The Armchair Traveller — The other Africa

Updated - November 13, 2021 10:10 am IST

Published - March 09, 2012 07:03 pm IST

Dark Star Safari

Dark Star Safari

Dark Star Safari

By Paul Theroux

What an elegantly simple reason to write a book! “I got sick, I got stranded but I was never bored: in fact, my trip was a delight and a revelation. Such a paragraph needs some explanation — at least a book; this book perhaps”. And so, for the next 494 pages, Paul Theroux takes us around Africa, mostly by ramshackle buses, sometimes by slow train, all the way from Cairo to Cape Town. What he sees — what you get to read in “Dark Star Safari” — never bores you, only appals and awes you in turn. For, Africa seems like two completely different continents rolled into one; the awesome one belongs to the luxury traveller, bristling with obsequious butlers and bush jackets, where ‘'tourists yawned at the animals and the animals yawned back”. And the other Africa, the one that Theroux visits, is one where 30 people sit pressed into each other in the small circle of shade thrown by a single mango tree; where villages of people with leprosy and AIDS orphans abound; where cash-strapped students steal books from their own library and sell them; where practical highwaymen on the Bandit Road take shoes from tourists at gun-point, as they were ‘forever walking’, ignoring the expensive but useless watches, pens and bags. His places are no less interesting and diverse; he compares Cairo’s one-word weather forecast (‘dust’) to the sort of report “you might expect on planet Mars”; he takes the Pyramids down a peg or two with a sharp “so brown and corrugated and geometric it looked like giant origami folded from cardboard”; and in Aswan, he points out that the previously common crocodiles can now only be seen in leather goods showrooms. And when he talks of ant-hills the size of bungalows, boulders as tall as three-storied houses and spots “mauve warthogs and golden elephants” in the “unexpected afterglow of the sunset” you know this is, indeed, the ‘real’ Africa…

It works because...

This is a traveller’s tale straight from the great, dusty beating-heart of Africa, a tale that mocks the “safari-as-charade” brigade, embracing instead the unexplored bits that tourists deem dangerous and / or boring. Theroux’s penchant for local buses and trains (for it is from trains that he admires the “melting light show” of an East African sunset and is dazzled by giraffes casually walking past his window) and his disdain for boutique game-viewing and cruise-ships (filled with passengers with “new hips”) make for interesting reading. But it is his impressive observations — more than his measured praise and controlled criticism — that simply stuns you. Take, for instance, the case of Kitchener’s Islands. We went to this nice, lush botanical garden long ago on a trip to Egypt, and took lots of pictures, beneath palm trees, besides palm trees, hugging palm trees. Maybe that is why we never saw the “long monumental sand pistes of smoothness, suggesting depth in the way it lay in wind-swept swathes, scooped, and carved, like trackless snow-fields tinted pink and gold at sunset, awaiting skiers”.

Moral of the story — dump all other guidebooks and travel instead with Theroux; even an armchair one is sure to be memorable.

And this one stays with you...

“Some countries are just perfect for tourists. Italy is. So are Mexico and Spain. Turkey too. Egypt of course. Pretty big. Not too dirty. Nice food. Courteous people. Sunshine. Lots of masterpieces. Ruins all over the place. Names that ring a bell. Long vague history. The guide says, ‘Papyrus’ or ‘Hieroglyphic’ or ‘Tutankhamen,’ or ‘one of the Ptolemies’, and you say, ‘Yup’.”

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