3 Oct 2013

Traversing Africa 2013 compared to 1870

When Henry Morton Stanley’s epic expedition left Bagamoyo in Tanzania in March 1871, he was not travelling light.  His quarry was David Livingstone – explorer extraordinaire but missing and not heard from for years, somewhere deep in the Heart of Darkness.  Charged with such a mission, Stanley was prepared for anything.

His party number 192 people in total, including over 100 porters, 22 soldiers, a cook, a tailor, an interpreter, 27 donkeys, 2 horses and a dog.  His baggage allowance was generous too – 8.5tons of supplies and equipment were borne along by this menagerie of animals and porters.  Accounting for much of this weight was Stanley’s equivalent of hard currency – a staggering 8,000 yards of fine cloth, with which he hoped to barter and trade his way through the interior.  No traveller’s cheques or ATMs here.  Supplementing his 52 bales of cloth were several porter loads of decorative beads and general haberdashery.

In this respect, life for us is much more straight forward.  Hard currency, VISA and Mastercard take up far less room and seem equally effective.

In terms of personal protection, Stanley was also not taking any chances.  Armed to the hilt, his entourage was packing double barrelled shotguns, Winchester rifles, revolvers, pistols, 24 muskets, 24 hatchets, 24 long knives, 2 swords, 2 daggers, 1 boar spear, 1 battle axe – and, just in case, an elephant gun.  This arsenal, and an apparent willingness to unleash it on Africa’s fauna from time to time, was still not enough to keep Camp Stanley from starvation on more than one occasion. 

In this area too, we have less of a challenge.  More useful these days than boar spears and battle-axes are mosquito repellent, anti-malarials and a well-stocked fridge.  Stanley himself succumbed to both malaria and small-pox during his great traversa, and would have envied the contents of our comprehensive first aid kit.  Sleeping sickness was unknown to him and Tsetse flies plagued his camp mercilessly – against which his regular doses of quinine and rum with lemon juice proved not so effective.

Navigation and communication is of course far easier in the 21st Century as well.  While Stanley’s elegant dispatches took many months to be carried back through the jungle to Bagamoyo, then onwards to Zanzibar and finally by steam ship to New York, today we have the luxury of instant communication.  Cell phone coverage is extensive, even in wildly improbable places, and when that fails we have a satellite phone as back up.  Wi-fi is also prevalent in some of the smarter campsites (although often with frustratingly slow speeds.)  GPS provides us with often ludicrously easy route planning.  Even where the road is no more than two sandy tyre ruts the chances are that our Tracks4Africa software recognises our route.  Gone are the days of wandering through unknown territory for months on end, elephant gun and battle axe at the ready…

By the end of a hard days bushwhacking, Stanley would have been lucky to cover 5 or 10 kilometres.  With Tonka, even in thick sand and corrugations, we are able to cover 200 kilomteres a day in relative comfort (although relative is the operative word.)

And at the end of the day, setting up camp in 2013 is much easier too.  Even in the most rustic of campsites we can have our tent out and fire going in less than 15 minutes.  Things for Stanley’s entourage were not so simple – while Stanley’s private tent (complete with bear-skin rug and chest of drawers) was set up, his men had the daily routine of chopping thorn bushes to build a protective “boma” around the camp, then gathering grasses to use as rudimentary sleeping mats.

So on balance, particularly given Stanley’s regular skirmishes with the locals along his way, we have by far the easier deal.  As we ourselves head towards Livingstone in a few weeks time, we are firmly convinced that what has been lost in terms of Victorian romance is more than made up for by a Toyota Landcruiser and wet wipes.

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