Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Venturing in a hero's footsteps


The mystery of Dr David Livingstone was unravelled at the ICE last week, when a Member told of his journey into Africa's 'heart of darkness' to retrace the steps of the legendary 19th century explorer.

A rapt full house at the ICE's Telford Theatre was treated to a swamp infested adventure which traced the vain 800 mile trek of the dying Livingstone; and the attempt by Colum Wilson and his wife Aisling Irwin to plot exactly the same course.

Slides of the young couple struggling through the East African bush and marshland under extremes of hot sun and driving rain accompanied Wilson's account of how he entered the mindset of a man gripped by an obsession to find the source of the Nile. Wilson portrayed a man who travelled for long stretches without accurate navigation. The latitude and longitude measurements in Livingstone's diaries were wrong because of faulty equipment, jeopardising Wilson's quest to follow in his footsteps. The water engineer from Gibb then found that the 50 villages mentioned in Livingstone's diary were mostly obliterated through 'famine, war and the slave trade'. Hours spent pouring over old maps from the Royal Geographical Society uncovered the lost villages and they plotted their course over six months of preparation.

Data from a global positioning system device kept Wilson 'never more than 15 miles from where Livingstone trod'. The satellite based technology was safer than relying on clear night skies, as Livingstone did, to plot his route by the stars with a sextant.

Livingstone's donkey was replaced by Wilson's and Irwin's bicycles. Bikes were still the most practical mode by which to navigate the empty plains of Tanzania and Zambia in 59 days, despite having to churn through sandy tracks in two layers of clothing needed to fend off the tetse horseflies. Speaking just after the 125th anniversary of Livingstone's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Wilson described this African wilderness as an area where 'time stood still'.

He said: 'Because of limited contact with the outside world, we were met with curiosity, nervousness, and occasionally raw fear. People ran from us, believing us to be pale ghosts.'

Wilson's travails brought home to him Livingstone's love of Africa: 'A wonderful country for appetite ... brisk exercise imparts elasticity to the muscles ... the mind works well ... the step is firm'.

He showed a man itching to start his mission from Tabora, in today's Tanzania, to find the four mystical springs of the Nile.

Livingstone started out in bullish mood, with huge quanitities of calico, beads and brass wire to hand out liberally to guides and local chiefs. Along with his disdain for the carnivorous tetse and disregard of malarial attacks and bleeding haemorrhoids, Livingstone's journal tells of arguments with feckless guides and the banter and negotiation of a 57-strong expedition.

Wilson took a machete, a walletful of dollars and a bicycle with four large paniers - into one of which was stuffed a tent. Despite the climate - rendering Wilson and Irwin burnt, bitten, two stones lighter and towards the end 'continually wet' as they heaved their bycicles over a network of rivers - both managed to keep sane.

Livingstone's diary showed that as his health failed and his expedition foundered in the marshes of Lake Bangweulu in northern Zambia, obsession deluded him that he was about to reach his goal. His dispatch to the foreign office read: 'I have succeeded at last in reaching your remarkable fountains'. Blanks in the dispatch were left for the geographical data which he was going to fill in later. Livingstone was 2000km away from where he thought he was, says Wilson.

Livingstone's spirits plummeted in the driving rain which ripped his tent to shreds. Wilson emerged from the same long grasses in glorious sunshine with only the baleful glare of the numerous crocodiles to worry about. After the weather cleared Livingstone's sextant showed him to be 80 miles off course. It was three weeks before the end. Livingstone wrote: 'I am pale, bloodless and weak from bleeding profusely. An artery gives off a copious stream.'

Livingstone died on 30 April 1873.

Wilson's journey in the steps of Livingstone had revealed a man 'who believed himself to be doing God's work' and despite failure and death 'rejoiced with a simple childlike faith as he returned at last to the arms of his God'.

Chair of the evening Professor George Fleming emphatically rounded the event off by telling the audience and the world at large: 'Don't let anyone tell you that civil engineers are boring.'

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.