Friday, Nov. 13, 2009

Expedition to Africa

Retracing Stanley and Livingstone

By David Luhrssen
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Earthbound explorers were the astronauts of the 19th century, going boldly into the unknown. They were heroes of their day and Dr. David Livingstone was a superstar among them. A British anti-slavery activist as well as an adventurer, Livingstone held the western world spellbound when he disappeared somewhere in the East African interior. An American journalist, Henry Morton Stanley, went in search of the missing explorer and upon finding him in a region unpopulated by whites, uttered the famously droll remark: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

In the History Channel series “Expedition Africa” (out on DVD), four intrepid men and women retrace (more or less) Stanley’s steps on the way to Livingstone. The foursome begin on the island of Zanzibar and press across choppy waters to the mainland, picking up the old Arab slave trading route deep into the country now called Tanzania. They have made a good effort to limit themselves to the technology and logistics Stanley enjoyed—a period map with many blank spaces, a compass, sturdy legs and a column of native porters and warriors armed with spears.

The “reality television” aspect of “Expedition Africa” comes through in ongoing bickering among the foursome. Will one of them be voted off the continent? “Expedition Africa” is engaging nevertheless as the rough trail backpackers face dangers familiar to Stanley and Livingstone (and the people living in those parts)—man-eating lions and crocodiles, venomous snakes whose spit is blinding, knee-deep mud and slippery slopes of the literal kind, not to mention dehydration in a country where salty rivers run inland from the sea.

Some obvious distinctions need to be kept in mind. Stanley wasn’t being trailed by a film crew, had no encouragement to act in front of an audience and no way to radio for help if worst came to worst.

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