of 26 ingredients to apply all over the body that would allow proximity to all the wild animals except the buffalo, ,No. 2. involved using precise sounds for vocally calling up each animal, and the other two detailed completely secret materials and methods to complete the process.
Springer also indicated possible locations of unicorns in the dense forest within the volcanic craters of Tanzania. He had learnt much from the Masai people who lived in these areas in harmony with all the wild animals.
More than a century later Robert heard of him again from the Masai he met in the same area. They spoke of him as the stranger ‘with a head of fire’ who lived with them for a while studying the wild animals, and who particularly loved Nentikobe, their name for the unicorn..
in 1959 Robert had also received a hint from Ernest Hemmingway who also shared his love of Africa and its wildlife to try searching for the unicorn in the area of Mt. Kilimanjaro..
All of this information had come together by 1987, finally giving Robert Vaavra the courage to fulfil his life’s dream to explore the wilds of Africa and meet up with the African Unicorn. He proceeded to mount what came to be known as The Elm Tree Unicorn Expedition. He and two American friends, Bill Wheeler and Joseph Saccomon set out together and travelled through east Africa during the month of August in 1987, (The Elm Tree was the name of their Land Rover).
What followed was an extraordinary adventure, much of it on foot in very remote and largely unexplored forest. Every detail of the landscape, the animal and plant life and the people were carefully recorded in his diary and later illustrated with superb photographs taken by him and Joe Saccomon as well as beautifully precise drawings by his friend Lee Mitchelson.
It was the latter part of the safari describing the encounters with the elephants, the family of lions, and most particularly the unicorns that most interested me.
Springer’s notes stipulated that at least two successful contacts, first with the elephants and then the lions were needed before attempting to find the Unicorn, and it was essential that these were wild animals – not previously accustomed to human company!
Once it was nearing the time to begin attempting to find and make direct contact with the elephants Robert made preparation by covering his body with the evil-smelling Approach formula oil and , by mid August they had located elephant territory with help from the Masai people at the edge of the escarpment.
Robert’s first encounter was late in the afternoon when a splendid bull elephant who seemed to respond to the series of calls that Springer had prescribed. approached him, ears flapping as if about to charge, then slowed down, wheeled around him and paused, brushing him with his tusk while his friends nervously took photos.
Once his curiosity was satisfied, he then made off into the bush nearby.
Next day they sighted a larger group, stopped, and Robert sat apart by a old tree trunk and made his sounds. He suddenly found himself closely surrounded from behind by six totally untamed wild elephants, an unimaginable encounter – more than he could have hoped for.
With the exhilarating experience with the elephants completed after four days, it was time to look out for Simba the Royal lion and his pride. They first spot an immense majestic lion with a splendid golden mane following a herd of zebra, and then notice a group of wild lionesses resting in the long grass nearby.
The Land Rover pulls over and Robert sits quietly sounding the lion calls and waits nearby: the lion slowly approaches, circles around him, then relaxes beside him in the grass for almost an hour while the five lionesses, heads held high with curiosity, watch at a distance for while, then move on towards the escarpment and Simba finally leaves too, setting off after the zebra.!
After two days with the lions, and with only a week left to find and spend time with the unicorn, they decide to head towards the forest and stop off at a manyatta – a settlement made up of a group of Masai huts surrounded by a common fence built to keeps families and livestock safe. Here they are welcomed by Daniel who later becomes their guide, and are invited in to watch Masai dancing and meet the chief.
They camp nearby and next day commence arrangements with Daniel to employ porters to carry supples and equipment for the daunting journey on foot into what is known as the Forest of the Lost Children. Only a few within the tribe to accompany them know their real purpose , believing it to be a search for rare birds to photograph. Even many of the Masai either fear or do not know of unicorns whom they call Nentikobe, – their secret is kept safe with only a few senior members of the tribe to ensure their continued protection. .
While preparations go ahead Robert asks Daniel if it is possible to sight a unicorn in the area, even at a distance before setting out on the safari. He agrees to secretly provides them with a map and directions, telling them to take binoculars, sit on top of Elm Tree when they reach the escarpment, and watch between the trees for Nentikobe’s daily appearance on the side of the mountain around 4 pm!
They are not disappointed! They hear the loud sound of the Hadada Ibis who regularly gives Nentikobe a warning call when strangers approach and then a magnificent stag appears and begins his daily ritual display right on schedule. The relationship with the Unicorn has begun!
They set off next day and within couple of hours are being guided through the darkness of a primordial forest alive with danger and massive physical challenge, avoiding the tangled buffalo tunnels wherever possible by keeping to the edge of the escarpment.
This is where they camp on the first night, under an immense tree near a hot spring within the sound of waterfalls. Next morning they clamber slowly up the slippery mountainside then down towards the lake.
They reach an open area around late afternoon and before pitching tents Robert suggests to Joe, Bill and Daniel that just the four of them take one last walk into the bush near the river.
Suddenly Hadada Ibis gives its cry and the next minute Nentikobe steps silently out from behind some bushes, ignoring them and staring first into the distance, and then to his left in response to where another cry from the ibis indicates and a huge black-maned lion emerges from the reeds along the river’s edge.
The lion turns, looks directly at the unicorn who stamps with his hooves. They approach one another, the unicorn rearing up and Simba raises himself on his hind legs with claws still sheathed, and they begin tensely circling one another like boxers in a ring, though seemingly without the intention of doing real harm to each another.
They intensely eyeball one another with heads almost touching. Suddenly Lion roars and Unicorn answers with a loud bellow. They separate, turns backs on one another and each makes off in different directions – the strange ritual is complete!.
Later Daniel says that he has never before seen Simba and Nentikobe together, nor heard of it even in Masai legends. Robert wonders in his diary if the scene they have witnessed could be the basis, as Springer believed, for the unicorn-lion association on heraldry and coats of arms over the ages, particularly in Europe – always denoting power, nobility and courage?
This was the moment in Robert’s story that came back to me while I studied the beautiful Tapestries in the Sydney gallery last February and left me pondering an intriguing mystery.
There is one last encounter to relate, with only one day of the safari to go. Next day Joe and Robert set off unescorted and meet group of morani , Masai boys, coming back from the mountain. One of them addresses them in English – learnt from the missionaries, he said.
His name was David, He was surprised to learn who they were searching for, and becoming convinced by their story, secretly agreed to take them to the cave where Nentikobe lived, saying he had the authority to do so, being the son of the Laibon, the local medicine man! He said that they could expect Nentikobe to be there at his home at FOUR O’CLOCK1
They head for the escarpment together: the cave is behind a tall earthen wall covered by dense foliage. They hide and wait nearby waiting for the unicorn to come out. When he does , Robert follows him at a safe distance till he stops to graze from acacias trees, convinced that the unicorn is aware of his presence and so pauses to sit on a fallen tree trunk and starts making the prescribed succession of sounds that will call the animal towards him – and this is just what happens, the beautiful unicorn slowly , slowly advancing till they are only a couple of feet apart – that moment of deep connection has finally come that Robert has longed for so many years!
The final encounter seems like a miracle, but is only momentary. Hadada Ibis interrupts with two sharp calls and flies off. His signal alerts Nentikobe who lifts his head, trumpets twice, leaps over the log and dashes off in the same direction into the forest. No doubt it is time for his next daily ritual display. For Robert, Joe and Bill their mission accomplished, the time has come for them to return home and share their extraordinary story!