A fantasy drive to Thomson's Falls

A fantasy drive to Thomson's Falls

Thomson’s Falls in Nyahururu.

Photo credit: John Fox | Nation Media Group

It seems some ghosts read the Sunday Nation. Well, at least one does.

Last Saturday, I was at home having my morning coffee on the terrace when a strange figure suddenly appeared. He had sideburns and a trimmed moustache. He had one of those pith helmets on his head – like those the white explorers had back in colonial times. He was wearing fawn safari clothes and laced-up leather boots.

‘The other day,’ he said, ‘you went with Elspeth Huxley’s ghost to see the Chania Falls at Thika. I had some falls here in Kenya named after me. Will you take me there? I can tell you lots of stories. Don’t worry – I will be visible only to you.’

So, this was the ghost of Joseph Thomson – the first white man, and only 24 years old, to lead a caravan through Maasai country in the 1880s. Before then, caravans from the coast to Lake Victoria had kept well clear of the Maasai.

We agreed that he would appear again the following day just after dawn, so we could make an early start for Nyahururu, Thomson’s Falls and the lodge that also has his name.

It was raining when we set off and there was little talk between us as I had to negotiate the roadwork diversions along the Nakuru Road. But Joseph was fascinated. And this man who had a reputation for bravery and coolness at times of danger – he outfoxed death a number of times – was clearly more terrified by marauding matatus than by the rhino that charged him close and the buffalo that gored his leg. ‘Eh!’ he kept saying, ‘Eh!’.

The rain stopped before we reached the viewpoint over the Rift Valley. ‘Ah, that’s Longonot,’ he said. ‘I climbed that. I attempted Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, too. I didn’t make the summit of either of them, but I got a lot of good plant specimens to take back to Britain with me.’

Joseph Thomson Lodge

He was amazed at all the shambas down the slopes of the escarpment. ‘How do they grow crops?’ he asked. ‘Where do they get their water from? Incredible!’

He was surprised, too, about all the people we had seen along the way. ‘We could travel for days without seeing anyone,’ he said.

He talked about how the plains were teeming with game in those days. So, I was keen to spot the small and perky Thomson’s gazelle. On the grasslands before the weighbridge and the turnoff to Gilgil, I thought I saw some in the distance.

I pulled over and checked them out. ‘Look,’ I said, handing him the binoculars, ‘There are some of the gazelles you gave your name to. ‘Oh yes, yes,’ he said. ‘And there are two snails named after me, too. I was certainly moving like a snail through these parts, compared to how we are travelling now!’

So, we made for Gilgil and then north to Nyahururu. When we got to the Joseph Thomson Lodge, I was pleased to see how improved things were. The hotel has been smartened up; the garden has some gnarled old pepper trees; the hawkers have been moved aside from the viewpoint to the falls.

We went down to look. ‘Wonderful,’ Joseph said, ‘Wonderful. Can you imagine how scratched I got when I pushed my way through the thorn bushes the first time I saw it?’

We talked for a while over lunch in the garden. He told me about his rivalry with the German explorer, Dr Fischer, who was leading an expedition at the same time and just to the west of his. ‘Those were the years of the Scramble for Africa,’ he said. ‘I guess that is why my expeditions got funded. But look, do you mind if I don’t go back with you? I would like to haunt these parts for a while. And I might try my luck on Mount Kenya again.’

John Fox is Managing Director of iDC Email: