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'Explorers' Search For The Source Of The World's Longest River


In 1856, two British explorers, Richard Burton and John Speke, set out on a journey for the history books to find the source of the longest river in the world - the Nile. The trip would lead them through some of the most remote and uncharted parts of the African continent.

When it was all over, the two men would come away with radically divergent answers about the Nile's source. The difference of opinion would destroy their already difficult relationship and define how history would remember each of them. Martin Dugard recounts this epic story in his new book, "The Explorers: A Story Of Fearless Outcasts, Blundering Geniuses And Impossible Success." Martin Dugard joins me from the studios of KNPR in Las Vegas. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARTIN DUGARD: Thrilled to be here. Thanks.

MARTIN: Before we get to the journey itself and the ensuing controversy - and there was one - can you give us a sense of who each of these men were? I mean, you paint a very different portrait of each.

DUGARD: Well, they were two very different guys. You know, John Hanning Speke was kind of an introverted loner. He was a hunter. He was very passionate about being outdoors. And then you had Richard Francis Burton who was the opposite. He was infamous. You know, he was the guy who infiltrated the Karachi brothels.

So he liked the inflammatory stuff, where Speke liked the kind of quiet, introverted stuff. And the two of them complimented one another, but the thing was, when they traveled together, they barely spoke. They were just two men on a singular journey going the same direction.

MARTIN: So establish the mission for us. I mean, the goal was to find the source of the Nile. What was known about that river at the time, and why was it such a strategically important discovery?

DUGARD: Well, the thing about the Nile - it was considered mankind's last great geographical mystery because nobody knew where the source was. And people had looked for it literally since the first recordings of history.

What Burton and Speke attempted to do - instead of starting at the Mediterranean and following the flow backwards, what they did was go from the eastern coast of Africa and trying to kind of cut the tangent and go across to find where it might be.

And literally, what they were doing back then was the equivalent of our first space travelers just 50 years ago. The same thing - just going into an unknown, not sure what's going to happen.

MARTIN: I mean, you go into detail at several different junctures in this book about the travails that these men faced. Can you just give us a sense of what those dangers were?

DUGARD: You know, it's mind-boggling because when you think about what they did, you know - they're largely on foot. You know, people didn't know much about lions and elephants and the countless poisonous snakes.

But then you threw in all these weird diseases they could get and all these nerve afflictions. And they were attacked by native tribes. I mean, it was one thing after the other. Even hippopotamus, which look so benign, you know, almost like pink steppingstones on the surface of a river were murderous, you know, with these huge tusks.

So there was never a moment where they could really just let down their guard. And it was not a vacation by any extent. It was really - each day presented a new peril and a new challenge all of its own.

MARTIN: And as you mentioned, there was disease, it seems, everywhere. They're always contracting something. If one of them is not sick, the other one is on death's door.

It was interesting. At one point, when Burton contracts something that immobilizes him, six supporters who were on their journey just carried the guy for a part of the journey which is a healthy reminder that they were not alone on this trip.

DUGARD: What I like about that - it's so Victorian. OK. I'm sick, so let's just have people carry me. And I'm still going to be the gallant explorer. And Burton was like that, you know. He was that kind of guy.

But they always travel with a caravan. Burton had no problem being carried.

In that list of injuries - I mean, nowadays, we know about, for instance, dengue fever. We know about malaria - what causes them. They had no idea. These were just mysterious maladies that just kind of overcame you and you had to suffer through them.

MARTIN: They are on this years-long journey to find the source of the Nile. They find a lake that Burton is convinced is the answer. But then - to give an abbreviated version of what happens - Speke launches out on his own mini excursion and finds yet a different body of water that he believes is the actual source. Speke goes back to the base camp to tell Burton about it, and Burton dismisses this theory out-of-hand. Why?

DUGARD: It's my theory that, at this point, Burton - he was not an explorer anymore. He'd been told to go find Lake Tanganyika, which is what he found. But he did not find a river flowing out of the lake northward towards the Nile. And that's what he had been charged with doing. He'd been told by the Royal Geographical Society.

And he had a number of excuses in line as to why he wasn't able to make that happen. He didn't have the supplies. He didn't have the currency - the local currency of beads and wire - to purchase new supplies. So his whole thing was, we found the lake, let's go back. And we're done. We'll call it the source of the Nile.

Well, he gets laid over again at Tabora on the way back with another mysterious malady. And Speke goes on this six-week expedition, and he walks up and finds Lake Victoria, which is huge. You know, it's a massive body of water, second only to Lake Superior in size. And he looks at this, and he's pretty sure this is the source of the Nile. It's more northward from Lake Tanganyika. It flows in the right direction. He doesn't see a river flowing out of it yet. You know, he will in a subsequent expedition. But he's sure this is the thing. And so when he walks back and tells Burton this. This is the last thing Burton wants to hear. Burton wants to, you know...

MARTIN: He wants to be done.

DUGARD: He wants to be done. He wants to go home. And he was very much a creature of civilization, despite the fact that he was an iconoclast, but, whereas Speke loved the out-of-doors. Speke was very happy being away from people for long periods of time. And that's where they kind of tore it apart. That's where things really got bad between them.

MARTIN: So who was right?

DUGARD: Well, Speke was right. But at the same time, they're both kind of right because shifts have taken place - volcanic shifts and stuff like that - seismic shifts. At one time, it's very likely that Lake Tanganyika did flow, somehow, into Lake Victoria, which became the source of the Nile. But actually, countless streams flow into Lake Victoria. Any of them could claim to being the source of the Nile. So we give it to Speke.

MARTIN: Martin Dugard. His new book is called "The Explorers." He joined us from the studios of KNPR in Las Vegas. Martin, thanks so much for talking with us.

DUGARD: Thanks so very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.