In the Footsteps of a Twentieth Century Explorer
On June 8th 2008, William F. Wheeler, passed away from complications of bone marrow cancer two months before his book, Alive in Africa, was published. He was a doctor, photographer, author, musician, father, husband, and friend. And once an idea took hold of his imagination, he never let go.
I met Bill just weeks after I'd purchased a travel bookstore in Solana Beach, California, where he and his wife Linda lived. Bill would spend hours in the store talking about his journeys and those of early explorers such as Sir Richard Burton and Henry Stanley. We shared camaraderie in our love of travel "without global positioning systems and cell phones" to remote regions of the world.
BILL WITH CAMEL O'HENRY
At Bill's memorial ceremony last June at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, a high school friend reminisced about the first time Bill wore the traditional, woven-straw safari hat that would become his trademark; and the time Bill roared up in a jeep he'd just bought because "he'd planned to someday go to Africa."
In 1978, at the height of a twenty-year career as an anesthesiologist, with two young daughters and a marriage that had run its course, Bill took the first of twenty-six trips to the African Continent. The following year, after he and his wife divorced, he camped alone in Kenya.
Many of Bill's friends spoke of how his passion to travel to some of the world's most remote areas and photograph the people who live there, brought us closer to a cultures we might never have seen outside the pages of National Geographic.
"He had difficulty saying why he was traveling," said one friend.
"I had never wondered why I traveled, or thought anything unusual on the way I went about it. Everyone, I assumed, would want to abandon normal everyday life to explore a remote wilderness on foot." Alive in Africa
When she was ten years old, Bill's daughter, Emily Cardey, now a wife and mother, traveled via Land Rover from North to East Africa with her father. "He seemed to think it was the most natural thing to do," she said when showing me her journals. The child's printing spoke of campfires and roaring lions near the tents, and long delays when the Land Rover would get stuck in muddy roads.
In retrospect, Bill's high school dreams would prove an understatement. More profoundly, Africa became the part of him he may have always known was there.
"Africa was a natural choice for me. A continent of great extremes, it contained the world's largest desert, vast untouched rain forests, hunter-gatherers who lived nearly uninfluenced by the outside world, and wild animals left over form the Pleistocene found nowhere else on earth. Human life began in Africa, and only in Africa was it possible to sense what life was like for the first people, living on foot among lions, elephants, and other dangerous creatures." Alive in Africa
Those of us who gravitated to his stories of crossing the Sahara Desert by camel wondering if water would be found before he succumbed to dehydration, or having a gun pointed at his head when he last visited the Congo, didn't need an explanation. Sometimes, there's no other choice but to travel outside our comfort zones, especially to a land that is vastly different from our own. This doesn't mean that most of us ever wanted to join Bill on his expeditions; we knew the hardships were extreme.
"There was never any doubt that it was Bill's trip agenda," said one friend who had trekked with him in China.
I remember Bill telling me about another friend who wanted to camp with him among the Efe Pygmies in the Congo rain forest.
"He left after only a few days," Bill had said. "Day after day without seeing the sky can get to you."
Bill knew the risks. "In the rain forest, you are totally dependent upon the pygmies. If they wanted to leave you behind, you'd never find your way out," I remember him telling me after one trip. "Fortunately, they always came back to find me when I didn't keep up."
He wasn't reckless. He'd bring his own food partly to stay healthy, but also out of consideration for the local people who were often subsisting hand-to-mouth and didn't have food to spare. He also read everything--and I mean everything he could get his hands on--by explorers who went before, for itineraries and inspiration. He talked with other travelers for clues as to how he might best plan his trips, and learned skills that would be useful in the bush. Then, he'd go.
Whether seeking advice on travel, music, photography, he always started at the top. When a friend asked him where he might buy a sitar, Bill gave him Ravi Shankar's phone number. And, it was through Bill's contacts that I was able to meet and dine with the legendary author/explorer, Wilfred Thesiger in Northern Kenya.
Bill loved to share stories. Wearing his trademark bush hat and khaki safari clothes, he'd regale us with adventures from his trans-African Land Rover trips and his experiences on foot crossing the Sahara Desert with a faithful camel named O'Henry. An incurable romantic traveler, he often left his new girlfriend, Linda (who became his second wife in a Maasai ceremony in Kenya in 1987), behind when his dreams brought him back in Africa.
"The next water source was ten days away, and I knew this would push the camels and ourselves to the limit. If the weather was cool with plenty of fresh grass to eat, our camels could go indefinitely without water, but there had been little pasturage since Agadez, and any fat they once had was long gone." Alive in Africa
I understood the romance behind his travels, the lure of camping on an open savanna with Maasai askaris (guards), watching herds of zebras and wildebeests roam free, and listening to a lion roar in the night, perhaps too close to camp.
Bill traveled for a month with horses and donkeys through Kenya and Tanzania's Rift Valley - a six thousand mile fault line extending from the Dead Sea to Mozambique. He gave credit to his Maasai guides and his good friend, Sekerot, who was known to us as Sammy, for their success in reaching the Forest of the Lost Child, a location both sacred and feared by his Maasai companions. The trek would test them at every turn, and solidified Bill's lifelong friendship with Sammy.
"It started drizzling rain, so Sekerot and I retired to our tent. Julius and Samyo built the fire higher and hunkered down under the shelter of an overhanging tree limb. Rain clouds shut out the stars, and a long night set in, wet and cold.
Then lions started to roar, three males Sekerot said, down by the river fewer than one hundred yards away. Sekerot was unconcerned, saying they were on the other side of the water, but I had no idea how he would know that." Alive in Africa
His desire to explore the Democratic Republic of the Congo had roots in his boyhood when he watched Johnny Weissmuller swing Maureen O'Sullivan through the jungle. He finally found the opportunity to find his way into the Ituri Rain Forest and live for months among the Efe pygmies. He brought back not only stories and magnificent rare photos of their lives, but the Efe pigmies also gave him their art, weapons, clothing, and shared their secrets of the forest.
"The ethereal sound of harp music wafted across the camp, a sound that immediately transported me back again into the world of the Efe--a world of music, laughter, and love. A world that I envied and loved. Lobaki, a young hunter, stopped playing and leaned out of his leaf dwelling. His harp, five strings stretched from a curving neck to a carved wooden box, was the instrument portrayed in Egyptian hieroglyphic paintings. It looked like a pygmy hunting bow attached to a box and was thought to be the origin of stringed musical instruments. I had first heard the lilting music years before as an Efe hunter passed me on a trail deep in the forest. He played effortlessly as he sped down the narrow pathway, bow and arrow tucked under his arm, seemingly in rapture. In an instant he was gone, but the music seemed to linger in the trees." Alive in Africa
Inspired by Bill's photos of the pygmies, Rizzoli Books published his beautiful photo essay book, Efe Pygmies: Archers of the African Rain Forest in 2000. In 2004, The San Diego Museum of Man exhibited his collection titled: Efe: Archers of the Congo. When Bill donated 5,200 photographs of the Efe Pygmies to the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives in 2005, the museum director, Robert Leopold, wrote: "The breadth and depth of your collection is astonishing."
Knowing that the Efe Pygmies live a fragile existence, Bill set up a non-profit foundation in their name to fund a medical clinic. Malcolm Mitchell, a friend who has traveled with Bill and the Efe Pygmies has taken on the oversight of this small endeavor where $200 can pay a month's salary to the local bush doctor.
Four years ago, after Bill learned that he had cancer, his travels came to an end. Yet, I never heard him complain. He'd done more than even he dreamed was possible, and filled his days by solidifying his relationship with God and continuing to keep company with good friends. An accomplished musician of classical and flamenco guitar, he entertained friends and recorded a CD that would be played at his daughter Amy's wedding. A self-taught photographer, Bill--along with his wife Linda and photographer friend and mentor, Dallas Clites--spent countless hours cataloging thousands of photos from his travels.
And, he lived long enough to realize his last great goal: He finished his travel narrative: Alive in Africa, My Journeys on Foot in the Sahara, Rift Valley, and Rain Forest, published posthumously in August 2008 by Lyons Press.
Last November, Linda went to East Africa with their friend, Char Glacy. Linda and Char traveled for a month with Bill's friend Sammy where they sent Bill's ashes into the wind over the high grasses of the Great Rift Valley.
Donations to the Efe Pygmies may be made to:
http://wildlifedirect.org (click "BLOGS" then "Lomami" for information and photos on the Itrui Rain Forest)