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Exploring Africa with Martin and Osa Johnson.

Game Warden

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I love Osa and Martin. I have read 3 or 4 of their books 3 or 4 times. Seeing all of these photos makes me want to drag them out again. And I think I only have one movie on VHS. I'll have to get the dvd's. Thanks for posting all of this!



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Game Warden

Jacquelyn from the Martin and Osa Johnson Museum contacted me to let me know they will be packaging Osa Johnson's Big Game Hunt DVD collection for sale soon.



this is the 26 television episodes Osa produced in 1952-53 (the first wildlife documentary on US television - 8yrs before Mutual of Omaha's Wildkingdom! Episodes from the series are being featured at our film fest this year - .this is an 11 disc set!!!

I'll keep you Johnson fans posted with details, pricing etc... Matt

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  • 1 year later...

It's makindu station on the lunatic line where the picture was taken of Osa.. the man eaters of tsavo killed many people here when the line was being constructed in the 1890's..


There is a parallel story here. While Carl Akely influenced the johnsons initially, he was a busy fellow and chas cottar and his son Bud were their primary guides and escorts in east Africa in the early days, traveling with them to lake paradise in Mt Marsabit and the northern frontier district. Then they met Arthur Ritchie ( kenyas chief game warden) and his brother, whom eventually took over chaparoning duties for the Johnson's, and the cottars were subsequently written out of the johnsons history and book completely.. who knows what happened on their last safari together for such a break up to happen.. no doubt it involved chas telling them to 'go where the sun don't shine' for taking on an Englishman as their guide!


Check out the book 'the exception was the rule' by chas cottar; the film ' haya safari! ' by Isabelle roumegeure, and David Lansing's blog of his journey following in the Johnson's footsteps.




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Always more than one side to every story I suppose.

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  • 11 months later...

This is awesome GW, the photographs are brilliant and the information you've pulled together gives such a great insight into their lives. This is a great resource for anyone interested in the Johnson's adventures and early cinematography/photography. You've made me pick up my books off the shelf, think it's time to give them another read. :D

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  • 2 years later...
Game Warden

Now it's time to reboot this topic by introducing you to Jacquelyn Borgeson Zimmer, Curator of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum. Here is the Safaritalk interview I conducted with her a few years ago.


If you want to wander down Safari memory lane and are in the area, visit the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, in Chanute, Kansas. Make sure to personally ask for Jacquelyn Borgeson Zimmer the curator who is an expert on all things Johnson. (You can keep up with latest news from the museum via their Facebook page here.)


Martin and Osa Johnson were pioneers of wildlife film documentaries visiting Africa on numerous occasions and exploring areas which are now so familiar to regular safari goers. Imagine what it must have been like to first set eyes upon Lake Paradise in Kenya... Numerous books, films and photos document their travels.


For more info, visit the museum's website at www.safarimuseum.com


All photos and historical documents are courtesy and copyright of The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum and Safaritalk has been granted permission to publish them, with thanks to Jacquelyn.

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Game Warden

So let's recap the first expedition to Kenya with some photos and quotes, (some of which I may have already included previously in this topic...)



Museum caption: Martin and Osa Johnson with Men and Cameras


"I have no scientific training in anything but photography. But my cameras have an exactitude that no human being could attain. They can record the animal story accurately. They can repeat it over and over without forgetting and varying. And I believe, too, that they can make better pictures of animals and natives who do not know that they are being watched and photographed..."


Martin Johnson, Chapter 10 Introduction, Four Years in Paradise by Osa Johnson


"It was a rare team they made, this partnership between these two handsome young people from Kansas. Indeed, in the annals of travel and exploration, they were unique. They shared each other's thoughts, experiences, hardships, dangers. And I don't know any couple that had so much and such continuous fun together."


Lowell Thomas, The Story of Martin Johnson, Natural History, March, 1937


"I want to take a picture of Africa that will be different… It will be the whole story of a country, its peoples and its animals, slowly unrolling against a backdrop of magnificent scenery - wide, grassy plains dotted with sparse mimosa groves, peaceful wooded hills…rich forests, swift rivers, broad reaches of sandy desert. "


Martin Johnson, Lake Paradise Expedition Diary, 1924

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“We are working extra hard so as to get off to Africa in the late spring--I am looking foreward to our trip from Cape Town to Cairo.”


Martin wrote in the first letter which hinted at the Johnson's intention to head to Africa: written immediately following their hugely successful "trial run" at filming wild animals in Borneo, Martin is clearly flush with excitement about what they would / could be doing in Africa.

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Different covers of Martin Johnson’s 1924 book Camera Trails in Africa, based upon their experiences during the first of five groundbreaking expeditions.


The Johnsons set out for East Africa at the urging of Carl Akeley. Osa later said in her book I Married Adventure,


"You have a very important mission, Martin," Mr. Akeley said on one of those never-to-be-forgotton evenings. "Even more important than mine."

Martin and his father and I stared uncomprehendingly.

Carl Akeley went on. "I've made it my mission to perpetuate vanishing wild-animal life in bronze and by securing specimens for the museum. You are doing the same thing in film, which is available to millions of people all over the world."

This was one of many long and earnest talks with Mr. Akeley, and through him our plans for the future took shape. He suggested British East Africa as the best place in the world for our film studies of wild-animal life, and so this became our next goal.


In his 1978 book, Exploring with Martin and Osa Johnson, Kenhelm W. Stott, Jr records;


1921 was to prove a turning point in the Johnson’s career. Martin was elected a member of the prestigious Explorers Club… As a member of The Explorers Club, Martin was exposed to other men of equal stature and calibre. Carl Akeley was of special interest to Martin, having filmed East African game herds while collecting material for the African Hall. (of the American Museum of Natural History). He urged Martin and Osa to take their cameras to Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika to film the incredibly abundant and diverse wildlife there, predicting even then the day when the great herds would dwindle and in some areas disappear altogether, as indeed they have.”


By the time they left in 1922, Martin and Osa had shot 100,000 feet of film and taken hundreds of still pictures. The resulting film, Trailing African Wild Animals, premiered in April of 1923 while Martin's book Camera Trails in Africa was published a year later in 1924.

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Museum caption: Martin Johnson Photographing Kaisoot Desert

I had not been home from Borneo many weeks before I began to think of going off again to animal country. I naturally thought of Africa. I would explore the Congo, I decided. I would go straight across the great continent. But after I had read everything I could lay my hands on and had consulted as many explorers and big-game hunters as I could find, I decided that the spot to go to was British East Africa. Not only was wild life abundant there, save in the limited regions not too far inland, where the amateur sportsman has found a happy hunting-ground, but the animals lived under conditions that were practically ideal for a photographer. Except in a few instances, they roamed great open plains, where the lenses of the camera could have full sweep.

That is how the story of my safari begins...

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.


Museum caption: Martin and Osa Johnson with Five Samburu Men and Cameras, Lake Paradise



Museum caption: Inside Martin Johnson's Lab


I use American cameras entirely, both movie and still, but I make a specialty of having the best lenses money can buy. I still feel that no skin, head, book or other trophy of an explorer's jorney can measure up in importance with an artistically made photograph. All my lenses are ground to order and each one thoroughly tested before I pack it.

Martin Johnson - Safari A Saga of the African Blue.

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Museum caption: Osa Johnson enroot to Nairobi 1921

Mombasa to Nairobi by train.

The daily train for Nairobi left Mombasa at five o'clock in the evening. We were onboard ahead of time. We had been delayed for three days in the steaming heat of Mombasa getting our eighty-five crates, trunks and boxes through customs and into the refrigerator-car that I had rented for the sake of my films.


The train for Nairobi was a surprisingly up-to-date compartment-train with a wood-burning engine, a cheery black engineer and fireman, and a Goanese guard. We gasped when we paid for our tickets, for we found that the first-class rate was eighteen cents a mile.



Museum caption: Makindo Station enroute to Mombasa to Nairobi, 2-Indian Men, 1921


We were eager to get to the wilds of Africa, but here, on all sides, we saw evidence of the hand of man. We passed through grove after grove of tropical trees, cocoanut-palms, mangos, papayas, bananas, among which monkeys swung like agile shadows.


No matter how much you travel, the anticipation of the unknown never grows less.


And this adventure, the hunting of the great animals of British East Africa, some of them strange survivals of prehistoric times, promised to be one of the most interesting I have ever experienced.


We were passing through a low, semi-tropical forest. At the edge of the clearing made for the railway to run through, the shapes of animals, vague in the mist light, moved through the trees. I could not make out what they were. They were just mysterious forms, some horned, some hornless, some tiny and quick in movement, some as large and heavy as oxen.



Museum caption: "Town" Natives by Train


We spent all that day half out of our windows, now on this side, now on that side of the train. No one who has taken that journey from Mombasa to Nairobi will ever forget it. To me it is one of the most vivid experiences of my life. I had been told that Africa was as full of wild animals as New York City is of ctas. I had not quite believed that; who would? But now I found it literally true.


We stopped for breakfast at a little station called Voi. Voi consisted merely of two or three shacks of a style current in British East - a patchwork of flattended petrol tins surmounted by a high grass roof - and a slightly more pretentious eating-house of galvanised iron (a "tin" house it would be called in British East) managed by East Indians.



As he talked we approached Tsavo, and the Old-Timer broke away from his economic discussion (like most settlers he was an enthusiast and a firm believer in the agricultural future of British East) to tell us how, at this point, during the building of the railway, operations had been halted for a time by the depredations of man-eating lions. As if they had known that the completion of the railway would mean the ultimate destruction of the animal kingdom over which they held sway, the lions beseiged the invaders of their realm with a boldness and cunning that seemed almost supernatural. They dragged men off at night from beside their sleeping companions. They killed men in broad daylight as the worked, a few rods distant from their mates.



Museum caption: Osa Johnson with Expedition Group at Railroad Station


There near the track, so close that I could hit them with a stone, are seven giraffes, standing still, their long necks above the trees.
I may seem childish when I say that a lump came into my throat at that sight. Perhaps I am childish. However that may be, it is things like that first glimpse of giraffes, not "hair-breadth 'scapes" nor hand-to-hand encounters, that mean adventure to me.


Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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@@Game Warden thank you for resurrecting this topic, the new photos have filled me with joy.

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Game Warden



Museum caption: Gov. road Nairobi 1921


Museum caption: Government House, Nairobi 1921 Governor then, Sir Edward Northey. King African Rifles on parade. These troops later that year suppressed Kiyuku uprising in streets of Nairobi (back view of bass drummer wearing Leopard/Cheetah skin)


I shall never forget my first view of Nairobi, seen from the taxi as we went from train to hotel. We bowled over well paved, electric-lighted streets lined with office buildings and department-stores. Though many of the buildings were of galvanised iron, some were of grey stone. An occasional structure rose three stories above the street, and there was one sky-scraper of five stories.



Museum caption: Martin & Osa Johnson’s 1st home in Africa-Nairobi 1921


Museum caption: Osa Johnson with roses from her garden at her 1st home Nairobi 1921

So before many days we had established ourselves in an eight roomed bungalow just about twenty minutes' walk from the traffic policeman in the center of Nairobi. It was a comfortable house with electric lights and water "laid on", and it stood in a spacious garden.


The earliest white explorers traveled by safari. And even to-day, when a railway runs from the coast to Lake Victoria Nyanza and British East imports some eighty thousand vehicles a year, the safari is still in many localities the only satisfactory way of getting around.



Museum caption: Osa Johnson, Model T Station Wagon, 2-natives Nairobi 1921

Fords can travel where there are roads, and there are now enough passable roads in British East to warrant the publication of an automobile-map; Fords can even travel in some places where there are no roads: but there are wide reaches in British East which cannot be traversed at all, save by men on foot.

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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Museum Caption: Porters at Tarlton, Whetham & Burman Safari Outfitters

Though it was to be some time before we could set out on a long safari, we needed servants immediately; and with the assistance of the officials of the Bureau of Native Affairs and of the safari outfitters, Tarleton, Whetham & Burman, we got together as fine a lot of servants as any one could desire.



Museum caption: Jerrimani-gun bearer Kenya 1921


First of all we engaged a head-man. A head-man is a most important institution. Before you start on your safari, he assists you in getting together your porters and equipment and helps you make up your supplies into sixty-pound loads. And after you start he is the overseer of your camp. He sees that tents are taken down and set up quickly and properly, he keeps porters in order, and if he is a good head-man he conducts you to where you want to go, for he is supposed to know the country - and sometimes he does! Our head-man was named Jerramani. He was a 'Mnuwesi man, hailing from Tanganyika (the former German East Africa), where most of the best safari men come from.


Jerramani had been big game hunting with Colonel Roosevelt. That in itself was a reccommendation to me.



Museum caption: Osa Johnson, Kalowatt & Porters with camera Chobe Hills 1921

My note: Showing I believe, Ferraragi holding the tripod. (I cannot find any named captioned images for him)


Ferraragi, his assistant, a Nyasalander, was soberer than Jerramani but as efficient and as faithful. He acted as Osa's gun-bearer, while Jerramani acted as mine. Although they were not allowed to fire the guns they carried, they stood by us without flinching in situations involving considerable danger. Jerramani and Ferraragi were royally paid at twenty-five dollars a month.

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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Museum caption: A Cemetery

To me, Africa will always mean the wilderness. And yet I look back with pleasure on the weeks we spent in Nairobi. Our African adventure really began in the peace and comfort and civilized order of the little city. We lived in the suburbs, and any day we were likely to meet at our garden gate a puzzled zebra or an astonished gazelle that had strayed in from the plains and did not know how to find its way back again. A few weeks after our arrival a lion dragged a horse out of its paddock, almost out from under the owner's nose. Every now and then a leopard made off with a pet dog, and one day Osa and I scared one of the great cats from under our own veranda. Nearly every edition of the Nairobi paper contained an animal accident story: "Hunter Mauled by Lion"; "Lone Settler Gored by Rhino." Once a native came into Nairobi to ask for military assistance in getting rid of a rhinoceros that was grazing with his cattle. The rhino was getting along amicably enough with the cattle, but it would not let the owner come anywhere near them. During a meditative half-hour in the European cemetery at Nairobi, I counted nine tombstones with the briefly eloquent inscription, "Killed by a lion," not to speak of others dedicated to men who had been killed by rhinos and buffaloes and leopards or by accidental shooting.

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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A note on the captioning of the museum's archive photos: Jacquelyn writes:

Sometimes there were handwritten captions from Martin or Osa Johnson, but basically it was Belle Leighty's notes, (Belle was Osa's mother), and or/past curator Barb Henshall's notes.

Therefore I'm using the original captions from Martin and Osa, Belle Leighty and Barb Henshall from the museum and not correcting spelling/grammar etc.

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My Nairobi laboratory became a meeting-place for people interested in photography and people interested in animals. It was the best field-laboratory I had ever had.



Museum caption: Drying drum, Martin Johnson 1st Lab, Nairobi, 1921

I had brought with me from America fifty-gallon developing-tanks and big drums on which to wind my film to dry after it was developed. Other neccessary equipment I bought in Nairobi or made on the spot.



Museum caption: Akeleys on Steps of their Nairobi Home

Among the people who made use of my developing facilities were Major Duggmore, the famous explorer and photographer, who made what I consider to be the best still pictures ever taken of African animals. The last visitor to my laboratory was Carl Akeley, who went there in my absence to develop his famous gorilla pictures. He left there for me one of the cameras that he himself has adapted especially for animal work.



Museum caption: Osa Johnson, Blaney Percival & Masai men


And then there was Blaney Percival. I am indebted to him for much. He advised me concerning the organization of my safari. He shared with me his vast knowledge of animals and their ways, gained in twenty years' experience as game-warden in British East. And he put me on the trail to Lake Paradise, the animal Eden of Kenya Colony.

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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Museum caption: Osa Johnson posing in front of Model T Truck

Long talks with Sir Northrup Macmillan and Blaney Percival whetted our appetite for the wilds, and we hurried our preparations to be off into the wilderness. We found that we could make many trips by automobiles; so we bought a safari Ford from the Nairobi outfitters, Newton, Ltd., one of the firms that make a business of equipping big/game hunting expeditions.



Museum caption: Loaded Model T Ford #B2172 note: Osa Johnson in front passenger seat


Though Osa and I, experienced in tropical outfitting, had secured most of our equipment in New York and London, we were glad of the assistance of the outfitters in securing such things as the Ford, of which we had not foreseen the need, and staple foods, such as flour and sugar and rice, which it had not been worth while to transport from the other side of the world.



Museum caption: Osa Johnson in one of 2 Safari Fords 1921


Museum caption: Martin Johnson or Blaney Percival & Porter fixing tire on Model T Truck


The safari Ford was a tidy little machine, with big tanks to carry petrol and boxes in which to store food slung on either side. It had a neat top with canvas side curtains, and on occasion it could be used for sleeping-quarters. In addition to this Ford, I bought a second-hand Ford from a hunter about to leave Africa. With the assistance of a young American boy, Bud Cotter, whom I engaged as an assistant, I built a new safari body for it and put it into order generally. And before I set out on my long safari, I leased also a one-ton Ford truck, which could carry as much as thirty or forty porters.

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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By now we had been in Nairobi a month, and so we decided that it was time for us to be on the move. I knew where I where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to Lake Paradise, the lost lake about which Blaney Percival had told me. It had been discovered years ago by a Scotch missionary. Mr. Percival showed me the book the reverend gentleman had written about it - a quaint old book full of references to strange animals - "camelo pard", as he called giraffes, and "two-horned unicorns" which we decided must have been rhinoceroses. But what interested me chiefly was the fact that the lake was the haunt of elephants - hundreds and hundreds of elephants.

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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Museum caption: Osa Johnson & gun bearer in Model T truck Athia Plains 1921

It seemed neccessary before starting off on our long safari in search of Lake Paradise to make a trial trip or two in order to try our guns, cameras, and personnel.


Though the object of our trip was not to kill animals but to photograph animals living and unafraid, we knew that it would be dangerous to go to spots far removed from civilization until we had proved that we could shoot at least moderately straight.


After consulting with our new-found aquaintances in Nairobi, we chose for our first camp a spot in the Athi Plains, on the shores of the Athi River, about thirty miles distant of Nairobi, where game was said to be plentiful.


Museum caption: Thomson Gazelle Athi Plains 1921

The drive along that road acorss the plains was one of the strangest experiences of my life. We were scarcely out of sight of Nairobi before we began to see animals - animals crossing the road ahead of us, animals in herds spotting the distant plain, animals not a stone's throw away: zebreas and gazelles of a half-dozen kinds and occasional flocks of ostriches. And one and all they had a passion for racing with automobiles, and passion that seemed to be instinctive with animals throughout Africa.




Museum caption: Osa Johnson in gingham dress on Plain with Zebra herd


We had not gone far before we came to a group of zebras at the edge of the road. They lifted their noses from the grass, stared at us for a moment, and then, as if at a signal, they were off, lickety-split, abreast of us.



Museum caption: Athi Plains 1921 One of Martin Johnson’s 1st animal photos


About twenty miles out of Nairobi, we left the road and struck out directly across the plains. We passed over rolling grass-lands, thickly dotted with mimosas, and made camp between five and ten mile farther on, at a bend in the river.



Museum caption: Canvas covered auto, McMillian’s Mountain, Athi Plains near Nairobi


We had not brought any tents, but with the aid of a great square of airplane cloth I had bought in London, Jerramani and Ferraragi converted one of the Fords into a roomy and comfortable shelter.

Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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As we ate, we saw in the distance, faint shapes in the dusk, a little party of antelopes making their way to the river to drink. They were too far off to see us, yet they sense something unusual and advanced hesitatingly, stopping at intervals to look about and to sniff the air. I marked with my eye the spot where they disappeared down the river-bank and determined to set up a camera there the next day.


I set up my camera by the river near a spot where I had seen animals going down to drink, morning and evening for three days. Protected by a light screen of thorn-bush, I sat down to wait. But the animals came, looked at my thorn-bush screen, made up their minds that there was something fishy about it, and, since they had the whole length of the river to drink from, moved along to a spot just out of focus and drank their fill. The wild things saw something that was not there yesterday, something that might or might not conceal a lion, and decided to take no chances.



Museum caption: Osa Johnson with Topi or Reedbuck Trophy in front of Model T #B2172

About three miles from camp we saw a nice big herd of antelopes. We stopped about six hundred yards from them. It was early in the moring, and since the light was excellent, I put a long-focus lens on my camera and started to grind off a picture. The animals grazed along, unaware of our presence, and after I had exposed a few feet of film, I told Osa to fire into the herd to produce a little action. She took aim, fired, and the herd went bounding off. But dead on the field lay one big buck.


It was mere chance that Osa got him.


At the time we were elated enough. We got into the car and drove up to our kill. He was a sleek, pretty, khaki-coloured buck about the size of a Shetland pny, with long curved horns and a pretty soft eye. When Osa saw him, she burst into tears. "I wish I hadn't killed him," she sobbed, "he is so p-p-pretty!"


Five miles from Nairobi, after we had struck the clay road, I got the first good picture of my trip, a herd of eleven giraffes that we had chased half a mile before they left the road and went off across the plain.


What pictures I got, and they were negligible in quantity, were for the most part worthless. But I had learned an elementary, though very valuable, lesson for the photographer of animals to know - that a river-bank is a poor place to set up a camera. If the animals suspect your presence, and they nearly always do, they simply move on a bit and drink at a spot safely out of range of your camera.


Martin Johnson - Camera Trails in Africa.

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Great that you’ve rebooted this topic @@Game Warden – it’s fascinating.


As well as Camera Trails in Africa and I Married Adventure I have Safari – A Saga of African Adventure by Martin Johnson.

This edition published by Grosset & Dunlap in its Great Adventure Library is undated but I think was probably published in the 1950s. It’s a reprint of the original 1928 edition published by G P Putnam’s Sons New York.






The book is about their lengthy return to Africa in January 1924 and Lake Paradise. For me one of the highlights of the book is that it contains 57 full page photos and 8 half page photos all with captions.

The following is the same photo of N’Dorobo Men shown in #73 with caption.




In the book the caption of the photo in #85 of Martin and Osa with natives states that they are Meru.


Slightly off topic but I find it interesting that in one of my favourite books An Impossible Dream edited by Ian Parker and Stan Bleazard http://safaritalk.net/topic/13950-some-favourite-african-books/ when talking about his posting to Marsabit as Game Warden in 1960 taking over from George Adamson Stan states that in the 1920s his father Jim Bleazard, who had twice walked with camels from Meru to Marsabit, met Martin, Osa and Blayney Percival while he camped on the mountain for six months.

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