typhoon

Geographical Magazine: How I followed in Nellie Bly’s footsteps

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Magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Rosemary Brown: freelance journalist, humanitarian worker and explorer

 As told to Katie Burton; Published in I’m a Geographer  03 Jul 2020

mug shotRosemary Brown is a freelance journalist. In 2014, she followed in the footsteps of American journalist and adventurer Nellie Bly, who carried out a record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889. A book about Rosemary’s trip is due out next year.

‘Last year, two of my lifelong dreams came true. One was to write a book, and the other was to get a Churchill Fellowship. The book is about my trip in the footsteps of Nellie Bly. I maybe didn’t do as much research in advance as I should have, but I’ve learned since that it’s better to get going than to get lost in the research. I did spend some time at the British Library, reading the microfiche newspaper accounts of her trip from the New York World newspaper. My eyes have never been the same.

I’ve always admired these Victorian explorers. I used to read about Gertrude BellFreya StarkIsabella BirdMary Kingsley (they have her hat at the Royal Geographical Society). So they’d always intrigued me. My daughter was 19 at the time, and she won’t like me saying this, but I didn’t really approve of her role models. I just thought, look at what these amazing women were doing, when they couldn’t really do it. It was a man’s world then. Truly.

Nellie_Bly
Nellie Bly redefined the role of women in journalism. In 1889, she set off on a 72-day trip around the world, which inspired Rosemary to trace the journey herself. She chronicles her experiences in her upcoming book.

And so I wanted to do something to put Nellie Bly on the map, and to put female explorers back on the map – the ones from the past and the ones now who just don’t get the same coverage. I thought, I’m not going to rant about it. I’m just going to try to do something.

These women just busted convention. Nellie Bly burst into an all-male newsroom, and she wasn’t welcome, but she excelled. And when she said, ‘I want to go around the world to see if I can go faster than Phileas Fogg’, [the protagonist of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days] they said, ‘No we’re going to let a man go’. And she said, ‘Very well. You send a man. I’m going to the competing newspaper and let’s see who wins.’

So she and I clicked. She was an adventurer. She was a journalist. She pioneered investigative journalism. If she wanted to do it, she just did it. And this is what I think we aren’t doing so much anymore. We seem to be afraid to get out of our comfort zones.

The experience was really great. It’s not the way I like to travel. I don’t like to just go from one place to the other, so that part was quite frustrating. But I had to let Nellie take over. Don’t think I’m bananas, but there were a couple of times when I think she might have helped me. I got stuck in a typhoon in Hong Kong as I was trying to get into China – she went to Canton, which is now Guangzhou. So I thought, what would Nellie Bly do? I just walked down into the typhoon and believe it or not, the trains were running even though Hong Kong was shut down.

Canton_1

Canton, now known as Guangzhou, was one of the places that Nellie Bly visited during her 1889-90 expedition around the world – a trip that would inspire Rosemary Brown to write her upcoming book.

Photo: Royal Geographical Society Archives, Ato Photographic Association

People help you all along the way. And that’s one of the things I say – she believed in humanity. Her colleagues said, if you’re going on this trip, you’ve got to take a revolver. And she said, ‘I don’t believe I’m going to need one’. She didn’t take the camera either which was a drag – there are no pictures.

I thought once I got back and finished up the blog, that would be it. But oh no, Nellie Bly was not through with me. I’ve been able to do talks and we put together the Heritage of Women in Exploration conference – which I believe is the first conference like that ever held at the Royal Geographical Society. I’m also a founding trustee of the Women’s Adventure Expo – a hub for women adventurers. It’s really just about letting people know what women have done and what they’re doing now. If you do what you always do, you get what you always got, so it’s about just getting out there, seeing the horizon.

One of my favourite sayings is ‘leap and the net will arrive’. I’m not leaping so much anymore. But I think if you put yourself out there, things happen.’

CV
1954: Born in Toronto
1976–1983: Journalist for the Lakeland Ledger and the Tampa Tribune
1983: Journalism masters
1986–1989: Lived and worked with homeless women in Soho at the House of St Barnabas
2003–2017: Chair of the board at The Rights Practice
2004–2017: Communications manager at NGOs including The Rainforest Foundation
2013: Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro
2014:  Nellie Bly trip
2019: Churchill Fellowship for work with refugees
2021: Release of Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World

Originally printed in Geographical, the monthly print magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

In which Nellie Experiences Peaks… and Troughs… in Hong Kong

HONG KONG

Nellie’s dates:  23-24 December,  27-28 December 1889
My dates: 14-15, 19 September 

Nellie arrived in Hong Kong with the monsoon.  I landed in the midst of typhoon warnings and the undercurrents of civil turbulence.  Pro-democracy demonstrations — the Umbrella Revolution —   erupted one week after I left.

Competition

Nellie had no idea that Elizabeth Bisland was racing around the world in the opposite direction.

Nellie’s optimism at arriving in Hong Kong two days ahead of schedule quickly sunk to despair. She was only 39 days into her journey, and already in China. She headed straight to the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Company to book the first sailing to Japan, only to discover that someone was ahead of her.

Elizabeth Bisland, a journalist and author sent by a competing publication, set out from New York the day Nellie left, circling the world in the opposite direction.  Elizabeth had left Hong Kong three days earlier. An astonished Nellie kept her composure when the O&O Steamship officials told her the devastating news. Even worse, she would be stuck in Hong Kong Japan for five days awaiting her passage to Japan.

“That is rather hard, isn’t it?” she said quietly, ‘forcing a smile that was on her lips, but came from nowhere near the heart.’

When they told her that the race was over and she’d lost, Nellie replied:  “I am not racing with anyone.  I promised to do the trip in 75 days and I will do it.”  She did it in 72; Elizabeth Bisland finished in 76 days. The rest is history.

The Hong Kong that Nellie and Elizabeth experienced now exists only in photos, memories and a smattering of sites that have survived massive urbanisation. My goal was to locate them during my own race to beat the fury of approaching Typhoon Kalmaegi, due to sweep past the city at speeds of 125 km (77 miles) per hour. Warnings from the Hong Kong Observatory escalated.

slippery warningHappy Valley Cemetery  

Setting out from Wan Chai, one of the Umbrella Revolution ‘hot spots’, I travelled by metro, bus and finally tram to Hong Kong’s Happy Valley and the multi-faith cemetery that Nellie raved about. “It rivals in beauty the public gardens and visitors use it as a park,” she wrote. “One wanders along the walks never heeding that they are in the Valley of Death, so thoroughly is it robbed of all that is horrible about graveyards. That those of different faiths should consent to place their dead together in this lovely tropical valley is enough to give it the name of Happy Valley.”

Hong Kong Cemetery

Hong Kong Cemetery

Snakes!

Snakes!

It’s sad now. Neglected and unsafe, signs warn visitors of slippery grounds and stairs, and worst of all snakes!  The only living soul that morning in a massive, crumbling, reptile-infested cemetery,   I stepped warily (and loudly to ward off any snakes), across broken concrete and overgrown paths to explore the tombstones of Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Protestants. Although bereft of the beauty Nellie described, the cemetery and its ossuary, evoke a sense of the hereafter. A sign in the Muslim section states: “Visiting graves …. benefits both the dead and the living. While it is a tribute paid to the dead, it prompts the living to think about the essence of life.”

What a blast!

What a blast - the Noonday Gun

What a blast – the Noonday Gun

Something to ponder as  I left Happy Valley for Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay waterfront. I got to the Noonday Gun there just in time for the daily blast. Made famous in Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, the tradition began in 1864 when Jardine’s, the company who owns it, was required to fire a one-shot salute every day at noon for perpetuity as punishment.  The company kept to the deal and now collects money for charity from those who wish to fire the Noonday Gun.

Nellie would’ve experienced a bigger blast. Jardine’s lowered the power…and the decibels… in 1961 at the request of neighbouring waterfront establishments.

Peak experience

From sea level at Causeway Bay, I headed for the highest point in Hong Kong — Victoria Peak via the historic Peak Tram to Victoria Gap.

Riding the historic Peak Tram

Riding the historic Peak Tram

Asia’s first funicular and the world’s steepest, the Peak Tram is a feat of modern engineering that Nellie rode a year after it opened in 1888.  The steam tram extending 1,350 metres to Victoria Gap cost Nellie 30 cents up and 15 cents down.  Today it’s electric and costs $5 US round-trip. The tram carried as many as 150,000 passengers its first year.  In 2013, its 125th year, the tram transported 4 million passengers.

Seats have always faced uphill to prevent passengers from falling forward. Intermediate tram stops are named after former British governors/administrators — Kennedy, MacDonnell, May and Barker.

If she stepped off the tram today, Nellie would be aghast to find Peak Tower, a colossal architectural icon devoted to consumption — home to the usual ghastly global suspects — Burger King, Crocs, Sunglass Hut, Adidas, Swatch, Swarovski and Travelex and more.

Fleeing commercialism, I located the Hong Kong Tourism Board based on the Peak Piazza in a former tram. There I met Sanford Lee and Windy Chiu who made my mission their own — to track down the ‘umbrella seat’ that Nellie describes in her book Around the World in 72 Days.

“…We were carried (by sedan chairs) to Victoria Peak. It required three men to a chair ascending the peak. At the Umbrella Seat, merely a bench with a peaked roof, everybody stops long enough to allow the coolies to rest…”

Windie Chui and I at the Umbrella Seat where sedan chair carriers rested before reaching the top.

Windy Chiu and I at the Umbrella Seat where sedan chair carriers rested before reaching the top.

Hong Kong Tourist Office Tram at Victoria Peak

Hong Kong Tourist Board Tram at Victoria Peak

Once I convinced them I was not in search of an umbrella (despite the approaching typhoon) nor a chair, Windy and I set off on an uphill search. Fifteen minutes later the elusive Umbrella Seat was before us. Not content with our original discovery, we climbed further up in the pre-storm heat to the Victoria Peak summit.

Rain was falling in sheets by the time we returned to the tourist office tram. The typhoon signal jumped from 1 (standby) to 3 (strong winds). Taking the Peak Tram down,  I arrived back at my hotel in Wan Chai to discover that typhoon signal 8 (gale and storm force winds) was in effect and all government agencies were now shut.

Would I be able to travel to Canton (Guangzhou) the next morning as planned?  Certainly not on a boat up the Pearl River like Nellie, but perhaps the trains would be running…