When I grow up, I want to be just like Osa Johnson.
A small-town girl from Chanute, Kansas, Osa lived a life of adventure with her husband Martin Johnson. Explorers, naturalists and pioneering filmmakers, they traveled the world. Starting in 1917, they documented the people and wildlife they found on their safaris through the South Pacific, Africa and Borneo.
Their friends included Jack and Charmian London, Charlie Chaplin and George Eastman, whom they convinced to sponsor an expedition to photograph the animals of Africa.
Osa, who rode zebras and had a pet cheetah named Bong and a gibbon named Kalawat, wrote about their life in I Married Adventure. It's quite the read, part travel diary, part romance. Every day really was an adventure. On their first journey, they had a near-disastrous meeting with a tribe of cannibals called the Big Numbers on Malekula island in the New Hebrides. Although they narrowly escaped becoming dinner, they later returned — with an armed escort — and took footage that became the film Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas.
Then there's the first trip to Africa, where they went on a long trek through Kenya in search of elephants to photograph. After an arduous climb, their guide led them up to a high cliff overlooking "one of the loveliest lakes I have ever seen," Osa writes.
"The lake was shaped like a spoon, about a quarter of a mile wide and three-quarters of a mile long, and it sloped up into steep, wooded banks two hundred feet high. We stood at the tip of the spoon, which was a high cliff, and opposite, a deep cleft which served as the handle. It lay in the center of an extinct volcano, and the beach, which ran back a hundred feet or so to the edge of the forest, was of hard, washed lava.
A tangle of water-vines and lilies — great blue African lilies — grew in the shallows at the water's edge. Wild ducks, cranes and egrets circled and dipped. Animals, more than we could count, stood quietly knee-deep in the water and drank.
"It's Paradise, Martin!" I said.
That was how Lake Paradise was given its name.
They spent the years 1924 to 1927 in and around Lake Paradise and produced a series of movies using footage from their stay, including Martin's Safari, Osa's Four Years in Paradise and Simba: King of the Beasts. Visitors included the Duke and Duchess of York (the parents of present-day Queen Elizabeth), who would later become the King and Queen of England.
I learned about Osa after discovering a photo of her, seated in her zebra-striped Sikorsky amphibious plane, called Osa's Ark, with a gibbon on her lap. She and Martin learned to fly so they could take aerial photographs over Africa, and in fact were the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro. We at One Thing New knew right away that the photo had to illustrate the "Play" section of our newsletter.
Osa's life has inspired a Kate Spade zebra-striped purse, a line of clothing and accessories by American Eagle Outfitters, and if you believe Wikipedia, the filmmakers working on Pixar's Up.
It's also inspired me. I want to live every day as an adventure, too, seeing each moment as an opportunity to learn something about the world around me or myself, as Osa did.
I'm not the only one who loves Osa. Diane Good grew up in Kansas and worked as a tour guide at The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute when she was a teenager. She's now the director of development at the museum, after 31 years at the Kansas Historical Society, and she attributes her degree in anthropology to an interest spurred on by Osa's life.
The museum, which gets between 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a year, contains films, photographs and the artifacts the Johnsons brought back from their travels. It opened in 1961, and was started with help from Good's parents and Osa's mother, Belle Leighty. Good says Mrs. Leighty (who outlived her daughter) went around town, with her zebra-skin purse, asking for donations to start the museum.
Osa died the year Good was born, so they never met. But Good says she was well-known among the locals as "adventurous" and "very glamorous."
"She was a strong woman and came from a family of strong women," says Good. "But they were also a very strong couple — she followed him to all these places around the world because she got the travel bug and wanted adventure, but also because she wanted to be with him."
The book, dedicated to Martin, ends with a newspaper clipping, announcing his death in a plane crash in Los Angeles, in which Osa was badly injured. She went on to have more adventures after he died. In the early 1950’s she served as the host for the first wildlife series on television, Osa Johnson's The Big Game Hunt.
I like to return to the introduction of Osa’s book, written by their friend, the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1940, whose name I can't make out. He sums up the spirit of adventure that Osa and Martin embraced.
"No matter where or how, through it all, the telling is no mere travelogue and picture album, but rather the intimate tale of their two lives—boy and girl from Kansas, pushing their horizons into far places. The bigger story is of their life, sometimes to be read between the lines, and not so much of the world they went to see as of the hearts they took with them."
Of the hearts they took with them. I love that. Every day, an adventure. — CG
Photo courtesy of The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum