Obituary: William Ruck Keene
Monday 30 June 1997
Ruck Keene was described by Overs Banda, the Zambian Minister of Tourism, as "a man and a half", who "put Zambia on the world map". This was a remarkable tribute to a young man of extraordinary energy and vision who was only 36 at the time of his death in a car accident.
As a boy, Will Ruck Keene enjoyed school games and country sports, both at home in Oxfordshire and in character-forming Hebridean weather conditions; but more to his taste as he grew older were hang-gliding, windsurfing, microlighting and bungee jumping, which were preludes to a pilot's licence and some serious ocean racing.
In the early 1980s, while friends filled in Ucca forms, Ruck Keene went exploring. His adventures were many, hilarious and far-flung, but the destination was always Africa and the mode of transport unusual, often absurd: he took a Yamaha XT500 motorbike from Cape Town to Kenya; on another trip, he carried a windsurfer across the Sahara and gave lessons on it on arrival in Lagos; a third involved the only known trans-Saharan crossing by go-kart, during which he made use of random items of equipment carried by a back-up team, skiing on snow-skis down sand dunes, and making recces by microlight over territories not always friendly to an Englishman in the sky.
In 1984, he set up a food delivery service in Battersea, south-west London, called Snack Attack; the concept of delivering hot home-cooked food by motorbike to people's doorsteps was then considered somewhat bizarre. As a sideline, he co-founded a pop band, the Business Connection, in which he played the saxophone; perhaps better known for its aristocratic members than its music, it enjoyed improbable success, culminating in a gig at the Albert Hall. London life, however, could not slake Ruck Keene's need for adventure, so he went back to Africa and into partnership with a friend, Ben Parker.
It was never going to be easy to create Tongabezi, particularly for two Englishmen abroad with no previous safari experience. Zambian officials considered them far too young and it was a full year before, in March 1990, they were able to buy their remote stretch of land on the shores of the Zambezi. Early building works were destroyed by hippo, but, despite severe supply problems caused by restrictions at the Zimbabwe border, the first camp opened for guests just three months later.
Today, the Tongabezi enterprise comprises five beautiful camps scattered along the upper and lower reaches of the Zambezi. Ruck Keene's artistic imagination and design flair ensure that you cannot see the camps until you are in them and that, when you are in them, you do not wish to leave them.
Complementing Parker's business acumen (and his touch with clients), Ruck Keene's creative energy and practical go-getting skills underpinned Tongabezi's start and rapid growth. Importantly in the context of Zambia, he was a genius at getting the right supplies and equipment to the right place alongside the right people at (just about) the right time - this he would achieve again and again through bravery, stubbornness and what became known in Zambia as "Willpower".
His Zambian staff understood the true strength of "Willpower". They would follow "Mr William" anywhere and they often needed to - he was quite without fear. Perhaps the most spectacularly sited of Tongabezi's camps is Livingstone Island, which lies in the middle of the Zambezi torrent on the very edge of the Victoria Falls. The only way to it (through the streaming water channels and jagged rock outcrops) is by small craft with outboard motor. Ruck Keene was rarely happier than when ferrying his excited bull terriers, ashen staff, and terrified clients to the island. He would perform the crossing swigging from a huge bottle of Coke and simultaneously making notes on his "To Do" clipboard - and his contentment only grew should the engine splutter.
He lived every moment of his life to the full, and expected the same of others. Perhaps the only complaints from visitors were that he delivered too much excitement. It never crossed his mind that some were there simply for a holiday rather than to swap places with Indiana Jones; fortunately, Tongabezi itself remained a haven of peace and beauty to which all could return.
Will Ruck Keene did much to educate and develop the skills of his 130- strong staff (and many other Zambians from nearby Livingstone). He was a larger-than-life character - always fair and always there; people trusted him absolutely, and learnt much from him. To his friends and staff in England and Africa, he was, variously, a man of enormous creative energy and integrity, a father figure, a gentleman pioneer, and a real-life action hero.
William Ruck Keene, safari operator: born Oxford 20 September 1960; married 1995 Julie McIntosh; died Chifungulu, Zambia 8 June 1997.
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