Aleksander Doba believes it is better to be a tiger for one day than a sheep for a hundred days, and he lives accordingly. The lives of the philosophical explorers discussed here, both from modern and olden days, constitute a never-ending quest to extract essential truths out of wanderlust.
Some famous travellers are into sightseeing. They seek out exotic views, describe outrageous customs, boldly try local delicacies and have a flair for entertaining television audiences.Aleksander Doba, a 67-year old retired mechanical engineer, is not one of them. His journeys are more metaphysical.
He has recently crossed the Atlantic, from Lisbon to Florida, on a lonely 167-day kayak cruise, braving eight storms and winning the Adventurer of the Year title awarded by the National Geographic Society.
‘It was completely safe, on no occasion did I feel my life was threatened,’ he explained to an incredulous TV anchor. And then added: ’I have this large battery with positive energy. It charges whenever somebody thinks well about me.’
Asked how he passed the time during all those months, all by himself in a tiny space of the boat’s cockpit, he said, the ocean was like a living creature, every wave was different. People never get bored looking into the flames, and it’s the same with the ocean. He felt safe in the storms, locked inside his hermetic kayak, observing through Plexiglas the raging elements—a speck in the middle of the Atlantic.
True to his tiger philosophy, when the most difficult moment came and he had to cross the powerful currents of the Gulf Stream (‘it’s like a river flowing north, only 150 times more water than in the Amazon,’ he explains cheerfully) in adverse wind conditions, he persisted, stoically letting the kayak drift with the elements, only to return to his designated route later on.
To questions from media people wanting to know if he was afraid, he says that the only time he felt fear was when he had to disclose the plans of the Atlantic crossing to his wife. The 3,5-meter shark was only half the size of his kayak, so there was no reason to panic. Still, to let the animal who started to brutally nose the boat, know who was in charge, he knocked it on the head with the paddle. The shark respected his predominance and left.
Aleksander Doba follows in the footsteps of other adventurous Poles who made journeys into the unknown. The first one in recorded history, Benedictus Polonus, a Medieval monk, travelled to the Mongol Empire before Marco Polo did. He left a report of the first European voyage to the court of the khan undertaken between April 1245 and November 1247.
The 13th century Europeans had a very vague idea of Central Asia. At that time the Mongol Empire was busy unifying nomadic tribes under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his successors to become the largest contiguous land empire in history. The pope, having decided that a crusade against it would not be practical, was determined to establish contacts with the khans to prevent their further expansion.
Benedictus Polonus, a Franciscan friar, spoke several languages, among them possibly Mongolian. No wonder, the pope’s emissary Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, himself a Franciscan, wanted the educated brother to accompany him on this dangerous, 19,000-km trip. The two brethren were witness to Gengis Khan’s grandson, Güyük Khan’s ceremonial succession to the throne in the Mongol capital Karakorum.
Güyük Khan wasn’t particularly impressed with the brethren’s appeals to accept the teachings of Christ. The pope’s other propositions were turned down as well and the pontiff himself was invited to arrive in Karakorum heading a delegation of all European rulers in order to pay homage to the khan.
The bold Franciscans luckily set off on the way home in good health. The return journey took a year and five days and in spite of the diplomatic failure, crowds gathered to greet them as heroes, first in Poland and then in other European countries. Thanks to their accounts, Europeans discovered that the belligerent Mongols weren’t devils and that they didn’t eat the flesh of their enemies.
Since Medieval times many Polish adventurers left fascinating accounts of their bold journeys. Some of them, like Jan Nepomucen Potocki (1761-1815), the author of Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie, were intellectuals and writers by temperament, others, like Bronisław Malinowski(1884-1942) had scientific minds, and some, like Marek Kamiński, boast a long list of achievements, just like famous athletes.
Out of the long catalogue of Polish travellers I would like to pick another name that deserves more fame than befell it. It’s that of Kazimierz Nowak’s, the 1930’s post-office clerk of little means who one day decided to cycle across Africa. In the years 1931-36 he made 40,000 km from Tripoli to the southernmost tip of the continent, Cape Agulhas, and all the way back to Algiers.
He mostly travelled by bike and from time to time, whenever that proved impossible, he switched between a canoe, a camel and his own two feet. The journey took five years and was described in newspaper dispatches published in Poland and abroad. His African adventure is all the more mind-boggling when you realise that he received no assistance from colonial administrations, and his own financial resources were very limited. He was paid for the articles as he went along and often had no money for the basic necessities, if only for lack of access to a post-office. His additional source of income were the photographs he took of the people he met on the way. Some of them paid him in cash.
His journey turned out to be extremely difficult. The lonely cyclist barely escaped death on several occasions, losing his way in the desert, almost drowning in Kassai River or fending off wild animals. He persevered and returned home, only to die of pneumonia a year later, his organism having lost natural defences as a result of tropical illnesses.
Kazimierz Nowak didn’t live to write a book about his travels and would have been forgotten by now, if it hadn’t been for Łukasz Wierzbicki who couldn’t forget his grandfather’s accounts of the cyclist’s African adventures. The prewar newspaper dispatches were collected and published in 2000.
Author: Agnieszka Mitraszewska