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Footprints

As far back as the written records go, Amboseli was part of Maasailand as, within the Republic of Kenya, it still remains. The good-humoured Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson, as leader of an expedition financed by the Royal Geographical Society of England, was the first white man to pass across the wild landscape of what is now the park and live to tell the tale, leaving footprints of his own sturdily shod feet in the dry dust of the plains. Prints left by the other members of his expedition would more probably have been of their bare feet.

This part of what was then known as Equatorial East Africa was virtually unmapped when he passed through Amboseli in May 1883 on his march from the coast to Lake Victoria. For half a century previously, attempts by white men to cross Maasailand had been without success.

The Royal Geographical Society was well aware that the shortest route would be across dreaded Maasai country and of the reputation of the people who inhabited it in whose presence no white mans life was thought to be safe. But with an eye to future commerce and to assist the widely called for suppression of the slave trade, Thomson, at the age of twenty-four, was selected to lead an expedition of exploration, having already had the advantage of African experience behind him in 1879 and 1881.

His 1883 brief from the Society was to find out whether a useful direct route for European travellers could be made across Maasai country from any of the East African ports to Lake Victoria. He was also to examine Mount Kenya and make preliminary surveys of the peoples, rocks, animals and plants of the regions transversed.

Arriving in Zanzibar at the end of January 1883, he was somewhat dismayed to learn that the German explorer,naturalist and ornithologist Dr. Gustav Adolf Fischer had been similarly commissioned by the Hamburg Geographical Society and might even possibly be using a similar route to the one he had selected for himself. Not easily put down or put off, he made his preliminary reconnaissances, equipped a 140-man caravan and, within five weeks of his arrival, left Zanzibar for Mombasa bursting with optimism.

There, in the sweltering midday heat of 15th March 1883, he turned his back on the Indian Ocean to commence his fifteen-month exploration of the interior, which all but cost him his life. He returned mission accomplished but physically wrecked. The obstacles, dangers and setbacks had been numerous, all faced with unflagging determination.

Gustav Fishers penetration of Maasailand had taken him south of Amboseli, below what afterwards was to become Amboselis southern boundary along the international British East Africa/German East Africa border. Collecting plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, geological samples and ethnological specimens, he crossed through South Maasailand from Kilimanjaro to Longido and on to Naivasha where, at the Njorowa Gorge (Hells Gate), he was bombarded by stones hurled at his camp by Maasai moran (warriors) and was forced to turn back, leaving the balance of the trail-blazing of the coast-to-lake route to Thomson who, on a line north of Fischers through Amboseli, was hot on his heels.

In Maasailand, Fischer recorded 345 bird species, including descriptions of their distribution and habits.Together with the records of other notable ornithologists (Frederick Jackson, Anton Reichenow et al) this became the basis for all late records.

Described by Reichenow as a very modest man, unassuming and with great personal charm, Fischers bird discoveries in the Amboseli region included Fischers starling, Fischers sparrow lark and Fischers straw-tailed whydah, as listed in the Amboseli chapter of John G. Williams comprehensive Field Guide to the National Parks of East Africa.

Thomson described his two hundred miles across quite uninhabited desert country before reaching Taveta - which he achieved within a fortnight of leaving the coast - as the very ideal of a God-forsaken land. This trek brought him to the threshold of Maasailand, by which time he had been deserted by many of his men. The more those who remained with him heard about the Maasai, the more their fears grew. The formidable Maasai clans were not even friendly with each other; let alone other intruders.

The first route he chose northwards was by the southern and western slopes of Kilimanjaro. This, had he taken it, might still have taken him across the Amboseli plains since, after leaving Kilimanjaro behind him, Ol Doinyo Orok - Namanga Mountain at 2,526 metres (8,287 feet) - would have been his most obvious landmark. He was frustrated by the formidable combination of the Maasai and the weather and was forced to retreat, ultimately returning to Mombasa to reprovision and enlist more men.

A thunderstorm on the mountain is an awe-inspiring sight, he said, referring to Kilimanjaro picturesquely as that cloud-sucking pinnacle and news that a great war party of Maasai, about 2,000-strong was in front of him was even more intimidating. Nor was he enchanted to learn that, ahead of him, Fischer had already had several brushes with the Maasai in which there had been bloodshed. How could he, with his reduced party, continue with this route, he asked himself,when Fischer, with a company of 300 men and 200 more in a second caravan had had to fight? His own first encounters with the Maasai had not been confidence-inspiring.

It was his second attempt northwards, in the caravan of the slave-trader Juma Kimameta (Thomson referred to him in his book Through Masai Land as Jumba) which brought him to Amboseli. This time his route was via the east and north sides of Kilimanjaro, across the Lengurumani plain and what is now the park to Ol Doinyo Orok, then on to Ngongo Bagas, now called  Ngong, and from there to  Naivasha. The  birth  of Nairobi as a railhead and township was still years ahead.

Thomson travelled along an old caravan route which had been closed, due to difficulties with two Maasai sections,  Loitaiok clan of the Kisongo section and the Matapatu. Neither cared much for the other, and each was more than ready to defend  their territory against all comers, whether foreign or indigenous. Moreover,  their moran lived  for  the excitement of their raids and fights. When little was known of Maasai sociology (and their divisions into section, clan, subclan family) other than grim stories brought back by slave hunters and missionaries, Thomson described the Maasai of dreaded  Oloitokitok  district  as  the  Oloitokitok  and Matumbato Maasai. They  are  better known  now  as  the Loitaiok  -  who are of the Kisongo section  - and the Matapatu, who are not.

It was of Embosel - Amboseli - as part of the great Nyiri desert, that he wrote of sights weird in the extreme when his party was passing through a blasted and barren land’. Kilimanjaro was now behind him and Ol Doinyo Orok in front.

Each night they built a thorn boma around themselves against surprise attack from the Maasai or wild animals. These he recorded as being great herds of zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and gazelle, accompanied by predators including packs of hyenas and wild dogs. Each morning Thomson set out in front of his party to shoot rampant rhinoceroses or buffalos, thus at one and the same time staving off a danger and filling the pot. He made no mention of elephants, but the roars of lions and the cries of hyenas and jackals were heard at night.

The next white men to reach the vicinity were the members of the Anglo-German Boundaries Commission who, between 1902 and 1904, having completed about two years work in Uganda, set out to physically mark upon the ground with cairns and beacons an international boundary line from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean - as it still separates Kenya from Tanzania.

When Britain and Germany decided to divide Eastern Africa between them in the 1880s - both countries having an eye to opening up trade and putting an end to slave trafficking —statesmen in Europe drew an arbitrary boundary line on the map of Africa (such as it was) taking no consideration of the natural features of the ground. Initially it cut across Mount Kilimanjaro. Then politics intervened. First the Sultan of Zanzibars flag was hoisted on Kilimanjaro by the Sultans British army commander General Mathews, only to be dragged down four months later by Germanys Dr. Juhlke and replaced by the German flag.

All was settled amicably, however, when Britain conceded that a boundary giving half of Mount Kilimanjaro each to Great Britain and Germany would be impracticable. A straight line was then drawn on the map from Muhoro Bay on Lake Victoria to the northern foothills of Kilimanjaro, where it then took a sharp bend to the south to Taveta round the mountains eastern perimeter, before continuing in a south-easterly direction to the sea. This sited Africas highest mountain in German East Africa and left Mount Kenya, the second highest, in British East Africa - though a more romantic version of the affair still persists. This was that Queen Victoria herself gifted Kilimanjaro to the Kaisers son, her grandson, because (otherwise) Britain would - unfairly perhaps? - have two snow-capped mountains in East Africa and Germany would have none.

Either way, honour was satisfied and it then fell to the Anglo-German Boundaries Commission to mark out the imaginary line on the ground for all to see.

But how, it might be asked, does all this chapter of old history affect Amboseli? Simply that the border  between British East Africa and German East Africa (Kenya and Tanganyika) established at the turn of the century initially formed the southern boundary of the park and, though Captain H. A. Wilson of the Kings African Rifles - seconded the Boundaries Commission at that time - believed himself be the first white man to leave his footprints all through the boundary area in 1904, he was more likely to have been the second. Joseph Thomson had preceded him.

Wilson arrived in East Africa from India in 1902 and was given the rank of subaltern in the KAR. The great attraction was the hunting that the big game country offered. He hunted along the Nile after he was posted to the 4th KAR at Nimule and returned to find his unit had been moved to Fort Ternan and from there to Ngongo Bagas. There his orders were to take over command  of a military escort for the British contingent of the Boundaries Commission. The escort consisted of a company of the 3rd KAR.

Relations between the British Commission and their German counterparts were cordial, Wilson wrote in his 1913 book A British Borderland (and why not, since each country was acquiring great tracts of Africa at a time when the moral issues of colonial expansion went unquestioned?). Supply camps were established for bases along the march - Karungu on Lake Victoria, Mara River, Ndasegara (Entesekera), the Southern Uaso Nyiro and at the foot of El Donyo Erok (Ol Doinyo Orok) - the black mountain behind Namanga.

Porters were the main means of transporting food and supplies -- donkeys having proved slower and less satisfactory - and they, like the rest of the Boundaries personnel and their escort, also needed to be fed.

Wilsons duties as OC Escort left him with plenty of time on his hands. For months at a time he saw neither a white face nor heard a word of English. They all lived on the produce of his rifle, gun and rod and he was to look back in later years on his nine-month stint with the Boundaries Commission as perhaps the most interesting period of his life.

The area was practically unknown and entirely uninhabited until they reached Kilimanjaro.
The animals in the vicinity described by Wilson are much the same as those observed by Joseph Thomson twenty years earlier, with one notable addition: Lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, elephant, oryx, eland, Wallers gazelle, Grantii, hartebeest, wildebeest, impala, reedbuck and waterbuck.

After Wilson, the KAR escort and the Boundaries Commission personnel of both sides had left the scene, great numbers of footprints were to scar this animal kingdom on either side of the border during the First World when bitter fighting took place between the British and German forces at Longido, constantly moving from one side of the border to the other as the battle raged.

It  was there, just before the March rains of 1915, that the East African Mounted Rifles and others challenged the forces of  the  charismatic  German Lieutenant-General Paul von Lettow Vorbeck - entrenched in his Longido mountain headquarters - and met with spirited resistance. Ultimately he was driven back, to the west, but not without casualties.A small, tidily-kept war-graves cemetery at Kajiado bears witness that most of the fallen white soldiers were between eighteen and twenty-two years old. As in most wars in Africa at that time and later, countless animals were slaughtered to feed the troops of the warring  parties or became the luckless victims of hostilities.

When Amboseli was first set aside as a national reserve in 1948 with an area of 3,260 sq. kms (1,260 sq.  miles),  its southern boundary along the international line extended from Meto  - where the Meto Hills form the Great Rift Valleys eastern wall - through Namanga and Sinya almost as far as Oloitokitok.  Ol Doinyo Orok - regarded  as Maasailar’s finest hill, where elephant, rhino and buffalo abounded - was within the reserve, and a substantial area west of the Kajiado /Arusha road. The northern corner points were Lemeiboti in the north-east and Emparasha (El Emborasha) in the north-west, now far beyond the limits of the park. In 1973, Amboseli was reduced to its present 392 sq. kms (152 sq. miles), with its southern boundary moved up and away from the Tanzanian border.


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