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Friday, 13 April 2012


by Arne Schaefer

We can only follow the scanty archaeological evidence of man’s travels across our continent, as well as the genetic trails left in our DNA. Current theories have it that we originated in East Africa and spread in all directions from there. However, this is not the subject of this essay. Suffice it to say that primeval man has crossed the continent in waves during countless millennia, so there is nothing really new in the concept.

The main objective is to look at two travel books describing modern journeys – but let us have a look at the explorers who tackled the epic from the mid-19th century onwards. First to complete the trek was David Livingstone, a man burning with missionary zeal, who slogged his solitary way across the continent with his devoted (and some not so devoted) little band of followers. He was underequipped, and underfunded, he suffered deprivation – no, even starvation – but his ill-defined quest spurred him on to spend years in the wilderness. His work, Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa (John Murray, 1857) brought him great acclaim and set him off on a career as an explorer for the rest of his life, and while his own missionary endeavours waned, he did kindle a spirit of service in others as well as publicising the horrors of slavery. Henry Morton Stanley, of whom more later, met up with him on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871 and this meeting set up the journalist for his further stellar career as an explorer.

Next in line to do the whole crossing was Verney Lovett-Cameron, a young man sent out to East Africa in 1873 to come to the aid of Livingstone, who was believed to be in dire straits, at Ujiji. He proved to be too late as he met Livingstone’s servants bearing the great man’s body shortly after leaving the coast. The young man persisted on his journey, and did some valuable exploratory work round the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, before striking out along the western outlet of the lake until he reached the Lualaba River, which he rightly believed to be the source of the Congo. Although he tried to follow its course, he was unsuccessful in obtaining transport as he was averse to colluding with slavers, so he set off by land in a south-westerly direction, exploring the Congo/Zambezi watershed as far as Bihe, from where he reached the Atlantic in 1875. His experiences were published under the title Across Africa. 2 vols (Daldy, Isbister & Co, 1877).

  My most unfavourite explorer, Stanley, flushed with success and fame from his first foray and the book that grandly claimed: How I Found Livingstone”, had the good fortune to be financed by two newspapers to explore the course of the mighty Congo River. He set off with a gigantic expedition from the east coast in 1874, portering his boats in sections. Of the 356 people in his retinue, a mere 114 survived the 999 day trek – Stanley being the only face of a paler hue to see the Atlantic – not to mention the tally of local corpses littered along the route, as Stanley was reported to be notoriously quick on the trigger. To give him his due, he did travel the considerable length of the Congo, even though the great river was divided into a number of sections by impassable falls and rapids, which he had to bypass on land, boats and all. His harrowing travels were described in the book Through the Dark Continent. 2 vols (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1878).

The last of the quartet was Major Alexandre de Serpa Pinto, who was sent out by his king to explore the hinterland of Angola and the headwaters of the Zambezi . He departed from Benguela in 1877 in the company of two other officers. They later turned off northwards while he persisted past Bihe and pushed his way through to Lealui in Barotseland. He was struck down by severe malaria, but had the good fortune to meet up with the missionary Fran├žois Coillard, who nursed him back to health and assisted him in his further explorations of the Zambezi, which he then charted down to the Victoria Falls. From there he made his way to Pretoria, which he reached in 1879. His efforts are described in the work How I Crossed Africa. 2 vols (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1881). He later explored the lower reaches of the Zambezi and was appointed governor of Mozambique.

I am almost certain that some hardy souls must have crossed the continent using motorised transport of sorts between 1880 and 1958, but the two books that are under scrutiny both claim to have been first via the waterways – if we overlook a few hundred kilometers of mountains, several thousand meters in altitude, and bush that they inevitably had to traverse. Mirabel Rogers describes the ‘Story of the First Trans-African Waterway Expedition’ in her book When Rivers Meet (Hutchinson, 1960). An ambitious project, in that the leader had a hazy and fairly impractical idea of pioneering a route which could become an immense waterway, a commercial route for the carriage of people and goods across Central Africa.

The little band of nine intrepid pioneers set out in a truck, a jeep and three fibreglass launches with outboard motors from Chinde up the Zambesi. Most of the time the boats spent on the trailers, but one or two were afloat whenever possible to prove the point of their journey. In no time at all the travellers found they all had different priorities; from collecting ethnographic artifacts, butterflies, live animals and fish, to big-game hunting film-making and sending home riveting copy to their newspaper employers, which made co-existence hard work. The expedition started shedding members before they reached Lake Nyassa (Malawi). The author and her one female companion were both journalists, out to write up exciting adventures for their respective newspapers in Johannesburg and Honolulu, and one gets the sense that it was with some difficulty that they managed to find enough sensational occurrences along the way. A lot of borrowings from history and local anecdote abound, with an inevitable smattering of journalistic license, not to mention some strange spellings of Latin zoological names and place names.

The rapids or falls on the Shire, which had already proved a bar to navigation to Livingstone on his later expeditions, should have been a clear message to the expedition that their project was impracticable, but they persisted. Most of the book is devoted to the Malawian part of the journey, up the river and this iconic Great Lake. However even here they found out that all would not be plain sailing, as the dreaded south-east wind rose and transformed the placid lake into a welter of four-metre high waves and whitecaps which the boats were unable to handle. They reached shallow water in the nick of time, but both boats sank there and had to be dragged out by hordes of villagers. In addition, the vessels were almost entirely wrecked by the pounding they had received in the choppy waters, and it was with great difficulty that they were repaired sufficiently to limp along the shores to the north end of the lake.

Here the intrepid Mirabel set off on a walk taking several days (alone in the wilds of Africa?) along some sixty miles of the Songwe River, through bush that teemed with game, including leopards and lions. The description does leave one wondering where and how she slept along the way; where and what she ate – but no matter, she reached Tunduma after hitching a ride on a passing truck. Meanwhile, the boats had clawed their way through the fishtraps on the river until they could go no further, when the vehicles had to take over for the long road trip to the bottom end of Lake Tanganyika. Along the way they had to cross some serious mountains, naturally, but again the two thousand-odd metre heights did not put them off their mission to find a navigable route for boats in this remote region. Half of the expedition, with their last really seaworthy boat went up the western shore of Lake Tanganyika towards Albertville and the established water-route to the Atlantic via the Lukuga and Luapula/Congo Rivers. The other half’s next stop was Lake Rukwa, where they parked their boats on the shore when they arrived in the evening, only to find that one had mysteriously disappeared next morning, lifted by a wind-driven ‘tide’ in that (at that time) shallow puddle, and deposited some miles distant in a swamp.

The relatively short stretch between this lake and Kigoma on Tanganyika proved to be extremely trying. The truck broke, the trailer came apart, the remaining members of the expedition suffered from illness and thirst. Their finances were exhausted and their tempers frayed. When they finally made it to Kigoma, the leader of the expedition raced back from Stanleyville to where the western party had progressed.. The expedition was basically bankrupt; so boats were sold to raise some meagre funds, and most of the expedition members left to go back to Johannesburg in the truck. The indomitable author decided to carry on with the trip on her own – with ₤2 in her pocket until she could reach her next point of contact with a town of any size. She detoured round the top of the lake, into Ruanda, and from there onwards over the mountains into the Congo basin; hitchhiking, walking and being helped along by other travellers and the locals, black and white alike. Obviously her story becomes a minor part of the tale, and she resumes the account of the other three men as they relayed it to her after she had returned to South Africa.

With nothing left to prove, except possibly passing the impassable (to navigation) rapids and waterfalls that mark the length of the Congo River, the sorry remnants leap-frogged their way downriver, alternately by boat and by jeep. Their menagerie had grown somewhat by this time, and they had to contend with a European wolf (!), a python and two cheetahs among their passengers! From Matadi two more of the expedition members flew home, while the leader and the photographer completed the traverse to Banana Point. The entire trip had taken three months. They finally got rid of the last boat and turned home southwards across the continent once more, heading for Lusaka, which they reached without too many disasters along the way.

In conclusion the author does rather leave the question of scientific and exploratory achievement open to the reader’s assessment. What she does state is that the expedition ‘proved’ that some 87% of the 5600 kilometres traversed are already navigable by water. One feels they might just have asked the locals about that before setting off. A book quite interesting in parts, full of unrelated anecdotes and snippets of information, but lacking any central theme and purpose.

I have read several of the Ricciardi’s books before, most with enjoyment, so I decided to tackle a hitherto unknown book, African Rainbow – Across Africa by Boat (Ebury Press, 1989) to add to the contents of this article. Both Lorenzo and his wife of some thirty years, Mirella, are romantics, dreamers and travellers of note. He has had a colourful life as a scion of a noble Italian family, which he filled with voyages, journalism, sailing and acting (the role of Christ in the film Ben Hur – no less) among other diversions. Mirella was raised in the Kenyan wilds as a child of nature, but is equally at home in the salons of London and Milan as a fashion photographer of note. Two of her previous books have been hailed as classics, i.e. Vanishing Africa, a pictorial delight, and African Saga, a biographical eye-opener.

The odyssey in question was inspired by Stanley’s disastrous and epic trek, so we are told by Lorenzo. It was to be the ‘first known crossing of Africa by boat’ (see Rogers above!), but the Ricciardis set about it in style, as they managed to get ample sponsorships of equipment and money (even the National Geographic Society evinced interest), which meant they could assemble a fleet of eight inflatable boats, with two engines apiece – either 25 hp for cruising, or 6 hp (?) possibly for puttering along; two speedboats, half a dozen vehicles and a crew of nine modish young metropolitans, mostly of the comely, nubile maidens (picked mostly by Lorenzo – who had a fine eye for expeditionary qualifications), to help them lug the gear over rocks and rapids.

Unlike the previous expedition, and unlike the ill-fated Stanley, the Rainbow crowd departed up the Rufiji River, and made relatively good time by boat until they reached the Shuguli falls, where their road convoy enters the scene once more. Shimmering days in the midsummer heat wilts the intrepid band, but the evenings are pure magic and the local people add to that unspoilt Africa that both authors revel in, and which Mirella describes with lyrical prose. After many exciting adventures, they proceed up the Kilombero until they reach the Mbanga Mission, from where it is but a short truck ride to the nearest station and they take the train to Mbeya where they are met by their road transport once more and can proceed to Lake Rukwa. In this mysterious lake they decide to aid the locals by cutting down the resident exploding crocodile population by at least two individuals, and, well satisfied with their efforts, they return to Mbeya. In the meantime a number of their beauteous, expeditionary damsels have had enough of the ride, and the team has shrunk to a more manageable five souls all told. At this point the seasons overtook the expedition, and they decided to return to their city lives in Milan and London until the rainy season had abated somewhat, some three months later. During the interval, Lorenzo barely recovered from cerebral malaria, so there were certainly some dangers inherent in what was otherwise a fairly enjoyable jaunt.

The expedition was reconvened in April with a new crew, consisting of only one girl and a number of husky young men, both European and African, who were chosen by Mirella this time (!) and the journey recommenced up the longest of the great lakes, Tanganyika, after spending a little time on a southwards detour into the top end of Lake Malawi – possibly just to say ‘they had been there’. Some quality time was spent with the chimpanzees of Ngombe, and then they transferred to Lake Kivu, at the top end of which they managed to visit their other relations, the mountain gorillas of the Virunga volcanoes, as well as camping out within frying distance of a minor volcanic cataclysm that was splitting the African continent apart at the time. All good, entertaining and healthy stuff, it must be said.

They had run out of waterway by this time, so there was nothing for it but to take to the air and transfer the entire phalanx to Shabunda in Zaire, but as they had left their Bedford truck and three Fiat Pandas behind, they were forced to hire local transport. Finally they managed to get afloat once more on a tributary of the Lualaba, which they utilised to further the aims of the expedition a little further until they reached Ubundu, where the deadly rapids of the great river, now the Zaire/Congo foiled them and they were forced once more to take a train to Kisangani.  The last part of the epic was once again curtailed by seasonal rains, and the party dispersed homewards after storing their gear.

Three months later a completely new group, except for the authors, assembled once more and prepared to tackle the awesome might of the rapids and falls that remained between them and the Atlantic. They found out soon enough that all the white-water experience of one of their new members was not going to see them through the turbulent waters of the Wagenia falls, where they almost lost a canoe full of locals who had latched onto their inflatable. This could have had dire results for the entire expedition, but luckily the tribesmen escaped with their lives and the Europeans avoided a possible lengthy stretch in the local gaol.

The remainder of the journey became more of a sight-seeing tour of the strange linear ‘fluviopolis’ that this immense waterway presented, with rafts of vessels filled with humanity, produce and animals, moving up or down the mainstream, attached like sucklings to a mother-ship which dipped into ports, harbours and bordering settlements – all interspersed with the mouldering ruins of the Belgian colonial era, overshadowed by the sombre memories of the atrocities that followed the European exodus. The Ricciardi’s numerous high-placed contacts assured them of a warm, civilised welcome at many of their stops, where they could refuel, refresh and enjoy the odd French champagne, camembert and clean linen – not to mention helicopter flights and conducted tours; but here and there they did touch the lives of simple folk – hunters, farmers and villagers, who in the main received them with warmth and hospitality.

Their whole narrative is interwoven with quotes from H M Stanley’s book, as well as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which so starkly tells of the horrors that beset this part of the continent during the European colonial period and its liberation, until it landed once more under the stranglehold of a tyrant in the form of Mobutu. The ravages on the environment and its animal and human occupants are certainly highlighted by Mirella’s narrative in a touching manner, which rescues the book from being the record of a completely pointless, self-indulgent, twenty months’  joy-ride, by a bunch of well-heeled thrill-seekers with unlimited resources, which ended by emptying the obligatory gourd full of Indian Ocean water into the Atlantic at Banana Point. Lorenzo’s interjections in the text introduce a somewhat jarring effect in the continuity of the text, more in keeping with his swashbuckling personality.

One could expect that Mirella’s photography would offer a feast for the eyes – but even in this the book fails for some mysterious reason, since a large number of photos are pure holiday snapshots, while other double-page spreads are of such poor, grainy quality, that one could suspect them to be frames from a cinematic film that had been enlarged to fill the pages – not to mention reproductions from other books and some of Mirella’s photos from other parts of Africa, that have absolutely no relevance to the journey. The a couple of really beautiful images scattered throughout the three hundred-odd pages are not sufficient to rescue the book. I realize that I may be writing myself ‘out of a sale’ of a book that I have in stock, but then, we all make mistakes occasionally – though it’s not half as expensive as the mistakes made by the ‘expedition’s’ sponsors.