Walking with my Uncles

Published in Africa Geographic Magazine, July 2008

When Patricia Glyn first read her great-great-grand uncle Richard's journal of the pilgrimage he and his brother had taken into 'the heart of darkest Africa', she was entranched with his accounts of wild beasts and nail-biting adventures. So, more than 140 years later, she decided to retrace their 2,000-kilometre journey from Durban to Victoria Falls. Fransje van Riel sheds some light on this intrpid woman.

Text by Fransje van Riel

Patricia Glyn, the radio and television presentor well-known to many South Africans, has some illustrious British aristocratic forebears. There are bankers, vicars and lawmen, and a scattering of soldiers who, ‘were rewarded for their services with several knighthoods, three baronetcies and a peerage’. Careful investigation will reveal two Lord Mayors of London and one aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. Today, Gaunt’s House, the Glyn family’s country estate in rural Dorset, is still owned by Sir Richard Lindsay Glyn, 10th baronet of Ewell and 7th of Gaunts.
Our story begins in 1863, when Patricia's grand-great-grand uncles, Sir Richard George Glyn, and his younger brother, Robert, embarked on the ultimate Victorian expedition. They would become the fourth party of white men to reach the thunderous cascade of water that, just eight years earlier, David Livingstone had named The Victoria Falls after his sovereign. To the African people, however, the Falls had always been referred to as ’Mosi-oa-Tunya’’, or The Smoke That Thunders”.

Sir Richard kept a diary of his four-and-a-half-month journey, enabling the Glyn descendants to gain a fascinating insight into his courageous exploits. As a child, the stories were familiar to Patricia, but it wasn't until 2004 that she decided to read the volume for herself.

In 2003, Patricia had abandoned broadcasting for a career in adventure and travel journalism. She had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice, and would have conquered Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the northern hemisphere, had bad weather not forced her to turn back just 300 meters from the summit. She had braved sections of several of Africa’s great rivers in a canoe, walked 500 kilometres from the lowest to the highest points in Zimbabwe, and spent three months at base camp reporting on the South African Discovery 2003 expedition team's summiting of Mt Everest. (This adventure ws published the experiences of which she recorded in a diary that was subsequently published in her first book ‘’Off Peak”.

It was then that Patricia decided to read a typed copy of the diary that had been given to her by an aunt.

‘’I found myself both transfixed and horrified by this tale of extreme hardship and great bravery’ she writes in her book Footing with Sir Richard’s Ghost. ‘It described brutal hunts, appalling thirst and gruelling passage through unchartered territory. It told of desertion and mutiny, blunders and accidents. It also depicted a land I hardly recognised, a land teeming with wildlife, uninvaded by alien vegetation, its rivers undammed and its indigenous people still living with their customs largely intact”. As she turned the final page, she vowed to retrace her forebears’ route and travel as they had - on foot.

If Patricia were to leave on the same day as her ancestors had done so many decades before, she had just four months to organise the expedition. Not wasting any time, she flew to London. Here she met her cousin, the current Sir Richard, at Gaunts House, where she was allowed to page through the fragile, light-blue pages of Richard’s original diary. 'It is illustrated with watercolour sketches and early photographs', she says, 'and even contained a coloured chart that maps, in brown-ink, the very route the brothers had followed'.

The Victorian expedition was done with ox-wagons, and many heads of oxen accompanied the party. The beasts needed regular watering, and the brothers planned their odyssey to take in the great rivers of Africa’s subcontinent: The Umgeni, Wilge and Vaal rivers in South Africa, the Ngotwani, Bonwapitse and Nata in Botswana, and the Deka and Matetsi in Zimbabwe.

Hunting played a large role in their plans. In May 1862 , Richard wrote: ‘having made up our minds that nothing less than the big game of Africa, and if possible, the Victoria Falls would satisfy our love of sporting, and travelling, and having taken into partnership Osborne (lately of the Royal Dragoons), we busied ourselves at the London Exhibition by inspecting all guns of all nations, most of which, however, we found could not be tried, or were of too small bore to suit us; at last we settled on getting large Lefacheau breechloaders made by Smith of Davies Street, and Bob and Osborne also ordered magnificent editions of Westley Richards carbine. Our next great point was to select a starting point for our journey, and having picked the brains of all travelled friends, and read all books bearing on the subject ... we fixed on Natal as the basis of our hunting in preference'.

In te mid-1800's, Africa was being explored by naturalists, missionaries and explorers. Like their contemporaries, the Glyns were lured by tall tales of wild animals and places where ‘A man could shoot until his arm grew too tired to lift his rifle and not make a dent in their masses.

Richard and Robert reached the South African coastline in February 1863 aboard The Athens, after an uneventful five-and-a-half-month journey. ‘The Norman, a small rendition of The Athens, took us up to Natal, stopping two days at Port Elizabeth, and passing the lovely coast of the neglected No Man’s Land. Crossing the Durban bar in lighters on Sunday March 1st, we landed on the sandy shore of the bay, and put up at Mr Solomon’s Hotel.

On 16 March 2005, just a few hours before departing on her quest, Patricia walked Port Elizabeth’s former sandbank, now a concrete seaboard. At the pier, she collected four mussel shells off the rocks ‘which I hoped to toss into The Smoke That Thunders’ at the end of my walk’ – one for each brother Glyn, one for herself and the last one for Tapiwa, Patricia’s little dog, who would accompny her on the journey.

Unlike the traffic-riddled streets of Patricia's present-day experience, Sir Richard found Durban to be ‘a paradise of venomous insects. Mosquitoes in clouds, dogs black with fleas, oxen minus their ears from ticks, and men driven mad by something like a harvest bug’.

In place of the ox-drawn wagons, servants, wagon drivers and camp staff, Patricia had enlisted a back-up team consisting of John Kerr and historian Louis Changuion, and two Isuzu 4X4s that were to serve as modern supply wagons. The team's primary tasks were to set up camp ahead of Patricia’s gruelling 35-kilometres-per-day schedule, read maps and navigate, prepsre meals and fix any vehicle-related problems. Changuion would also play a pivotal role in connecting historical anecdotes in the diary with present-day locations and, if possible, find descendants of people mentioned by Richard.

The trek out of swampy Durban was quite a feat for the Glyns. Today the main artery out of town, like all major cities, is a hub of traffic and congestion as opposed to ‘The Berea sand-hill soon tried our spans, mine stuck every ten yards’.

Leaving Durban, the Victorian party took three days to reach Pietermaritzburg, where they acquired fresh provisions. ‘Our stock now consisted of three wagons, with 69 Zulu oxen, 10 horses, about 12 dogs … 14 oxen drew each wagon, the spare ones and the horses were driven behind. The horses we clothed every night, tied them to the wagon wheels, and gave them a feed of mealies and did not allow them to eat grass early in the morning, when the dew was on it, as that is said to be the cause of the terrible African horse sickness’.

It was only when the Glyns reached the grasslands of the Free State, a month into their expedition, that the hunting party came across the vast plains game that had lured them to the continent. ‘The killing had begun, and the many accounts of it in Richard’s diary would make for some nauseating bedtime reading in the months to come’, Patricia records in her diary. However, by 1863, the herds were rapidly declining after three decades of uncontrolled hunting. As Richard noted, ‘The country is covered with skulls of wildebeest’.

The brothers then headed for Potchefstroom, known as Mooi-rivier-dorp at the time. This was the last stop before heading into the wilderness, so supplied had to be replenished. 'Our wagons were surrounded all day by Boers open-mouthed at our breech-loaders, but they did not seem to believe in them, and could not understand where the cap should be,' Richard records.

Following in their footsteps and entering Botswana, Patricia left her team behind and took to the bush armed only with a GPS system, the workings of which she had just rcently learned. While Kerr and Changuion drove the long way round on tarred roads, Patricia was ‘completely enveloped by dense thornveld and, for the first time on the trip, deprived of vehicle back-up’. It was a sobering trek. Richard's diary entry for 25 May 1863 read: ‘At night I first heard a lion roar, not the fine thundering sound I always imagined the king of beasts produced, but a low moaning noise very like a cow, and not nearly so loud as a wolf (hyena).’

'As little as 50 years ago, this area was renowned for its rhino,' Patricia wrote, 'but I wasn't seeing as much as a hare. I searched in vain for wildlife tracks but the sand whispered of nothing but livestock, and the trees talked no longer about the long-necked browsers that once nibbled at their highest shoots'. These observations indicated the devastating effects of cattle ranching and overgrazing.

Heading further north, with her faithful team in town once more, Patricia reached present-day Big Five territory. ‘Some 60 kilometres north of Nata I left the tarred road and walked eastwards what is known as The Old Hunters’ Road – a deep sand track that snakes up the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana. Within meters of stepping onto it, I encountered signs of the '‘big guys'’, followed by lion spoor the size of soup plates’. Braving the environment, Patricia ended the day at a small waterhole where three elephants were drinking their fill. ‘I enjoyed their quiet, lumbering company for a short while before one of them got too close for comfort and I leaped into the vehicle, called it quits and headed back to camp’.

The following morning, she resumed her walk at the same waterhole. ‘There was no sign of my big friends’, she writes, ‘save their large footprints in the sand’. She did, however, encounter a young professional hunter by the name of Tim Frayne, who had two Spanish clients in his truck. He warned her about ‘plenty of leopard and lion for the next 10-15 kilometres – after that not too much to worry about’. Before pulling away, he gave her the coordinates of their camp in case of trouble.

Patricia had prepared herself for problems of all sorts, but had not bargained on running out of water in the middle of nowhere. ‘I would have to go to Tim Frayne’s hunting camp to ask for assistance and I felt deeply humiliated at the prospect of letting them in on our incompetence. But it was a visit that was to change my life …’

At the camp, she stumbled across some gruesome remains - four grey, bloodied feet. ‘Their treads were worn and their toenail scuffed … they’d clearly served one of Africa’s great elephants for 50 or 60 years. Nearby were his dentures, smooth and creamy, but topped by the mushy remains of his skull flesh. On one of them the butchers had left an eye – a sad, accusing eye that shall haunt me forever’.

It was a profound moment. On the spot, Patricia decided to stop eating meat and to help raise public awareness of the plight of the planet's animals.

Patricia's final challenge was to gain permission to traverse the Matetsi Safari Area, which is governed by the Zimbabwean Department of National Parks. When it was finally granted, she set of to complete the last leg of the journey in the company of an armed Ndebele game ranger, Isiah Tshuma.

They battled through the bush until Isaiah led her to the top of a rise and pointed. ‘’Look Patty,' he said, 'there it is’. There, some fifteen kilometers way, she saw the spume of the falls. 'It was an emotional moment, Patricia recalls.

Richard’s diary entry for 22 July states: ' Started with the first light, and soon we heard a distant roar, which we knew to be the falls. Three hours toiling over thirsty sand, through forest … brought us to the edge of the plateau, and far away to the North East we could see the tall pillars of vapour rising over the forest trees and marking the spot we had come so many thousand miles to see. As we stood to admire, lo! six bull elephants appeared on the opposite cliffs. Quietly they tore up a great tree and fed on the leaves. As if they knew that they ahs chosen the only place in Southern Africa where they would not be made to feel the weight of our bullets for, for 40 miles or more down, nothing without wings can scale the cliffs and cross the stream of the boiling Zambezi’.

Patricia's arrival was greeted with rather more fanfare. At the Victoria Falls Hotel, family and friends awaited with a large media contingent. She had completed her 2,200-kilometre journey by stepping onto a red carpet rolled out in her honour. Later, she walked across to the falls and tossed her mussel shells into the cascade.

Photographs courtesy of Patricia Glyn

Patricia recorded her experiences in the book Footing with Sir Richard's Ghost, and she gives regular talks about her journey. E-mail or go to

Sir Richard Lindsay Glyn

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