July 9, 2011

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

Paul Theroux is a pessimistic travel writer. I discovered that years ago when I read his book Kingdom by the Sea about a walking trip he took around the English coast. On my two trips to England, I was entranced by almost everything. In his take on it, I remember a line something like "the face of England has been muddied."

Dark Star Safari is no less pessimistic. To celebrate his 60th birthday, Theroux took an overland trip from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa, using local transportation, trucks, buses, taxis, private vehicles and a few trains. His rule for the trip was no schedules, no airplanes, and no planning. He was open-ended about the time the trip would take and never does say how long it took, but I'd guess three or four months. During this time, except for a faxed message or two to his family, he was entirely out of touch with the rest of the world.

Theroux is an intrepid traveller and he's not a complainer, but it's abundantly clear that most of the trip was absolutely brutal - terrible food, unfriendly people, interminable border hassles, endless waits, constant danger, unbelievably filthy accommodations and horrible roads - sometimes nothing that could be called a road at all. At some points when he'd tell local people where he'd come from, they'd say "That's impossible. You can't drive there. Nobody goes there." Many places in Africa apparently simply aren't connected by viable transportation. One time Theroux was riding on the top of a cargo truck with many other people when it was attacked by bandits and shot at. He was constantly harassed for money. He saw a thief being beaten to death by a mob.

Theroux had been to Africa as a young teacher with the Peace Corps, so partly the trip was a sentimental journey to revisit some old haunts. He found the places he visited almost without exception to be poorer, dirtier, less educated, hungrier and more corrupt than when he'd been there four decades earlier. He has nothing positive to say about the aid agencies that represent the main resource for many communities, describing their fancy white Land Rovers as a bizarre anomaly in the poverty-stricken African communities. He feels the agencies have kept Africa dependent, thus defeating progress.

Theroux also does describe beautiful scenery, some viable communities, kind and hard-working people, and moments of contentment, but these are overwhelmed by the sense of siege, danger, corruption, anger, filth and destitution that he experiences in nearly every place he visits. This is a long, extremely grim book, describing a journey few would make. In fact, it is a shocking book, depicting an Africa worlds removed from the posh game reserve films and aid agency promise that represent what most of us know of Africa. It's good to get a different perspective.