Exploring Made Easy


A tiny detail, but I thought it was interesting: Scottish writer Henry Drummond believed that sub-Saharan Africa was so well networked with footpaths that an explorer could walk from Zanzibar westward “never in fact leaving a beaten track” until “his faithful foot-wide guide lands him on the Atlantic seaboard.” From his Tropical Africa of 1888:

Now it may be a surprise to the unenlightened to learn that probably no explorer in forcing his passage through Africa has ever, for more than a few days at a time, been off some beaten track. Probably no country in the world, civilized or uncivilized, is better supplied with paths than this unmapped continent. Every village is connected to some other village, every tribe with the next tribe, every state with its neighbour, and therefore with all the rest. The explorer’s business is simply to select from the network of tracks, keep a general direction, and hold on his way.

This is repeated in J.W. Gregory’s The Story of the Road (1931) and in M.G. Lay’s Ways of the World (1992). Gregory admits only afterward that this may have been true in Nyasaland, the district that Drummond had visited, but it’s hardly the case elsewhere. “One evening, after the porters had suffered one of many repeated disappointments at not finding a human path, I removed their gloom, as they sat around the camp fires, by translating to them the passage from Henry Drummond. Their laughter showed that they concluded that the reports of European travellers, like those they told themselves on their return to the coast, were not always to be taken literally.”