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108498 Osa Johnson with Kalowatt the Gibbon Ape, North Borneo 1920


Without returning home from their trip to the South Seas in 1919, Martin + Osa Johnson traveled to North Borneo in February of 1920 to film wild animals. Landing in April, and spending a few weeks in the town of Sandakan planning and getting permissions, the Johnson’s first “wildlife movie” expedition was finally being realized. With few roads they traveled up river in gobangs (canoes) to reach the island’s interior. At the headwaters of North Borneo’s largest river, the Kinabatangan, they visited the Tenggara people, filming and photographing their centuries old customs. Martin + Osa traveled 420 miles up river before turning back for Sandakan.

This portrait of Osa is one of many that Martin took of her with their myriad "wild pets."  Though they didn't know it at this point, the Johnsons were physically unable to have children, something they both dearly wanted. Kalowatt might well have been the closest they ever came to being "parents."

"While Martin and Osa were in the village of Sungei Iyau, they saw a baby gibbon tied to a chain outside of a dilapidated hut. This small ball of fluff was so endearing that they immediately fell in love with her and promptly paid the three dollars the owners asked. They named her Kalowatt, and for the next several years she became their constant companion, sharing their hotel rooms, ship cabins, and dining room table. Kalowatt defined the Johnsons as "the people with the ape" and associated them in the public mind with the wildlife portrayed in their films and writings. From the time they acquired her, they always traveled with animals in tow and were rarely seen without them. Kalowatt, however, occupied a special place in their lives. She became the child they never had, and they lavished on her both extraordinary affection and care."

~~They Married Adventure: The Wandering Lives of Martin and Osa Johnson by Pascal James Imperato & Eleanor M. Imperato. 

The constant rain and thick jungle canopy was a difficult challenge for Martin and Osa, who had never attempted wildlife photography before. Along the coastal lowlands around the city of Sandakan they were able to film elephants, buffalo and other animals. The result of their efforts was the movie “Jungle Adventures,” which premiered in September 1921 to glowing reviews.  The quality and commercial success of this film is what first drew the attention of Carl Akeley and the American Museum of Natural History to their work, and a budding partnership was in the works that changed the trajectory of their career and set them on their path to the African continent that would be their only real “home” for the next 15 years.

Leaving Sandakan in July, they voyaged to Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and southern India, then continued west circumnavigating the globe. The Johnsons finally arrived home to Kansas nearly two years after they had left.

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