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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Wheels Across the Desert

Africana Votes & Views #21

There are not many experiences that can compare with taking in a sunset over a vast arid landscape which dwarfs mountains and dunes; or lying down under a bejewelled black canopy that is only separated from one’s face by the thinnest sheet of an icy breeze; watching the fiery streak of meteorites – which once or twice in a lifetime you may actually hear arrive – in an explosion and a brilliant flash of light. Think of it as being a near neighbour to a cosmic catastrophe!

The other side of the coin is being squarely on the anvil of the sun-god, Ra, on a summer noon; no spot of shade except in, or under your broken-down or bogged motor vehicle; a little tingle of apprehension in the pit of your stomach; an extra measure of perspiration cooling your brow. Or while you wrap your face in stifling layers of cloth as you peer out at the ochre world of the sandstorm with slitted eyes poorly sheltered behind dark glasses. You love or loathe deserts; many people do both – just depending on the circumstance they find themselves in.

Back in 1967 I became the happiest man alive when my foreman woke me up after a long, cold night-shift on the drill, to ask me if I wanted to take on a job in the Namib. I spent the next three and a half years there, in the valley of the Khan River, being alternately fried and frozen, parched inland, or dripping in the coastal fog as we went on weekend fishing expeditions. I explored the mountains, the canyons, the dunefields and the saltflats. I drove my little Japanese station-wagon into improbable places – and mostly out again, though I had to walk once or twice, or wait an entire night for help on a deserted road. Then I was given a works Landrover, and I could choose even more difficult places to get stuck in. Finally I had had enough of the adventure and I came back to the Transvaal. Since then I have returned a dozen times or more to the Namib as well as the Kalahari, Namaqualand and Bushmanland. In addition I have read and collected dozens of books on desert travel, mainly through the Sahara and Sahel, the Northern Frontier District of Kenya and the Sudan, the Namib, Kalahari and Namaqualand, as well as the Australian and American deserts, the Gobi and Taklamakan in Asia and Arabia Deserta. So let’s have a look at some of what Africa has to offer by way of motorised travel.

In 1923 M et Mme Andre Citroën graced the departure of an extraordinary little mechanised column, consisting of five 10 hp ‘autochenilles’ or half-tracks from Touggourt in Algeria on a twenty-day epic first crossing of the Sahara to Timbuctoo in present-day Niger. At approximately the same time Prince Kamel el Din Hussein fitted out six ‘Box Fords’ and three of the Citroëns to explore the Egyptian hinterland and to establish a route to the oases at Dakhla and Kharga. They had less good fortune that the French to the westward – out of nine vehicles, only four made it back from the relatively short journey, as described by the British Transport OC, Major C S Jarvis in Three Deserts (John Murray, 1936), yet by the early 1930s a Hungarian nobleman, László Almásy, accompanied by three Britons was sent out by the Prince, and he had more success. He used an aeroplane as well as cars in his quest to find the legendary oasis of Zerzura, but instead discovered major prehistoric rock art sites, including the Cave of Swimmers in Jebel Uweinat, the highest mountain of the Eastern Sahara, and at Gilf Kebir. An English translation of his work was published under the title of The Unknown Sahara (1934), but I have only read a later German version. The film The English Patient is loosely based on some of Almásy’s wartime exploits.

Back to the Citroëns in Algeria. Once the possibility of this momentous north-south crossing had been confirmed, further plans were laid and another, larger and more ambitious expedition of eight of these tank-like little vehicles was dispatched in 1925. This time their target was to cross the Sahara and then the entire continent from West to East Africa. The two authors, Haardt and Audouin-Dubreuil, were each in ‘command’ of one of their fleet, and the book The Black Journey (G Bles, 1928) will give you disjointed chapter and verse, dreadfully ill-translated from flowery French, with numerous errors zoological and botanical (despite the presence of a naturalist and a geographer in the party). Of the great erg and hamada (sand & stone) desert they crossed, very little is described – due mainly to the inordinate respect the voyageurs had for the heat of the sun; they charged across the landscape mainly in the hours of darkness and spent the days huddled in a laager made with their vehicles and canvas for shade. On this trip they turned West at Gao and headed towards Lake Chad along the northern Nigerian boundary. The expedition’s subsequent adventures are described luridly as they progress toward the Indian Ocean in daylight, sparing the reader none of the indescribable hardships, dangers from cannibals and ferocious beasts. On the other hand one has to take into account that the administration of the Belgian Congo utilised some forty thousand of the locals ‘for a few months’ to chop a 700km open trail through the forests to facilitate the lads’ progress on their patch – for which much appreciation is expressed. Re-supply depots had been established by road, water and air during the previous two years, so the intrepids did not go without all home-comforts for too long. In Uganda they split up into four groups, who made their way down towards the coast at Mombasa, Dar-es-Salaam, Mozambique and even Cape Town, before they embarked to finish the journey triumphantly at Antananarivo. Altogether an ode to colonialism, mainly of the French variety, yet an important, but tedious little work to read.

As the authors mention, people were almost queuing up to repeat the experience. In no time at all a regular freight and mail service was instituted linking the Mediterranean and the French African colonies. The French geographer Emile Gautier commented in his classic work, Sahara, the Great Desert (Columbia University Press, 1935, rev ed) that the Western route was for people in a hurry to get to the Niger Bend, and he commented on the absurdity of camel trains being needed to establish caches of petrol in the early motoring years. Barely a year after the Citroën adventure, a 1,5 litre Bugatti four-wheeler made the trip. Sahara travel became all the rage; and as early as 1930, titles such as By Way of the Sahara: The African Odyssey of Three Men and a Grocer’s Van (Duckworth, 1930) by Owen Tweedy appeared, which heralded people assailing the desert with unlikely modes of transport and little hope of success – but the mere existence of the title does assure one of their survival of the experience. The charming book by Gordon West and his wife Joy, entitled By Bus to the Sahara (Travel Club, ca 1940) is in fact a misnomer, since they hardly got out of the Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate and Rissani – but it does prove that even public transport was to be had at the time. The allure of Tamanrasset and Timbuctoo, the splendid Ahaggar, Aïr and Tibesti Mountains, as well as great dunes, oases and achingly beautiful, empty plains brought the adventurous in droves. Once the minefields had been cleared or marked after WWII, a new wave of travellers hit the piste, and the fifties saw a number of quite entertaining titles appear in print.

One of these was W Macarthur, who whet his travelling appetite with a Cairo to Salisbury epic, as described in Auto Nomad Through Africa (Cassell, 1951) and an even more gripping book, describing a backbreaking slog he made with his wife in an elderly saloon car, entitled The Desert Watches (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954). Not all of these motorists were the stern martyrs of geography; an adventurous lady traveller, Barbara Toy, spent seven months puttering round the Lybian desert in her Landie, often with only the odd local as a companion. She visited battlefields, graves, avoided minefields and had the happy knack of being able to get along with the people she met despite a limited knowledge of the language. Her travels are well-described in A Fool in the Desert (John Murray, 1956). Another pair, the Marriotts, bought an ancient banger, an eighteen year-old taxicab with the best part of a million miles on the clock and attempted to coax the ailing beast from Algiers to Nigeria. As chronicled in their book, Desert Taxi (Travel Book Club, 1955), they almost made it, but the oomph went out of the car at Kano, and they had to leave it rusting in the savannah while they hitched a ride to the coast and salvation. A similar trip was embarked on by two friends in a little Wolseley 6/80 saloon – trying to break some sort of record, I seem to remember, which you can read about in Savage Sahara (A Wingate, 1956). Then there was a leavening of dotty sophisticates banding together with the likes of two Churchills, a scientist and six soldiers, who set out from Benghazi on The Great Saharan Mouse-Hunt (Hutchinson, 1962), taking in the Oasis at Khufra, Jebel Uweinat and the Tibesti in an extended U-turn. These travellers enjoyed getting lost, they didn’t mind getting bogged down in fech-fech and getting dirty – as long as the whisky, champagne and foie de gras was available at the end of the day – while for other travellers there was only a dwindling supply of water.

A classic of exploration of a different sort is Henri Lhote’s The Search for the Tassili Frescoes (Hutchinson, 1960). The author led a sixteen-month expedition to confirm a vague report of a soldier’s discovery of rock art in the Tassili n’Ajer. While he discovered a veritable gallery of Neolithic rock engravings, much of his work has been discredited, partly due to dubious recording methods, or due to the ‘alien influence’ theories he shared with his mentor, the Abbé Henri Breuil. The sensationalist publicity the art sites received was greatly to blame for the partial destruction by locals and souvenir-hunting tourists in subsequent years.

An enjoyable read is Jon Stevens’ book, The Sahara is yours (Constable, 1969). He describes a two-month ‘circumnavigation’ of this mother of deserts, accompanied by his wife and another couple in a second vehicle. Both cars were brand new four-wheel drives; the travellers chose their equipment with great care, though weight became one of their main concerns. Several chapters of the book are devoted to good, well-founded advice on travel conditions, advisable practices and precautions which would be useful to any would-be desert rat. In the preface he states:
‘Getting stuck in soft sand is no longer a nightmare – it is just an irritant. Carrying enough petrol no longer depends on monstrous tanks or heavy steel cans. By cutting down on the weight to be carried, the problems of long-distance desert driving have been halved, and you can travel in comfort and safety.’ 

That about sums it up – your comfort and safety depend your own planning, preparation, mechanical gear and the size of your wallet. One quality shared in almost every one of the above books is the insane urge to travel a certain number of miles/kilometers a day. Very few of the intrepid motorists seem to have stopped to sniff the desert roses, in a manner of speaking. Since the 1970s I seem to detect an almost nostalgic return to the modes of travel employed in the pre-mechanical era. There is a whole generation of books dealing with Saharan journeys by camel or even on foot; often in the company of Targui people with whom the traveller has no common language, retracing the almost forgotten caravan routes. Plenty of opportunity to get to grips with the sands of Sahara.

Now, south of the equator, we have the Karoo/Kalahari/Namib as our local equivalents of our great northern cousin. Perhaps not quite as daunting geographically; nor inhabited by fearsome tribes and lacking the sheer size of the Sahara. Nonetheless, a goodly number of travellers, both in earlier times and during the motorised era, have encountered similar travails. That great soldier, politician and adventurer, Deneys Reitz, tried his luck at entering the Kaokoveld by car round about 1930, after he had had a foretaste of desert driving in the company of one Carl Weidner of Goodhouse through South West Africa, Kalahari and Gordonia. By the time he reached Otyitambi, he had crumpled up his lengths of wire-mesh that were supposed to aid him through the heavy sand, and his vehicle was firmly bogged up to the axles. He had the good fortune to espy the smoke from the campfire of a Thirstland trekker nearby, and the latter helped him to make the rest of the trip more enjoyable by means of donkeys and light cart. The automobile was parked under a tree for a couple of months awaiting his return.

One has but to read the saga of the grounding of the Dunedin Star on the Skeleton Coast in 1942. A three-pronged rescue attempt, by air, sea and land was launched. The ships ran into trouble and couldn’t get near the beach in the rough waters; the Ventura bomber managed to drop much-needed supplies, but then made a forced landing on the beach and after some repairs got airborne only to crash into the waves, leaving the aviators no choice but to swim for it. Meanwhile a motorised column had been mobilised from Windhoek, and this little cavalcade of standard trucks, loaded to the gunwales with petrol and water, rode off into the sunset across a virtually unknown, trackless Kaokoveld. Amid much jubilation all hands and passengers were rescued and brought back to civilisation almost a month after the disaster. John Marsh wrote his ever popular book Skeleton Coast (Hodder & Stoughton, 1944) describing the whole episode. It has become part of the Skeleton Coast saga, and numerous reprints and enlarged versions are still readily available. In my schooldays, I happened to be great friends with the son of the radio officer on the ship, and you can be sure that I didn’t let that chance go begging to get a more personal reminiscence from Kilpatrick senior.

The ever-popular Lawrence Green took part in several desert odysseys, which he described in a number of his books. One was the University of Cape Town’s Kalahari Expedition of 1936, mainly dedicated to studying Bushman ethnography, during which Green drove one of their vehicles – when he wasn’t helping to dig them out of the sand! Much of the trip is covered in his book Strange Africa (Timmins, 1974 repr) Another scientific expedition, this time through Namib and Kaokoveld, is described in his book Lords of the Last Frontier (Timmins, 1952) – one of his most popular books on the then South West Africa. The leader was Bernard Carp, an adventurous businessman who loved the desert in all its guises, and he too wrote a book about this and several other excursions, I chose Africa (Timmins, 1961). There is a dearth of books about motor travel in the Namib proper – mainly, I suspect, because for almost a century the mixed blessing of the presence of diamonds made it illegal to set foot on most of the southern coastal desert, then there was a patch of Game Reserve No 3 between the Swakop and Kuiseb Rivers (nowadays known as the Namib-Naukluft Park) and north of Cape Cross you were back in another Sperrgebiet, where the powers that be didn’t want you to get loose in either; the southern part of Angola is only now becoming popular as a fishing spot. In the latter few years restrictions have eased somewhat, and numerous convoys of well-heeled and wheeled city folk head for the sandy wastes. I suspect we shall be reading about these good people’s adventures when they grow a little older, if books haven’t totally gone out of print by then.

The great Karoo has some truly desolate stretches, but one is never more than fifty-odd kilometers from a small village or town. In addition, the whole region, as well as the almost featureless plains of Bushmanland and the more rugged terrain of Namaqualand, have been broken up into farms. The ubiquitous windmill raises its signature head above the horizons – so it is unlikely the unwary explorer will perish of thirst, even if his trusty vehicle should desert him in his hour of need. An entertaining book on this whole region is Carel Birkby’s Thirstland Treks (Faber & Faber, 1936) in which the young journalist tackles numerous dusty trails in his faithful ‘three-year old baby’ (Austin 7), which at times lacked the horsepower to tackle hills front-on, and had to be reversed up the inclines instead. Another charming little book I read many years ago was by a Miss I A Loadsman, entitled Little Roads of Africa (Afrikaanse Pers Boekhandel, 1950) in which she describes her travels in company with another lady, using a similarly unsuitable vehicle as Birkby’s, as they explored Gordonia and the faint tracks along the Molopo – if I remember correctly.

The Kalahari is an unforgiving desert in parts, with vivid red dunes, which start even south of the great river in parts of Bushmanland, and extend up as far as almost into the Congo. But the arid plains are broken by linear oases; large rivers like the Gariep, the Okavango and its inland delta, and the Zambezi, to name but a few. In the rainy season you might never guess that you are in a desert. All about is verdant and vast herds of springbok and wildebeest graze the knee-high grasses. Six months later a stony or sandy parched and shimmering waste is all that remains. As far as I can establish, the first motorised breach in this desert’s defences came during WWI. As part of the three-pronged attack by General Botha on the Germans in South West Africa, Col. C A L Berrange set out with his ‘desert column’, made up of the 5th South African Rifles, the Kalahari Horse, Cullman’s Horse and the Bechuanaland Rifles from Kuruman. While his men marched and rode, and supplies went mainly by ox-wagon, he had an advance force of motor-vehicles, which were used to ferry water-supplies across some hundreds of miles between the widely separated wells. The traverse to Rietfontein took some weeks, and on crossing the SWA border, they immediately engaged and routed the Germans. After that little affair they presumably used the trains, and the trucks faded into obscurity.

The eminent geologist and geographer E H L Schwarz postulated a theory that proposed flooding a part of the central Botswana depression and creating large lakes, which would change the entire climate of the region and make the desert bloom, in his book The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption (Maskew Miller, 1920). It involved damming part of the Zambezi system and digging a canal across a slight ridge that natural forces had raised to create a waterway. The South African government was forced by public pressure to take his theory seriously enough to send out an expedition in 1925 under the aegis of the Irrigation Department, to investigate the possibility. While much of their equipment’s transport depended on animal-drawn vehicles, they did have a Dodge ‘screen-van with balloon tyres’ that did some sterling work. Although much useful cartographical work was done during the expedition, Schwarz’s theory was scuppered when it was found that his levels were faulty and that water would not flow uphill, and that creating another ‘Dead Sea’ in the centre of the Makarikari region wouldn’t necessarily turn the region into a land of milk and honey. Some of the work is described in Deneys Reitz’s No Outspan (Faber & Faber, 1943) as the author was involved in the aerial surveys in his capacity of Minister of Irrigation.

The year 1928 saw the Cameron-Cadle Kalahari Expedition, setting out, fitted out with two specially equipped Diamond T (Model 302) trucks. These two American gentlemen seemed intent on performing a battery of medical tests on the Bushmen they would encounter, but their way led them from Mafeking to Serowe, and from thence onwards to Francistown in a matter of two weeks. It is doubtful that they made much contact with any of the nomadic tribespeople, as they seemed to spend most of their time digging their vehicles out of the thick sand. During the same period W J Makin’s book, Across the Kalahari Desert (Arrowsmith, 1929) chronicled a trip made from Mahalapye to Ghanzi and from there up to Kazangulo. They employed Morris six-wheelers with success, and as far as I can recall, their main intention was to gather information on the Bushmen. In early 1930 a well-equipped museum expedition, named Vernay-Lang after its two leaders from the Natural History Museum in the UK and Field Museum in the US, explored a large chunk of inhospitable central Botswana and brought back thousands of biological specimen which were described in a number of Transvaal Museum Annals. Money was no object and the well-found project had a number of specially modified one and a half-ton Dodge trucks (which seemed to have been early desert favourites) as well as a Victory 6 Tourer, for the more luxurious conveyance of hunting parties in search of the large game of the region. None of the above can be called travel literature except in the broadest sense; they all had serious scientific or bellicose aspirations.

Two of the few books I have read dating back to the 1950s are the accounts by Frank Debenham, Kalahari Sand (G Bell & Sons, 1953) an American hydrologist who made two journeys into the depths of the central Kalahari to investigate water resources, and the wildly popularised The Lost World of the Kalahari (Hogarth Press, 1958) by that veteran spinner of tales, Laurens van der Post. The latter accompanied the former as guide and expedition leader, if my memory serves me right, although I seem to recall that our great explorer only had one previous experience of the Kalahari during a reconnaissance in 1950, and he had to rely heavily on local guides and translations across at least three languages. Debenham was utterly smitten by the desert, and his book echoes his enthusiasm. Van der Post uses the trip and its successors as a basis for a whole iconic mythology of the Bushmen, their culture, oral literature and dwindling status as a forgotten prehistoric people, as well as a number of novels on the theme. While there is a certain dreamy, poetic quality to his writing, I could never be completely reconciled to his books as being a factual account of anything – but the reader must make up his or her own mind about this ‘Bard of the Beyond’.

No doubt there are many more titles describing the passage of wheels in the deserts of Africa, so this is only a small selection of books that have impressed me in one way or another. If you need to broaden your horizons, there is a wide choice of reading matter available. The alternative is to find a few kindred spirits with four-wheel drives and the required wherewithal – and hit the sand rolling!

Saturday, 11 September 2010


Africana Votes & Views #20

  At the tender age of five or six I was introduced to the delights of reading by a stern father who relied on unkind words and hard-handed corrections to steer me through the intricacies of pronouncing the words I could hardly see through the tears in my eyes. This I survived, and I was unexpectedly rewarded by receiving the keys to his library, figuratively speaking, together with the injunction that I was not permitted to eat while reading, and that my hands had to be clean. Further I was let loose on some eighty metres of bookshelves crammed with scientific works - on biology, geology, astronomy, as well as books on travel, exploration, ethnography, archaeology, art and suchlike.

 The world was my oyster. I wasted no time in sampling its flavours across all the seven seas and all the continents. Among my favourites were three hefty volumes on the peoples of the world, entitled: ‘Die Grosse Völkerkunde’, (Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig, 1939) edited by Dr H A Bernatzik. This was armchair travel at its best, and while I was too young to appreciate the racist attitudes in vogue in Germany during the years immediately preceding WWII, which marred such works, they still gave me an overview of the wonderful diversity of appearance, cultures, arts and economies of homo sapiens worldwide. Another earlier work I still treasure is a hefty leatherbound tome by a gentleman with a most ungermanic name, ie R Parkinson, who wrote of his thirty years’ sojourn in German Samoa in the book Dreissig Jahre in der Südsee (Strecker & Schröder, 1907). This book was filled with the most amazing detail and photos of the islanders, and featured engravings of the most fearsome naked warriors and their weapons, studded with sharks’ teeth, or stingray spines, that made my eyes water just to look at them.

  That fascination with all things ethnographical and anthropological persisted. Once I started work, I even studied the subject part-time for a couple of years. Supposedly I picked up a few generalities of the science, and I have since read many of the earlier books on the evolving theories on the antiquity of man as well as much on the varied habits of the beast worldwide. In the field of palaeoanthropology we South Africans have been especially spoilt, as a number of doyens of the science worked here during the opening years of those earth-shaking prehistoric finds at Taung, Makapansgat, Hopefield and other locations. Robert Broom’s little book Finding the Missing Link (Watts & Co, 1950) and Raymond Dart’s work Adventures with the Missing Link (Hamish Hamilton, 1959) and the Leakeys, Louis, Mary and Richard in East Africa fired the imagination and thrilled in a similar vein to Hollywood’s adventurer archaeologists of more recent years. Men of the stature of Bob Brain, Philip Tobias and Lee Berger carried on the good work, to name but a few – and as the finds of fossil ape, man-ape or hominin ( the latest jargon for our lot ) swelled, so did the theories of our evolution and development vacillate. The age of mankind became counted in millions of years – until new methods of utilizing the tool of DNA in all its ramifications turned the whole science on its head. Bewilderingly, true homo sapiens has become a relatively recent export from Africa; we spread in recurrent waves over the entire world and some authorities would have us arrive at our destination almost before we left our continent of origin. It has become most confusing and technical and there are times when I find myself longing for the good old days when one could hold the fossilized skull of ‘Mrs Ples’ in one’s hands and just revel in the distinction that this conferred on a 20th century teenager.

  So let us get back to social anthropology instead. Here we are on safer grounds. From the times of the great missionary era, those worthies as well as their exploring coevals vied with each other to record strange tribal organisation, rites of passage, laws and rituals, witchcraft and religion. They certainly adorned their books with painstakingly engraved depictions of everything from hairstyles and adornments, to agricultural tools and weapons. So we find in such works as Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (W Blackwood, 1864) and Grant’s A Walk Across Africa (William Blackwood & Sons, 1864) that about half of both books are devoted to matters ethnographical when they are not describing daily life in the kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro etc. Although the missionaries were mostly hell-bent on eradicating most of the aboriginal practices that they came up against, a goodly number thought fit to commit to print a catalogue of the abominations they found, which they often coloured with their Presbyterian mores and Victorian values. For instance, H H Johnston’s work on the missionary George Grenfell and the Congo (Hutchinson & Co, 1908) devotes one whole volume to the diaries that this worthy kept, dealing with the tribes of the region. So valuable stuff is to be gleaned from these sources as they were the only workers in the field of the period, and the theoreticians would only come onto the stage later.

  Only during WWI were the seeds of systematic getting ‘the native's point of view’ through participant observation set as a standard of observation by one Bronislaw Malinowski in New Guinea, which he set down in his work Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). A rash of other noted sociologists and anthropologists expanded on this theme and developed it. As this is not supposed to become a reading list of academic proportions on the subject, let us leave it at that and concentrate instead on the authors and ethnographers of the subcontinent.

 One of the earliest works that have passed through my hands has been the book Das Volk der Xosa-Kaffern im Östlichen Südafrika by the missionary A Kropf (Berliner Evangelische Missions Gesellschaft, 1889). I will not pretend to have read this worthy, but I did glean the fact that he did much pioneering work on the language and spent many years working among them, which supplied much first-hand knowledge on customs and beliefs. At approximately the same time G W Stow, a geologist by profession, made the study of indigenous peoples his hobby, and he assembled voluminous notes on especially San and Khoi tribes, which are still valuable source documents since they had the benefit of at least second-hand contact via interpreters with the few remnants of these clans and tribes at the time. After his death in 1882, Theal assembled his writings and edited them in the book The Native Races of South Africa (Swan Sonnenschein, 1905). While the book is obviously dated in attitudes and interpretations, it is quite readable, filled with personal observation and anecdote as well as snippets of oral history. Yet another of the earlier missionary/ethnographers was A T Bryant, whose main work was among the Zulus. He was the author of a number of linguistic and historical books, but in addition he wrote The Zulu People, as they were before the White Man came (Shuter & Shooter, 1949) as a valedictory work and a tribute to ‘the Zulu people, my lifelong companions and friends’. A rather more obscure missionary was one R Wessman, who wrote an interesting, scarce little book entitled The Bawenda of the Spelonken (African World, 1908), which also includes an account of the Mpefu War in 1898, during which the Boers defeated the Bavenda comprehensively and divided the tribe into three factions. Two more missionaries writing on the tribes of the Eastern Cape, were G Callaway and Dudley Kidd; the latter being an adventurous soul – once a railway missionary and chaplain among soldiers, within a wide field of endeavour – he wrote a trio of books on tribal life, culminating with Kafir Socialism and the Dawn of Individualism (A & C Black, 1908), a pioneer work on the economic aspects of African life.

  While not really scientific works, G R von Wielligh’s three books under the general title Boesman Stories… (Nasionale Pers, 1921) give a vivid insight into the existence of these desert dwelling nomads in the Kalahari for a general audience. The Rev S S Dornan also wrote an interesting volume, Pygmies and Bushmen of the Kalahari (Seeley Service, 1925), which is a must for anybody interested in this region and its people. Still a most respected work is The Life of a South African Tribe, 2 Vols (Macmillan, 1927) by H A Junod, which deals with the Shangana-Tsonga people in the Eastern Transvaal and Mozambique, and there are several reprints available of the work. Claimed as the first book in Afrikaans on the science, the descendant of a missionary family, W Eiselen, wrote the book Stamskole in Suid Afrika (Van Schaik, 1929), dealing with initiation rites in tribal societies. Then comes the seminal work by that noted Namaqualander from the little dorp of Garies, Isaac Schapera and his The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1930) – to this day a standard work on the subject – which was followed by a dozen or more books on the tribes of the subcontinent, with especial emphasis on his favoured field of study among the Tswana people. None of his works can be described as easy reading for the layman, but the Khoisan book is probably the most accessible of the lot, and required reading for any student of this ancient population group.

  Yet another missionary, but this time one of the remarkable sons of a Gaika cleric and a Scotswoman, one John Henderson Soga, who devoted a half century to labours in Bomvanaland, wrote two important works: The South-Eastern Bantu (Witwatersrand University Press, 1930) and Ama-Xosa: Life and Customs (Lovedale, 1931) before his retirement to Britain, where he and his wife and son were the unfortunate victims of a wartime bomb (SESA, 1970-6). These books are difficult to obtain, and hugely expensive to buy, but well-worth reading and one wishes that someone would reprint them. Professor of linguistics, J A Engelbrecht, wrote a valuable contributions not unlike Schapera’s on The Korana (Maskew Miller, 1936), which records that widespread, vanishing people’s customs and language from Namaqualand into the Western Transvaal.

  Lest I be accused of sexism, let me hasten to state that the work done by W H and Dorothea Bleek, as well as L C Lloyd, in recording the myths and legends of the Cape San, have had a great resurgence in popularity of late, but these labours are more in the realm of oral literature than ethnography, and fascinating as they may be to aficionados of the genre, I must plead ignorance on this subject. Quite different then are the various contributions made by Winifred Hoernlé, a trained social anthropologist who spent lengthy periods among the Nama in the Richtersveld between 1910–1922. Her scientific findings were published only very recently as The Social Organization of the Nama (Witwatersrand University Press, 1985), but a much more readable book is the rendition of her field diaries entitled Trails in the Thirstland (UCT, 1987) which has been edited by Peter Carstens, among others, a man who wrote a notable, later book on the same region.

  The anthropologist is supposedly a student; an impartial observer, who records and attempts to place his findings within a universal framework of social and other theories. Experiments are not usually conducted using people like lab-rats. Enter the abominable anthropologist. Some years back I obtained two copies of a book entitled Namkwa (Jonathan Cape, 1978) written by a South African-German parasitologist cum anthropologist, Hans Joachim Heinz. On paging through it, I gathered that he had ‘married’ into a tribe of !Ko, and though the only critique I could find stated that it was ‘a self-indulgent book by an otherwise prolific scientist’ (Khoisan Bibliography), my curiosity was sufficiently aroused to read the whole thing from cover to cover. Unfortunately I don’t have it to hand right now to give you chapter and verse of the contents, but let me say that I was aghast at what the man had written. For whatever reason he had decided to share the lives with this nomad band, he joined them while in his mid-forties, that is, old enough to experience a mid-life crisis during which he got a letch for one of the clan’s elders’ teenage daughter, Namkwa, and persuaded or bribed Pop to let him ‘marry’ her. He then described in quite graphic detail, as I recall, how he restrained himself for a night or two before forcing himself on the kid against her will. In these enlightened days, we call that marital rape at best, and paedophilia at worst, but hey, who could say exactly how old the kid was anyway – they don’t carry birth-certificates. In due course a baby arrived, and the general trend of the book suggested that there was a rift in relations and a parting of the ways. More recent enquiries via the net suggests that he spent some forty years living ‘with the local community’. But Namkwa was only the middle one of his three wives, and the Botswana University Library site makes no mention of his son by her. He subsequently married yet another local lady, and the chapter was closed when he was murdered at his house in Tsanokoha in 2000 at the ripe old age of 83. Perhaps it would have been better all around if he should have stuck to his other speciality instead.

  So from the serious and scientific, from the historical and linguistic, let us proceed to some slightly lighter fare. Not for nothing did Boswell write ‘there is reason in roasting of eggs, for of necessity man must think to season a dish for his consumption’. I came across a slim volume entitled The Anthropologists Cookbook (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) edited by Jessica Kuper, the other day. No stewed missionary in this, nor braised rats or sautéed snakes; no, this is a seriously absorbing round-the-world tour of man’s ingenuity in making the local fare more interesting and edible. From making a cokentrice in mediaeval England (half capon, half pig), via roast puffin, to a wealth of strange foods from Africa, which may include yams, plantains, Palaver Sauce or millet. From the Americas the recipe that caught my eye was that of ceviche, a Peruvian raw fish dish that I am partial to making. In the book they state the caveat ‘do not touch the eyes or genitals after handling the chilies – the reverse precaution is unnecessary’! Yes, well I would suppose the quantity of chilies used would kill any bacteria present. While most of the Asiatic cuisine no longer sounds outlandish to most Westerners owing to the ubiquitous presence of numerous variations of the theme in restaurants worldwide, there are nonetheless some mouthwatering delicacies on offer. It is only really in Australia that I feel the editor has admitted defeat, limiting her descriptions on how to make damper (semi-charred, half-cooked dough wrapped round a stick – much beloved by Boy Scouts of yore) and ‘whistling steak’, ie meat so green and putrid, that it had to be soaked in running water for two days before being roasted and eaten. According to the book, it was not only perfectly safe to eat – it was also beautifully tender and delicious. Talk of hanging your game!

  Even anthropologists have been known to be humourists. Some time ago the title The Innocent Anthropologist (Penguin, 1983) by one N Barley enticed me into delving among the mores and habits of an obscure tribe of hinterland Cameroonians whose name I disremember. I don’t often chortle aloud as I read, but this book very funnily describes the blunderings of a new graduate in a completely alien situation, in the company of a tolerant, bawdy bunch of backwoods folk, who wear very little besides broad smiles. Presently in the vogue among the so-called ‘reality programmes’ on TV are those that depict stone-age Papuan tribesmen being taken on voyages of discovery among twenty-first century Britons or Frenchmen. As an extension of my interest in anthropology, I have watched one or two of these documentaries – and yes, putting yourself in the ‘other fellow’s shoes’ can be most enlightening – especially when you are made to evaluate some of our own, more exotic customs, habits, foodstuffs, clothing and diversions by the standards of people who have entirely different priorities as they strive towards their own goals in life. The question that arises from that is: aren’t all tourists anthropologists to some degree? Don’t we travel to distant countries at much expense and discomfort to meet with different cultures and peoples, as well as seeing the sights? So maybe anthropology has an almost universal appeal in some form.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Enigmatic Ornithologist

Africana Votes & Views #19

Let’s face it, among billions of very ordinary people, most of average intelligence and abilities, there is always a scattering of truly extraordinary folk, people gifted with one or more talents that tower so far above their contemporaries, that they become legends. The enigmatic ornithologist you are being directed to is Richard Henry Meinertzhagen; scion of an influential London banking family and aristocracy; soldier, scientist, hunter, geographer, artist, spy, writer and, according to himself – cold-blooded killer. His varied career and numerous books, as well as his self-confessed infamies have spawned a shelf of publications about the man. None of these have I read; so I shall confine myself to the man’s wildly popular book Kenya Diary, 1902-1906 (Oliver & Boyd, 1957), which deals with Africa and which I started reading a few days ago; reluctantly at first, since it really seems to be the diary it purports to be – but then with increasing interest and delight mixed with incredulity at what I was reading. This was high adventure indeed in all its grisly details. I won’t pretend I didn’t sneak a little peep at the big G on the net to learn more about our writer – but more of that later – this is what I read in the diary.

Here was a stripling twenty-four years of age, a veteran of a two years as a bank clerk, a stint in Military College and a couple of years making himself unpopular in the Indian Army – installed as an officer of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). He found his Swahili, Sudanese and Masai troops ill-trained and undisciplined, a matter which he soon set right, while his brother officers were generally labelled as ‘rejects’ of low military abilities as well as poor morals, who were more interested in their harems than their duties. He felt that soldiers were unpopular in Kenya among the administrators, and fancied himself very much as being of a higher and more educated standard than ‘civil servants that were enlisted from the gutter … given unlimited power over uneducated and simple-minded natives… abuse their powers, suffer from megalomania and regard themselves as little tin gods’. He revels in exercising his considerable powers in exposing the corrupt, the inefficient, the amoral and illegal among the Europeans, and having them removed whenever possible.

The Africans were to feel his wrath in a rather more material way. While I am not able to judge the effect of the KAR and their early campaigns in the territory from other reliable sources, it would seem from RM’s diary that his detachment played a huge role in destabilising the region. They raided the Kikuyu clans’ villages and herds mercilessly, taking most of their stock and burning huts, not to speak of inflicting casualties running into the hundreds. When some of his men, missionaries or other Europeans were brutally murdered in retaliation, he struck mercilessly, exterminating entire villages, men and women, sparing only the children. In this context, he writes with pride that he insisted on discipline among his own men. Two of his Manyuema levies who were responsible for spearing a child and a woman in a raid despite his explicit orders got short shrift. They were shot by their officer on the spot, and three of their compatriots who fled, ‘were bagged … all three before they cleared the village.’ Rather reminiscent of a grouse-shoot on the English moors. RM maintained that while what he did was illegal and contrary to military law, which was why he did not report it to the High Commissioner at the time, he acted with a cool head, aware of possible consequences and ‘would do it again under similar circumstances’. A man from a hostile tribe, posing as a porter in his retinue was tried as a spy and summarily shot by our man. Meinertzhagen was all things to all men in Kenya if one takes his diary at face value. He was the law, the prosecutor, the judge – as well as the executioner and sheriff, not to mention the arbiter of the people’s morals. He records the odd feeble attempt made by his Political Officer, or other superior to keep him in rein, but the impression one gets is that he did exactly as he deemed fit. On the other hand, he is not shy of accusing his Political Officer of egging him on to continue raiding the Tetu people so that the former had ‘more captured stock to give him sufficient revenue to build his new station’ – strange and contradictory behaviour and utterances. But read on.

Once the Kikuyu had been suitably cowed and punished, Meinertzhagen was directed to attend to the Nandi tribes. According to his diary, the administrator at Nandi boma, Mayes, was responsible for most of the troubles with the tribe, and the two men seemed to take an immediate dislike to each other. In no time they were at each other’s throats because of Mayes’s alleged frauds and self-enrichment schemes, which RM naturally reported, managing to get the former removed from office and installed somewhere else. Still, troubles with the tribe escalated and as the administrative officers dithered, RM knocked his troops into shape for the inevitable conflict which was to come. A number of actions were fought and since RM was a very capable officer, he had general success, killing numbers of tribesmen and raiding their herds. A senior laibon (chief/witchdoctor) of the tribe, Koitalel, was the source of the insurrection, according to the diary, so plot and counter-plot is described as these two parties jockey for position and it all comes to head at a carefully orchestrated meeting, where both the laibon and RM have an ambush in place. RM relates his role in the meeting, during which the chief and a number of his followers are gunned down, but he cites a prior attack by the Nandi as starting hostilities. This single incident was to be the cause of Meinertzhagen reputedly being recommended for a VC (according to himself) as well as three separate courts of enquiry as the matter was seen in a different light by a number of people who condemned the underhand assassination of the chief as distinctly non-sporting and un-British. Though our gallant officer emerged innocent of the charges (which were supported vociferously by Mayes, the administrator whom RM had removed from Nandi), his reputation was definitely tainted, and in 1906 he was removed from Kenya by the Colonial Office as they felt the British Government’s reputation for fair dealing and honesty were being called into question due to his actions. From the diary, it is quite plain that Meinertzhagen feels deeply wronged and that he is highly resentful at having to leave Kenya – though he declares that he can’t wait to be rid of the place.

In some ways RM had extremely prescient views on African history, rather at odds with his role as the mailed fist of the British Empire in subjugating the Kikuyu, Embu and Nandi tribes. He had the temerity to suggest to the then High Commissioner that Africa belonged to the Africans, that someday they would be educated and armed and this would lead to a clash with the flood of Europeans that Sir Charles wanted to settle on the land. Less than a year later he records saying to Lord Delamere that Kenya ‘…is a black man’s country. How are you going to superimpose white over black?’ Later in the book he repeats a description of the first instance, saying that he ‘cannot see millions of educated Africans – as there will be in a hundred years time – submitting tamely to white domination’, which smacks more of an old man’s memories – and repeats thereof – written with hindsight of the very recent Mau Mau rebellion in 1957 – not from the fresh notes of a youngster of 1903. Rather more believable is his naiveté, when he writes, after having killed and looted the Kikuyu for the better part of a year, that he found them to be rather fine fellows, who would be ‘most progressive under European guidance’ completely ignoring the rancour they might feel at being dispossessed. Immediately after this statement, he does state, with remarkable hindsight, that they would be most susceptible to subversive influence and that he could foresee much trouble. Still, we are reassured that he had many friends among the Kikuyu, whose greatest asset was their cheerfulness and the fact that they bore him no grudge!

Kenya Diary is not just an endless recitation of military endeavour. RM describes the countryside in great detail. No wonder, since he mapped and surveyed large tracts and traced the watersheds and tributaries of important rivers and climbed several peaks. His maps are acknowledged as being of a very high standard, almost works of art, and a number of sketch maps are included in the book. Almost at the end of his diary, he spends some time on the Tanganyika border, where he intercepts and disarms some German soldiers who are trespassing – and then quite inexplicably, crosses the border to make the acquaintance of the German officers at Moshi Fort. Our intelligence gatherer leaves a few days later, considerably more informed as to German military capabilities, and within a few days he is able to neutralise a German spy, posing as an Austrian Count during his travels on the Serengeti. Not only does he manage to foil the man by burning his camp, he also abstracts two boxes of valuable documents, which contain maps and an assessment of the Voi-Taveta route – which RM states to have been invaluable to Smuts’s forces in 1916. One wonders why he would act thus, seeing that the Congo Act of 1885 resolved that British and German colonials would not blindly follow their parent states into conflict – if that should ever occur, since they had perfectly amiable feelings towards one another. In the book he bewails the fact that Mount Kilimanjaro has been left to the Germans, and notes that the chief of the Wachagga tribe was most unhappy with German rule and asked RM why the British didn’t throw them out. He hastens to add that he does not doubt that Britain will triumph – ‘we seem to get most of what we want – eventually’; such prophetic words.

At the ripe old age of 25, RM has some very interesting views on theology, religion and the afterlife; most unusual for a man in such a hazardous profession, moreover one who professes not to care too much whether he survives a fight or becomes a casualty – according to his diary. He does affirm that he ‘had full confidence in my ability to conduct myself as a good Christian’ – which may well have been true, but ability is not always what counts – intention, perseverance and delivery might have been better. We have his reassurance that prayer gave him great comfort and consolation, as well as giving him the strength ‘to do what was right’. A great boon to any arbiter of life and death in situations such as he found himself in.

As a hunter he must certainly be given some credit, though he admits to indulging himself in an orgy of blood-lust at the start of his Kenyan experience. Admittedly he had to literally feed an army of some 200 lusty warriors in a country where lines of supply and communication were nonexistent, so most of the hundreds of animals shot were used for that purpose. He was a proponent of the light calibre .256 Mannlicher – a popgun like the great elephant hunter William Bell used. RM did not have Bell’s expertise and anatomical knowledge though, and he records a staggering number of rhino and other large game including lions, that he shot at, which got away. The fact that a leading firm of sporting arms and munitions once supplied him with bullets that would hardly travel fifty metres without plopping to the ground, added to the excitement of the chase. Our man relates some very interesting experiences, as well as other hunters’ entertaining exploits and mishaps. One of his closest shaves probably came from shooting an eland bull – one of the mildest of antelopes. He broke its shoulder with the first shot at 50 yards, all good and well; but the buck was a standing target when RM inexplicably was prompted to break its hind leg at 30 yards with the next shot. Our foolhardy hunter then moved in to cut the massive beast’s throat – at which it tossed him a dozen feet, necessitating killing it with another shot to the neck, before retiring to nurse a broken bone in his foot. Not exactly a sharpshooter then.

Rather strange is his condemnation at finding a Wanderobo camp, where at least twenty-five skulls of rhino and other game littered the ground, thus testifying to their wanton destruction of natural resources, which is a bit rich coming from him – more especially so since the offending tribe is of the hunter-gatherer persuasion. He is also completely opposed to the capturing of wild animals and ‘condemning them to solitary confinement and squalid surroundings’. From the vantage point of a half-century later he admits that the Masai were able to coexist among enormous herds of game with their cattle, but that European methods of farming could not. In all, his hunting exploits make for interesting reading, and should appeal to followers of the genre.

He displays a different face when he advocates game conservation. At one stage he speaks of asking his moneyed father for a loan to purchase a huge farm in Kenya, so that he could turn it into a game reserve. Quite unbelievably he states that he never had any desire to kill an elephant, finding them delightful creatures that it would be immoral to kill, especially if just for the monetary value of their ivory. ‘It is a pity that an intelligent creature like an elephant should be shot in order that creatures not much more intelligent may play billiards with balls made from their teeth’. A statement worthy of a modern-day conservationist. He did not exercise the same restraint when it came to rhinos, and he describes a large number of more or less successful hunts. A couple of instances are described when he shoots a brace of rhino so that they end up lying against each other – yet a visiting medical man who shoots three rhinos on one outing gets a roasting for unsportsmanlike behaviour, as well as being in breach of the game regulations. Some inconsistency there, one could say. Cheetahs, leopards and lions also fell to his rifle, but after a few foolhardy adventures, he developed more than a healthy respect for the latter big cats, and on bagging one on the bare Athi plain with no back-up or convenient tree at hand, he says ‘I do not like lion when I have to face them single-handed in the open’. In company with a brother officer he indulges in a little pig-sticking using bayonets tied to bamboo poles – a sport much beloved of the military in India. This time they meet up with a lion and RM’s companion insists on trying his luck. Not unreasonably the horse balks, throws its rider into the lion’s maw, so to speak, necessitating our knight to come charging to his friend’s aid. Between his makeshift lance and the fallen pig-sticker’s revolver, they manage to dispatch the lion – according to the diary.

The vengefulness that he displayed against the tribes, when they killed his policemen, settlers or missionaries, was also extended to the animal kingdom. He writes with much relish of his revenge taken on a troop of baboons who had the temerity to kill his beloved dog who rushed into the middle of the troop that he was chasing for fun. He used a detachment of 30 troops; issued a 100 rounds of ammunition per man, and surrounded the offending band of monkeys during the night. In a battle lasting most of the morning, he managed to extinguish almost the entire adult population of monkeys of that group. Shades of the great generals!

Meinertzhagen had become interested in ornithology before leaving England. He pursued this hobby with great diligence in Africa, and he collected a huge number of museum specimens there as well as in other parts of the world later. He became a respected authority on the subject; wrote numerous articles as well as revered guidebooks on the avifauna of Arabia. Both insects and larger animals were also collected, skinned and dispatched to the British Museum. He made several discoveries of varieties of antelopes as well as data on their distribution. In addition he was the first European to collect and describe the giant forest hog, which was named after him. RM seemingly spent a lot of time doing game counts on his excursions across the plains of Kenya. There are a number of instances where he cites lists of exact numbers of half a dozen or more species – often running into the thousands. One is led to wonder how he managed to enumerate 1247 wildebeeste and 1465 zebra , this in addition to some three thousand other animals of ten more species, spread over an area of twelve square miles, as he did on a November day in 1903. On the other hand, Meinertzhagen gives the impression of being a stickler for exactitude and representing the facts as they were – come hell or high water; seemingly careless of whether the facts presented him in a less than favourable light. Even more puzzling is the apparent bravado with which he describes acts of recklessness, brutality, and cold-blooded ferocity. Speaking of a party he and a fellow-officer organised in Nairobi , RM says, ‘I think the real reason is that we are both rather perverse by nature and instinctively do the thing which we are least expected to do’. His one-time friend and colleague, T.E. Laurence, describes him thus, ‘Meinertzhagen knew no half measures. He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain ...’ (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926). Almost regretfully, I finished the book. It was engrossing, full of detail, action, anecdote – in short, I felt I had been in direct contact with a larger-than-life personality, of considerable intellect and talents.

Or not. A kind client, with whom I had discussed the aforegoing book and its author and this article, dropped in with a copy of Brian Garfield’s book, The Meinertzhagen Mystery (Potomac Books, 2007). An answer to my prayers, so to speak, and no time was wasted in continuing the search for some answers, which had already been hinted at during my preliminary search after data on the web. From the outset Garfield states that RM used to be one of his heroes; and that he first started to investigate his role in East Africa during the 1914–1918 campaign, in which the German von Lettow-Vorbeck ran rings around astly superior numbers of British and colonial troops under scores of generals. The reason – he was never there where the British expected him to be. Clearly a failure of intelligence. Who was the British Chief of Intelligence? None other than Capt. Richard Meinertzhagen. That’s where it all began, and among the numerous hymns of praise that were sung for our hero, slowly there emerged a solid body of evidence that Meinertzhagen’s exploits, adventures, military triumphs, diplomatic and intelligence work, zoological pre-eminence and personal reminiscences of history were a web of carefully edited fabrications concocted by a forceful and convincing actor, an overbearing personality, who charmed and fascinated people with wild tales of his life. In the words of Garfield, ‘he was a great scientist; he was a scientific fraud; he was a military hero: he was an incompetent officer; he was beloved; he was scorned; he was a killer; but he was not the mass murderer he pretended to be’. He may not even have shot anyone himself – though he was undoubted the author of the Nandi massacre – and many believe that this was the man who killed a servant in a fit of rage in India (of which event no trace could be found), the only man who was present while his wife conveniently ‘accidentally shot herself in the head’ during target practice – which many believed to be his work.

Let’s go back to RM’s arrival in Kenya. Verifiable evidence places him in the position of staff officer, third or fourth in command of the KAR detachments. Annual reports of the KAR show that RH held command of small detachments only during brief intervals when he led them from one post to another. None of the bloodbaths he describes during his punitive measures against the marauding Kikuyu can be found in the records – this during a time when the one or two casualties during reprisals were noted scrupulously in KAR reports. Only the Nandi massacre was true up to a point – the difference being that in all probability a fellow-officer, Sammy Butler (a life-long friend of RM – which might account for the deafening silence from that quarter), had machine-gunned the laibon and his retinue before RM even reached the venue, a plan that documents show, had been devised by his superior officers, who conveniently let RM take credit. This killing of some twenty-five Africans was enough to cause severe discomfiture and international scandal for the British Colonial Office, and resulted in RM’s recall. For the rest, his bloodthirsty exploits were of his own manufacture, but became part of ‘accepted history’ of the savagery of the British colonialists, so that they are still quoted extensively as facts in support of agendas for or against governments, racial groups etc.

Meinertzhagen was recalled, as previously mentioned, and he had to kick his heels around a London office for a few years until his lobbying resulted in the War Office relenting and sending him out to South Africa in 1908, we read. His diary (not Kenya Diary) indicates that he passes some examinations and is promoted to Major and is given command of mounted infantry. Once more his diary records a heroic episode, but, in fact, his promotion only occurred in 1915 – seven years later. Obviously his duties in South Africa and later Mauritius were not to his liking. He returns to London and then spends some time in the Mediterranean, Middle East and far East. This is where one of his most infamous ‘murders’ was recorded as having taken place – at least in his diaries. In a fit of rage at seeing his polo ponies maltreated by a syce, he beats said servitor to death with his polo mallet. He manages to convince his superiors that it would be best to hush it up by burning the stable and body – and hey presto – another myth has been added to his reputation. While it cannot be entirely disproved, none of the other diaries and reports of fellow-officers and officials make any mention of the event; we have only RM’s word.

Next we have our man as intelligence officer on the staff of the invading British force at the circus that the battle for Tanga was to become. I am no militarist, so I will not comment on the conduct of battle between thousands of landing forces and a few hundred askaris with a sprinkling of German soldiers; it just sounds like a complete fiasco. RM couldn’t resist a little creativity, and manufactures his ‘Boys’ Own’ version of a sortie, in which he manages to lose twenty-four of his twenty-five Kashmiris, besides shooting another couple of his men for showing cowardice! Once again there is no record of this besides in RM’s diaries. The respected General von Lettow-Vorbeck, who was to become a personal friend of RM in later years, mentions swapping lead with RM in his memoirs – but he too had to rely on the anecdotal evidence that he was fed by the latter, since it was night-time and he couldn’t possibly have seen who was sniping at him. After the smoke of battle had cleared, almost twenty percent of the British force were hors de combat, (more than the entire German forces in Africa) against a tally of sixty-nine disabled German troops. General Aitken was relieved of his post, and the War Office singled out the intelligence work of the force as the greatest contributing factor to the rout. Guess who?

During the ongoing war, RM’s intelligence reports which survive, clearly demonstrate that he had no idea that Lettow-Vorbeck was intent on leading British forces a merry dance, and tying up as many soldiers in his pursuit as possible, even though he could not hope to win a war in that fashion. RM’s diaries tell a completely different story – but why was none of this ever mentioned to his superiors? Instead he presented beautifully crafted reports, detailing an incredible amount information (that had been to hand since the beginning of the war from public sources), accompanied by his wonderful maps. He initiated the distribution of counterfeit local rupees – which were so poorly made, however, that they were used as kindling or wadding for the German artillery rounds. He was reputed to have launched a large force of African ‘spies’ against the Germans; a small problem emerged, though. Most of them were Nandi, and these lads harboured quite a grudge against our man – so what on earth would motivate them to help their British overlords as personified by their particular bête noire? Not a resounding success then. Among the other choice episodes chronicled by our man in his voluminous diaries is an improbable aeroplane flight to dizzying heights which no one had achieved with the then extant aviation technology (not to mention the scarcity of oxygen at an altitude of 17 000 feet plus). He rounds off his experiences in that theatre of war by cleaning out a machine-gun nest by hand-to-hand combat, culminating with the braining of the German Captain with his own knobkierie. Shortly afterwards he is invalided out of Africa – a decorated lieutenant-colonel.

That almost concluded Meinertzhagen’s connections with the African continent. After the convenient death of his wife, he is left with independent means and enabled to travel widely in the quest of ornithological data. He visited various parts of Africa on field trips during the latter part of his life, but his reputation for cloak-and-dagger episodes were acquired elsewhere – and there are many of those chronicled in the book. He plays a leading role in the creation of the state of Israel; he came within an inch of assassinating Hitler; he is deeply involved in anti-Communist espionage. A number of crucial episodes of that period’s political history are propped up by verbatim fictional accounts from our man, which are accepted because ‘oh, everyone knows that!’ Each episode becomes a building block of this persona who charms, captivates, appals and scandalises the people he comes into contact with during the rest of his life.

He becomes a scientist, an award-winning, lauded ornithologist, with a slew of publications to his credit; recipient of a medal from the British Ornithologist’s Union; but as early as 1919 he was already barred from the British Museum as it had been established that he had purloined bird specimens. He was reinstated at the plea of his relative by marriage, Lord Rothschild. Not even the discovery of rare colour plates from a priceless book in the British Museum, which were found in his possession, led to a public prosecution. Subsequently his scientific stature came increasingly under scrutiny, and to his ardent followers’ horror, it was discovered posthumously that of the twenty-thousand or so specimens of birds which he left to the British Museum, many were stolen from museums and other collections, while distribution localities that he had claimed, were fictional and some of his written work was plagiarised from others’ unpublished writings – in short, Meinertzhagen had perversely created havoc in a whole branch of science in which he had claimed pre-eminence for decades. This was all to emerge only once he had died – though vague suspicions had already preceded his departure.

Here was a man who seemed compelled to see how much he could get away with; who spun yarns so wildly improbable that they were likely to invoke the scorn of those who disbelieved his lies – as well as the aversion of those who believed his tales, because to them he was a vicious killer. An Indian ornithologist friend, Salim Ali, said of RM: ‘Though possessed of many admirable qualities, he had the distinct streak of the bully in his make-up and could be unreasonable to the point of brutality at times.’ His literary legacy is based on some eighty-two volumes of carefully typed ‘diaries’ covering his entire life – much of the contents carefully edited, altered, added to and falsified – and therefore easily verifiable and found to be wanting in even quite simple elements of the truth. Even his typewriter, which he declares as having bought and used in typing his first field-diaries from 1906 onwards, had a font that was only designed in 1918. The fictional character that had been built up by its creator over the decades, ensured that he became ‘easy to suspect but difficult to accuse both because of his standing and because proofs were elusive.’

From Garfield’s book emerges a character of such complexity, solipsism and narcissist personality, that the biggest question remains: why was he not exposed? Therefore, as beguiling as Meinertzhagen’s books may be, they come with a health warning: Reader Beware – Gullibility Crisis Ahead. If at all possible, read in tandem with Garfield’s book.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010


Africana Votes & Views # 18

  Who can actually lay claim to the title of being an ‘explorer’? In the last fifty years or more, the title has increasingly been misused, being applied to individuals who have chosen slightly different routes to an iconic and much-visited goal; those who have used unusual conveyances or unorthodox methods of progress and a few ‘professionals’ who have mustered armies of men and convoys of heavy machinery at great cost to prove that there is no such thing as an impassable route. However, could one really say that a person who undertook to skateboard along the N1 from Cape Town to Johannesburg – a marathon journey certainly – has contributed anything to the sum of knowledge of mankind, geography or the natural sciences? I doubt it; therefore this essay is not going to be entitled ‘Lady Explorers of the Dark Continent’, though a few undoubtedly were just that, while others were adventurous travellers of great courage, entertaining writers, well-off tourists, symbols of growing female emancipation – or even long-suffering wives who were dragged along as ‘camp comforts’ by their unfeeling husbands – presumably.

  So where do we start? Of the latter sort mentioned, there must have been a few unrecorded heroines during early Victorian times and I would not like to put my head on the block as to who was the first. One unfortunate comes to mind – Mary Livingstone, daughter of the Moffats at Kuruman. She had the singular misfortune to marry the great missionary/explorer in 1845. She often accompanied him on his early travels, despite the Moffats’ protests as she was heavily pregnant with the first of their five children in 1847. A mere five years later, the Livingstones were in the wilds on the Zouga River, a tributary of the Zambesi. Mary was extremely ill; she gave birth to her fifth child (her fourth having died shortly after birth at Kolobeng) and her doting husband finally came to realise that dragging a woman and four children through the bushes in a constant state of pregnancy might not be the ideal way of conducting a relationship. He brought her back to Cape Town and shipped her and the children off to Britain. Much relieved, he was able to devote himself to traversing the subcontinent for the next three years. He returned to Britain in 1856 and penned the Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (John Murray, 1857) His wife’s contributions did not merit a single line in the book. It took some serious prompting by John Murray to remedy that state of affairs in the next impression, with a page which tells of their marriage. That he managed this by adding two more pages 8* and 8**, after the original page 8 – rather than resetting/repaginating the entire book – is tribute to the prudence and ingenuity in matters of economy on the part of author and publisher. Their last child was born in 1858 while Mary was with her parents back at Kuruman, after which she returned to Scotland for a short while before being summoned by her lord and master once more to join him on his almost farcical Zambezi Expedition. The reluctant exploratrix died scarcely three months later at Shupanga in Mozambique, of malaria, possibly exacerbated by the alcoholism she had become a victim of. At this stage, the great man could actually bring himself to write:
‘About the middle of the month Mrs. Livingstone was prostrated by this disease; and it was accompanied by obstinate vomiting. Nothing is yet known that can allay this distressing symptom, which of course renders medicine of no avail, as it is instantly rejected. She received whatever medical aid could be rendered from Dr. Kirk, but became unconscious, and her eyes were closed in the sleep of death as the sun set on the evening of the Christian Sabbath, the 27th April, 1862. A coffin was made during the night, a grave was dug next day under the branches of the great baobab-tree, and with sympathising hearts the little band of his countrymen assisted the bereaved husband in burying his dead. At his request, the Rev. James Stewart read the burial-service; and the seamen kindly volunteered to mount guard for some nights at the spot where her body rests in hope. Those who are not aware how this brave, good, English wife made a delightful home at Kolobeng, a thousand miles inland from the Cape, and as the daughter of Moffat and a Christian lady exercised most beneficial influence over the rude tribes of the interior, may wonder that she should have braved the dangers and toils of this down-trodden land. She knew them all, and, in the disinterested and dutiful attempt to renew her labours, was called to her rest instead. Fiat, Domine, voluntas tua!’ That’s right David, pass the buck (though it is writ that the great man never got over his loss and blamed himself – as he should)

  An explorer in her own right, without a doubt, was Florence Barbara Maria Finian von Sass Baker (those names are a bit doubtful – just depends which source you use). She was, of course, the reputed slave girl, rescued by Samuel (later Sir Samuel) White Baker from the clutches of an oriental Pasha in what is now Hungary – a story which may have gained a little romance in the retelling. She became his inseparable companion, aide, lover and wife, and insisted on accompanying him when he started his explorations into the origins of the Nile in 1861. In his own words, 
‘I shuddered at the prospect for her, should she be left alone in savage lands at my death; and gladly would I have left her in the luxuries of home instead of exposing her to the miseries of Africa. It was in vain that I implored her to remain, and that I painted the difficulties and perils still blacker than I supposed they really would be: she was resolved, with woman’s constancy and devotion, to share all dangers and to follow me through each rough footstep of the wild life before me’. That’s what she did, and then some.

  As her adoring companion states:‘Possessing a share of sangfroid admirably adapted for African travel, Mrs. Baker was not a screamer, and never even whispered; in the moment of suspected danger, a touch of my sleeve was considered a sufficient warning’ - and ‘Mrs. Baker was dressed similarly to myself, in a pair of loose trowsers and gaiters, with a blouse and belt--the only difference being that she wore long sleeves, while my arms were bare from a few inches below the shoulder.’ 
  Although she was able to speak a number of languages, which came in handy during their exploits, it is a great pity that she left the writing to Samuel in describing their epic trek to Lake Albert, in his book The Albert N'Yanza Great Basin Of The Nile; And Exploration Of The Nile Sources. (Macmillan And Co., 1866). It may be that she only acquired fluency in English through constant communications with Samuel and later his children from his previous marriage, to whom she became greatly attached. It was only on the later expedition to end the slave trade on the upper reaches of the Nile that she kept an interesting diary and wrote numerous letters, which present her side of the story. These are included in the book Morning Star (Kimber, 1972); a compilation by Anne Baker, wife of a great grandson of Samuel. Not that the latter was sparing in acknowledgement of his wife’s sterling qualities and contribution to overcoming their travails. They were scarcely off the mark when the Bakers faced down an incipient mutiny. Baker writes,‘How the affair would have ended I cannot say; but as the scene lay within ten yards of my boat, my wife, who was ill with fever in the cabin, witnessed the whole affray, and seeing me surrounded, she rushed out, and in a few moments she was in the middle of the crowd, who at that time were endeavoring to rescue my prisoner. Her sudden appearance had a curious effect, and calling upon several of the least mutinous to assist, she very pluckily made her way up to me...’ and by sheer effrontery, the Bakers managed to get the mutineers disarmed. This type of problem kept on dogging them during the northern part of their journey, and they had several more similar experiences of the same kind. Each time Flooey stood by her man; almost at the end of their epic journey, Samuel relates: ‘Parrying with the stick, thrusting in return at the face, and hitting sharp with the left hand, I managed to keep three or four of the party on and off upon their backs, receiving a slight cut with a sword upon my left arm in countering a blow which just grazed me as I knocked down the owner, and disarmed him. My wife picked up the sword, as I had no time to stoop, and she stood well at bay with her newly-acquired weapon that a disarmed Arab wished to wrest from her, but dared not close with the naked blade…’ – certainly no shrinking violet. When Kamrasi, king of the Bunyoro, suggests that Baker might like to swap wives with him, Florence gave him a tongue-lashing in Arabic, which the king understood only too well, though he knew no word of that language. He apologised hurriedly, offering the excuse that it was a customary courtesy in his country.
  Illness and even starvation was a constant worry. At one stage she was felled by sunstroke while battling her way through an almost impenetrable swamp and Samuel, himself fever-stricken, writes: ‘Almost as soon as I perceived her, she fell, as though shot dead. In an instant I was by her side; and with the assistance of eight or ten of my men, who were fortunately close to me, I dragged her like a corpse through the yielding vegetation, and up to our waists we scrambled across to the other side, just keeping her head above the water: to have carried her would have been impossible, as we should all have sunk together through the weeds. I laid her under a tree, and bathed her head and face with water, as for the moment I thought she had fainted; but she lay perfectly insensible, as though dead, with teeth and hands firmly clenched, and her eyes open, but fixed.’
  She only recovered consciousness some days later, and of their final arrival at Lake Albert, Samuel writes: ‘My wife in extreme weakness tottered down the pass, supporting herself upon my shoulder, and stopping to rest every twenty paces. After a toilsome descent of about two hours, weak with years of fever, but for the moment strengthened by success, we gained the level plain below the cliff. A walk of about a mile through flat sandy meadows of fine turf interspersed with trees and bush, brought us to the water’s edge’  - and again later  - ‘It was with extreme emotion that I enjoyed this glorious scene. My wife, who had followed me so devotedly, stood by my side pale and exhausted – a wreck upon the shores of the great Albert lake that we had so long striven to reach’  Honour given where honour was due, to be sure.
  Their expedition had almost as much trouble with their own men as with the tribespeople among whom they passed. Baker’s perceived racist actions and high-handed manner have deprived him of much of the renown and respect due to the pair’s dogged pursuit of geographical exactitude. In his defence it must be said that they were extraordinarily unfortunate to be in the company of and to meet with some truly horrible people along the route. The Bakers returned from their travels and finally married ‘properly’ back in England, after which the disapproving queen reluctantly knighted the old sportsman, though she could never bring herself to meet with Florence.

  Almost at exactly the same time (in fact they met the Bakers at Gondokoro) another real explorer, Alexandrine Tinne, the daughter of a rich merchant family from the Hague, indulged her fancy for parts unknown, and in company with her mother and aunt, she determined to explore the upper Nile. Alexine, as she was known, was the richest heiress in the Netherlands, which meant she had the resources for the job on hand. First and foremost she accumulated some ₤800 in small coin (banks being in short supply where she intended to go), loaded it alternately on ten camels, or filled one of her flotilla of three boats with cash when travelling by water. After leaving Cairo, they made leisurely progress to Korosko, where they disembarked and prepared to cross the Nubian Desert. Their caravan consisted of 102 camels, four European servants and some forty-odd menials under an Arab chief. Near Berber they rejoined the river as it was less fatiguing. Throughout this journey, Alexine sent letters describing their progress to a relative in England, John Tinne F.R.G.S, who compiled a slim volume entitled Geographical Notes of Expeditions in Central Africa by Three Dutch Ladies (T Brakell, 1864). Without too many problems they managed to reach Khartoum and this is where they encountered the Bakers, who had just returned from Abyssinia. Alexine decided that she wanted to do a little exploring up the Sobat River, the last major tributary of the Nile to enter from the east; so a steamer was chartered to facilitate progress. Besides sampling quantities of fish and game, such as giraffe and elephant meat, no great discoveries were made and they returned to Khartoum in November. 
  At this stage they met up with two German scientists, von Heuglin and Steudner, and a Baron d’Ablaing who were easily persuaded to share in the bounty on their next excursion, which took on serious as well as scientific proportions. They made the mistake of trying to explore the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile, to see how far west they could penetrate, hoping to discover one or more posited lakes in western north-central Africa, which were also sources of the White Nile. This was a mammoth task – a far cry from the previous leisurely excursions with all luxuries and support within easy reach. All the members of the expedition suffered greatly from fever; first Steudner died, then Mrs Tinne, as well as Alexine’s aunt and two maidservants, the latter three even after they managed to get back to Khartoum. While the distraught Alexine stayed in Cairo, von Heuglin published two works dealing with the geographical and zoological results in Die Tinnésche Expedition im westlichen Nilgebiet 1863–1864 (Gotha, 1865) and Reise in das Gebiet des Weissen Nils (Leipzig, 1869) and a number of new plant species were described by various botanists in Vienna under the title of Plantes Tinnaennes.
  In 1869 the inveterate explorer fitted out a caravan to cross the Sahara from Tripoli to Lake Chad. In Murzuk she met the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal, however the latter wanted to explore the Tibesti mountains first, while she wanted to head further south. It was to prove her undoing. For reasons still unknown, but suspected to be due to factional politics, she and several of her companions were murdered by Tuaregs. Alexine Tinne is not well-known in English circles, since only a little has been written in that language about her and her travels, but she certainly has a huge and well-deserved reputation in the Netherlands. There are a number of romanticised works in English, German and Dutch about her explorations, but only one thesis by Antje Köhlerschmidt does justice to her: Alexandrine Tinne (1835–1869) – Afrikareisende des 19. Jahrhunderts (Magdeburg, 1994).

  Another dutiful wife was Jane Moir, who was married to the co-founder of the African Lakes Company, which was engaged in fulfilling the vision of Livingstone in the then Nyasaland, ie civilising the African by means of missionary endeavour and trade – as well as eliminating the pernicious slave trade that was the scourge of Central Africa at the time. The Moirs set off on an ulendo (safari) from their almost palatial Blantyre home in 1890, and embarked on the little steamer, the Domira, for the fairly pleasant journey up Lake Nyasa, stopping halfway at the mission at Bandawe to embark some porters. Here our traveller encountered the first taste of rough weather and huge waves which threatened to swamp the boat, before they made it safely to Karonga at the northern end of the lake. The party walked the next 240 miles during the three weeks that followed, before embarking once more at Abercorn in an open steel sailing boat captained by A.J. Swann, a colonial official on treaty-business, to complete the voyage to Ujiji, midway up Lake Tanganyika. She describes her experience in a collection of A Lady’s Letters from Central Africa (James Maclehouse, 1891 & Central Africana 1991 repr.) What distinguishes her from other travel companions is the fact that she put a camera to good use, and took a number of the earliest photographs in the region, only two of which appear in her book, though her husband made more extensive use of her photos in his work After Livingstone (Hodder & Stoughton, 1923), and some were published in The Graphic in London.
  While Moir pere discussed matters of economics and diplomacy with the local slaver cum chief (who is described as a rather civil and pleasant person, though a blackguard under the veneer), Jane was languishing in the company of dozens of slaves, handmaidens, concubines and two Muscat wives of the chief – none of whom had any language in common with her. Understandably she was not hugely entertained, but the couple had perforce to wait until a dhow could be repaired sufficiently to load the ivory Moir had obtained and for them to start on the return voyage. As before, all went idyllically for a few days until a storm brewed up and once more the passengers and crew were in mortal danger of foundering. In the dark of night they were forced to run westward across the lake under bare poles until they managed to shelter in a shallow lagoon on the next afternoon. They cautiously bay-hopped south for four days until the storm abated, when they could cross the lake eastwards once more. Now they exchanged the ‘deep sea for the devil’, as it were. Near the mission station of Karema, the winds once again rose and they were blown ashore among a warlike tribe, the Attongwe. While the crew refloated the boat, the Moirs tried to stay on friendly terms by exchanging presents with the Africans, but as dusk fell, an attack was launched and Jane found herself scrambling aboard while her crew tried to push the dhow out into the rough seas. Suddenly she became aware that her husband was still in the water trying to reach them, and she made the crew return in the face of a growing fusillade from the shore. They retrieved Fred in a hail of bullets, during which her helper beside her was hit and her double terai was adorned with two splendid bullet-holes as a memento to this brave act. The rest of the lake journey was painfully slow in the face of adverse winds, but from Abercorn onwards the journey was only marred by occasional fever of which Jane makes light; reaching the northern tip of Lake Nyasa (Malawi), where they were most hospitably received by the Wankonde tribe in their beautiful villages. They had to wait another ten days for the lake steamer, and once more Jane was dreadfully ill ‘having a horrid fever, which left me looking like Gorgonzola cheese’, before reaching home some four months after their departure. Jane Moir’s book is no great literary work, but in parts it is quite interesting and one can but admire her understated account of some five hundred miles afoot as well as some weeks afloat on the two deepest African lakes which have some of the most fickle weather and sailing conditions.

  In chronological order we now come to the greatest of the Victorian lady travellers, whom I can only call la belle dame des Voyages d'Afrique – Mary Kingsley. Although largely self-taught from her father’s considerable library, her lectures and written work became immensely popular, so she is relatively well-known both as a writer and scientist/explorer – also being mislabelled a feminist. Her stance on the Christianisation and colonialisation of the Africans brought her into conflict with the church and the Empire Builders as she found justification for institutions such as polygamy in African society, as well as debunking the concept that the African was the intellectual inferior of the European by virtue of his race. The loss of her parents at the age of thirty provided her with a measure of independence and a modest income, which permitted her to set off on the first of her travels to the Canaries and later Loanda. Here she learnt the basics of survival among native tribes, and decided on a course of action for future exploits.
  The year 1894 saw her back in West Africa, better equipped and supplied to follow her passion for ‘Fish and Fetish’, as she calls her quest. Obviously Mary was an engaging person; people seemed to fall over each other to try to aid and abet her in her efforts; British, Portuguese and German administrators, soldiers, missionaries of all denominations and most especially the traders that put their lives on the line on that fever-afflicted coast and inland, as well as their black staff manning the ‘factories’, as the trading posts along the malarial rivers were called. Her hefty work Travels in West Africa (Macmillan, 1897) launches immediately into a lively description of the scene and especially peoples of Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Fernando Po, where her ship’s voyage ended the first stage, though she seems to have visited all the countries fringing the Bights of Benin and Bonny. One of the great shortcomings of her work is the lack of a map to show her routes, as it is extremely difficult to follow her course from her descriptions using the names then current. Her main travels and scientific researches were along the course of the Ogoue River in what she calls the Congo Français (Gabon), she spoke no French and certainly had very little knowledge of the Fan (Fong) indigenous language. Instead she established cordial communication with all and sundry in English, German and an enthusiastically acquired command of Pidgin. She certainly did not explore the geography of the river and its tributaries – that was fairly well-known and often traveled by Europeans – but some of the short-cuts she followed led her through dreadful swamps which could sink her up to her neck in a matter of a few steps, necessitating laborious extrication by her companions. Other great obstacles were the steep ravines that had been filled with storm-felled jungle trees to a depth of six to ten metres. One false step could precipitate a person through this jumble of slippery, rotting wood to the valley floor below. To escape unscathed from these mazes could be enormously complicated and dangerous. In comparison, learning to paddle her own dugout on a rapidly flowing river during her missionary hosts’ siesta-time, is one of the funniest episodes graphically described in the book. Mary also writes in her customary understated way, that she had to beat an enterprising crocodile about the head with her paddle when it tried to join her in the craft. On another instance she was taking a midnight stroll as she could not fall asleep in her village accommodation on an island and suddenly she found herself in the midst of a small herd of grazing hippos. With remarkable sang froid she poked the obstructive beast in front of her behind his ear with the ferrule of her umbrella to shift him out of the way so that she could proceed. She also proved her mettle during a fight between a village dog and a leopard. The leopard stood no chance at all once Mary had ‘fired two native carved stools into the melée’ after which she was forced to break an earthenware water-cooler on the poor beast’s head to get it to change its mind about attacking her. Inevitably there were disagreements with the locals over matters of custom or trade, but Mary not only charmed the Europeans that came her way; she genuinely liked and got on well with the West Africans, especially the Fan, who had a bad name for cannibalism among the whites. She stood firm when it was needed, she reasoned and even wheedled when it was politic to do so – and she yielded only when an impasse was evident. No opponent was shot; neither was she attacked. Her most dangerous moments came from the violence of nature and the occasional man-trap that was set at the entrances of the villages she visited – but there was nothing personal in that.
  Not content with conquering the pestilential swamps, impenetrable jungles and raging rapids, she next sets her sights on conquering the 4000 m high peak of Mount Cameroon. Completely under-equipped she sets off on the six-day hike, and before long her party is suffering from thirst, hunger and freezing temperatures. Mary, though having to leave her last companions huddling together under their blankets in the streaming rain, gropes through the swirling cloud and howling storm to find the cairn at the summit – more by touch than by sight. Thoroughly satisfied, she commences the descent. The only country in the region that receives barely a mention is the Belgian Congo, and she shares my non-existent esteem for the owner as well as his administration. On the other hand the Germans and their colonial efforts in the region get the Kingsley stamp of approval.
  A large proportion of her utterly entertaining and informative work consists of describing ‘Fetish’, which would be classed as ethnographical details of indigenous culture in present-day terms. Even this I found eminently readable (though I do have more than a passing interest in the subject) and other readers of the book I have spoken to, have concurred with me. There is a small section on her zoological discoveries, but this was written by a German scientist and can safely be ignored by all but the most ardent ‘pisciphiles’. A relatively alarming number of deaths among her compatriots and other Europeans are noted, which gives the reader some idea of the health and hygiene along the coast. A whole chapter is devoted to the ills and parasites that afflict the human condition; enough to make one wonder what made any man (and Mary Kingsley) want to disembark on those shores. Nonetheless, her book is my all-time favourite Victorian travelogue and I can heartily recommend it, taken in short doses, to anyone from nine years old to ninety – regardless of sex, race, creed or literary tastes.

  The last, but certainly not least of our assemblage of notable ladies, would be Mary Hall. She wrote an entertaining and informative tome on her experiences: A Woman’s Trek from the Cape to Cairo (Methuen, 1907) and she was certainly the very first pioneer tourist to traverse the length of the African continent hard on the heels of Ewart Grogan. Despite her achievement, and possibly because of her common name, I have been unable to find any background on the lady. She seems to have been a termagant of mature years; a seasoned traveler; accustomed to making progress come what may – in addition to being a gifted writer with a fine descriptive turn of phrase, a photographer who developed her own glass plate negatives in transit, so to speak; a discerning observer; a stern disciplinarian, yet a fair judge of men and their frailties. Above all she was a dauntless soul who would tackle an unknown route with some dozens of strangers of a different culture and language than her own, without a single firearm for her protection, relying only on a small terrier-like canine for personal protection. Except for fowls, goats and the odd bovine, no wild animals were injured, nor were there any fatalities caused among the tribespeople along her route. The one exciting episode with enraged warriors she faced with extreme coolness, sitting perched on her trunk under a tree, while she explained politely to the affronted chief and his howling horde that it had not been her intention to offend, and that her guilty askari would be punished. Needless to say, she and the chief parted the best of friends!
  She obviously had the means to tackle the journey while preserving some comforts of civilisation; her folding bathtub, wardrobe, bed, tent and machila (or hammock) are ample proof of that. Every morning she would walk for an hour or two before it got too hot, but she was not a good climber, nor did she ford a stream afoot, while she had willing bearers to hoist her aloft, or a canoe to transport her. She paints a charming portrait of her progress up hills (facing backwards in her hammock, so as not to have to look at the empty skies) and down into the valleys (facing forward to enjoy the view) – seemingly determined to miss nothing of the passing scene. Like Grogan, she did her jaunt in two stages. 1904 saw her touring Southern Africa, and in the following year she set off from where the steamer had dropped her off at Chinde, in Mozambique. She made her way upstream by boat and then took to her hammock for the hike towards Lake Nyasa (Malawi). Here she assembled a volunteer force of porters, as well as two young locals, one of whom could speak English, while his companion knew some Swahili – which was going to facilitate matters linguistic through their east African leg of the journey. Admittedly, being a lone lady traveller did single her out for extraordinary treatment by all missionaries, administrators and military men along the way. Time and again the overwhelmed gentlemen would vacate their quarters for her and try to provide her with as many comforts as were available, so she was never out of touch with Europeans for any great length of time. Neither did she have to carry ten camel loads of small change like Alexine Tinne – since she used the African Lakes Company, the British colonial outposts and even the German administration as bankers along the way. 
  Mary avoided the malarial swamps between Lakes Edward and Albert by cutting cross-country from the top end of Lake Tanganyika across to Lake Victoria, from where she took to the water for a ride to Port Florence. Here she entrained and enjoyed the novelty of a moderately comfortable ride to Nairobi and back, missing a sighting of Kilimanjaro due to the weather. Back at Entebbe, she decided to try a rickshaw to Butiaba, since evidently there was a fledgeling road already in use. From there onward she embarked on one of the sources of the Nile and despite swarms of mosquitoes (which she seems to have kept at bay by sheer willpower, for she suffered not a day’s illness during her entire trip), she concluded her jaunt to Cairo in fine fashion – taking a mere nine months, compared to Grogan’s triple that time. On her arrival at Khartoum she notes that ‘coming from the south after months of privation and spare living, it seemed to me that the hotel was replete with every comfort available’ and that she wished only to have recorded in detail her experiences in the more unknown parts of Africa, therefore she will skip the thousand miles between Gondokoro and Khartoum, as well as the railway journey between the latter town and Cairo – which is within reach of the ‘ordinary tourists’ – among whom she does obviously not include herself. A formidable achievement - and a fitting conclusion to this tribute to six decades of lady travellers, from pioneering explorer to first tourist.