The Land Rover bounces at 10 kph through the bush of southern Ethiopia. We pass clearings where a few mud huts seem to constitute villages. People and animals alike scatter at our approach. Yesterday we disrupt a camel train.
Today we drive for hours without seeing another vehicle or a single person. Gazelles lope gracefully through the long grass. Brilliantly colored birds swoop and glide. Dozens and dozens of anthills, imposing as monuments, reach for the sky.
The track divides. As we stop to consider the route, a few natives emerge from the undergrowth. The men carry long spears. Women and children wear loose robes and many bracelets and necklaces. Their hair is matted and flies crawl over their faces, settling in the corners of their eyes.
While our driver consults the men, the women and children surround us. Curiosity overcomes shyness or fear as they point at my head. Do they want to see my hair? I sweep off my hat and my blonde hair tumbles to my shoulders.
For a few seconds there is an incredulous silence. Then, one and all, the women and children burst into raucous, uninhibited laughter. An old woman with long, purple-stained teeth presses forward and makes an announcement, perhaps about the color of my eyes.
They are still chortling as we drive away. Do they return to their huts and tell everyone about the surprise the bush produces today?
I have two nominations for the most fantastic surprises in history.
David Livingstone fails as a missionary in mid-19th century Africa for he does not convert any natives. However, he is a success as a human being for he earns the loyalty and devotion of the Africans who work for him.
Livingstone also fails as an explorer since ultimately he does not find the source of the Nile. His name lives forever, though, for his valor in the interior.
He disappears from civilization for such long periods of time that towards the end of his life, rumors circulate that he has succumbed to tropical disease.
History records how the New York Herald commissions the journalist Henry Morton Stanley to seek Livingstone. Stanley is an interesting character. Born John Rowlands in Wales, he moves to New Orleans as a teen-ager and takes the name of his adoptive father. He fights on both sides of the American Civil War. He becomes a journalist and, because of Livingstone, eventually an explorer in Africa.
So here he is in November 1871 on his New York Herald quest. Pushing into unknown territory, he hears of an ill European man in a village near Lake Tanganyika. Who could it be if not David Livingstone?
Stanley records his surging emotions as he reaches the village and forces his way through a crowd until he is face to face with the tired and pale European man. He wants to rush forward and embrace him, but not in front of the natives, and not knowing how the man will react. So with immense dignity, as if they are on a London street, he walks slowly forward, takes off his hat and utters what is to become one of the most famous phrases in the English language, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
At this moment David Livingstone must be the most surprised man in all of Africa, but he replies simply, “yes.”
And what about the men on a whaling station on the island of South Georgia in the Antarctic when Sir Ernest Shackleton and two companions pop up on foot, seemingly out of nowhere?
In early November 1914 Shackleton and his crew of 27 men in the aptly named ship “Endurance” sail into South Georgia Island. No surprises here, for ships do put in at whaling stations.
But the Endurance soon sails into heavy pack ice and, completely encased, drifts for 10 months before it is crushed and sinks. The expedition force, with dogs, equipment and three small lifeboats, set up camp on the ice which continues to drift. When it begins to melt and break up, they transfer to the boats and eventually become the first human beings ever to set foot on Elephant Island.
From this impossibly remote place, Shackleton and five men set out for the whaling station. In an open boat they survive 18-meter waves. With only a sextant and a compass, they cover 1,300 kilometers in 16 days.
Alas, the boat is wrecked on landing, and they discover that they are on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station. So Shackleton and his two fittest men calmly set out on foot to walk over uncharted glaciers, waterfalls and 3,000-meter mountains of ice.
Few men in all of history could have been as dumbfounded as those at the whaling station when Shackleton and his men walk in.
And few reunions in all of history could have been as joyous as those between Shackleton and his men on Elephant Island who have held on for over four months.
Shackleton returns to England in 1916 without having lost a single man. The First World War is still raging, and it claims many of their lives. In 1921 Shackleton, with a few Endurance veterans, sails back to South Georgia. For all his fortitude, a massive heart attack claims him in January 1922. He is only 47 years old.