quinta-feira, 10 de maio de 2012

Great Places, Great Explorers

Planet Earth is a great, big wonderful place…full of magic and mysteries. And our Earth is full of exotic people living in very, very different worlds than the one we inhabit here in the USA.  When I was a boy I was always more interested, it seemed, in what I found in a book than what was around me in my hometown. I grew up reading adventure stories and travel books, and I dreamed about visiting the places I read about and having my own adventures. What interested me most was literature and travel. Why? Maybe because it was such a thrill to be on my own in a new country surrounded by new people, speaking a new language and observing a new culture. Coming home from a trip always seemed such a letdown. But then I’d just start reading about my next trip and the adventure would begin again.

The stories that interested me most as a boy were about distant lands full of wild animals and dangerous tribes. Saturday afternoon Tarzan movies and Sunday night tv shows like Wild Kingdom were my favorites as a kid. As I grew older I learned that these exotic places were in danger of being destroyed. The trees of the rainforest were being cut down for furniture and the fields given to cows so we here in the USA could eat more hamburgers. The incredible wildlife of the rainforest was disappearing and with it the many traditional Indian groups that share the forest with the animals. At college I studied the literature and culture of Latin America. I became hugely obsessed with the Amazon rainforest and everything about it. After college I began to travel by myself as a backpacker throughout Latin America. And as fate would have it I met my wife-to-be in the city of Manaus, Brazil, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. My wife also happened to be a jungle guide. And that was it. I moved to Manaus to live and work there. My wife and I opened a riverboat tour company called Swallows and Amazons in 1992 and only last year we came back home to the USA with our 2 daughters. I may not be so obsessed with the Amazon today. It is still an amazing place, and a place (sadly) threatened with destruction, but I figure after 20 years it’s time to see something else of the world.

My mother and father were born and raised in Scotland. And I was born in London, England. When I was just a baby my family moved to Nigeria, a country in West Africa. My father worked for a British construction company, and in the early 1960s Nigeria was still a British territory (or colony) as that time. My first “real” hero was the Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone. Besides exploring much of South and Central Africa- bringing Christianity to the native people and trying to abolish the practice of slavery- Livingstone became involved in one of the greatest geographical quests of all time…the search for the source of the Nile River.

If we look at one of Livingstone’s maps we can see that the lakes of central Africa he discovered. The Nile River flows northwards and discharges its waters finally into the Mediterranean Sea. For a long time the Nile was thought to be the longest river in the world but no one knew how long because no one knew where it began.

Livingstone’s expeditions were sponsored by the Royal Geographic Institute of Great Britain, the greatest geographical organization in history. Their mission was to explore the world in an effort to expand what was called the British Empire. Our own National Geographic Institute is modeled after this institution. As Livingstone travelled farther north each year into lands once labeled “incognito” or “unknown” the Royal Geographical Institute began suggesting he make efforts to find the source of the Nile. What was hoped for was that a better understanding of the river systems of Central Africa would help open the region to trade and civilization. Travel through the tropical rainforest was extremely difficult; river travel wherever possible was always easier and safer.

On one of his last expeditions Livingstone disappeared and was feared dead. Numerous expeditions were sent to find him. Eventually one lead by the American newspaper reporter Henry Morton Stanley found Livingstone deep in what today is the Congo Rainforest. The famous explorer was gravely ill. Their historic meeting is remembered for Stanley’s humble greeting with the famous African explorer. When the two white men met, Stanley simply said, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone would never see his native Scotland again. When he died his heart was buried in the village where he had been living, and his body was brought back to England where it is entombed in London’s famous Westminster Abbey, final resting place of Britain’s greatest Kings & Queens, statesmen, soldiers and explorers. Livingstone did not find the source of the Nile. And neither did Stanley though he did go on to explore even more of Central Africa.

After Livingstone and Stanley the most famous early African explorers were Richard Burton and John Speke. In 1858 they discovered a large mountain lake they named Victoria, a lake Speke was convinced was the source of the Nile. Burton reminded Speke that without geographical proof they could not prove this conclusively. In 1862 Speke returned to Lake Victoria with another Africa explorer, James Grant, and this time he circled the lake to confirm it did indeed flow north and was the source of the Nile River. Back in England however the disagreements between Burton and Speke continued and Speke, deeply depressed, committed suicide.  Burton was a broken man himself and never returned to Africa either.

Film: The Mountains of the Moon (1990), with Patrick Bergin.

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