Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

Following on from our recent The Geographer magazine on Active Travel, our Writer-in-Residence has produced three blogs about explorers who favoured human-powered adventures...

Mary Kingsley

In July 1895, Mary Kingsley was in Gabon, preparing to set off on foot into what she called the ‘Great Forest’. For several days she had journeyed by canoe up the Ogowé river, drifting warily past ranks of sleeping hippos and watching in awe as parties of elephants bathed in mud pools. Accompanied by a small band of African guides and interpreters, she struck out through the rainforest, admiring the huge buttressed trunks of giant trees and gazing up at the dark canopy that rose hundreds of feet above her head.

Swamps and rivers had to be crossed; Mary was distrustful of rope-bridges ever since she got herself “wound up like a buzzing fly in a spider’s web” on one of them, so when she saw a tree that had fallen across a steep ravine she chose to walk across that instead, even though it was dangerously smooth and rounded. As for the swamps, she summoned her courage and waded in, taking her turn to go first and navigate through the black slime, while the others followed.

One of Mary’s reasons for marching through such inhospitable terrain was to meet African tribespeople and study their customs, which she succeeded in doing; but she had other ambitions too, and in September of that year she decided to climb Mount Cameroon.

Because it was the rainy season, the trek through the foothills was especially challenging. She wrote: “The whole Atlantic could not get more water on to me than I have already got. Ever and again I stop and wring out some of it from my skirts, for it is weighty.” She camped for several days en route; the scorching sun, combined with a bitterly cold wind, chapped her face and lips, but she marshalled the spirits of her little party and after a series of early morning starts she was standing triumphantly on the lower of the mountain’s two peaks.

Mount Cameroon (c) Wellcome Images

To the north she saw a vivid rainbow, the lower end of it moored in a sea of mist. As she watched, the mist rose and flowed towards her, turning rose-pink and then lavender as it caught the shadow of the mountain. Soon it was at her feet, blotting out everything around her. “It was like a vision, and it held me spellbound, as I stood shivering on the rocks with the white mist around my knees…” The increasing cold brought her to her senses, however, and she scrambled quickly down the wall of the summit crater to rejoin her companions. Her ascent of the higher peak (13,250 feet) was done in such appallingly wet weather that she was robbed of the panoramic views she had been longing for; but a few days later, as her clothes were finally drying in front of a fire, she was philosophical:

“I dare say a friend of mine who told me that near Victoria he had struck his umbrella into the ground one evening, and found in the morning it was growing leaves all up its stick, was overstating the facts of the case; still, if the incident could happen anywhere it would be in this region.” (‘Travels in West Africa’, 1897)

Mary Kingsley spoke for RSGS in 1896 in Edinburgh, her first ever public lecture.

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