First Explorer up the Lomami : 1885-86

Today, an absolutely essential tool for exploration up the Lomami, or anywhere, is the GPS unit (Global Positioning System). One of the GPS units used by Ashley’s teams is pictured below marking my decimal degrees here in Kinshasa. John, my husband and good friend, just told me (Skype) that with those two strings of numbers you see at the top of the unit, you (or anyone) could set your own GPS unit and compass so that you could navigate amazingly close to me here on Poids Lourd Ave, next to the docks on the Congo River. Karibu!
26 september 07 013
This unit was as essential as the thuraya on Ashley’s first trip up the Lomami. Here it marks “home” by the docks of the Congo

I, myself, am just learning how to use one of these units, but already I cannot imagine how anyone could move around unknown forest or unknown waters without one.

So it is pretty amazing what the geographer-missionary Rev. George Grenfell was able to do back in the 19th century with compass, sextant, theodolite and immense patience and determination. His map of 1886, copied below, traces his discovery of many of the Congo’s major tributaries including the Kasai, the Ubangi and the Lomami.
TL2 carte 001
Grenfell was very accurate in portraying the areas he actually explored, including the lower Lomami. (source: 1886. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, vol8, #10, pp 627-634)

The source of the Lomami remained uncertain, however, as there was no record beyond 1 degree, 33 minutes south latitude which was as far as he went because, as he wrote, “the course of the Lomami was very torturous, and its current very strong.” As a result, the upper part of the Lomami, known from the southern savannas was mistakenly thought to be a completely different river system that dumped into the Sankuru River.

Grenfell was a contemporary of H.M. Stanley who was the first explorer to follow the Congo River’s immense bend around to its outlet on the Atlantic. The discoveries of Grenfell and Stanley completely revised the map of central Africa, known only by outline 75 years earlier when people were plying the seas but not venturing into the interior. Map below from 1794.
southern half of africa
Early maps of Africa had great detail for the coast line and a totally imaginary interior. (source: 1794. Schneider und Weigal – AMNH)

Ashley (taking a short vacation after three months on the Lomami) and John (who joins the Lomami teams at the end of October) are both so GPS-oriented that they must imagine their movements through the day in little fractions of decimal degree progression. I can just see Ashley jerking his way towards the underground in London (but soon here again and heading back upriver) and I can imagine John’s motorcycle jumping a bit between 10ths of decimal degrees past the money changers on the main drag of Beni (where he is finishing reports before packing his knapsack for the Lomami). But then the world hasn’t really changed at all, just how we understand it has changed.
Chryso (left) and Maurice, team leaders, trying to locate themselves with GPS
Bernard locating himself with GPS unit up the Lomami. Chryso taking notes.

Back in 1886 Grenfell was particularly eager to meet the local villagers up the Lomami River as he learned that they were defending themselves valiantly and with some success against the Arab slave traders and Ivory hunters who had opened trade routes from Zanzibar. Unfortunately for Grenfell, the locals had heightened their defenses and were not about to ask whether this new stranger was any different from the others they had encountered:
“…they assailed us with flights of poisoned arrows”, he wrote, “but as we were well protected by arrow-proof wire netting we went our way…”

But Grenfell’s wire head dress did not keep out the mosquito vectors of malaria and Grenfell died of “blackwater fever”, still in Africa, in July 1906.
mouth of Lomami_1895
Ten years after Grenfell’s original explorations, the Lomami was accurately mapped as flowing parallel to the Congo River through the forest all the way from its origins out on the savanna. (source: 1895. Steileras Hand Atlas. AMNH)


  1. Posted 2007-09-27 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    Neat! I’ve never seen a GPS in action, but if it requires math then I’d be lost forever. Thanks for the history lesson, too. Fascinating.


  2. Gary
    Posted 2007-09-27 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Math that’s a good thing….I can do that. Post something without a typo that’s hard. Thanks for the interesting post.

  3. John
    Posted 2007-09-27 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Great Post, Mama T…Grenfell really remains the lesser-known explorer–over shadowed by his iconized contemporary, Henry Morton Stanley. Yet Grenfell’s discoveries are of impeccable scientific and technical quality….And he managed to move across the forest without the loss of life and bitter destruction that accompanied Stanley’s more politically oriented missions.

    Grenfell the forgotten explorer of the forgotten landscape.

  4. michael
    Posted 2007-09-29 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    In modern times exist good tools also for “home explorers” like me.
    I regularly followed ashley up the lomami( by google earth ).
    With a little bit experience you can distinguish swamp from primary forests secondary forests from savannahs ….
    And professional scientists are even able to figure out good bonobo forest types in the satellite maps.
    But i don’t think that anybody can recognize the different tree species by satellite photos.

  5. Terese Hart
    Posted 2007-09-30 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful that you are able to follow. Soon we will post the side exploratory trips taken along the Lomami as well. In the next phase we will explore between Ubundu and Opala as well as on the left bank of the Tshuapa and one area on the Lomami not yet covered. Yep, as far as I know no one has been able to identify individual tree species in mixed tropical forest. In central Africa though there are some fairly extensive areas where a single species makes up the canopy even though the subcanopy can be very diverse. We want to learn more of what this means for bonobo. One of the main species that does this is Gilbertiodendron dewevrei

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] is the story Bernard told me about when his team of 11 men explored “D12” in May of this year. Their initial […]

  2. […] is the story Bernard told me about when his team of 11 men explored “D12” in May of this year. (Picture of Bernard […]

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