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Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

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.

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3 Smart Tips for Experiencing Your First Safari

3 Smart Tips for Experiencing Your First Safari

Africa is becoming an increasingly popular destination for travellers, as people find it easier to tick off that “Safari” bucket-list item.  Flights are getting cheaper, tour operators are plentiful and travel agents in countries far from the African continent are becoming well-versed in the myriad options available under the Safari concept.  But Africa can also be a daunting destination.  The media is plagued with stories of civil strife, political tension and personal security issues.  This article offers three smart tips for those wanting to embark on their first safari.

  1. Personal Security

Listening to foreign news about Kenya, one would think the whole country was at war.  Reading government travel warnings about South Africa gives a similar impression.  While it is prudent to heed travel warnings and other information about the safety of your destination, it is also advisable to connect with people living there to find out how they are experiencing daily life.  In general, people want to get on with their lives and the majority of citizens are not throwing grenades or robbing tourists.  As with anywhere (including your home town!) you should keep your wits about you, but there is no reason to cancel your safari because the media has hyped up a situation.

  1. Know what you have booked

Tour operators are a dime a dozen in many countries of Africa as tourism becomes increasingly lucrative.  In Kenya, tourism accounts for approximately 13% of GDP, making it the largest industry of the country.  So it is important that you thoroughly research your selected tour operator and ensure they are the real deal.  There are plenty of review sites on the internet, and a tour operator should be prepared to connect you with previous guests (if those guests give permission of course!) so you can check them out.  Ask plenty of questions about the mode of transport, the standard of accommodation, what activities are included in the price, which meals are included, whether you will be picked up at the airport, etc.  If you are clear on what to expect then the chance of nasty surprises spoiling your holiday will be minimised.  And don’t take anything for granted – if you assume something, then it is almost guaranteed that your assumption will be wrong.  Africa behaves differently to other places in the world so it is vital to ensure everything is explicit.

  1. Interact with locals

There are a lot of “flying packages” where you fly into the capital city, transfer immediately to a charter plane to fly to a game reserve, spend a few days looking at wildlife and then fly back to the capital and home.  You might have a chat with your safari driver or the staff at your lodge, but that would be the only chance you have to interact with a local.  While this suits many people, my opinion is that there is no point in travelling if you don’t meet the people and see the culture.  The safari experience is enriched when you take some time to visit communities and talk to people about their lives.  There are a lot of kitsch tourist villages to visit, but there are opportunities to engage with people in a meaningful way, if you use a tour operator committed to sustainable and responsible tourism.

Africa is the ultimate safari destination with opportunities for the most sublime wildlife encounters and eye-opening cultural encounters.  Sadly, much of the wildlife is in grave danger from poaching and shrinking habitat.  Tourism provides an income stream that encourages the protection of the wildlife which is crucial right now.  If a safari is on your bucket list, start your research, find a reputable tour operator and come to Africa!  You won’t ever regret it…. and perhaps it will just be the beginning of a love affair with this amazing continent.

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