kc
Kenneth Cecil Gandar-Dower © Getty Images

KC Gandar-Dower, born August 31, 1908, died at only 35 but lived life to the fullest during his short stint on this planet. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the man who was a cricketer, tennis star, British amateur squash champion, aviator, explorer, cheetah racing promoter, successful author, wildlife photographer, pacifist, aviator and war correspondent.

Pacifist, explorer, aviator, all-round sportsman, cryptozoologist, writer, wildlife photographer and war correspondent: KC Gandar-Dower was all of that.

As sportsman, he played cricket for Harrow and Cambridge and continued to play competitively through the 1930s. He became the amateur British squash champion in 1938, played real tennis, Eton fives, squash racquets, Rugby Fives and billiards. However, he was most successful as a tennis star, competing in a number of tournaments throughout the 1930s, including Wimbledon and the French Open. At the 1932 Queen’s Club Championship in London Gandar-Dower defeated Harry Hopman in three sets, effecting astonishingly low volleys from apparently impossible positions.

And then he was a pacifist, explorer, aviator, cryptozoologist, successful author and war correspondent.

In his controversial work The Spotted Lion (1937), Gandar-Dower admitted: “We have all had our day-dreams of adventure … I seem to be one of those unfortunates who is [sic] driven by devils to put them into practice.”

The list of his accomplishments can take up full volumes.

As a youth Gandar-Dower was an avid reader, drooling on Rider Haggard. By the age of eight he had demonstrated interest in writing. At Harrow, he won a Shakespeare Essay silver medal in 1927.

At school he also played cricket, association football, Eton Fives, and racquets. After gaining an upper second Gandar-Dower received a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge to read history.

He narrowly missed a First Class in the History Tripos, much to his disappointment, but then preparation for the exam had not been his only pursuit.

He was simultaneously editing the Granta literary magazine and chairing the Trinity debating society.

And as a sportsman, he seemed to be everywhere. He won athletic blues in billiards, tennis and real tennis, Rugby Fives, Eton Fives and racquets, representing the University in six sports. In Eton Fives and Rugby Fives, he was considered to be the best that anyone could be.

Once he simultaneously played in the Freshman’s cricket match and the Freshman’s tennis tournament, with the connivance of the tennis but not the cricket authorities. He disappeared to play off a round during the early part of his side’s innings, with relays of cyclist friends to keep him informed as to the fall of the wickets.

Through the 1930s, he played cricket extensively for The Frogs.

In the 1930s Gandar-Dower also became a leading tennis player, competing in several international tournaments. In the 1938 Wimbledon he lost to the eventual winner Donald Budge. He also competed in the French Open. In Tennis he was known as The Undying Retriever for his ability to cover great distances.

In March 1932, Gandar-Dower started taking flying lessons and the following month purchased a second-hand Puss Moth monoplane. By May he had passed his flying tests. In June, he had entered King’s Cup Air Race and finishing fourth. By October he had flown 7,000 miles from London to Madras, carrying just a haversack with a few collars, handkerchiefs, shirts, sun-helmets and toothbrush.

Gandar-Dower recounted his experiences in his first book Amateur Adventure (1934), noting that he didn’t dare tell his mother of his plans for fear of worrying her.

Having conquered the sky, Gandar-Dower set his sight elsewhere. Between October 1934 and March 1935 he went on safari to the equatorial mountains of Kenya in East Africa. Initially he craved the simple thrill of being in amongst the big game of Africa but quickly his trip developed into a quest “in queer corners of Africa for animals that hovered between the rare and the fabulous.” His very singular goal was to produce irrefutable evidence for the existence of the fabled Marozi, or Spotted Lion.

They never really found any evidence of the existence of such a creature. However, Gandar-Dower maintained that the Marozi was a species of lion not yet known to science. It was only the difficult nature of the country and the rarity of the beast that prevented the Marozi’s proper zoological classification.

However, the expedition was not without success. It managed to scale several volcanoes and to map numerous mountains on the way. Also, Gandar-Dower discovered a previously unreported lake on Mount Kenya, later named Lake Mittelholzer.

When Gandar-Dower returned to England in 1937, he was accompanied by ten cheetahs. He raced them at Romford Greyhound Stadium. Helen, one of the cheetahs, broke the existing record held by a greyhound for 355 yards. This disproved the prevailing belief that greyhounds were the fastest animals in the world.

However, this venture had a rather macabre end when one of the cheetahs failed to negotiate a bend and hurtled into the crowd. To make cheetah racing further problematic, it was realised that the animals did not like chasing inanimate prey, and nor did they like running in packs.

But Gandar-Dower did make some use of the cheetahs. He walked a cheetah on a leash up to the bar of Queen’s Club in London’s West Kensington.

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Gandar-Dower wrote satirical works about the political state of Britain and Europe. He collaborated with fellow Harrovian William James Riddell, the famed skiing champion, to write Outside Britain — a Guide to the Grave New World and Inside Britain — a Satirical Account.

In 1938, as the War loomed, Gander-Dower and Riddell headed to Africa, armed with a Leica camera, shooting photographs of gorillas and other exotic animals. The result was a series of remarkable photographs of the equatorial forests using just flash bulbs and black cotton trip wires.

Later, Gandar-Dower travelled to Nairobi to offer his not inconsiderable talents to the Kenyan government as a press liaison officer between the local population and the military authorities. He later returned to the country as a press corresponded. He witnessed the East African Campaign and the liberation of Italian-occupied Ethiopia, called Abyssinia at that time, Eritrea and Somaliland. He also compiled a series of stories and reports on Ethiopia, as heard from friends and foes.

He was also author of the official and laudatory account of subsequent British rule in Eritrea and Somalia following the collapse of the brutal Fascist Italian administration.

Later in September, 1942, Gandar-Dower reached Mahajanga, the seaport in Vichy-held Madagascar. Under heavy fire, he leapt from the vessel carrying a typewriter, an umbrella and a bowler hat. He later documented his experiences in his book Into Madagascar.

Gander-Dower died in February, 1944. The troopship SS Khedive Ismael was approaching Addu Atoll in the Maldives en route Colombo from Mombasa, and was hit by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine. It sank in two minutes. Gander-Dower was one of nearly 1,300 passengers to perish.

But by then he had lived a life worth several thousands of mortal ones.