“On a cool November morning in 1917, a young Kansas couple sailed into the South Pacific dawn…” Now how’s that for a great start to a biography? “As the sun rose higher above the horizon, the great banks of mist that had clothed the mountains began to disappear, revealing the high green valleys of the Big Nambas.”
Having come ashore, as Martin and Osa climbed up a heavily forested hill, they were suddenly surrounded by several natives and their leader Nihapat, “…the most frightful, yet finest type of savage I have ever seen. A magnificent sight—six feet tall, with bushy hair, a full beard, and a stick through the cartilage of his nose…” Perhaps the Martins may have actually been the first to say, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This was only the first of many close calls over the next twenty years of pioneering the production of real-life natural history films in the South Pacific, Borneo and Africa.
Why are Martin and Osa Johnson not very well know these days? Perhaps their successful commercialism and public notoriety was looked down upon by “serious” explorers. Heaven knows they actively sought and exploited publicity; show business was their business. Producing dramatic footage of charging animals and threatening savages certainly added excitement and fulfilled the public’s stereotypes of “Darkest Africa”.
The Johnsons were on the lecture circuit, presenting and narrating their films to live audiences. Just picture the scene in a contemporary movie of the times, “King Kong”. The great white hunter pulls back the curtain to reveal the giant ape to an astonished crowd. No more astonishing really than how two kids from the dusty Plaines of Kansas could have created a lifetime of filming adventure and introducing an astonished public to the wonders of the broader world hitherto beyond imagining.
For the sharp-eyed of my readers, that single engined Sikorsky in the top photo is an S-39. The Johnsons had both models. As an aside, the modern reproduction of the twin-engined S-38 was named “Osa’s Ark” even though originally it was the single engined plane so named.
The quotes in the first paragraph at the beginning of this blog are from the book, “They Married Adventure”:
There exists in Kansas a town of about 10,000 souls named Chanute, which calls itself the hub of southeast Kansas. It is here, in 1894 that Osa was born. It is now home to the Martin and Osa Johnson Museum, called the Safari Museum:
The town itself was named after Octave Chaunute, an aviation pioneer in his own right, was by 1901 exchanging many technical letters with the Wright Brothers:
Photos of glider-shaped kites flown by the Wright brothers, including one photo by Chaunute on a visit to Kitty Hawk:
The aircraft photos are from a large and interesting collection: