Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To the Ends of the Earth - Part II

Preface:  During Part I, Martin and Osa Johnson scraped enough money together from their vaudeville act to make their first overseas trip together.  Their plan was to find and photograph wild natives in the South Pacific.  They sailed to the New Hebrides Islands (now Vanuatu) and focused on finding a wild tribe of cannibal natives called the Big Nambas.  At the end of Part I, Martin and Osa are seized by Nagapate, the tribe leader.  Osa is screaming and on the verge of fainting. 

Nagapate - Big Namba tribal leader
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

To the Ends of the Earth - Part II
non-fiction research
by Greg Larson
copyright 2010 

         The tribal boo-boo drums began to beat in the background.  Martin became concerned for his wife, so he shut off the camera, and then stood between Osa and Nagapate.  He yelled to his wife and crew to run to the boat while he occupied the leader, but Nagapate grabbed Osa, and the tribe seized Martin.  Fear overcame Osa as Nagapate gripped her arm.  She screamed and screamed, and then she became woozy and disoriented.  

     Amazingly, the yelling and the noise suddenly stopped.  All of the natives looked and pointed towards the sea.  It was a twist of fate, a small miracle; a British gunboat was turning into the bay.

     Martin shouted, “Man-o-war!”  Nagapate and the captors released their grip, and Martin and Osa rushed down the path towards the beach with as much speed as they could muster.  Shortly after the release, the natives watched the gunboat make a turn to leave the bay.  They immediately began the chase, screaming and yelling as they ran down the path towards the couple.  During their rush to the beach, Martin and Osa realized the natives were gaining on them.  They heard the crashing and rustling of stalks as the pursuers attempted to close the gap.

     In a scene that seems more fiction than reality, they burst out of the vegetation and into the sunlight on the sandy beach, with the screaming tribe in hot pursuit.  The natives swarmed the beach, just as the crew of three pulled Martin and Osa into the sailboat and quickly pulled away from shore.  Martin and Osa lay in the bottom of the boat, their energy drained.  Martin had carried the camera in the race to the beach, and most importantly, his film was intact.  Nightfall came, and they fought their way through a small storm to return to their base with the French priest.

     After visiting other tribes on Malekula, they returned to the U.S. and sold their film to Hollywood producers.  Before long, Nagapate, the Big Nambas, and other natives were on movie screens across the country and the world.  Thus began a pattern for all future trips; return to the states, sell the film, visit relatives, promote the movie, and begin planning the next trip, including financial backing through product promotion and investors.  Their life was a whirlwind.

     In 1919, they returned to the island of Malekula and went again to see the Big Nambas, but this time with a contingent of men and rifles to ensure their safety.  They filmed the natives in more detail, and at dusk they set up screens and played the movie which had made them famous.  Nagapate and the tribe, upon seeing themselves on film and noticing tribe members who were no longer living, treated Martin and Osa like gods.

     To obtain additional film footage, they traveled to Borneo, where they became interested in the monkeys, orangutans, and other wildlife.

     On a visit to New York between trips, they met Carl Akeley from the American Museum of Natural History.  He convinced them that Africa was the place to go.  With much far-sightedness, he suggested filming the wildlife there would be historic, for he had concerns that many species might be hunted to extinction and their habitat destroyed.

     Their trips to Africa were logistically complex.  All of their film, cameras and camping equipment had to be shipped overseas.  Once on land, everything had to be transferred to trucks or railcars.  Provisions had to be purchased and packed in 60 pound packs (the weight limit for African porters).  For each safari, cooks, leaders, and porters had to be hired, and vehicles had to be purchased.

     Osa focused on logistics while Martin sorted out the details regarding filming and darkroom equipment.  He also met with local authorities to determine the best locations to see wildlife in its natural habitat.

     Osa loved gardening, and wherever they set up a long-term campsite, she immediately planted a garden to improve their diet.  The produce was welcomed by the camp staff.  Her crops included beans, sweet corn, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, turnips, squash, cantaloupes, and watermelon.  At one of the camps there was an elephant that had a liking for sweet potatoes.  It wreaked havoc on the garden when it dug up the potatoes.  Osa’s solution was to plant a separate patch of potatoes just outside the perimeter of the camp…a personal patch for the elephant.

African Bull Elephant
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     While in British East Africa (currently Kenya), they heard rumors about a hidden, mystical oasis several hundred miles to their north, where flocks and herds of wildlife came to drink.  There were no maps of the lake, nor did it have a name.  Whenever natives or locals spoke of it, a mysterious look shone in their eyes, as if they were talking about the seven cities of gold.

     Martin was determined to find the hidden lake.  As soon as they had developed enough safari experience, they began their trek north, always asking the local guides and scouts if they knew of “the lake.”  Quite possibly the oasis was a secret the locals did not want to share with the outside world.  Then one day their guide finally directed them to a lake in a remote and shallow volcano crater, where the trees, flowers, birds, and wildlife all shared the life-giving water.

     Osa turned to Martin and gasped, “It’s Paradise!”  So they named it Paradise Lake, and it became a veritable Garden of Eden for Martin’s photography and filming.

Paradise Lake
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     With financial backing from George Eastman (the Eastman-Kodak magnate) and others, Martin and Osa returned in 1923 for a four-year stint at Paradise Lake.

     They had many distinguished visitors during their safari. They rendezvoused with the Duke and Duchess of York, and Osa supplied them with a big basket of vegetables.  Members of the Museum of Natural History were repeat visitors, obtaining wildlife specimens for use in the museum.

Wild Animals in the African Wilderness
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     Martin and Osa built a special cabin for George Eastman, when they learned he was coming to visit. Eastman fit in well with the camp routine, and he taught Osa and others how to bake lemon pies, pastries and muffins.  He treated Osa like a daughter, and he was in his element while he photographed the wildlife with Martin.

     Naturally, he brought his own cameras and film, some of which were prototypes to test.  Eastman became friends with the Johnsons, and a few years later, he invited them to sail the Nile on a large yacht.  When he said good-bye to the Johnsons for the last time, he told them his time in Africa was the happiest in his life.

     From their time spent at Paradise Lake and on trips to the Belgian Congo (currently Democratic Republic of the Congo), Martin became a world expert on understanding the social habits of elephant herds and lion prides.  Many times Martin and Osa sat on top of their safari vehicles, eating lunch, watching the lions wrestle with each other and nip at the tires on their truck.

     Martin became intrigued with the idea of using aircraft on their safaris.  The logistics in trekking several hundred miles by land could be drastically reduced if they were able to make quick and efficient trips in planes to remote jungle areas.  Aircraft were becoming more durable and reliable, thus safer for traveling.

     In 1932, they purchased two Sikorsky amphibious aircraft, and planned an air safari of Africa.  Martin named the larger plane, Osa’s Ark, and had it painted with zebra stripes.  The smaller plane was named The Spirit of Africa, and it was painted with giraffe spots.  They hired an aviator from Kansas, Vern Carstens, along with a Sikorsky test pilot and a mechanic to fly and maintain the aircraft.

     They thought of every detail in outfitting the planes.  Martin had special mountings made for aerial photography.  Osa created a space for a desk and typewriter.  They installed a small stove and galley and designed the rest of the interiors for holding supplies.  The planes were dismantled and shipped to Capetown, South Africa, where they were re-assembled for use.

The Johnsons' Sikorsky amphibious aircraft
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     The planes gave them speed and mobility that was beyond their imagination.  It was possible to fly to remote wildlife habitat, land on a lake or river, film the wildlife, and return to base camp in a few short days.  Previously, a similar trip would have taken weeks or months.  Martin learned to film from the air, obtaining dramatic images of elephants, buffalo herds, and other wildlife crossing the open country.  The planes were also used for supply missions when provisions were needed.

     Over the next few years, they logged over 50,000 miles in the planes in Africa, and 30,000 miles in south-east Asia.  They were the first to fly over Mt. Kenya and photograph it from the air, and they flew around Mt. Kilimanjaro.  There were numerous and dangerous take-offs and landings brushing tree tops or negotiating curved rivers, and wind-swept lakes.  The planes performed to their specifications and the crews were top-notch.  They completed their air safaris without a serious mishap.

Somalians look at aircraft with Martin and Osa
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

     The list of films created during their career is lengthy, including documentary films as well as feature films. A list of highlight titles includes:

• “Cannibals of the South Seas” (1918)
• “Jungle Adventures” (1921)
• “Simba” (1928)
• “Congorilla” (1932)
• “Wings Over Africa” (1934)
• “Baboona” (1935)

     Martin and Osa had traveled to more places on earth than one can imagine.  Just one of their trips would have been the trip of a lifetime for the typical American.  This was the case in 1928, when three Boy Scouts were selected to spend five weeks with the Johnsons.  The scouts learned many native skills, including a different technique of archery, in which the arrows were shot vertically so they would land on the backs of the wild animals.

     In January of 1937, Martin and Osa were on a whirlwind tour of lectures across the U.S., sharing their travels with schoolchildren and the public.  The morning after a lecture in Salt Lake City, Utah, they boarded a commercial flight to Burbank, California.

     In the fatal irony of ironies, the commercial plane in which they rode crashed on a ridge in fog and rain, on approach to Burbank.  Five persons ultimately died from the crash injuries.  For Martin and Osa, it was their last trip together.  Martin, with a severely crushed skull, died the next day.  Osa suffered a back injury, but insisted on continuing the lecture circuit.

     A poignant link to the Johnsons’ Kansas roots was the fact that Burbank was where Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft was being tested (1935-1937) for her ill-fated attempts to circumnavigate the globe.

     After Martin’s death, Osa wrote many books, served as consultant to film makers, and continued to share her experiences.  But life was not the same without Martin, her soul mate, and she remained unhappy.  Osa died in New York in 1953.

     The world is now decades and generations removed from the adventures of the Johnsons, the Kansans with wanderlust in their hearts.  They were a rare match, combining their love and passion for each other and for adventure.  Their accomplishments are nothing short of remarkable and are testaments to their sheer determination in their darkest hours and when they traveled to the ends of the earth.

                                                          THE END

The Kansans with wanderlust in their hearts
photo courtesy of the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

• Johnson, Osa. I Married Adventure. William Morrow and Co., Inc. (1989) (first published by J.B. Lippincott Co. (1940))

• The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum. 111 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chanute, Kansas 66720-1819. Conrad Froehlich, Director.

• The Safari Museum website: story.htm

• Notable California Aviation Disasters website:

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