Re-reading a Classic of Travel Writing

Since the only place I could go these last six weeks has been my own garden, the only other travel I have done is to read and write about it.

‘I have written about travel by trains and travel by ships… What else can I do?’ I asked my wife.

‘What about by feet?’ she said.

And my mind immediately went to John Hillaby and his tennis shoes. He is the man who walked from Wamba in Samburu County, up the west shore of Lake Turkana and back across the Chalbi Desert. In tennis shoes? Yes. Before he set off, he asked advice of the explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, who was then living at Maralal.

‘Don’t wear boots,’ Thesiger told him. ‘Wear tennis shoes.’ Hillaby said it was the best advice he got from anyone about how to survive the rigours of the walking safari that was to take him three months and over sixteen hundred kilometres. He took twelve pairs of tennis shoes, wearing a different pair each day. At the end of the journey, he gave nine pairs to his African staff, kept two, and threw one pair away.

Hillaby wrote many books about his travels, among them Journey Through Britain, an account of his walk from Land’s End to John-o’-Groats, Journey Through Europe, his similar walk from the Hook of Holland to Nice by way of the Alps. Journey to the Jade Sea, his book about the walk to Lake Turkana, was his first. It was published in 1964, and it is regarded as a classic of travel writing.

Hillaby had been on a more conventional safari in Kenya a few years before his famous walk. He tells us that he became so fed up with looking at spectacular scenery through the dusty windscreen of a Land Rover that he took off and climbed Mount Lolokwi (now more commonly called Ololokwe), which is just to the north of what is now the Samburu National Reserve and beside the Ewaso Nyiro River.

In the introductory chapter of Journey to the Jade Sea, Hillaby says that what he saw from the top of the mountain had a profound impression on him. He describes the northern deserts as having an apocalyptic quality – utterly stark and relieved only by the stumps of worn-out volcanoes. ‘From the top of Lolokwi’ he says, ‘the impression is of an uninhabited hell’. He told the game warden who was accompanying him that he was determined to return as soon as he could and cross that desert on foot.

Hillaby says he took on the walk for the hell of it. ‘I was tired of city life,’ he says. ‘and heartily ashamed of having done nothing in the way of physical exertion that I could look back on with satisfaction.’ He admits, though, that he had little qualification for making such a safari. It was the first time he had been in the bush without another European on hand. He knew nothing about guns, though he had to shoot for meat. He was reliant on camels for carrying all the gear, and the only ones he had ever seen before were through the bars of a zoo.

He was also reliant on the four local Kenyan men he had hired for the safari: Lelean, the headman, who was a game ranger; Karo the camel leader; his assistant Goiti; Mezek, the young cook. He had to learn how to communicate with them in very basic Swahili. The way Hillaby describes their characters, their foibles and their resilience, is one of the joys of the book. As is the self-deprecating way he describes his own frailties and mishaps.

To write this piece, I re-read the book in one sitting. John Hillaby was actually well read and a very professional person – journalist, biologist and zoologist. But he wore his wide-ranging knowledge lightly. He loved walking, but his writing was certainly not pedestrian.

Photo by Andreas Fox

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation