Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux is the story of the author’s overland travel from Cairo to Cape Town with all the adventures, people and places he encounters throughout the continent.
Paul Theroux travelled Africa from north to south in the first half of 2001. Beginning in Cairo, he travelled down the Nile in Egypt, through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland. He travelled mostly by public transport including trains, boats, bush taxi, buses, cattle truck, rented Land Rover, canoe and hitch-hiking. As a young 20-something-year-old, Theroux had come to Africa to teach in rural Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer and so this trip 40 years later was partly a sentimental journey but also to see how much has changed since.
The book starts in Egypt’s capital Cairo and heads south into the land of the Nubians, Sudan. Theroux travels all the way down into Kenya and then heads west to Uganda. He catches up with friends in Kampala where he had lived several years earlier. He takes a ferry across Lake Victoria to Mwanza in Tanzania and then the train to Dar es Salaam. Another train gets him to Mbeya in southern Tanzania before entering Malawi where he visits the school where he taught as a young man. This is probably the most demoralising point of the whole trip as he assesses the impact of foreign aid over the 40 years since he was there. After the treatise on development (or lack thereof), he travels via the Zambezi River into Mozambique. The next country is Zimbabwe where he experiences the effects of Mugabe’s regime on white farmers. Finally he reaches South Africa and the luxury of the Blue Train between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Theroux’s summary after this journey reveals a disappointment in the “help” foreigners have thrown at the continent but also the joy he experienced in meeting people as he travelled:
“Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it, hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch doctors. Not that Africa is one place. It is an assortment of motley republics and seedy chiefdoms. I got sick, I got stranded, but I was never bored. In fact, my trip was a delight and a revelation.”
Dark Star Safari is an interesting account of Theroux’s travels, especially as he travels in Africa by means not dared by most. He is very negative about the work of foreign development organisations, which is not entirely unfair I will agree. Throughout the book however, Theroux’s style remains witty and entertaining.
Paul Theroux’s account of his overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town in Dark Star Safari follows his other stories of epic overland trips such as Riding the Iron Rooster in China and two books about the Silk Road. You may enjoy contrasting Theroux’s wit and insight with Sihle Khumalo’s Dark Continent My Black Arse. Khumalo also travelled the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo by public transport, but he has quite a different perspective being a native of the continent and focuses more on the travelling than the impact of foreign intervention.