Tuesday, 17 February 2015

"If I was to die it was a fine spot for it"

                                            Violet Cressy-Marcks in 1930
A wonderfully understated anecdote from 1929 tells you all you need to know about intrepid English traveller Violet Cressy-Marcks.

Violet was slogging her way up the Amazon at the time; sleeping on the ground at night, her revolver under her cheek.

She’d been in the swampy rainforest for months. She was weak and malnourished. But she was content, happy even, and her gruelling journey was approaching its end. 

Then, one night, misfortune struck.

“I was awakened by something that seemed to be pulled over me…” writes Violet in Up the Amazon and Over the Andes. “I glanced down and was horrified to see a snake.”

Now Violet had handled snakes before, at Cairo zoo. But “that was one thing and this was another”, she notes dryly. “A snake crawling over one at night time is a clear and not a pleasant proposition.”

Violet didn’t panic, however. Reluctant to fire her gun for fear of scaring off her Indian guides, she simply grabbed the reptile firmly, crawled out of her mosquito net, walked fifty yards to a rock, and “smashed its head”.

But her troubles didn’t end there. “The wretched thing had bitten me below the knee the moment I had stretched out my hand for it,” she writes, almost as an afterthought. “I didn’t know whether it was poisonous or not, but the beast had a flat head and as I know some of that kind are poisonous I took no chances.”

Producing a scalpel from her medicine chest, Violet immediately began some impromptu field surgery, cutting across the bite and pushing into the wound permanganate of potash, a disinfectant. “I wasn’t happy for a little time,” she writes, unhappily.

Yet still Violet remained calm. Rooting around in her luggage she then found a mirror and, for the first time in many weeks, examined her face to see if the snake’s venom was doing its work and whether perhaps she was “going black or grey or had a queer colour on my lips”.

The result was somewhat encouraging. “Except I seemed a great deal thinner, with big dark rings under my eyes, nothing seemed to be amiss - foam at the mouth was lacking and all my other imaginative ideas,” she writes.

“I decided on coffee, a walk and sleep, and if I was going to die it was a fine spot for it and I was at peace with the world - so any way there was nothing to worry about.”

And Violet was right: there was nothing to worry about.

Next morning she woke early, still very much alive. Despite an intensely painful leg, Violet 
and her Indian companions broke camp at 6am, their usual time, and headed west towards the distant peaks of the Andes.

* Read more about Violet's hair-raising journey in her classic travel book Up the Amazon and Over the Andes

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Boy wonder

What's up, Doc?
There are many extraordinary and inspiring stories about Dr David Livingstone. Here’s one that has nothing to do with Africa or exploration: the story of his childhood.   

Livingstone was born in the small industrial town of Blantyre, near Glasgow, two hundred years ago today. His family was pious and poor, seven of them living together in a single-room factory tenement. By the age of ten, David was working in the local mill, 6am till 8pm, six days a week. His sole day off was Sunday, much of which was spent at chapel.

Few children who endured such harsh upbringings at that time ever broke free from their lives of drudgery. Barely one in ten learned to read. Many were left bow-legged and broken by the long days spent clambering over and under dangerous machinery.

But even at an early age David Livingstone showed himself to be special. After clocking off from his gruelling 14-hour shift each night, he would study for a further two hours at the mill school. Back at home he then continued his reading till midnight. He studied Latin, theology, botany and maths. He never played. He even read at work, balancing his textbooks on the loom and earning the mockery of his fellow child-workers for his pains.

But it paid off. By his mid-twenties, the poor boy from Blantyre who would one day walk across Africa was studying medicine at Glasgow, working during his vacations to pay for classes. Training with the London Missionary Society followed. In November 1840, aged 27, he qualified as a physician. A few weeks later Dr Livingstone was ordained as a protestant minister in London.

If he had died that day, if he had never gone to Africa, Livingstone’s accomplishments would have still been mind-boggling. The chances of a working-class factory lad becoming a professional missionary-doctor in the mid-nineteenth century were virtually nil. Historian Tim Jeal calls his achievement “grotesquely improbable”. Put simply, David Livingstone was a boy wonder. “Sometimes,” Jeal writes, “it is hard not to be chilled by his resilience and almost inhuman perseverance.”

* Two biographies worth a read - Tim Jeal’s  “Livingstone” and Andrew Ross’s “David Livingstone”

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Ran the man

Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes
No more heroes any more? Try Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, who turns 69 today.

Sir Ranulph is a blast from the past. A Boy's Own adventurer. A Scott or a Shackleton for our time.

He’s climbed Everest after a heart attack; walked across Antarctica (twice); run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents; slogged around the world, pole to pole, without leaving its surface – a 52,000 mile journey that took three years.

But the ordeal for which he’s most famous is of course the toe-curling surgery he underwent at his home on Exmoor in 2000. DIY surgery. Involving a fretsaw and a vice.

Fiennes, a former SAS man, had just returned from the Arctic with a badly frostbitten left hand. The fingers were black and mummified, the slightest brush against them agony. But doctors said it was too early to amputate. So Sir Ranulph decided to act alone.

“After four months of living with grotesque, witch-like talons, purple in colour, sticking out of my stumps, I could take it no longer…” he writes in his autobiography. “The answer was obvious. The useless finger ends must be cut off at once.”

One by one, Sir Ranulph put the dead digits into his Black & Decker table vice and “gently sawed”. Six days later the job was done.

When Fiennes’s surgeon, Donald Sammut, heard the news he was not impressed. “I apologised to Donald,” Fiennes writes, “but felt secretly pleased with myself since life improved considerably once the gnarled mummified ends no longer got in the way.”

Those same finger stumps last week forced Sir Ranulph to pull out of his latest mad adventure: a first ever attempt to cross Antarctica in winter. Frostbite again. The world’s greatest living explorer could be facing more surgery.

But typically he is unfazed. Fifty percent of his expeditions so far have failed. He’s used to setbacks. He’s used to picking himself up and giving it another go, 69 years old or not.

So happy birthday, Sir Ranulph, and many happy returns to the world's most remote and frightening places. Like most of the great explorers of the past, you’re as daft as a badger. But you’re also an inspiration, a shining example of human courage and endurance.

Read more about Sir Ranulph's improbable adventures in his autobiography Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Handgun diplomacy

Col Frederick Burnaby in civvies, 1876
Col Frederick Gustavus Burnaby was the sort of chap you want at your shoulder in a fight. He was six-foot-four; a first-class boxer; a skilled swordsman; reputedly the strongest man in Queen Victoria’s army.

He was also as brave as a lion, and mad to boot. So the prospect of a happy outcome looked slim when, in 1875, the big man ran into a spot of bother with some testy locals near a remote watering hole in Central Asia.

Fred, a celebrated traveller as well as a cavalry officer, was heading to the ancient city of Khiva, in modern Uzbekistan. Six roughnecks approached looking none too friendly. Matters didn’t improve when a greeting of “salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you) was ignored. Then one of the rogues turned to Fred’s guide and called the man an “unbeliever” for consorting with foreign infidel “dogs”.

“The insult was too great to be borne,” Fred writes. Abruptly the guide flew at his accuser, “smiting vigorous blows” on his astrakhan cap with a whip. The Khivan fought back, tearing the guide’s prized “crimson dressing-gown”. The other five ruffians reached for their knives. Fred drew his pistol.

And then a surprising and rather odd thing happened.

“My guide, who was very much out of breath, now blew his nose with his fingers as a sign of contempt for his adversary…” Fred writes. “His foe, not to be outdone, performed the same feat with his nasal organ.” The warring pair, no doubt encouraged by the sight of an Englishman’s revolver, then squatted before each other. And so began “a verbal battle, in which the reputations of their respective female relatives were much aspersed”.

This went on for about five minutes, by which time Fred was tired: “I walked up to them and said ‘Aman’ (peace); then taking hold of their wrists I forcibly made them shake hands.”

A grudging “salaam alaikum” was finally extracted from the guide. “Alaikum assalaam” (and peace be upon you) returned the Khivan, at last. Col Fred then lifted his giant frame onto his small, skeletal horse and was once more on his way.

This episode – subtitled “A Revolver is sometimes a Peace-maker” – appears in Frederick Burnaby’s 1876 best-seller, A Ride to Khiva: My Travels and Adventures in Central Asia

Thursday, 21 February 2013

An unpleasant discovery

Mary Kingsley in jungle dress
Picture the scene. Mary Henrietta Kingsley, intrepid Englishwoman, has been schlepping through a gloomy West African rainforest for hours. She’s tired. Her boots are sodden. Her long Victorian skirt has seen better days.

At dusk she stumbles into a clearing and finds herself standing among a cluster of low huts. This is Efoua, a small town of the Fang tribe. And the Fang, as Mary well knows, are cannibals.

Well, alleged cannibals. They have a reputation. But Mary’s first impressions are entirely positive. Yes, people stare in amazement at her. But on the whole these “fearsome” Fang seem like a friendly enough bunch. They want to trade, they want to palaver. A chief offers one of his huts for the evening, and Mary gratefully accepts.

That night she drifts off feeling “perfectly safe and content”, her head resting on a tobacco sack. But in no time she’s awoken by an appalling smell. The stench seems to be coming from little bags hanging from the roof of her hut. It has, Mary notices, “an unmistakably organic origin”.

What happens next sums up Mary Kingsley. Taking down one of the offending bundles, she unties its string and tips the contents into her hat. “They were a human hand,” she writes, “three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and other portions of the human frame. The hand was fresh, the others only so so, and shrivelled.”

Mary would later learn that Fang folk liked to keep “a little something” of those they dined on “as a memento… an unpleasant practice when they hang the remains in the bedroom you occupy”. But she is unfazed. She simply puts the grisly body parts back where she found them and opens a door to let in air. “It was a perfect night,” she writes, “and no mosquitoes.”

The next morning, after her usual cup of tea, Mary was on the road early. The small party of African porters she was travelling with left Efoua with her – ten men in total, all of them still in one piece.

Mary’s visit to Efoua features in her 1897 bestseller Travels in West Africa. Katherine Frank’s biography of Mary Kingsley, A Voyager Out, is also worth a read

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Percy on song

Amazon explorer Col Percy H Fawcett
Good old Col Percy Harrison Fawcett. Mad as a monkey of course. Who else would devote half his life to looking for lost civilisations in South America? But he was also a professional English army officer of the old school, tough and tenacious. And it’s this curious mix of hard-headed soldier and kooky eccentric that no doubt caused him to react so memorably when, in 1910, he came under attack from Amazonian Indians.

Percy was heading up the Heath River in Peru when it happened. He was in dangerous territory. He’d been warned not to venture there. But off he’d gone anyway, his small party poling its way up the murky river in canoes. And predictably, on the seventh day, the men rounded a bend and ran straight into a group of “Guarayo” warriors who wasted little time in sending their way a hail of poisoned arrows.

Percy and his men found themselves pinned down on the other riverbank, the deadly missiles zipping over their heads and thumping into the ground around them. But they held fire: retaliation would surely only seal their fate. And instead Percy tried raising both hands and shouting “peace overtures” across the water at the bowmen. This proved unsuccessful. “The arrows,” Percy wrote, “flew thicker than ever!”

Then inspiration struck. Among Percy’s men was one Gunner Todd, a musical fellow who happened to be travelling with his accordion (as you do). Todd was directed to sit on a log and start playing, stamping his feet to keep time. A “mad sing-song” followed, strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers, “Bicycle Made For Two” and “Swannee River” bellowing through the rainforest. “Ludicrous…” Percy later conceded, “Anyone coming on this scene would have said we were all roaring drunk.”

Ludicrous or not, it worked. Mystified Indians, their faces painted, began emerging from cover. Seizing the moment, Percy hopped into his canoe and paddled over to greet them. Incredibly, friendly relations were quickly established. Laughter and back-slapping followed. By dusk, Indians and explorers were old pals and Gunner Todd and his accordion once again took centre stage. “We slept well that night,” Percy wrote, “for no one was required on guard.”

You can read more in Exploration Fawcett, an entertaining account of Percy's adventures complied from his letters, log-books and papers

Monday, 28 January 2013

Breaker of Rocks

Henry Stanley "finds" Dr Livingstone in Africa
I hate to advocate neglect, poverty and Dickensian brutality. But they worked for Henry Morton Stanley.

The great explorer was born in Denbigh, north Wales, on this day, 1841, the illegitimate son of a farmer and a teenage girl. Abandoned by his mother, he was baptised John Rowlands and taken in by his kindly grandfather.

But in 1846 the old man died. No other relative was willing to step up. So, without being told where he was going, the lad who would one day re-brand himself as Henry M Stanley was packed off to St Asaph workhouse, and left there. He was six years old.

St Asaph was never as cruel and brutal as Stanley would later make out. But it was certainly no picnic either. Like all Victorian workhouses, it was a grim, humiliating place. Inmates wore uniforms. Husbands and wives were kept apart. Beatings were commonplace. Meals were bread and gruel.

Stanley never got over it. First the shame of his illegitimacy, the pain of his mother’s betrayal, the grief of his grandfather’s death; then an overwhelming anger at being dumped in a loveless institution for the best part of a decade. The traumas of those early years never left him. But instead of destroying him they made him as hard as stone. Henry Stanley the explorer seemed to be virtually indestructible, a titan, a man of almost superhuman drive and ambition.

They say Stanley died on 10 May 1904, though I’m not sure I believe it. He’s buried in the quiet churchyard at Pirbright, Surrey, far from the childhood home that caused him such pain. Fittingly, his gravestone is a huge block of granite, taller than a man. And into it is carved the nickname he earned among Africans in Congo. Two words: Bula Matari. It means “Breaker of Rocks”. 

For more on Stanley try Stanley: Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal – a great book