While novice backpackers cut their teeth on the well-trodden route from South East Asia to Oz, Africa outside the beach resorts and luxury safari camps can be challenging even for the most experienced traveller. Fortunately for the world of travel literature, this is good news. Challenges make for gripping tales. These books are my favourites from this enchanting, maddening and diverse continent. What are yours?
In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong
You could be forgiven for thinking that some of the topics chosen by Michela Wrong as suitable book material might be a chore to read but she has a talent for observation as well as insight and thus her work is hard to put down. This vivid account of Mobutu Sese Seko opens with the words:
“At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, a group of guests who had just staggered back to their rooms after a heavy drinking session in L’Atmosphere, the nightclub hidden in the bowels of Kinshasa’s best hotel, heard something of a fracas taking place outside. Peering from their balconies… they witnessed a scene calculated to sober them up.”
I’ll forgive her following a.m. with morning. That’s one great opening paragraph.
The Congo isn’t somewhere I’ve been, though it is somewhere that fascinates me. This book, tackling the subject of how good leaders turn bad, is one to be devoured, one that will keep you turning the pages long after you should be asleep and one that is essential reading for any traveller to Africa, Congo or otherwise.
Blood River by Tim Butcher
Another Congo account, entirely different but equally enthralling, is Butcher’s tale of his journey along the Congo River. Such were the dangers likely to be encountered en route, you’d be forgiven for thinking at the outset that the author was a complete lunatic. It’s one of those narratives where you find yourself holding your breath so often that you wonder whether such behaviour could be good for you. He writes beautifully:
“The heat began to grow, so I shed my fleece, but not the feeling of torpor.”
He’s economical with words, yet is wonderfully evocative at the same time:
“I stirred in the pre-dawn chill, my legs pedalling for bedclothes.”
It’s such a casual phrase but one with an imagery with which you identify instantly, a delight to read right from the get-go.
The Lost Kingdoms of Africa by Jeffrey Tayler
This guy is great too and through this book, you get to accompany him on a journey westwards across the Sahel from Chad to Senegal. These days, much of the region would be challenging to visit, some on the no-go list through risk of kidnap or terrorism. He sums up Dakar:
“Women dressed in elaborate banana headscarves and tight-waisted floral dresses strolled the sidewalks. The wind set loose clothes flapping, but it carried no dust; it was pure, coming from the Atlantic, intoxicatingly fresh.”
I spent my holiday in Senegal by the ocean, from its capital Dakar to St Louis in the north, but having visited the Sahara, I can imagine how refreshing it must have been to have finally reached the sea after so long travelling through that desiccated region. I can also identify with his impatience to get out there and engage with the city:
“We soon slowed and got stuck in a traffic jam. I was too excited to sit still. With my bag on my shoulder, I jumped out…”
Isn’t that why you should always travel light?
The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers
Douglas Rogers’ poignant memoir about his family’s struggles in Zimbabwe is one of the most heart-rending works on Africa I’ve read. It’s a timely reminder that issues surrounding land ownership and race in African nations are hugely complex. There are no easy solutions but there are always victims. Rogers deals with the subject tactfully and with empathy for both sides:
“Other farming families stayed longer, determined to fight to get their property or livestock back, or simply because this was home. They were Zimbabweans. There was nowhere else to go.”
Swahili for the Broken-hearted by Peter Moore
Sometimes you just want to read something a little less serious, and Peter Moore has a light touch and a sense of humour that hits the spot. Each chapter begins with an African proverb, which is an education in itself, but it’s his witty turn of phrase and wry observations as he travels from Cape Town to Cairo that make the book such a gem. He’s the kind of person you’d love to go travelling with despite deep down knowing you’d be led astray, as with this account from the Zim side of Victoria Falls:
“Perhaps the most astounding thing about the falls is that there are no guard rails along the rim to stop visitors from falling in. Back home they stick up signs screaming ‘Danger!’ even if it’s a 1-metre drop onto a bed of spongy moss. Here you can get as close to a 107-metre drop as you want… As I crept towards the edge to peer at the river 100 metres below I lost my footing and slipped on the wet rocks.”
Peter, if you’re reading, where shall we go?
Recently I stayed in a hotel very close to Colombo’s airport, the Otha Shy Airport Hotel. The Sri Lankan capital is some distance away, and as I had a late arrival followed by a morning onward flight, I was more focused on location than quality. I took a cursory look at some reviews but didn’t bother with much more. The price was reasonable, it looked clean and I wasn’t going to have to spend an hour in traffic worrying whether I’d miss my flight.
On arrival, at nearly midnight following a delayed flight, the person manning reception was pleasant and efficient. He gave me a complimentary bottle of water and a working WiFi code. The room was spotless and I had a comfortable night’s sleep. I woke reasonably early and half an hour or so later I became aware of some persistent hammering from the floor above. I wasn’t too worried, as I was about to check out anyway.
On check out, the reason became apparent: the ground floor was complete but the first floor was a scaffolding-clad building site. Never mind: the owner was still charm personified and despite his late night, gave me a free lift to the airport about ten minutes up the road.
Curious, I checked the reviews. Most were very positive. Here’s what Trip Advisor has to say: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g2550421-d8656795-Reviews-Otha_Shy_Airport_Hotel-Katunayaka_Western_Province.html#review_361396695 and here are the reviews on Booking.com: http://www.booking.com/hotel/lk/otha-shy-airport.en-gb.html#tab-reviews.
The owner was very enthusiastic about his expansion plans and convinced that the building work would be completed this month (April 2016). He was the kind of man you want to root for; he had a dream and was determined to realise it. What’s nice is that the lack of poor reviews means that the people that have stayed there while construction is underway get that. I can’t imagine there being much leeway in his budget, so he’d need bookings for his ground floor rooms despite the noise or disruption. A few bad reviews could scupper his dreams.
I’m not in the habit of destroying someone’s chances to improve themselves. Mr Nalaka, I wish you every success with your business and if I return to Sri Lanka, I’ll be booking my old room.