Czech couple retraces Kansas pair’s footsteps in Africa a century later

Romi Svatos films at Lake Paradise in Marsabit, Kenya.
Romi Svatos films at Lake Paradise in Marsabit, Kenya. Courtesy of Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum

A Czechoslovakian couple is following in the footsteps of a Kansas couple who a century ago were regarded as the equivalent of rock stars today.

Jan and Romi Svatos are in Kansas this week visiting Chanute, the hometown of Martin and Osa Johnson.

In 1910, Martin Johnson met Osa Leighty of Chanute. They soon married, and the Johnsons traveled the world for the next few decades, photographing wild animals and various cultures and native peoples.

Their films and photos were some of the first quality images of wildlife that Americans would see. Their lectures inspired young explorers-to-be, such as Wichita-born Robert Ballard, now known to some as the “Indiana Jones of the ocean.” Ballard told The Eagle in 2003 that the Johnsons were his inspiration. Ballard has led more than 125 deep-sea expeditions, locating and exploring such sunken vessels as the Lusitania and the Titanic.

The Svatoses, both born in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, were inspired by the Johnsons and have traveled to Kenya to retrace the Kansas couple’s footsteps. They have produced a documentary called “Africa Obscura,” which they plan to premiere in the United States on Tuesday night in Chanute.

“I wished to find out whether modern-day man, used to the simplicity of high technology, is at all capable of taking photographs using outdated photographic equipment, including developing films in a mobile darkroom,” Jan Svatos wrote as to why he wanted to produce the documentary. It was co-produced by the Osa and Martin Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute.

On Wednesday, the couple met local historians for dinner at Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita. On Thursday, they explored the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County and toured Topeka before traveling to Chanute.

In a phone interview with The Eagle on Thursday, Jan Svatos said he first discovered the Johnsons while attending the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

“They are completely forgotten not only in Africa but to many people now,” Jan Svatos said. “What I liked about them was that they were modern-thinking people. Osa was one of the first women to be equal to her husband. I am amazed by their modern thinking when it came to wildlife and the people they filmed. They were the first to do things in the right way.”

While filming their documentary, the Svatoses used equipment similar to what the Johnsons used, which required them to carry Kodak developer and acid fixer and was sometimes hard to negotiate with safety officials at airports. But they did. And they were able to transport chemicals and equipment across bumpy and rough terrain.

Jan Svatos noted in his diary that the analogue technique was more flexible in the harsh climates and regions than digital equipment. “Digital Equipment faced everyday floods of sand and after a few days began malfunctioning while the old technique was in great condition. Last but not least, in the desert I took the advantage of energy self-sufficiency – all outdated cameras I used needed no electricity.”

The couple spent 40 days at Lake Paradise in northern Kenya, where Martin and Osa Johnson shot much of their award-winning photography.

Romi Svatos said she believes it is important that people not forget the Johnsons’ legacy.

“We would like to support their legacy and use it to remind people,” she said. “So much has changed – the numbers of animals and the groups of animals they described have diminished.”

In 1932, the Johnsons learned to fly at the Chanute airport and purchased two planes for their world travels. One was painted like a giraffe, the other a zebra. In those planes, the Johnsons were the first to fly over Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in Africa.

Writing in “Over African Jungles” in 1935, Martin Johnson described their experiences in Africa as: “We were merely floating through the clear air, beneath the blue sky and above the endless quiet plains. ... We seemed to be floating motionless in space ... thousands of miles from the world of men viewing a world so untouched. ... Surely if one can get away from the troubles and problems of economics and civilization, the world is beautiful yet.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Film premiere

“Africa Obscura” will be presented at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Osa and Martin Johnson Safari Museum at 111 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chanute. The doors will open at 6:30 p.m., and the movie will start at 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public. For more information, go to http://www.safarimuseum.com/africa-obscura-usa-premiere-in-chanute.