The Congo and the Cameroons – Penguin Great Journeys

The Congo and the Cameroons contains excerpts from Mary Kingsley’s memoir Travels in West Africa, published in 1897.  The first two sections cover some observations and anecdotes about West African flora and fauna, while the last two-thirds of the book follow Mary’s climbing of Mount Cameroon.

Mont-Cameroun
Normand Roy [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Mary – like her fellow solo traveler Isabella Bird – was a tough cookie.  She was only about 33 years old when she decided to become “the third Englishman to ascend the Peak [of Mount Cameroon] and the first to have ascended it from the southeast face” (p. 33–34).  With her trusty umbrella, some German camping gear, and a small group of native assistants, she set off into the jungle.  Surviving rain, mud, tornadoes, and a range of minor accidents, Mary was determined nothing, even her own moments of discouragement, would keep her from achieving her mission.

Apart from bravely facing the elements and all kinds of creepy-crawlies, Mary was also quite a character.  She writes much in the style of a male British officer of the day, referring to her assistants as “the men” or “my boys.”  Natives and Germans alike feature heavily in her jokes, so it is hard to tell whether she was racially prejudiced, misandrist, or simply impatient with anyone less committed to her goal than herself.  Either way, I really didn’t care for her sense of humor.

While I may not read the full memoir, I’ll probably seek out a biography on Mary Kingsley, because it sounds like she had a very interesting life.  (I was particularly interested to learn on Wikipedia that she met Mary Slessor, a missionary whose story fascinated me as a child.)  Sadly, she died when she was only 37, serving as a volunteer nurse in the Second Boer War.  I can imagine how many more adventures she would have gone on had she lived a longer life, but it’s amazing what she accomplished in the years she had.

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains – Penguin Great Journeys

I knew Isabella Bird was a Victorian solo traveler, who had visited far-off places such as China on her own. What I didn’t know was what a great writer she actually was.

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains contains excerpts from her book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879). Surprisingly for a travelogue, here you’ll find a variety of experiences and emotions – from courage and trepidation to hilarity and friendship. I was really impressed by Isabella’s fearlessness, paired with her knitting needles and an honest confession of her physical weaknesses. Still, this middle-aged lady exhibits far more stamina than I could ever dream of, whether it’s braving out the freezing cold in a cabin or helping cowboys round up their cattle! Through it all, she focuses on the exhilarating beauty of the Rocky Mountain landscape, which is the subject of all her voluntary hardships and a lesson to all of us (privileged to travel comfortably) not to take it for granted.

Among other quirky characters, Mr. “Mountain Jim” Nugent features frequently: a handsome, rugged desperado who is determined Isabella shall achieve her goal of climbing Pikes Peak, Colorado. Behind the genteel prose, it’s clear Ms. Bird and Mountain Jim have a thing for each other, but Jim’s criminal past and alcoholism makes it a futile (and bittersweet) romance.

Modern readers should know that Isabella was a person of her time in many ways, so there are some derogatory references to Native and African Americans early in the book. Interestingly, in a later letter, she does strongly condemn the way the U.S. government treated the Native Americans (p. 93–94).

In both history and human element, Adventures in the Rocky Mountains packs a lot of punch for a mere collection of excerpts. When I got to the end, I regretted not having read the full original, and I probably will someday. Recommended if you want to read an eye-witness account of the Old West from a unique perspective.

The Cobra’s Heart – Penguin Great Journeys

The Cobra’s Heart is a succinct yet expansive book about a Polish journalist’s experiences and observations in 20th-century Africa.  Just under 100 pages, it’s merely an excerpt of Ryszard Kapuściński’s full-length book, The Shadow of the Sun.  Upon finishing it, I was happy to find the full version already on my to-read list (added, though forgotten apparently, in 2013) as well as pleasantly surprised that this miniature made me want to read the full book.

Though the titular chapter – in which the author has a close call with a deadly cobra – is interesting enough, it’s the historical-political anecdotes that I found the most intriguing.  In “I, a White Man,” he talks about the feeling of apartheid in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city in Tanzania which encompasses neighborhoods from the comfortable, predominantly white Oyster Bay to the dry, dusty African suburbs away from the water.  He explains how, upon the eventual departure of the Europeans, a new elite class emerged which continued to exploit the common people and led to events such as the 1966 military coup d’etat in Nigeria. In “Amin,” Kapuściński paints a portrait of Idi Amin, the notoriously brutal dictator of Uganda in the 70s.

The fishermen threw their catch onto a table, and when the onlookers saw it, they grew still and silent. The fish was fat, enormous . . . Everyone knew that for a long time now Amin’s henchmen had been dumping the bodies of their victims in the lake, and that crocodiles and meat-eating fish must have been feasting on them. The crowd remained quiet.

Kapuściński has a great writing style, descriptive but not too wordy or overly “clever.” Some reviewers have described his full-length book as too bleak or negative.  I can’t speak to that (yet), but I think these excerpts show someone with real interest in the subject and empathy with the people he is describing.