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I was born, and grew up in a village on the banks of the Casamance River in southern Senegal, just south of the mighty Gambia River, which Mungo Park used as the starting point of his journey. It was in many ways a childhood paradise, especially if that child loved nature, which I did. There were never enough hours in the day to investigate the various animals and insects that appeared and disappeared with the seasons. Many of these filled me with a sense of mystery, which has never departed.

Yellow Mongoose
Yellow Mongoose

African Wildcat
African Wildcat

One such example is the red velvet mite. It is related to the spiders but looks nothing like them. It is a creature of the earth as mysterious as Africa itself, a true wonder. These small bright red velvet covered arachnids emerge only in the first week after the rains have begun. They are a signal that the long dry season is over and the time of plenty is at hand. Within hours of the first heavy rainfall of the year, in late June or early July velvet mites are everywhere. The Balanta people call them the "children of the rain" and indeed that is what they are. They scurry over the dark earth, immune to all predators, and are a glorious sight. Then as suddenly as they arrive, they are gone again for another year. No one knows where they go. As I child I tried watering a piece of ground in the dry season to see if any would appear, but none ever did. For me the red velvet mites, giant frogs and strange fish were all linked to one human mystery, which intrigued me from the start. It was the journey of Mungo Park.

Giant African Spider
Giant African Spider

The Casamance River was a place of wonder for me and I spent many happy years fishing in its creeks or imagining what it would have been like two hundred years ago. From the start I was gripped by Africa, it's people and wildlife. My endless fascination with the Balanta people and their customs took me into cultural realms far removed from those of my English parents. The mysterious continent of Africa stretched all around me into an infinity of imagination and reality. It was a contrast of extremes. Dense shady forests with deep pools containing little light and dry savannahs where hot winds blew incessantly. I would spend hours in the wilderness looking at ants emerging from holes in forest trees, and in their journeys I would see my own to far away places in the forest lands.
Crocodile Crocodile close up
Increasingly as I grew older I began to travel, sleeping in the forest near home, eating wild fruits and animals and always imagining and preparing. I was a child who was happy to be alone with nature, unafraid of the forest nights, happy beside a campfire, a free spirit. The Africans soon named me after another free spirit, the weaverbird, "Katcho" a bird of the palms and swamps and forest glades. In common with that bird I spent much of my time in similar areas looking at insects and wildlife, and acquiring knowledge of the great variety of life that abounds in Africa.

Later I was sent away to a mission boarding school far from my forests and glades in a town that was pure hell for me. I used the opportunities however, to find out more about Mungo Park, and I began to visualise the route I would one day follow. Africa remained hot and dusty and exciting, even through the dreary mission prayer sessions that ate into every day at school. While trapped listening to these monotonous tirades against sin I would watch the butterflies outside and wish I could be one of them.

Hippo with Ibises
Hippo with Ibises

African White Backed Duck
African White Backed Duck

I now live in England where I came to read for my degree, but I make frequent journeys to Africa where I travel to remote places and meet people on the fringes of the world economy who still live their fascinating traditional lives. I am interested in continuity between the distant past and now, and I never cease to be amazed by the lack of social change in many parts of West Africa. In many instances if Mungo Park returned today he would find that little is different.
My journey and life express a passion for Africa and its wild places, and I believe that Park, like myself, shared these same ideals and was driven by them to explore new lands far removed from his own culture. This is the essence of the motivation behind my journey and I hope that by re making Park's journey 200 years after his death I can bring something of him back to life in the public imagination.

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