On the Track of an Early Traveler in Gabon

``One Dry Season,'' Caroline Alexander's intriguing travel book, chronicles a journey in time as well as place. Fascinated by fragments of information about the equatorial African country of Gabon (once French Congo), Alexander decided to explore its waterways and wild jungles after she discovered an account of a similar trip made almost 100 years ago, written by an intrepid Englishwoman named Mary Kingsley.

Alexander planned to follow the 1893 route described in Kingsley's ``Travels in West Africa.'' ``If you go there you will find things as I have said,'' Kingsley had written.

Much was indeed as Kingsley had said. The mighty Ogoou'e River was still the main artery for traffic. The jungle was aboriginal: ``... a web of vines and roots and foliage ensnared us. There was here no tawdry secondary growth to clutter the forest's original, grand scale; this was the painted garden jungle of Le Douanier Rousseau's naive vision - lush, squelching with juices that coursed through tuberous vines, heavy with the ponderous burden of fleshy, sap-filled leaves.'' Travelers still traversed the timeless landscape by boat or on foot. Protestant and Roman Catholic missions were still providing hospice for visitors.

But, of course, much was different. The network of traders who helped Kingsley along her way had mostly disappeared. Instead, Alexander encountered expatriots - like US Peace Corps volunteers. Native Gabonese, whose ancestors may once have been cannibals, negotiated the price of guide services in money, not trade goods. And unlike Kingsley's journey, which had some scientific significance as she collected specimens of fish and recorded native customs and fetish beliefs, Alexander's trip was simply adventure.

GRACEFULLY written, informative, and frequently insightful, Alexander's narrative includes the stories of many individuals who lived in this land and wrote about it, in addition to her primary guide. She tells the poignant tale of an American missionary, Robert Nassau, whom Kingsley had met, and shares the lively comments of Trader Horn, who visited Gabon much later. Her chapter on Albert Schweitzer and Lambar'en'e links his period (from 1924 to 1965) to the tradition of the solitary, independent missionaries who inhabit the past she rediscovers. Sometimes these historical people seem more real than the ones she meets in the present.

In following Kingsley, Alexander found ``that, although I could retrace the route of her journey, I could not repeat - or strictly speaking, even verify - her experiences.'' She speculates that a spectacular account like Kingsley's description of canoeing through rapids may even have been enhanced in the telling. Disappointed, Alexander goes off in a direction not on her mentor's map in search of a high point of her own.

Yet on the whole, Alexander did discover Gabon to be as Kingsley had said. Her multidimensional exploration of past and present in a little-known place, like the original it patterns, offers readers much more than a travel guide. Gabon is well worth visiting in the dry season.

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