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Follow in the Footsteps of David Livingstone

by Timothy Vivian-Shaw

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David LivingstoneOn the 19th of March 1813 in Blantyre, Scotland, David Livingstone was born into abject poverty. His childhood years were spent labouring in a cotton factory. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he would go on to be one of the most important explorers in history. His intrepid journeys across the African continent would mark a number of first and important discoveries for the West. This is the remarkable journey of Livingstone. 

Newly graduated from medical school, Livingstone had initially hoped to travel to China as a missionary, but the outbreak of the Opium war in 1839 prevented his voyage. The writings of Thomas Buxton and meetings with fellow missionary Robert Moffat inspired Livingstone to travel instead to Africa, with the aim of spreading Christianity and bringing about the end of slavery across the continent. 

A failed missionary; a successful traveller 

Livingstone arrived in South Africa in 1841, where he would spend 11 years travelling between missionary stations, spreading the word of Christianity. Livingstone had very little success during this time. In fact, he would only succeed in converting one African chieftan of the Kwena tribe to the Christian faith. Despite these failures, an idea had begun to take hold in his mind: to head north in the hopes of finding a ‘highway’ into Africa’s interior. By navigating and mapping the rivers of Central Africa he hoped to connect it to the coast and promote more legitimate trading routes. 

Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

Livingstone would not undertake this journey for a few years, drawn instead toward stories of Lake Ngami in the North of Botswana. In order for Livingstone to reach the lake he would have to cross the Kalahari Desert, a challenge that he relished. He would be the first westerner to cross the desert. Where Livingstone had continually failed as a missionary, he was adept at travelling this difficult route across Botswana

There were two key factors that made Livingstone such a successful traveller. Firstly, he packed light. Where many other missionaries brought plentiful supplies, Livingstone opted to minimise his baggage, bartering for any supplies that he might need along the way. Secondly, Livingstone was amiable and respectful with the chiefs of tribes he met. It was all too common for missionary expeditions to employ armed soldiers which were often met with animosity. These lessons of friendly communication with locals still carry true today.  

Okavango Delta Botswana

Traversing Africa

In 1852, Livingstone would send his family back to England. He was preparing for his most extensive journey yet: to cross the continent of Africa. He would employ the help of Sekeletu, chief of the Kololo people, who would provide him with the men and provisions to begin his exploration of the Zambezi. Again, it was Livingstone’s ambition to find a ‘highway’ connecting the interior and exterior of the continent. 

Although Livingstone’s journey was perilous, and his bravery unquestionable, he would have made no progress were it not for the help of his local guides. The locals were a vital means of communication between other tribes, and knew the land far better than Livingstone ever would.  

The initial journey was an early failure; Livingstone had fallen ill and a poorly planned route quickly cost him his supplies. Undeterred, Kololo and Livingstone gathered together another team. On the 16th of November 1855 he would discover one of the formidable and stunning wonders of the natural world. 

The Victoria Falls, Africa

The natural wonder was known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, which translates to ‘the smoke that thunders’. Livingstone, the first western man to discover it, would rename it Victoria Falls. The waterfall is the largest on Earth, with some 500 million litres of water cascading over its edge every minute. The spray thrown up into the air can be seen from 50 kilometres away, and its thunderous roar heard from 40 kilometres. 

The Victoria Falls: "the smoke that thunders"

This would go on to be the moment for which Livingstone is most recognised. Unfortunately, Livingstone’s subsequent expeditions around the Zambezi would be turbulent at best, and disastrous at worst. 

Although excellent at befriending locals during expeditions, it did not make Livingstone a good leader. Relationships with his crew were often fraught, with many abandoning the cause on account of his inability to lead expeditions of such magnitude. In 1862 his wife Mary would return to Africa to be with Livingstone, only to die tragically of Malaria in April. 

Lake Malawi at sunset

Livingstone tried to continue explorations along the Ruvuma river, but, again, bad luck and poor relations with his crew meant the expedition was a failure. One notable achievement during this time was his discovery of Lake Malawi. The lake is home to more species of fish than any other lake in Africa. Although a protected national park, the lake does allow for local communities to make a living through fishing. Livingstone would nickname it ‘the lake of stars’ due to the lanterns that hang from fisherman’s boats resembling the stars that hang high in the night sky. Visitors to Lake Malawi can still see those stars upon the lake today. 

Fishing boats on Lake Malawi

Disaster on the Nile 

Despite the failures of his expeditions, Livingstone was determined to continue exploring Central Africa. With great persuasion, Livingstone gathered funding for an expedition to discover the source of the River Nile. The expedition would take him across Tanzania, Botswana, Mozambique and Malawi. His bad luck in previous years would only worsen on this expedition. Many members of his crew would, again, desert him, and near all of his supplies and medicine were stolen.

Section of the River Nile

Despite seemingly insurmountable setbacks, Livingstone persevered. His determination would mean that he would identify several African lakes for western science, including the beautiful Lake Ngami in Botswana. The exertion and lack of medical supplies would take its toll upon Livingstone, who would grow increasingly ill from 1866 onward. This illness made him reliant on slave traders for supplies and guidance. In 1873 Livingstone’s condition made him too weak to walk unsupported. In spite of this, he refused to return to England. In the final days of April, David Livingstone would pass away in the Chipundu village in Zambia. 

Livingstone suffered many failures during his 25 years of exploring Africa. He failed to spread the word of God and he never achieved either goal of scouting a trade route into the interior of the continent, or discovering the source of the river Nile. What never faltered, however, was his determination, skill as a traveller, and the relationships he built with local people. 

Make it Happen

If you would like to undertake your own intrepid expedition of Central Africa, why not submit an enquiry to our local experts in South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana, or Malawi ? To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.

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