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Retracing the footsteps of Joseph Thomson

Retracing the footsteps of Joseph Thomson

Jul 2014

Words Andre Bredenkamp

Part of my philosophy in life has been to fill the days with as much adventure as possible, given the restraints of my bank balance. So when the call came from Kingsley Holgate to join him once again on an epic journey, I readily agreed. He is the most travelled person in Africa, so I knew the itinerary would not be from some travel agency catalogue.

“Have you ever read the book, The Man-eaters of Tsavo?” asked Kingsley. “Well, it is about the building of the railway line by the British into Africa from the port of Mombasa. The stars of the story are these two lions that ate about 100 workers while they were trying to lay the tracks. It was such a fiasco that they called it the Lunatic Line.

“More importantly, have you ever heard about Joseph Thomson?” he enquired further. I hadn’t. 

“He was the first European explorer to travel from Mombasa to Lake Victoria and return in one piece. It was his reports that resulted in the railway line being built, and that was the catalyst for the formation of modern-day Kenya. I have copies of Thomson’s original maps and I want to retrace his footsteps. It’s going to be great fun; we will just camp out in the bush as we go!”

I only had one question: “King, did those lions have any children?” 

Joseph Thomson’s first trip was with the Royal Geographical Society expedition led by Alexander Johnston, to establish a route from Dar es Salaam to Lake Nyasa and Lake Tanganyika. Johnston died during the trip and it was left to Thomson to take the leadership role. 

He successfully led the expedition over 4 500 kilometres during the next 14 months, collecting many specimens and recording numerous observations. 

He got back to London in late 1880, and published a book, To the Central African Lakes and Back, through which he made a name for himself.

Thomson wanted to do something more notable and managed to solicit funding from the Royal Geographical Society for his own expedition, this time to explore a route from the eastern coast of Africa to the northern shores of Lake Victoria. British Empire traders required the route, but it would have meant travelling through the hostile Maasai homeland, which was deemed suicidal. 

So in 1883 Thompson once again set out, with the motto: “He who goes gently, goes safely; he who goes safely, goes far”. His leadership style proved successful, and he reached the lake – documenting the route for future travellers. He also made many important biological and geological observations including the first credible reports of snow-capped mountains on the equator, having travelled past Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya. 

The return trip proved as dangerous: Thomson was gored by a buffalo, suffered from malaria and dysentery – but he survived. 

His best-selling book, Through Masai Land, followed in January 1885. One of the first to read it was H. Rider Haggard, who promptly wrote King Solomon’s Mines. Thomson was outraged, however. The ‘party tricks’ he had played on the Maasai warriors – by removing his false teeth and claiming to be a magician – were coincidentally also performed by the character, Captain John Good, in King Solomon’s Mines

Our journey to follow the Thomson trail forced us onto the main road between Mombasa and Nairobi, which is only a single lane in each direction. In all my years I have never seen so many big trucks on such a poor road – it was never-ending for hundreds of miles! 

There is also a bizarre local custom: the drivers do not switch on their lights until it is completely dark; they believe this wears out the battery! So every day there are numerous fatal accidents.

Onward we travelled under the shadow of Kilimanjaro “Mad” Mike Küng, riding his bike most of the way – although the park wardens stopped him when we went through the gate of the Amboseli National Park. Most of the game parks in East Africa do not have fences, as the game migrate across the plains. 

While Ross was busy changing our damaged rim and tyre, an elephant appeared from the bush. Needless to say, he hastened the repair.

After another day on the trail, we reached the outskirts of Nairobi. The following morning, we left Kingsley and the team to continue on Thomson’s route while we took a taxi to Mt Kenya. 

Part of Thomson’s expedition was to prove the existence of snow-capped mountains straddling the equator. 

Unlike Kilimanjaro, which is a trekking peak, Mt Kenya is a bit more technical. Two peaks, Batian (5 199m) and Nelion (5 188m), require a certain type of madness before you attempt them. Then there is a third option, Point Lenana; when you hear people say they have climbed Mt Kenya, they usually mean Point Lenana.

The walk to base camp is absolutely beautiful, and if you are lucky you may see game including buffalo and elephant – as we did. It took three days, which is not quite enough time to acclimatise, but very early on the fourth day we started up the 17 rock pitches with two local climbing guides who knew the route. 

The pitches were between Grade IV and V, which is challenging at sea level but much more difficult at altitude because of one’s lack of energy. The weight of a pack does not help matters, and climbing with gloves (which is necessary as the temperature was around zero degrees) is a real issue: rock climbing at this level is heavily reliant on finger grip, and gloves are a severe handicap. 

The first pitch was really tricky and we let the guide lead. Mike offered to follow, while I was on ‘belayed’. Unfortunately, he simply could not get over the first obstacle. In desperation, I got under Mike and said: “Just stand on my head.” It worked, and he was on his way. The second guide must have wondered who these jokers were. Fortunately, we did not make fools of ourselves again all day.

By 14h00 (after some eight hours climbing) we were at 5 050m, a mere 150 vertical metres to the top, when we rounded a corner into the shadows, only to find the rock covered in a thin layer of ice and snow – too little depth to use ice axes, but sufficient to make every handhold on the rock very dangerous.

The guides said they were not prepared to attempt the last three pitches. I was quite annoyed at first. I have reached the top of every mountain I have tried to climb in the last 10 years! Mike calmed me down, and reminded me that we had had a great day, and safety was more important than reaching the summit. In hindsight, we should have planned to have additional days so as to try a different route on the sunny side of the mountain. We had the ability to cope with the degree of difficulty of the climb. 

Oh well, perhaps I will return one day…

The next day we travelled to Ol ari Nyiro, The Place of Springs – a 100 000-acre wildlife sanctuary and nature conservancy in western Laikipia in the Great Rift Valley owned by Italian-born Kenyan national and best-selling author, Kuki Gallmann. She created the conservation park in memory of her son and husband, who both died tragically in Africa.  

Over lunch, she told us her story. Vary rarely have I been so spellbound and in awe of someone and her life’s work. In 1980, while pregnant with her daughter, her husband died in a car accident returning from Mombasa with a hand-carved crib for the baby. Sveva was born, but never saw her father. She hardly remembers her brother either, as three years later Emanuele – who as a teenager had already become one of Kenya’s leading authorities on snakes –was bitten by one and died at the age of 17.

Despite being on her own with a young child, Kuki chose not to return to the comforts of Italy, but rather to stay in Kenya and to make a difference. As a living memorial to Paolo and Emanuele, she established The Gallmann Memorial Foundation, which promotes co-existence of people and nature in Africa and is active in education, biodiversity research, habitat protection, reforestation, community service, peace and reconciliation, poverty alleviation and public health. 

Next it was onward to the Maasai Mara. There were a few reasons for this part of the journey, apart from the fact that Thomson had travelled through the region. About 20 years ago Kingsley, his wife Gill (known as Mashozi) and their son Ross had a ‘concession’ in the area. Mashozi passed away late last year and this part of Africa had been her most beloved. Kingsley wanted to scatter her ashes from the Ololoolo Escarpment above their old camp. 

The Maasai people are an interesting lot. They have a reputation as fierce warriors, and they stood against slavery during that dark period. Slave traders quickly learnt to leave them alone. They live alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds. Cattle are the currency of their wealth, and their herds graze among the game.

We arrived and, to our shock, there awaiting us – as a guard of honour – were about 30 Maasai men and about 20 women in full traditional dress. It was incredibly moving. The elders had obviously loved Mashozi and they were there to show support for the family. This is not something many people would ever have the privilege of seeing. 

Kingsley and Ross were accompanied to the edge of the cliffs. Then the warriors withdrew and left the family to their thoughts. Mashozi’s ashes drifted with the wind. Thereafter, the women came forward and led Kingsley and Ross back to the fires where the goats had been placed over the coals some time earlier. It was a very special evening – something few of us will forget. 

So the next morning we decided it would be fitting to continue with Mashozi’s special work – distributing reading glasses. None of the older women could read, but they complained that they could no longer see the colour of their beads – and without being able to do beadwork, they felt helpless. Some people obviously needed cataract operations, but that was beyond the scope of our assistance. Well, for the time being anyway.

Our time in Kenya was drawing to an end. Some of our group needed to get back to the office and flew out in a small plane that afternoon. The others would turn the Land Rovers in a southerly direction and also head for home. Hopefully the return journey would be less dangerous than it was for Thomson.

Once again, it was an incredible journey of discovery with two legends: Kingsley Holgate and his trusty Land Rover.

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer