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In which not-so-intrepid traveller Netty is Out Of Africa, on a metaphorical Dark Star Safari …

November 14, 2013

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I was supposed to have been in Africa last month, but for reasons too long and, frankly, boring to go into, I wasn’t. So instead, I took the armchair route, instead spending some time on Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari.

American writer Theroux, now 72, is a prolific writer with many fiction and non-fiction works to his name, but he is particularly revered for his exemplary travel writing, which is pretty much second to none. I have long been a fan of his books – his stunning 1989 opus My Secret History (billed as a novel, but basically a not-so-thinly veiled memoir, is one of my all-time favourites). He was one of the authors I set for Andy in last year’s mini-challenge (you can read what Andy had to say about The Mosquito Coast here:  https://wellreadweare.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/the-mosquito-coast-andy-goes-feral-with-theroux/) And a GF who actually DID GET to Africa (sorry, it’s still a bit of a sore point) had recommended Dark Star Safari. So, second-best thing an’ all … right?

Sigh.

In 2000 Theroux was closing in on the big six-oh! when he decided to basically take a year off to spend in Africa, setting himself the goal of travelling overland down the east coast from Cairo to Cape Town. Dark Star Safari is the story of that year. Theroux had spent a couple of years on the dark continent in the early 1960s after joining the Peace Corps (mostly to avoid the draft, he admits in this book), subsequently teaching in Malawi (from where he was expelled after helping a colleague and political opponent of the then-prime minister) and Uganda. Keen to see the changes wrought in the continent in the ensuing decades – and no stranger to the many, many challenges it presents to a traveller (“All news out of Africa is bad” is the book’s opening sentence) – he goes in to his big adventure relishing the opportunity to go “off the map”, lose contact with the outside world, be unavailable by phone, email or fax (Mrs Theroux must have the patience of about three saints, methinks).

Theroux is the first to admit his experience of Africa is vastly different to the majority of its visitors (he reserves especial condemnation to the cashed-up “Hemingway-esque” big-game hunters and wildlife watchers flown in and out to luxury resorts, never interacting with the real African people), and there are a few genuine moments of real terror when he wonders exactly what he has gotten himself into (these mostly involve mini-buses or similar modes of travel; fewer the fears and/or threats of robbery/shakedowns by opportunistic locals). Because he is travelling so far off the beaten track, he encounters few fellow nomads – most of his interactions involve aid workers and missionaries, neither of whom he has much time for.

He is particularly scathing of the international aid sector and its “white Land Rover-driving” employees, whom he decries as “lazy boon-dogglers cashing in on a crisis”. “Charities and aid workers seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier,” he surmises. Nor does he have much sympathy for the generations of locals and their over-reliance on aid, comparing them to wild animals reduced to begging for scraps from well-meaning tourists, refusing to work, expecting handouts, demanding money and food in varying degrees of aggressiveness.

There is a map provided in the opening pages outlining his journey (I kept it bookmarked and constantly flicked back to it) from Egypt through the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Theroux is not in a hurry, which is just as well (“Africa is a place you go to wait,” he muses during a several-day wait for a ferry to take him across Lake Victoria). Most of his modes of transport are primitive, to say the least – the trains are reasonably dependable, albeit plagued by the most unreliable of timetables, but there are broken-down, patched up vehicles, and overcrowded buses (in the latter part of the book, he imagines being involved in accidents that prompt variations of the newspaper headline “Dozens killed in horror bus plunge” and swears off the notorious mini-buses) traversing swathes of dangerously pot-holed roads ruled by “shifta” – local, gun-wielding bandits not afraid to use their weapons. In one memorable chapter, Theroux even hires a dugout canoe and, accompanied by two locals, spends a couple of days on the mosquito-ridden waterways, making his way from Malawi to Mozambique.

The apex of Theroux’s journey is his return – a homecoming, really – to Malawi, where he had happily worked and lived at Soche Hill School for two years. But, as L.P. Hartley says in The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there”. He finds that modern-day Malawi is a much different, depressing proposition, a country rent asunder by crippling poverty, disease and social malcontent. He had written to government officials ahead of time, offering his services to speak and teach at the schools, but is disappointed to find his proposition is met with indifference. The sour icing on a rotten cake, so to speak, is his return to Soche Hill, which has fallen into ruin, its library ransacked, the teachers’ quarters where he had lived in disrepair. Depressed and disillusioned, he soon beats a hasty retreat from Malawi.

Theroux finds himself happiest in the rural areas, the desert and the bush, and his time in the major urban centres – particularly the Kenyan capital Nairobi (“Huge and dangerous and ugly”) – the most taxing (“African cities did not pretend to be anything but giant slums,” he notes grimly). When he finally alights in Johannesburg, he visits fellow writer Nadine Gordimer, a lifelong South African and certainly no stranger to the continent’s vagaries, who expresses her incredulity at his journey (“Paul came from Cairo – on a bus!” she repeatedly exclaims to her friends). It is a journey that indeed finds its end in windswept coastal Cape Town – and its protagonist all the more wiser, sadder and enriched for the experience.

Postscript: Ten years after Dark Star Safari, Theroux – now 70 – embarked on another overland African journey, this time from Cape Town to Angola. The Last Train to Zona Verde was published earlier this year. Needless to say, it’s the next cab off the rank on my reading list. And the next-best thing to having done it myself.

Ahem.

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