Great African Baloonograph Safari Fizzles

1909 Charles Hughes spent his honeymoon in Kenya as the writer and secretary for the great African Balloonograph Expedition. His bride Anna didn’t join him. She spent their honeymoon with her mother in Europe. The couple’s strange start to married life is entwined with the African Balloonograph Expedition of 1909.

The story began as America experienced an African frenzy when former President Theodore Roosevelt embarked on a hunting safari to Kenya.

About that time W. D. Boyce, a newspaper publisher from Chicago who owned The Saturday Blade and The Chicago Ledger, with a combined circulation of 750,000, met George R. Lawrence, a noted photographer who claimed to be an expert balloonist as well. Lawrence challenged Boyce to finance and lead an expedition to produce a photographic record of African animals in their natural habitat, which would outshine the specimens Roosevelt was collecting for taxidermists to display in the Smithsonian. These pictures would captivate the readers of Boyce’s newspapers and boost circulation. All Boyce had to do was put Lawrence in a hot air balloon with his cameras and let it float above the African veldt.

Lawrence persuaded Boyce on the benefits of taking photographs from a balloon. On the ground a photographer had only a short time to get his pictures before the animals got wind of him and fled. Floating in a balloon the photographer could take panoramic views of the herds stretching across the horizon. He could leisurely change to another camera better suited for close-ups of individual animals. Lawrence had some spectacular photos of the Rocky Mountains that he told Boyce he had taken from a balloon.

Boyce would have to organise his African Balloonograph Expedition quickly before Roosevelt left Africa and the American public lost its interest in Africa.

Boyce hires Hughes to manage expedition

Boyce approached Charles Hughes, a sports writer for the Chicago Record Herald, and offered him the job of official writer and secretary for the expedition. Hughes jumped at the chance for adventure, fame and fortune. He wanted to marry Anna Corbin, but couldn’t afford to on his sports writer’s salary. Hughes agreed to be expedition’s writer and secretary—which really meant general manager—if the publisher would pay for his bride and her mother to travel with them as far as Europe. Boyce readily agreed. Hughes planned to marry before the expedition set off. He would travel to Europe on the first leg of the trip with his bride, then leave her with her mother while he explored Africa. After the expedition ended, he would return and complete his honeymoon in Europe.

Boyce went ahead to New York where he stayed at the Waldorf Astoria and sent this message back to Hughes. “You can give out that I received a cable from London today, stating that my agent there has secured the only moving picture artist in the world who has successfully taken moving pictures of dangerous wild beasts—and that with him I got two cameras and 50,000 feet of film as well as developing outfits, etc. Make up any story from this that will show whole expedition for pleasure and preserving actual conditions for scientific purposes. Pictures will live when hides will rot.” Hughes had to negotiate with moving-picture theatres to show the soon-to-be-produced wildlife films across the U.S.

From New York Boyce sailed to England where he collected letters of introduction to governors and princes and contacted people who organized and outfitted safaris. Boyce wrote or cabled promotion ideas to Hughes every day. Many English newspapers contracted to buy the African pictures and stories. The London Daily Mirror said it was “immensely interested in your plan for taking Central Africa by storm photographically.”

Boyce kept up a steady stream of orders about buying and shipping equipment. He ordered Hughes to bring two silk balloons along with a tank of sulphuric acid and a large amount of iron scraps and filings to throw into the acid to produce hydrogen gas to lift the balloons. Hughes hustled around buying two towers and several box kites, as back-up camera-lifting equipment in case the balloons didn’t have enough lift. He bought wires and flash equipment for night pictures of big game at Lawrence’s suggestion.  Hughes collected telephone equipment for communication between tents and from tent to camera location, film, projectors, screens, equipment for recording sound, and an Edison Talking Machine to play it back. He also bought a pile of guns, including two Mausers for Boyce, and boxes full of ammunition. He bought khakis, puttees, boots, and pith helmets and searched for a doctor who would give up his practice for several months to be the expedition’s physician.

In the midst of his preparations, Hughes took enough time on July 31 to say “I do” to Anna Corbin and hurried back to Chicago with his new bride to wrestle with the final muddle of details. Boyce ordered Hughes to oversee personally the loading of every item into the ship’s hold. In one of his last orders before the ship sailed from New York harbour, Boyce sounded a prophetic note: “See that Lawrence gets everything on board ship.” After the ship sailed, Lawrence discovered he had left one of his cameras behind. Hughes spent the first few days of the voyage sending cables to people to look for it. When someone found the camera, Hughes arranged to have it forwarded.

The travellers on the first leg of Boyce’s African Balloonograph Expedition consisted of Hughes, his bride Anna, her mother, Lawrence and his son and another photographer named Caywood. As they sailed for Europe, Lawrence attached a camera to a kite and took an aerial shot of the ship. He developed the spectacular photo and everyone agreed the expedition would be a success.

Boyce, the moving-picture photographer he had hired in London, and three film and sound technicians joined the ship in Naples in late August. Anna Hughes disembarked with her mother to continue her honeymoon without her husband. They planned to meet in Paris in December and finish their honeymoon together after the balloon safari ended.

Expedition arrives in Mombasa

The ship carried on to Mombasa. An eyewitness, whom H. K. Binks calls George Winch in his memoir African Rainbow, remembered the expedition’s arrival. (Editor’s note: Binks, who wrote his memoir late in his life, often changed the names of the real characters, so we are not exactly sure if George Winch is the man’s real name or a pseudonym.)  Long before the people on shore could see the ship, a large dot appeared in the sky over the horizon. The dot turned out to be a collection of nine box kites supporting a bamboo frame with an enormous camera attached to the bottom. The ship towed the whole aerial outfit on a long rope. From this elevated perch, the camera took photographs, the film being exposed electronically when the camera faced in the right direction.

As the ship slowed down to navigate the channel into Mombasa harbour, the kite faltered and dipped. It looked like the kites and camera would pile up on the boat.  People on deck ran around frantically. A turn in the channel brought the ship back into the wind giving the kites enough lift for Lawrence and his helpers to haul the camera safely onto the deck.

Once the ship squeezed in alongside the quay, George went on board to meet W.D. Boyce and offer his services as a guide for the balloonographic safari. Boyce wanted his gear unloaded immediately, but George told him it would have to go to the customs shed. Then it would be shipped to Nairobi on the train and it might arrive within a month. Boyce chafed at the delays. George escorted Boyce off the ship and showed him around Mombasa. They watched a camel walking around an enormous wooden pestle extracting oil from sim-sim seeds. George had taken a photograph of the ship arriving with the kite and camera aloft. Boyce had the picture developed and sent it back to his newspapers for publication in Chicago.

As the rode the train to Nairobi the engine stopped at Samburu station, 42 miles from Mombasa, to refuel and take on water. They pushed on to Voi where they spent the night, enjoying a good dinner at the station. The next day at Makindu they found the railway had washed out. Freakish storms had sent a wall of storm water down a ravine and swept away about 400 yards of railway track. Boyce, a typical impatient American wailed, “What do we do now?”  

George persuaded him to relax and send the photographers to take pictures of a herd of 15 giraffe, which had approached the stationary train.  The breakdown gang finally arrived and began shovelling tons of dirt and rocks into the gap before laying new rails. By late afternoon the next day, the train proceeded across the repaired section.  Dawn broke as the train chuffed across the Kapiti Plains. Boyce exulted at the great variety of wild animals and Kilimanjaro shimmering in the morning sun.

In Nairobi George put Boyce into a rickshaw, which took him to the Norfolk Hotel. Apparently he was crestfallen when no one stepped out to meet him at the hotel. The slow-paced city life Boyce found in Nairobi in 1909 irked him. He couldn’t wait to try out his gear, but it still hadn’t arrived from Mombasa.

Boyce launches balloon in Nairobi

When it finally came, Boyce was determined to wake up Nairobi, which he said “had a bad attack of the sleeps and wanted waking up.” After the delay, Boyce eagerly set his men to work to launch one of the balloons. Lawrence unpacked the balloons, and a crowd gathered to watch the proceedings. They threw the iron scraps and filings into the sulphuric acid, which bubbled and formed hydrogen gas, filling the balloon. Boyce offered a ride to anyone who wanted to go up.  Only one lady had the nerve. They placed her in the basket and sent her aloft, still attached to the rope.  After a few minutes the rope stretched to its limit and they hauled her back in. Others climbed in to enjoy the view.

Lawrence, the balloon photographer went up. The Africans who watched said Lawrence was going up to dine with Mungu, the Swahili word for God. Lawrence came down ecstatic about the view of the surrounding countryside. The rest of the expedition had to take his word for it because his pictures didn’t turn out.

Boyce himself decided to go up, but he weighed over 250 pounds and the balloon, which might have lifted him at sea level, couldn’t get off the ground in the high altitude air of Nairobi. Boyce discarded his boots, then other layers of clothing to the embarrassment of his audience. But the balloon remained anchored to the earth.

Boyce had decided the spot for their aerial photography would be in the Rift Valley near the Kijabe railway station. When Boyce’s African Balloonograph Expedition finally headed into the bush, it was one of the largest safaris to have left Nairobi. It took four spans of sixteen oxen each and between 200 and 400 African porters just to move the equipment. Boyce had tried to hire the King’s African Rifles (K.A.R.) band to lead the procession from the Norfolk Hotel to the Nairobi railway station. But since he had sent a dispatch back to Chicago describing Nairobi as a “military backwash” the K.A.R. declined. Boyce provided every second porter with a horn. Those without horns banged on the sides of the food boxes with sticks held in one hand. In the other hand the porters waved small American flags. They made a grand show, but the rear section suffocated under a cloud of dust raised by the front portion.

The expedition entrained on a specially chartered train with red white and blue bunting. As the train climbed the first stiff gradient outside Nairobi, sparks from the wood fuel shot out and set the bunting ablaze. They had to stop the train to put the fire out.  As the train slowly climbed the tracks between Kikuyu and Limuru, porters leapt off, seized sweet potatoes from the Kikuyu women who cultivated land near the rails, then jumped back on the train. At the Escarpment station, the engineer screwed the brakes down tight and the train started down the grade, wheels squealing against the brake shoes. The noise made conversation impossible and after a 1700-foot drop into the Rift Valley, the train arrived at Kijabe station, blue smoke rising from the hot axles. Boyce and his expedition detrained and made camp on the banks of the nearby river.

The nine white men in the Balloonograph Expedition had three personal servants apiece—a valet to take care of the tent, a gun bearer, and someone to look after the horse or mule. The valet had the bath ready each morning. There was a bathroom attached to each tent. The white men, with the exception of Boyce, took turns shooting animals to get meat for the camp.

Kijabe winds defeat balloons and kites

They had chosen Kijabe to launch their photographic balloons and kites because of the strong winds that poured off the escarpment. They tied the kite and camera with a towrope to a mule to keep it under control.  But they had trouble winding the film and setting the shutter. The photographer would pass one arm over the framework of the kite to make the adjustment. As he did, a gust of wind would lift the kite, camera and photographer about ten feet into the air.  When the gust passed, the sudden descent meant the photographer hit the ground with a crash that could have driven his spinal column through his skull.  Because of the unpredictable winds by Kijabe, they moved camp down to the valley floor between Longonot and Suswa. They packed up the kites and pulled out the balloon. They inflated the balloon and roped it to a mule so they could move across the plains photographing wild animals.  However because it was dry season, this area of the Rift Valley was notorious for whirly-whirlies or dust devils, mini-tornadoes of wind that whipped across the plains, twisting and spinning and sucking up dust, sand and leaves, producing a twirling column of wind several hundred feet high.  The balloon avoided the whirly-whirlies for a few days, but because the balloon was attached to a mule with four men to pull the rope back in, the wild game ran away from the area and Lawrence couldn’t get any wildlife photos.  After a few days, a whirly-whirly caught the balloon in its swirling vortex. The four African men holding the guy rope had to let go. The force of the wind lifted the mule’s front end off the ground.  The frantic animal staggered into the gathering dusk.  George, helping to guide the expedition, reported that the mule and balloon disappeared, never to be seen again.

Hughes’ daughter Harriet Hughes Crowley, who wrote an account of the expedition based on her father’s stories and notes, says a white hunter named Outram acted as the main guide for the safari and chose the campsites. But the photographer Lawrence objected to every place they camped. After the disaster with the balloon and the dust devil, it seemed he could never find the right place to send up a balloon. First it was too hot, then it was too windy or too cold. They moved near Lake Naivasha, but again the wind held Lawrence back. Sometimes there wasn’t enough, and the rest of the time there was too much.(Editor’s note: Harriet Hughes Crowley, the daughter of Charles Hughes, wrote a story of the expedition from her father’s notes, and says the expedition moved from Kijabe to the south end of Lake Victoria. Given the size of the safari and the time frame, this seems unlikely. It is more probable they moved up the Rift Valley to Lake Naivasha. Perhaps Hughes wrote in his notes they went to a lake. Later he did travel with one other photographer to Lake Victoria and it is likely Harriet confused the two lakes as the same.)

Since the expedition still had no satisfactory wildlife photos to send back to his newspapers, Boyce ordered Lawrence to take flash pictures at night. Lawrence rigged up his camera with bait, tripwire and flash. That night the lions roared so close to camp that Hughes, who battled valiantly to send newspaper dispatches of the increasing unsuccessful trip, took his gun to bed with him. In the morning they found gigantic paw prints all around and the camera chewed to bits.

Boyce, desperate for some photographs, insisted that Lawrence post himself close to the bait and take the pictures himself. If the lion charged, someone would shoot the beast. Lawrence didn’t fancy such a close encounter, so he rigged the telephone equipment up so his gunbearer could listen from his tent and call him when he heard a lion at the bait. His bearer called him three times one night, but Lawrence mumbled into the phone,  “Those aren’t lions.” and went back to sleep each time. Asked the next morning why he hadn’t gotten up to photograph the lions, Lawrence denied the bearer had ever called him.

Runners arrived regularly from Nairobi with anxious queries from Boyce’s editors in Chicago asking when they could expect the promised African photos. Boyce convinced himself that Lawrence couldn’t concentrate on his work because Lawrence’s unruly son refused to take orders from Boyce, Outram, or Hughes. Boyce sent young Lawrence back to Nairobi.

But Lawrence still failed to produce any wildlife photos. Time had just about run out.  They should have captured the wild animals on film by now and had a few weeks to hunt.

Boyce calls Balloonographic Expedition a failure

 Boyce finally realised his ambitious balloonographic safari was a failure. He stopped sending hopeful promises to Chicago.  From Camp Number Seven at the south end of Lake Naivasha he ordered his Chicago editor to remove the name W. D. Boyce from the stationery, which from then on read simply “African Balloonograph Expedition.” Boyce also sent his editors a list of things that had gone wrong:
FAILURE NO. 1. Balloon no good…Lawrence…had to take gas from his balloon and put it into [another] to save it. Brought whole outfit to Kijabe and hauled sulphuric acid and iron 80 miles into desert to first water. Then he informed me that the wind was too high to do anything with a captive balloon. Will send the whole outfit (balloon) and acid back from Aggett’s to Kijabe and realize whatever I can on acid for mining purposes…There is plenty of wind to put up his kites, but he has done that only once and his picture was not very good…
NO. 2. You could not get any pictures of game from a balloon or kite if they did work all O.K. as he DID NOT BRING ANY TELEPHOTO LENS OR TELESCOPE WITH HIM. He says Eastman fell down on him at the last minute…
NO. 3. His big camera with six foot bellows that would photograph 100 to 500 yards is so heavy and long and takes so many porters to carry that you scare all the game out of the country trying to get near and all he has got is one zebra and its legs are cut off in the picture…
NO. 6. Ever since I met Lawrence and his party at Naples, Hughes and I have been coaxing, requesting, ordering prints but can never get them on time…[Lawrence] uses up a good deal of time telling what he is going to do and then about the same amount of time explaining why he failed…
The flashlight experiment, including outfit, transportation, safari expenses and salary and expenses of Caywood, whom Lawrence, as you remember, insisted upon adding, amounts altogether to $4500…AND HAVE NOT ONE PICTURE YET! The best picture they had was not from a balloon or taken by flash but was a posed portrait of two baby ostriches that the owner of an ostrich farm had brought over to the camp.

In an attempt to salvage something from the disaster Outram organized a game drive so Lawrence could get some photos.

“Outram, the guide, took forty porters in one direction,” Hughes wrote, “and I went in another with a like number of men. We stationed them about 100 yards apart and told them when they heard the signal—two shots—to start up the valley herding the game ahead of them. While picketing the men we passed myriads of game. I feel sure they never had seen a white man before. Beautiful topi gazed…as we passed them and other specimens of antelope cavorted around us. Often a buck would hold his ground within a dozen paces of us when we walked past, being supremely confident that he was in no danger. The porters were begging me to get them some meat without further delay but I told [them] to wait till we had taken the picture.
”When all of our men had been stationed I gave the signal and we started up the valley. Such a sight!…Wildebeest by the hundreds, the royal topi with their shimmering coats and splendid heads, zebra, Granti, “Tommies,” the graceful impala—never have I seen such grace in any creature—oribi, Robertsi, the tiny dikdiks, Oh, everything on four legs except of course the night prowlers! They were going up the valley in solid regiments towards our cameras.
”Everything was going all right when a storm broke loose. It came up in a minute, it seemed. The sky was so overcast and dark that I doubt if a picture would have been possible but we kept pushing the menagerie up the valley till they stampeded in the storm and broke out in all directions. A herd of fully 300 topi came at me and my gun-bearer but it took only a wave of our hands to turn them back. But when they dashed at the porters, the(y)…made feeble efforts to stop the mad rush of the brutes and in a minute the whole parade had sifted through our lines and the woods and hills were once more claiming the finest animal collection I ever expect to see.

Hughes bags world record Thomson’s gazelle
”Sore and disgusted, I started back to camp, quite forgetful of my promise…My gun-bearer soon refreshed my memory and I told him we would take a shot at the first thing on four legs we saw. I feared all the game had got beyond reach but in a moment we spotted a Thomsoni, which had remained behind when the big exodus took place. He was grazing about seventy-five yards away and his horns did look splendid. That .35 Remington never sent a bullet home in more satisfactory manner and a moment later the gun-bearer was dancing around the trophy, claiming it must be a record.”

The horns measured sixteen and a quarter inches. That final quarter inch made it the world’s record in 1909. The head of that record breaking Thomson’s gazelle hung above a door in the Hughes home for many years, but bagging the world record Thomson’s gazelle did not fulfill Boyce’s expectations in sponsoring the African balloonographic expedition

Boyce pulled the plug and the safari headed back to Nairobi without their animal photographs. Boyce left his entourage and went on an elephant hunt. They brought down a large elephant, but when Boyce claimed he’d shot the elephant, his white hunter pointed out he had downed the elephant to save Boyce from being trampled to death after he had wandered into high grass.

It was time for the members of the failed African Balloonograph Expedition to go home.

Boyce bought himself a first-class passage to England, but put the disgraced Lawrence and his son in second class.

Hughes didn’t get a ticket at all, so he couldn’t yet join his bride in Europe. Boyce told Hughes and the other photographer, Caywood, “to scour Africa,” and produce the photographs that had eluded the biggest safari in history.

Hughes scours Africa for photos

Boyce had sentenced Hughes to Africa. Hughes wondered how his bride would take the disappointment when he didn’t arrive as planned. He worried about her dwindling finances as well. Hughes knew he had only one way out of Africa. He and Caywood had to produce sensational pictures or he would roast in steaming Africa while his bride froze in dingy rooms in northern Europe.

“Everything is up to you and Cay,” Boyce told Hughes before embarking at Mombasa. Hughes and Caywood headed for Uganda to get panorama pictures. They also hoped to get some animal pictures from Kermit Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s son. Boyce had heard Kermit had taken some dandy photos. Hughes also had orders to go through the files of every newspaper in Nairobi for story and picture possibilities. In addition Hughes had to dispose of the remaining balloon, the tank of acid, the horses and mules, guns and ammunition, and all the other equipment. Boyce needed to minimize his losses.  It was also up to Hughes to arrange for trophies and other memorabilia to be sent to Chicago.  Boyce ordered Hughes to buy him six leopard skins. Boyce expected a letter from Hughes detailing his progress when the ship put in at Aden.

The letters from Hughes that awaited Boyce in Aden did not cheer him up. Hughes wrote that they hadn’t gotten any photos in Uganda because “it rained every day we were in the country. … The light at all times was bad, and especially in the morning,” They had gone to Kampala to photograph the Kabaka, but he and his whole court had gone off on safari. Everyone they contacted for help was down with the fever.

“At Jinga (sic) we were none too fortunate,” Hughes went on. They wanted to photograph the falls, but the area was closed off because of tsetse flies. They ran into a terrible storm as they crossed Lake Victoria on a little steamer. Water filled their stateroom knee-deep. They survived their crossing and heard that Teddy Roosevelt was due to leave for America. They caught a train for Nairobi to photograph the Roosevelts’ departure, but they got shunted onto a siding and when they reached Nairobi Roosevelt and his retinue had already left.

“As regards leopard skins: I didn’t find any more in Uganda…” But he was still trying, Hughes wrote, and every letter reported relentlessly about the people who promised to find him six of the finest leopard skins but who never made good on their promises.

Hughes didn’t have any luck getting photographs from Nairobi newspapers. “Civilization didn’t hit Nairobi as hard as we thought it had. Alas! the two papers there keep no files,” he reported. Hughes unloaded a lot of the expedition’s equipment on a storekeeper in Nairobi—“telephone apparatus, dry batteries, which long since lost their effectiveness, and the sulphuric acid which was leaking all over the place and would have cost us twice as much as it’s worth had we attempted to repack it and move it. I still have a mess of those .22 automatics and there seems to be no sale for them.”

Hughes and Caywood were now stuck in Nairobi. They gave up all attempts to get pictures when Caywood came down with a high fever. His body temperature soared to 104.2 degrees. Caywood was out of his mind with fever. Hughes stayed in the sultry hotel, wearing his pajamas all day because of the December heat.

As Caywood recovered, Hughes tried to get a deposition from a man in Nairobi from whom Lawrence had tried to buy photographs to pawn off on Boyce as his own. Boyce wanted to use this deposition to sue Lawrence for failing to produce photographs. Hughes had no luck with this either. He wrote to Boyce, who by now had reached London.  “So far I haven’t been able to get him to swear to it before a notary or to give me a signed statement.”

Caywood had survived his bout with fever and he and Hughes decided to leave for Zanzibar. Hughes wrote to Boyce about the storekeeper who had bought so much of their equipment. “His troubles have just begun. The acid has broken out in new quarters and eaten up one side of that store which an Indian owns. They tried to shift it and several Africans were badly burned and Mr. Branwhite’s shoes were eaten almost off his feet (Branwhite being the chief clerk).” Hughes wrote that the storekeeper had presented Theodore Roosevelt with a Zanzibar chest and told Hughes to buy one in Zanzibar, since they were the finest things made in Africa. Hughes promised to buy one for Boyce as well if his money held out.

Boyce discovers Boy Scouts

Hughes might have lingered on in Africa while his bride languished in Europe if Boyce had not stepped out onto the streets of London on an exceptionally foggy day. Boyce found himself stranded in the middle of a street, unable to see where to walk. The Washington Star of April 21, 1910, and many other papers quoted Boyce as follows: “A little lad of twelve noticed my futile efforts, and led me with a lantern in the right direction. I thanked him and offered him a penny. But he said: ‘Thank you, sir, but I am a Boy Scout, and we never take tips for doing kind acts.’

“‘What are the Boy Scouts?’ I asked him in surprise. Then he told me that all Boy Scouts were in honour bound to do one kind act every day. Further information from the lad led me to decide to start the Boy Scout movement among American boys.”

Boyce recalled Hughes from Zanzibar at once to publicise the foggy London street incident and other information about the Boy Scouts. He also sent for Hughes’ bride and her mother had rooms waiting for them at the Savoy, where they met Hughes when he finally arrived from Cape Town.

Back in the United States, Hughes went to Washington to publicise Boyce’s campaign to start Boy Scouts in America. The Boy Scouts of America was officially incorporated in the District of Columbia on February 8, 1910, and Congress granted a national charter six years later.

When the African trophies from the expedition arrived in perfect condition in Chicago, Boyce, perhaps not wanting to be reminded of his failed balloonographic safari, didn’t even look at them. An aide wrote to Hughes, “He acts as if he never even heard of Africa.”

Though Boyce’s Great African Balloonographic Expedition fizzled, his chance encounter with a Boy Scout in London’s foggy streets led him to found the Boy Scout movement in the United States and Boyce is regarded as the father of the American Boy Scouts.

And the balloon safari allowed Charles Hughes a chance to marry, even if his honeymoon was interrupted by Africa