Personally, I couldn’t even begin to consider putting myself in Mary Kingsley’s shoes when I began to plan to follow in her footsteps of one of her epic journeys. Even now, I can’t account for how she learnt to accommodate herself to sleeping in the rain on mountainsides, spending days and nights floating in a roughly made boat on a tropical river, putting up with wearing damp, smelly and dirty clothes, intense heat and insects and other wildlife and the eyes of men incessantly staring at her as she travelled.
How did she find the negotiating skills to hire and fire hopeless porters and guides and handle the reliable ones?
Where, in her sequestered teens and twenties did she learn the necessary tenacity when she booked her first passage for Africa a year after that brief Canaries reconnaissance?
She showed such courage and had strong morals and stuck to them. In reading about her life, it was the sheer moral greatness and the sense of underlying purpose, that was borne in on me; and inevitably she became an inspiration to me, opening my heart to a pulse of adventure, far beyond my own upbringing and situation, as I sought to understand her.
There were few books offering useful advice to a lady setting off for a destination universally deemed too dangerous to travel to. In 1894, when she prepared her first foray, the latest offerings must have seemed entirely trivial, notably Lillias Campbell Davidson’s immortal ‘Hints to Lady Travellers‘ of 1889 with its offerings of practical advice and safety tips with headings of ‘Cabs’, ‘Cushions’, ‘Cycling Tours’ and ‘Dress-hampers’. Something that Mary Kingsley would have known – without needing to be told was that: ‘From the first moment when the traveller sets foot upon foreign soil, and sees the strange surroundings, the quaint dresses, and curious customs of the natives, enhanced by the clear air and brilliant sunshine, so different from the softened atmosphere at home, she experiences all the effect of having entered into a new life.’
For a start, she was hardly likely to be concerned that: ‘Care should be taken in selecting a deck chair not to get one which is too light, otherwise your enjoyable after-dinner nap on deck may be abruptly terminated by a sudden lurch of the vessel, and you may find yourself overturned, chair and all, and sent flying to the other side of the ship in a manner more sudden than graceful.’ The vessels she sailed on were never going to offer that level of luxury.
On the eve of her departure to Africa, kind friends thrust into her hands a new ‘French book of phrases in common use in Dahomey’. Less naive than Lillias’s advice, it oozes imperialism. The opening sentence of the book was ‘Help, I am drowning’, is followed by ‘Get up, you lazy scamps!’ The question ‘Why has not this man been buried?’ is answered by ‘It is fetish that has killed him, and he must lie here exposed with nothing on him until only the bones remain.’ It is hard to guess whether Mary Kingsley would have responded with a smile, or with outrage, to the well-intended gift.
It was on Mary’s second trip to West Africa, in 1894, that she took an interest in Mount Cameroon. She was sailing on The Royal Mail steamer ‘The Batanga’ again and, as on her first trip, she was the guest of Captain Murray. Their course took them from the Canaries by way of Sierra Leone to Gabon, and Murray was careful to draw her attention to West Africa’s highest peak. Emerging from, and disappearing back into, its tropical mist it must have looked to her like no other mountain. At once a fire of excitement was kindled in Mary Kingsley; up to that moment she had seen her destiny as somehow related to her father’s scientific work, earning the applause of those back at home, but suddenly this whole extraordinary business of being a white woman where white women didn’t go needed no justification. That mountain, tantalisingly glimpsed from the sea, gave her a strong urge to climb it. Though never a feminist, she was showing a desire to shed the late Victorian obligation that women should not be pioneers, it was a patronising attitude that her journey to Africa was more acceptable as she would carry on the scientific work that her father started. Mary’s decision to climb a mountain, that certainly offered no fish to collect, was a brave move.
Once arrived in Gabon, she travelled up the Ogowé (now the Ogooué) River, first by steamboat, then by canoe. Unusually, there is no record of missionaries having preceded her upriver, so she boldly travelled, in highly dangerous conditions, where no European, so far as we know, had been before.
She was experiencing some of the remotest parts of Gabon and the French Congo where the river was often interrupted by rapids and inhabited by all three species of the African crocodile. Beyond the reach of her canoe, the banks were cloaked with rainforest and its attendant raucous wildlife; and conscious perhaps of, her father’s anthropological notes, Mary made a point of visiting, and recording her impressions of the Fang tribe with their reputation for fierceness and cannibalism. Compared to the cooking-pot, the modern female traveller has little to fear:
Women can expect unwanted attention from men, marriage proposals and, in share-taxis, the occasional groping, as I discovered from Lonely Planet when researching visiting Gabon.
Mary Kingsley, probably the first white woman to visit upper Gabon, made up her own rules as she went along, used her Victorian upbringing and attitudes to shield herself from harm and unwanted attention, was bossy and forceful when she needed to be – and prodded a few people (and hippos and crocodiles) with her umbrella. Nothing that she saw there was so bad as to make her want to go home. She obviously fell in love with the country; the feeling of foreboding with which she had left Liverpool Docks on her first trip to Africa, on the S.S. Lagos, in 1893, was quickly dispelled, allowing her to write that:
‘The charm of West Africa is a painful one: it gives you pleasure when you are out there, but when you are back here it gives you pain by calling you. It sends up before your eyes a vision of a wall of dancing white, rainbow-gemmed surf playing on a shore of yellow sand before an audience of stately coco palms; or of a great mangrove-watered bronze river; or of a vast aisle in some forest cathedral: and you hear, nearer to you than the voices of the people round, nearer than the roar of the city traffic, the sound of the surf that is breaking on the shore down there, and the sound of the wind talking on the hard palm leaves and the thump of the natives’ tom-toms; or the cry of the parrots passing over the mangrove swamps in the evening time; or the sweet, long, mellow whistle of the plantain warblers calling up the dawn; and everything that is round you grows poor and thin in the face of the vision, and you want to go back to the Coast that is calling you, saying, as the African says to the departing soul of his dying friend, “Come back, come back, this is your home.’
Returning to the coast after four months in Gabon, seemingly without ensuing anxiety after her encounters with wild life and the Fan tribe, she left on the Niger commanded by Captain Davies.
The regret of leaving the charms of the French Congo, she noted were compensated by being on such a comfortable ship. Relaxing on deck, trying no doubt to assimilate the extraordinary sights and encounters that she had experienced, once again her eyes fixed on ‘her temptation’; Mungo mah Lobeh, the Throne of Thunder as she had learnt to call the magnificent Mount Cameroon. By the time it was my turn to negotiate it, the name had side-slipped to Mongo ma Ndemi, or The Mountain of Greatness.
Both Mary’s and my expeditions were bound to be as much about the weather and the eclectic mix of characters both accompanying, and encountered by, us, as the climb itself. My aim was for a team comprising like minded people and harmony; but in my early days of expedition-planning I had come to realise that my original criteria for selection were too obvious, too simplistic, namely, 1, take anybody who wants to go because I am offering an experience to be shared, 2, locate a skill that they can use to benefit the expedition, 3, we’ll all get on because we are adults and it’s not a school trip. After that, with each step up the mountain, each hurdle crossed, each evening fireside chat a bond would be made to last all of our lives, meeting up for regular reunions to watch film footage and swap stories and photographs. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out quite as I had hoped and I am using its mishaps to cast light on the difficulties that Mary would experience.
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