Skip to content

Local author releases new book on 1973 African adventure that left him in hospital, sick for a decade (8 photos)

Gilford resident, author Eric Whitehead shares his story of adventure and illness while travelling in Kenya in 1973

In 1973, when he was 21-years-old, Gilford's Eric Whitehead made the journey to Africa as part of a six-week educational program with York University. 

It was his first time flying on a plane, but not his first time travelling.  Two years prior he had made the journey to Mexico throughout the U.S. on a road trip with his best friend Murray Jupe, which he documented in his book Then There Was One

It was the trip to Mexico that whet Whitehead's appetite for travel and adventure. So when the opportunity to take part in the York Kenya Study Tour arose, he didn't hesitate to sign up. The tour would allow him to experience the country of Kenya, visiting  Maralal, Thompson Falls, Nairobi, Mombasa, Tsavso National Park and Malindi. 

The York-Kenya project was the first of its kind, which trained Kenyan civil servants in administration studies at York University. It gave students the opportunity of a lifetime to study and experience authentic African culture. 

It was to be a great adventure, and Whitehead couldn't wait to experience Africa with 31 other classmates, ranging in age from 19-21. For many, it would be their first time away from home. 

Little did he know he wouldn't be returning home with the rest of the group as planned due to a serious bout of illness that left him in hospital for 10 days. 

Whitehead documented his entire adventure in a journal, which he recently published in a new book, Beneath the African Sky.

Thanks to the local professors who taught the program, the class was able to see parts of the country most tourists wouldn't, like visiting families living in 'Bomas',  houses made of cow dung. 

Other noteworthy adventures included an excursion through Rift Valley, wildlife sightings (shockingly Whitehead didn't even see one cat!), sailing and snorkeling in the Indian Ocean, visiting Thompson Falls, embarking in a safari in Tsavo, and visiting Turtle Bay.

One special part of the trip was having his own Safari jacket custom-made for just $9,  a treasure he still has today. 

His favourite part of the entire trip was seeing elephants in Tsavo. 

"The Tsavo River is not very deep but the Dom palm trees draping the edges of the river give it that mystic, beautiful tropical look," he wrote. "The elephants in Tsavo West are different in appearance from those in Tsavo East. It is merely a colour difference. The Western elephants are not as red as the Eastern ones."

It was the Africa he had always dreamed of. Until it wasn't. 

It was 24 hours before he was set to fly back to Toronto through Paris when Whitehead fell extremely ill with fever, chills, body aches, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite.  to the point where he couldn't stand up, let alone pack his bags.

His condition became so severe he had to be taken to hospital by ambulance "a super comfortable ride to the cemetery" he thought at the time, where he stayed for 10 days, missing his flight home with the rest of the group. 

"I was falling apart, it was a real mess," he said. 

It was the first time Whitehead ever had to stay in a hospital and says he didn't have any expectations or standards to compare to. He was just relieved to receive help. 

After multiple tests and investigating, doctors are able to give him a proper diagnosis and get him well enough to fly home. 

"My plane ticket to get home was a week old, from Paris to Toronto, and it had been an excursion ticket that had been issued to the whole group so they didn't honour any of that," he said, having to ask family to wire him enough money for a new ticket to get home. 

For about 10 years after the trip, he would experience bad bouts of illness from the event in Africa. 

Looking back, he says he wished he would have been more aware of the dangers and risks associated with travelling in a foreign country. Despite falling ill, he doesn't regret the trip and says he learned a lot about himself in those months of adventure. 

In the book, Whitehead looks back and ponders how of his whole class only he had the mysterious illness. 

Throughout the trip, Whitehead developed strong bonds with his classmates that he still keeps in touch with. Prior to the pandemic, he would meet up with a few of them once a year for dinner in Toronto. 

"In a lot of ways it was like being at summer camp," he described. "I met a wonderful group of young people who educated themselves and went on to careers aimed at making life better for those around them."

Like his many other travel adventure books, Beneath the African Sky is written in a casual tone as if you are on the adventure with him. 

"It was an experience we'll never forget," he described. 

Years later, one of the professors Mike Rainy had emailed the group letting them know their class trip was the start of a set of field study programs for multiple American universities that lasted over 40 years, until 2014, after he and his wife retired from the profession. 

Whitehead lives in Gilford with his wife Karen. He retired in 2008 and has been travelling the world since the 1970s.

Anyone interested in purchasing a copy of his new book or other travel publications can contact him directly at

Natasha Philpott

About the Author: Natasha Philpott

Natasha is the Community Editor for BradfordToday and InnisfilToday. She graduated from the Media Studies program at The University of Guelph-Humber. She lives in Bradford with her husband, two boys and two cats.
Read more