She Visited 187 Countries Before 1940, Many Alone

Homebound during the pandemic, I've been thinking a lot about Ava Hamilton Singer, an early member of the Society of Woman Geographers.

Iowa University Library Archives

There's not much public information available about Ava Singer. But we do know that she traveled to 187 countries and lived in 18 countries for more than a year. For 20 years, while she was married, she lived in the West Indies. Then she became obsessed with Africa.

During a four-year solo African safari that began in 1936, she drove the length of Africa, zig-zagging across the continent and logging 110,000 miles, wearing out three cars.

She traveled with no guide and no porter.

She was driving across a river on a swinging bridge in the Belgian Congo when her car fell through the bridge and became lodged between two boulders. She recalled: “For five days I wandered about looking for a mission station. The first night I built a huge fire and sat so close to it, gun across my knees, that my clothes smoked. And all night a lion circled the fire and I would hear twigs crackling under his feet out in the darkness. Then he would go on pacing, coming in closer to the fire each time he made his rounds.” Ava admitted she was scared. At dawn, the lion left.

“Other nights I climbed trees made a mat of vines so I wouldn’t fall out, got what sleep I could. And throughout the darkness, lions roared on the ground below. But eventually, I found the mission station. My car was pulled out and repaired. I went on my journey.”

On another occasion, Ava was driving a sick boy to the nearest military post. It was night. The boy shouted “Tembo!” Elephants! Ava hit the brakes. She had just missed the elephant. She turned off her car lights and backed up. Another elephant was behind her. She slammed on the brakes. She recalled,

“I knew if I hit one he would demolish the car. We spent the night with the herd crashing all around us. When dawn came they lumbered back into the jungle.”

When she crossed the Sahara, her compass broke. The car’s pulley wheel for the crankshaft also broke. She had to stop regularly for thousand miles to cool the engine. She was starting to run out of water when she realized she was lost. She noticed a pile of stones and assumed it was the trail marker. She filled the radiator with the rest of the water, thinking that she was no longer lost. But the stones were not a marker. She drove for two days with no water:

"I watched mirages, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, all cool and lovely. And I gave up hope. But this time the battery was too low to start the engine. I worked hours digging a little inclined runway in the sand, hoping a small start might turn the engine.”

But the strategy did not work because the path was not on a steep enough incline. When she turned the key, though, the car started. She drove over the closest dunes and saw a fort in the distance.

When Ava returned to the United States, she toured the country on a lecture showing her film she made, Dawn Over Africa. It was the first color film of the continent. A press release marveled over the film, saying, “In black and white, little of a river of molten lava would have been captured. In color, one is reminded of Dante’s Inferno and it inspires a tendency to rush at once to the nearest evangelist and get religion."

Like most explorers, she did not believe the jungle was more dangerous than the city. She said,

“Perhaps it is trite to say that the jungle is no more dangerous than Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, Broadway, in New York, or a thousand Main Streets.”

That's an amazing accomplishment for a woman in the 1930s!

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