A job fit for a lady

From my recent blogs you might think a horrible death is part and parcel of exploration. Not so. On occasion serious injury or circumcision will suffice, and sometimes just sometimes, you can get away with falling down an elephant pit containing 12 inch long spikes to be saved only by the thickness of your late Victorian skirts.

At 532 pages the original 1897 editions of Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa are not the easiest of objects to travel with. The weight of knowledge and wit accrued within the red leather covers by the self-taught British Museum collector massively overshadows its weight in grams, as bacterial diseases like typhoid kill far greater numbers of people than attacks by wild animals.

As the title of her book suggests, Mary Kingsley travelled in West Africa. She travelled the relatively well-trodden sea-route around the bulge of West Africa to the Bight of Biafra, the coast of Cameroon and eastern Nigeria. During the sea journey, her wit shone through, writing:

“Accra is one of the five West African towns that look well from the sea. The others don’t look well from anywhere.”

Accra doesn’t perhaps look quite so well from land today

What she had to say about the predominantly shanty buildings of Ghana’s capital I shall leave for another time. The acidity of the above statement seems to reinforce the general Victorian European’s view of Africa as an ill-fated and ill-designed continent, a view that clouds our thoughts on Africa today. But Kingsley did not share the opinions of other travellers like Richard Burton (see Acting like his life depended on it). She respected the black populace for their skills, even if they did keep asking her where her husband was.

In Cameroon, she was dependent on the local population to lead her to summiting Mount Cameroon (much as I was over 100 years later). The mountain is the highest peak in West and Central Africa, at 4090 metres (or 13,760 feet). It isn’t any easy climb even in modern trousers let alone Victorian skirts. Added to Mary’s struggle was the fear of being stood on an active volcano that could blow at any moment while climbing the mountain via a route no European had succeeded in before.

At 500 years old Mount Cameroon’s magic tree may have witnessed Kingsley’s ascent
 as well as my own

The true aim of her African expedition was to study the cannibal tribes of the Gabonese rainforest, and collect fish specimens in the Ogooue River. Though little known outside of Gabon, the Ogooue is the largest river between the Niger and the Congo and the fourth largest in Africa.

The Ogooue River, inland at Lambarene, still a vital transport link for Gabon

She left Africa for Britain only to return as a volunteer nurse. Based at a hospital in Simon’s Town, close to Cape Town, she treated troops injured during the Second Boer War for two months before developing probable typhoid. She was buried at sea.

Okay, there’s quite a lot of horrible death in exploration, but wearing a skirt seems to help.
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