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Dark Star Safari:Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

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Towards the end of this book Theroux ponders on how it is that some of the places he’d visited on his trip already seemed familiar: he recognises that Nadine Gordimer’s writing had made Johannesburg seem like a city he was returning to as had Mahfouz’s work done for him in Egypt.


I think Paul Theroux succeeds in this book, like the writers he praises, in conveying the ‘texture and emotions of a real place, making the reading of the work like a travel experience’.


Theroux is not a sightseeing tourist in Africa, nor is he one for safaris, but one who gets down and dirty, making use of public transport whenever he can - mostly run-down trains and buses – and the occasional taxis and lifts. Through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique he goes and finally South Africa – and it’s only in the latter, staying for once in a big hotel, that having locked his bag and every expensive thing he owned in the safekeeping of the hotel’s padlocked strongroom does he find after four days absence that the bag had been stolen, losing his watch, wallet, cash, air tickets as well as artefacts.


In his youth Theroux had spent two years in the Peace Corps in Malawi and after being thrown out from that country took up a post in Uganda, at Kampala University. He occasionally meets up with old African contacts who confirm what he notices, that everything has got worse. In Tanzania, for example, ‘forty years of independent rule and foreign investment….and this vast fertile country of twenty million people had achieved a condition of near bankruptcy and had one factory’.


He points out time and again the futility of charity, the ‘aid industry’ in Africa. He writes that it is non-inspirational, aliens having been helping for so long and were so deeply entrenched that ‘Africans lost interest – if indeed they had ever had it – in doing the same sort of work themselves’. Tyrants, he writes, love aid. Aid helps keep them stay in power: aid helps maintain the status quo.


I had a chuckle near the end when towards the end of his trip he sees a man reading that day’s Johannesburg Star when some words catch his eye: flagged on the front top of the paper was the headline ‘PESSIMISTIC GLOBETROTTER WINS NOBEL PRIZE’. ‘Looks like I’ve got the big one’ he murmured. He leaves it to the reader to figure out it was his old friend V S Naipaul.

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This was the first of Paul Theroux's travel books I read and I liked it enough to have since read "The Great Railway Bazaar", his mid-70s rail trip from London to Tokyo (my BGO review here) and bought a couple of others second hand.


I agree Theroux's strongest suit is undoubtedly his sense of place and the feeling he isn't pulling his punches in describing places and experiences that are really quite grim.


My library service has his most recent travel book "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star", which retraces his "The Great Railway Bazaar" journey, on a whopping 20 disc unabridged audiobook, so that's most likely my next book of his.

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This was the first of Paul Theroux's travel books I read and I liked it enough to have since read "The Great Railway Bazaar", his mid-70s rail trip from London to Tokyo (my BGO review here) and bought a couple of others second hand.




Gram, I'm ordering this from the library today. I'm on a Theroux roll.

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I've just finished listening to this as an audiobook. Most of my Theroux reading has been done this way and even though all of the books have different narrators with very individual styles the writing shines through. Paul Theroux is a very honest travel writer. He balances the job of describing places and his involvement with them in a way that other writers seem to struggle with. He is always entertainig and thought provoking.

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I have just finished this and it was both a 'comforting' and an 'uncomfortable' read.

'Comforting' in that in 1970 I hitchhiked from Lusaka to Kampala, via Zanzibar, with a Kampala-Lusaka air ticket dated 6 weeks hence. It was a brilliant trip, not least in that I struck up conversations with people I would otherwise have not. I stayed in hotels that were more hovel than hotel, and travelled in the backs of vans, in local buses and trains. I didn't ever get shot at, but I was followed on Zanzibar by very suspicious people (undercover police). I ate food off the streets wherever I happened to be, bought a weird carving (Makonde) and filigree silver jewellery. Luckily, I didn't get robbed. Equally luckily, I got my plane back to Lusaka.

'Uncomfortable' in that I have subsequently been employed - locally - to work on aid agency projects and know how (blatantly) these projects are tailored to meet the needs of the donors, and not the needs of the people. And yes - oh yes - Theroux hammers the aid agencies. ("Dead Aid" by Dambisa Moyo is well worth a read in this regard.)

Unfortunately, no one cares what the people really need.

And it's not just aliens who suffer from this appalling lapse in courtesy; sometimes it's a country's own president. One of the most outstanding images is that of a town in Malawi, whose Indian shopkeepers were "persuaded" to leave, so that their retail businesses could be taken over by local Malawians. And what did the local traders do? They set up shop on the pavements in front of the Indians stores. They have no need of storerooms, refrigerators, stock-taking, electricity, security guards and watching the till. Their own retail trade is much more immediate.

Terrific book. Excellently written.

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