In search of truth at Lake Paradise

Calvin and I don’t know each other well enough yet to exchange secrets. We’ve shared a few meals and we’ve sat around the fire at his camp in the Mara drinking whisky and chatting but I wouldn’t really say we’ve had that big breakthrough conversation yet where you say to yourself, “Aha…so now we’re going to start speaking the truth.”

What he knows is that I’m a writer who is here on assignment to do a story for National Geographic Traveler about Osa and Martin Johnson and a mysterious lake they discovered that sits atop an extinct volcano in one of the most rugged and inhospitable sections of Kenya. He also knows that I asked him to lead this expedition because it was his great uncle, Bud Cottar, who originally led the Johnsons to Lake Paradise back in the ‘20s.

But this is where things get a little sticky, where story and reality get mingled, where what I think I know about Osa and Martin Johnson and their journey to Lake Paradise might be a downright fraud at worst and simply apocryphal at best. Calvin keeps hinting that I don’t really know the true story. But he hasn’t told me what that is. I think he’s worried I can’t handle the true story.

Osa watches NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sign a giant mock-up of I Married Adventure in 1940 (NYT Pictures).

Here’s what I know: On May 17, 1940, Osa Johnson’s book I Married Adventure, with its distinctive zebra-striped cover, was published to great critical and commercial success. Its selection as a June Book-of-the-Month Club choice helped make it the number one national best-seller in nonfiction for 1940. Within the first eight months of publication, 288,000 copies were sold, which was a ton considering that the country had not yet recovered from the Great Depression. Eventually 500,000 copies were sold within the first year of publication.

I own one of those copies. I got it as a gift just after Christmas last year. And it was Osa’s description of the Johnson’s discovery of Lake Paradise that set me on the path that, eight months later, has me sitting in a crowded Land Cruiser with Calvin Cottar, bumping and grinding our way over horribly potted roads towards the Mathews Range in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. In her best-seller, Osa Martin describes a visit from one of Kenya’s most famous and well-respected game hunters, Blaney Percival, who discreetly told them about a “crater lake which is on no map ever made of this country.”

She writes: “Martin stared at him. “You mean there’s a lake around here nobody knows about?”

“Nobody, and you may be certain I’ve kept my ears open.”

“But you’d think some of the natives would have run across it,” I said.

“It’s probable; but if they have, they’ve guarded the secret just as carefully as I have and probably for the same reason.”

“A lake,” Martin said with mounting excitement. “Why, animals must go there by the thousands!”

Blaney nodded. “Yes, and probably from hundreds of miles in every direction—a sort of sanctuary, undisturbed by the white man and his gun. That’s why I’m telling you about it, Martin. I’d like to see you go there some day with your camera and come back with a record of what animals are really like in their natural, undisturbed state.”

Martin was beside himself with excitement. “Well, man alive,” he shouted, “let’s go! Why waste time on the Athi River? Why waste time on anything?”

And so they went on an incredibly difficult safari to the north, crossing the fields of volcanic lava and the Kaisut Desert, having no idea exactly where this lake was supposed to be or if it was even really there until, weeks later, after days and days of marching “over some of the roughest country I’ve ever crossed…completely without warning, we were at the edge of a high cliff overlooking one of the loveliest lakes I have ever seen.

“The lake was shaped like a spoon, almost 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. A tangle of water-vines and lilies—great 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.

He nodded.

That was how Lake Paradise was given its name.”

Lovely story. Except little of it is true. I know the truth. I think. But I haven’t told Calvin that yet. As far as he knows, I’m just this American writer come to Kenya to recreate Osa and Martin Johnson’s expedition to Lake Paradise and repeat the various stories, true or not, I read about eight months ago in a book ghost-written by a New York journalist (and not by Osa Johnson—that’s one of the truths) 70 years ago. But before I tell Calvin what I know, I want him to tell me the stories he’s heard about that expedition. Handed down through his family from his great uncle who was with Martin and Osa Johnson. And then, together, we’ll try and find the truth between the two versions. I have a feeling that everything about this journey is going to be complicated. Which I’m rather looking forward to.



  1. Jeff Wilson’s avatar

    sweet… now we’re really getting into the meat of this trip. cant’ wait to read on!

  2. Robert Rogers’s avatar

    The mathematician Littlewood, friend of Hardy and Ramanujan, conjectured that miracles occur at the rate of about one per month per person. I believe this is a miracle. And if Littlewood is correct then a great many miracles must pass by me unnoticed.
    I have had “I Married Adventure” for a long time. I have told Osa’s story to many people, no one but a used book dealer has heard of her. Yesterday I decided to pick her up and reread the end of the book to review her account of her flying boats in East Africa. I believe I found Osa at “the bins”, the outlet store for the local Goodwill where in past years books were 50 cents per and I always came home with a big box. So last week I found a library sale of $1 books and came home with two boxes. I read everything but novels and this trove included a book about historic amphibious aircraft. Hence Osa.
    Even tho I work in the technical world, lots of this computer based communication is very hard for me. I can contemplate any structure for 15 minutes and the logic of its construction and the methods and sequence of its assembly just appear in my head. The physical world has few mysteries for me. But cell phones and the Internet…. There be dragons. I recently found out I have two e-mail addresses, another mystery. And I just rewrote the last paragraph because the computer took a few sentences away again.
    Two days ago I wanted to find a transmitter site to make azimuth notes and I tried Google Earth again. North wasn’t square to the photo so I struggled and some how got it fixed. A first for me. Well Paradise Lake was on my mind tonight, and I just had had a successful Google Earth bout so I flew to East Africa in the computer.
    I don’t know what a blog is. People write them in the Internet but the few times I tried to go into one it doesn’t make any sense. Things dead end. I read books and Wikipedia, those make sense. So I am flying around Lake Roudolph nee Turkana and clicking around Wikipedia gathering clues about Paradise Lake, finding that useless Safari Museum in Chanute and constantly closing Google earth (because G.E. is full screen and I cant shrink the window to the bottom of the page and open a new window to check out another clue) when I found this text about “being in a restaurant in Nirobe and not wanting to tell the guy that Osa made up stuff and planning on going to Lake Paradise with this grand nephew of Osa’s guide.” Cool, I’ll read this. Well the bottom of the page ended and no more story about Lake Paradise. There was a date at the top, which is today. So it seemed the computer and the text source were telling me today’s date. Good, I like to know the date, what a nice computer. But I really want to read the rest of the story. I click around expecting to have something go wrong and another dead end emerge. And then I find I can read “earlier stories” so I enjoy this story so far and my very nonlinear brain doesn’t integrate why the word “earlier” is printed in front of me and I keep reading earlier pages and the Paradise Lake stuff keeps getting mentioned. Well when I saw the photo of young you in front of a tent, camping in Africa, I realized there would be no more Osa. Another dead end.
    Then I discovered I was in a blog. Well golly THIS makes sense. So I clicked all around your blog and then my dear brain said “look at the dates on the page tops again.”
    Oh My God this is real time! The writer is in Nirobi NOW! And I’m actually reading a BLOG about the search I’m doing right now! Too Cool!
    And so our hero miraculously entered the computer communications age. Just as I allowed ambiguity to prevail in my decades of figuring out the physical world. I now see this computer stuff is likewise understandable. I just need to let the confusion abide. And so now I have a computer place to stand, just like Archimedes.
    I have battered around the western U.S. in some volcanic and alkali deserts and found the East African sub Ethiopian highlands in my Google search were powerfully stimulating my old joy in seeing rough terrain all alone and up close. I will be following you closely.

    Robert Rogers

  3. Sarendar Kalsi’s avatar

    For your information Lake Paradise was Osa adventure sponsored by Estman Kodak who actually visited Osa and her husband in Kenya and so did the American Ambassador (who was then based in Kenya)
    i am trying to get a group of People or Investors to put up a Tourist Lodge where osa had her camp and
    lived happily for a period of 4 years.Please let me know if you can find suitable Interested parties.
    Kind regards
    S S Kalsi
    +254733718498 / 254725912825

  4. Luke Roble’s avatar

    Nice read. I was born in Marsabit in 1982 and i last visited Lake Paradise when i around 10years old. It was the most beautiful sighting of my childhood. I don’t know about now with all the ecological changes due to human activities within the dense forest surrounding the crater lake. Otherwise i like kalsi’s idea and would love to be part it. Regards.
    L. Roble

  5. Paton Eliot’s avatar

    In his book They Married Adventure by Pascal James Imperato, he states that it was Arthur Donaldson Smith who first discovered the lake on September 9, 1895. He was traveling from Lake Rudolf en route to the Tana River when he encountered Mount Marsabit. He said the following of Marsabit “Nothing could be more charming than this Marsabit. Surrounded by a large forest and lying at the top of the mountain is a lake a mile square, clear, and deep. The jagged walls of a crater form a semi-circle about it, while from the other side, a broad road leads out from the forest to the open meadow beyond.” In 1913, Geoffrey Archer, a British administrator who set up the first government post on Marsabit credited Donanldson Smith with discovering the lake in The Geographical Journal.
    The book also states that in 1907 the Boma Trading Company built a station on a ridge overlooking the lake and in 1909 the site was taken over by Archer for a government post.
    By 1921, when Martin and Osa arrived in Kenya, the book states that a good many Europeans had already visited the lake and Archer and Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Patterson had already published pictures of it.

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