Family’s 6-day trek to trace footsteps of Joseph Thomson


One big limitation of John Hasting-Thomson’s 69-year-old legs was that they could not carry him fast enough. Always pulling him back, always looking as if they would jam.

But the retired teacher was not complaining and was equally not interested in catching up with the younger legs ahead of him that were more comfortable climbing the hill. A Maasai moran was dutifully walking behind him to ensure nothing happened to the Briton.

John seemed prepared, hardened even. He had a slow-but-sure look on his face, stepped on the rocky terrain in measured pace, guarded his camera with a certain jealousy, a blue backpack on his back.

He was part of a team of 23 Dutch, at least 15 Kenyans and three Britons who walked more than 60 kilometres on an unbeaten path through a forested area of Maasailand — from Amboseli to a village near Kajiado town.

The expedition was to retrace the footsteps of Joseph Thomson, the explorer credited by the British for establishing the route between Mombasa and Lake Victoria in the 19th century. His activities played a part in the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway that opened up Kenya.

The walk started last Saturday and ended on Thursday. That was six days of trekking through thorny savannah, sleeping outdoors in tents, eating food cooked on the open and cut out from the rest of the world.

Some were there for history, others for a peace initiative, others to learn, others for sheer fun.

In the evenings, the group would while away time sitted by a bonfire listening to local folklore, singing, playing games, interacting with the local community — until it would be time to slip into a tent and wander into slumberland under the starry African sky.

It would be an evening of laughter, music, stories, jokes and banter.

Save for a railway line to Magadi cutting through their path and a few murram roads, the terrain the tourists walked through looked pretty much like what it was when European explorers were making inroads into the land.

The most part of the journey entailed crossing acres upon acres of virgin land, “unspoilt Africa” if you like, and a great charming sight away from the city’s “concrete jungle”. Maasailand still stands as one of the greatest lessons to the world of man and nature living in harmony. It is not unusual to find boys grazing cattle just a few metres away from a herd of zebras with a pride of lions lying lazily within eyeshot.

The manyattas are made the same way they used to be, using cow dung held together by a network of skilfully constructed sticks.

Maasai morans and young women cooked for the visiting adventurers, guided them through the terrain and in the evenings taught each other about their cultures.

“They are proud of their culture,” said Aart Boss who was part of the mock expedition tracing Joseph Thomson’s route.

There were also four Administration Police officers.


It is on the next morning that John Hasting-Thomson was pacing up a hill in the village, a few metres from the place they had put up camp.

The day had been set aside for traversing the village to see what residents were doing; so, no trekking the pre-planned path.

One group chose to accompany women to fetch water, another elected to follow young boys as they took goats up a hill to graze while the third chose to go on adventure.

John chose the team following jumpy goats and sheep uphill.

“It’s such a privilege to walk with the Maasai and to learn from them. For me, they are one of the great ethnic groups in the world,” he would later tell Lifestyle.

Wearing his spectacles and hearing aids, a long-sleeved shirt, sports trousers and light shoes, John could be confused for any other tourist. But he was in the journey for more historic and personal reasons.

John is a descendant of the man considered one of the greatest early explorers whose memory lives on in modern-day Kenya. Joseph named the Thomson Falls in Laikipia County after his father, named the Aberdare Ranges stretching over Nyandarua and Murang’a counties after the president of a British organisation that sponsored his exploration and also named a Kenyan gazelle species after himself.

The explorer travelled from the Coast to Lake Victoria between March 15 and December 11, 1883. He entered Maasailand on May 3 that year. As expected, he would encounter resistance from Maasai warriors but he still managed to charm his way through, documenting his experiences.

Part of the route that Joseph described in his 1885 book Through Masai Land has been used as a guide to the team during the recent six-day trek.

“I understand why he was so taken in by the Maasai. And I am very grateful that the Maasai think so much of him. It really makes it very special,” John said on the third day of the walk.

Historian Charles Miller too noted that Joseph was a special breed. In his book The Lunatic Express, the historian says Joseph was arguably the most remarkable figure in African exploration — after comparing his behaviour with that of other explorers like Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone.

Joseph died aged 37, two years after completing the Mombasa-Kisumu exploration that was his second expedition in East Africa. He did not have a wife or children and so has no other relation in his direct lineage. One of Joseph’s brothers is John’s great, great grandfather.

So, John was in Maasailand for the second time in two years to have a feel of what his great, great uncle went through when he traversed the country leading a team of locals — comprising mainly porters and translators — under a contract from the Royal Geographical Society.

In The Lunatic Express, Joseph is described as a man who used diplomacy to enable him gain the favour of the ever-suspicious Maasai (in fact the British wanted him to find a route that would avoid Maasailand) and in the recent trek John wanted to imitate this philosophy.

“Just as Joseph Thomson didn’t go in blasting his gun to get through Maasailand, it’s not for us to go into the village and start taking lots of photographs. You have to ask first. And that’s important. Because it’s very easy to be misunderstood,” John says.

Mr Ezekiel ole Katato, a Kajiado County resident in collaboration with a Dutch-based international organisation, MasterPeace organised the first walk in May 2014. Thirty Dutchmen took part and were joined by John and a Japanese journalist.

According to Ezekiel, John did not ask very many questions when he was invited to participate in the first walk.

“I found a contact for the organisation (Penpont Heritage, founded in honour of Joseph) and when I contacted them, John started being very active. By: that time we had already set dates (for the first walk) and out of the whole family which is of about 40 people, John was ready to come immediately,” Ezekiel told Lifestyle.

This year’s was the second such walk and John brought along Margaret Green, 70, a descendant of Joseph’s other brother, and a British friend.

John says: “Last year, it was amazing to walk in the footsteps of my great, great uncle; and to walk with people who think that he is special.”

John and Margaret believe the explorer is more celebrated in Kenya than he is at his home.

“I think that he is better known in Kenya than he is in Britain. And I think he’s more revered, respected in Kenya because people know about him. Because you learn about him in school. We don’t. Children in Britain don’t learn about him in school,” said John.


Margaret adds: “I came to Kenya 20 years ago and was very surprised when we went to Maasai Mara and the first person we spoke to was amazed that I was related to Joseph Thomson. I can tell a hundred people in Scotland (about Joseph) and they would say, “Who?’”

In Scotland, the Penpont Group has opened a small museum in the house where Joseph was born.

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society, for which Joseph was a founder member, also has some of his items, among them a gold medal he received from the London-based Royal Geographical Society.

“That is now in a museum in Edinburgh,” John says.

Ezekiel says it costs well over Sh3 million to coordinate the second walk, the bulk of the money raised by the Dutch.

MasterPeace’s managing director Aart Bos, who has attended both expeditions, says the participation in the walk by Dutch nationals was a way of expressing the MasterPeace world-view that there is a talent in everyone.

“Our belief is that there are seven billion talents; not seven billion problems. So, when you have a look at the person and you look at whatever talent they have, that’s much better than what’s different between you and me.”

He adds: “It’s not just another holiday that we come for. And they (delegation from the Netherlands) don’t join because it’s a holiday. Of course it’s a holiday; it is having fun, at least being in the sun, but it has more intention in it.”

Aart explains why walking and observing silence is core to participants in the walk.

“During the walk, there is silence because there is a vehicle you don’t see and you don’t feel. You can use all senses. You can learn from the culture. You see the manyattas. When you drive along the manyattas, you don’t understand,” Aart says.

Entering manyattas

John says that last year they were walking past people’s residences but “this year we are stopping and going in. That’s a massive difference actually”.

For Margaret, who was the oldest in the group, the fact that they were touring Maasailand on foot rather than riding in a vehicle elicited a special feeling.

“I was a bit afraid of coming. I’m the oldest person here and I wasn’t sure I could walk so far. I was worried that I might get ill or not be able to do it. But so far, all is well. And it’s a wonderful experience,” she says.

But organising this year’s walk has not been without challenges to Ezekiel. Terror threats and El Nino rains were bothering him. But he was glad that as much as there were light showers, the disruptions were minor.

Ezekiel had hired a lorry, a pick-up and a seven-seater van to carry supplies. He also hired 22 men and women to cook for the visitors and guide them through. The team would prepare meals at designated stop-overs for breakfast, lunch and supper.

The idea of holding a walk through Maasailand, he says, was sparked way back in 2004 after he read Joseph’s book, Through Maasai Land.

“When I read it, I got even more inspired and interested because in his journey, he passed through my village — and it is mentioned in the book. He mentioned particularly the river, which ends with waterfalls somewhere and some water collecting there and it’s called Surre. And that’s where we take our cattle to drink water to date. It’s just about five kilometres from my manyatta,” he says.

Ezekiel plans to hold two such walks next year but insists that it shouldn’t be more than that to avoid monotony.

As Lifestyle left the team on Monday afternoon, a goat had been slaughtered for supper. The white goat was subdued by a team of morans whose expert hands slit its neck as the visitors watched.

The morans would later gulp down the goat’s blood. With a look of bewilderment, some of the visitors watched as a moran gorged out the goat’s eyes. “In our culture, this is for men,” he explains. Some were taking notes — and obviously looking forward to more adventure.


Joseph’s journey to Maasailand

Joseph Thomson (1858-1895) was a Scottish geologist who first explored Africa 1878, travelling through the area around Lake Malawi.

He started the expedition as a volunteer but finished it as the team leader after the former head died of dysentery. Out of that expedition, he wrote a book titled To the Central African Lakes.

In 1881, the graduate of Britain’s Edinburgh University carried out another expedition in Zanzibar, which was mainly to hunt for coal fields under instructions from a Zanzibar leader.

In 1883, he was chosen by the Royal Geographic Society to explore the route from Mombasa to the northern shores of Lake Victoria. He travelled with 113 porters and it is in the course of this trip that he crossed Maasailand.

He died aged 37.

– Adapted from Charles Miller’s The Lunatic Express