'Into Africa' -- the search for a 'lost' explorer

April 27, 2003|By Paul Taylor | By Paul Taylor,Special to the Sun

Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone, By Martin Dugard. Doubleday. 288 pages. $24.95.

Just off the main lobby of the grand old Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe there is a wood-paneled sitting room with an unusual name: the "I Presume Room."

I passed through there a decade ago and was captivated not just by the mellifluous sound of that room's name, but by the sharp, evocative power of the allusion. How many other short-hand phrases conjure up so much wonder and awe about the continent of Africa?

I was struck, too, by how little I remembered about the story behind it. Hmm, there was a famous explorer named Livingstone who set out to discover the source of the Nile, right? When he vanished, someone named Stanley went searching for him. And when the two finally met, Stanley uttered the phrase that grade-school geography students have been repeating ever since: "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?"

That's the dimly remembered outline. But what was the story behind it? And why are fancy hotels still naming rooms for their fateful rendezvous more than 130 years after the fact?

Into Africa is a workman-like narrative history that supplies the answers. In the 19th century, the continent of Africa held a far firmer grip on the world's imagination than it does today. Its dense interior was still uncharted and steeped in mystery. It was bisected by the Nile -- the world's longest river and a sort of holy grail for explorers.

It was to the 19th century what Mount Everest and the moon were to the 20th. It flowed south to north, from the continent's midsection to the Mediterranean Sea. Moses, Cleopatra and Alexander had all drank its waters. But despite centuries of expeditions, no one had been able to determine where the river began.

Finding the source became a particular obsession in England, and the most legendary of that country's explorers was a missionary named David Livingstone. He'd spent a lifetime in Africa -- battling lions, cannibals, malaria, slave traders, swamp fever, dysentery and pagans. Well past his 50th birthday, he determined that finding the source of the Nile would be his crowning achievement. So off he went.

In due time, he disappeared and was feared dead, "swallowed by the continent." But a brash American newspaper publisher, eager to capitalize on the world's fascination with Livingstone, played a hunch and sent an intrepid young reporter on an expedition to find him.

Henry Morton Stanley endured at least as many misadventures as did Livingstone. Finally, the two met and formed a short-lived father-son bond, despite the fact that the old explorer was a gentle soul and the young reporter a brute. Did either ever find the source of the Nile? Hey, read the book.

Both men did keep copious journals, so Dugard has ample material to work with. Perhaps too ample. There are only so many bouts with diarrhea a reader can absorb in 300-plus pages. The adventures are indeed epic, but they come in such detail and profusion that the effect is often numbing. This is a book I'd recommend for Africanists and action-adventure aficionados. More casual readers may well find it a heavy slog.

Paul Taylor, president and founder of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, was southern Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post in the mid-1990s. His book See How They Run was published by Knopf in 1990.

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