An Excerpt from Travels in Africa


I AM SITTING HERE piecing together my diaries and find it hard to believe it’s been over thirty years since 1987 when I boarded a London-bound plane and set off to drive a Land Rover across Africa. My notes are just scrawls in the blue pads I’d purchased in Heathrow that dreary winter morning so long ago, and my photographs, mostly slides, are amateurish and beginning to fade, but they make the memories seem even fresher, so that by the time I began this book, new memories of places and people emerged even as I wrote them.

I am not the young man I was when I set out across the Sahara with barely enough money for a return flight home and not enough common sense to realize what I was getting into. Africa has changed too, yet I suspect it is in many ways the same; there weren’t any internet cafes when I was there, there was no cell phone or GPS, but I imagine the conventional method of fixing flat tires out in the bush still involves tire irons, bicycle pumps and hours of labor. But this story is not intended to be a ‘how-to’ book nor a history, but an attempt to recount nearly a year in my life and that of the great continent. It was a journey in many ways more difficult than I’d expected when I’d started off from England and that, with the prescience of hindsight, seemed so easy when it ended months later in Tanzania, as I boarded the plane that would fly me back to London. That I might never go back to Africa seemed unimaginable to me when I passed the shopping cart full of gin purchased at the duty-free shop to the British expatriate coffee farmer who’d in return generously given me my return ticket. He said I had only to pretend to be his very dark-skinned teenage daughter, and he didn’t see my blonde hair or blue eyes as presenting any difficulty with the muscular black men in uniform at customs at the airport in Arusha. And he was right.

But why go someplace where scarcely anyone speaks English, where the roads are devilish quagmires of mud and sand, and where the road maps, when there were road maps, are merely someone’s best guesses? Why Africa? To answer that, I must go back to some of my earliest memories.

… Why Africa? To answer that, I must go back to some of my earliest memories.

And that’s where I’ll begin, with me as a young child. I suffered then from nightmares, but after those early dreams of monsters in the closet and hands under the bed trying to get me, the first dream I can really remember was about Africa. I was walking through a jungle, there were big leaves and monkeys screeching from somewhere in the shadows, drums beating, and it was very dark. I don’t know the genesis of the dream, whether it was something I’d seen from the crib or perhaps from pictures in a children’s book, but I remember something was far away and I was trying to find it; whatever it was, it was gentle and I wasn’t afraid, but it was somewhere inside and I was trying to get in. In the dream it was Africa, and wakening I pulled the covers over my head, shut my eyes tight, and tried to go back.

A few years later, I was perhaps ten years old and another African memory: My friend’s mother stood cooking in the kitchen and the stale odor of old cooked vegetables and cigar smoke wafted off the curtains; my friend’s father, his stubby cheroot hanging loosely between his fingers, sat slumped in his old stuffed chair. His wife shuffled in from the kitchen and drew the draperies tight; from somewhere outside, across the alleyway in back, a kettle faintly whistled. We sat huddled in darkness, he and the four of us boys, before the old black and white television set. It was an afternoon matinee and we watched those 1930s films about Africa, Stanley and Livingstone and King Solomon’s Mines. I remember the credits, the blank map of Africa with the words, ‘The Dark Continent,’ the painted warriors in loincloths and feathered anklets, the sounds of men drumming on hollowed logs, the marching columns of head-laden blacks, the spears and the singing, the white men in khaki and white topees. I watched in riveted boyhood fascination. It was Africa.

I recall perhaps being twelve and sitting at our kitchen table, reading my mother’s ancient atlas and tracing the routes of Stanley, Livingstone, Laing and Mungo Park. I knew nothing of The Heart of Darkness or apartheid, it was before Bokassa, Idi Amin, and Mobutu. I didn’t know about Sudan or Biafra and I was ignorant as to how famine and death and war had made bloated bellies the Malthusian symbol of the continent, but at twelve I knew about the Sahara, the River Niger, and the Congo, and I knew that one day I’d go. My mother once recalled to me how I sat transfixed to her atlas, how I was like young Marlowe, who’d pressed his finger to the map and proclaimed: I shall go there!

Travel, of course, is an escape, and as I think back on it, I can’t decipher from what it was I was trying to run. Not my work: I liked my job as a government lawyer in Santa Fe—as much as one can like being a lawyer. But why Africa? Why not India or China? That most obvious question of all is also the most difficult to answer, for it doesn’t explain much to talk of films or childhood dreams or my mother’s old green atlas.

Today the world we live in seems poised on the brink. We plunder the earth for fuel and burn it so relentlessly we’ve overheated it. We’ve created weapons whose very purpose is bringing about the world’s end. Daily we cause the extinction of innumerable forms of life that have existed on the planet nearly since the earth’s inception. We carry on in our world with most giving little thought to the consequences of our civilizing it. We hope for the best, take it in stride and move on to the next day and then the next, and hope things will be fine for our children, and for the children of our children. I don’t suggest it’s possible or even good to go back, to undo what we’ve done, and certainly we cannot un-know what we know, but when I see what our thousands of years have brought us and what the future may hold, it makes me feel queasy. And so much of my desire to go was simple curiosity, an urge to see things as I imagine they were before, even if the images conjured up are false and trite and nothing more than a childhood fantasy. And, of course, there was that vague desire to escape.

Even thirty years ago that wasn’t easy to do; tourism had already taken hold nearly everywhere, but if there was any place on earth to get away from it all, Africa was it. It took nearly a year to plot my get-away, but the conscious decision to do it was implanted rather quickly. One night from the back yard of my Santa Fe home a cat screeched and it woke me from a dream, and I found myself thinking about Africa. It was that sudden: first, awakened from a dream, then the next day a walk through the forest. In the mountains the aspens were turning gold, and I had an awful grip of melancholy at the change of seasons, a feeling of another year gone by. I was well into my thirties and though I could still with my fingers trace the routes of Mungo Park, I didn’t even know if any roads went through Africa. Surely, I thought, walking through those autumnal woods, there must be maps. And then it struck me: If I don’t go now I never will. I thought: Why not just go?

So that night at dinner with friends, not thinking very clearly after that perilous third margarita, I announced my intention to leave my job, fly to England, buy a Land Rover, and drive it across Africa. After that whatever Africa had done to my unconscious mind flowered into obsession, as I searched for maps and read every book on traveling through the continent that I could find. I wrote missions and embassies; I planned and plotted. I discovered the Michelin road maps but otherwise information was scarce; there wasn’t much written then about traveling by road through Africa. There were no blogs, and for months I was haunted with worries about four-wheel drives, border crossings, how to avoid tropical diseases, the rainy season, and my very limited skills as an automobile mechanic. Land Rovers seemed to be the vehicles of choice for crossing Africa, reliable, and parts said to be easily available, but I knew nothing about buying one either. Money, too, was a problem. I hadn’t much of it and there were things I didn’t know about when I first decided to go: I didn’t know of the required Carnet de Passage, the jerry-cans I would need, the price of gas, nor had I considered the use of sandladders or even the simple problem of how to purify the water. I’d read nothing by anyone who’d ever actually driven down and across Africa, but after a bit of research it seemed one could go from Morocco to Algeria, south across the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea, and then across the Congo Basin to Tanzania and Kenya and the Indian Ocean, and perhaps even back north along the Nile to Egypt. Or at least it seemed that way. But that’s the trouble with maps. Things always look so straightforward on them.

So I purchased a plane ticket. I had no real notion of what I was getting into or what to expect; I was relying, I think, on faith, on faith and the ineluctable momentum of having made the decision to go. And that seemed enough.

Chapter One  The Road To Africa

London Flight

BUT I WAS A LITTLE AFRAID of going to Africa alone, and so I am grateful to Dianne, who was then my girlfriend, and who on more or less a lark agreed to join me on my journey. At the baggage check for our plane to Heathrow the woman with orange hair, a gold badge and a friendly smile never asked what was in the boxes I’d packed that were to be loaded in the plane’s belly: the boxes filled with medicine and disposable syringes I’d never use, the tools and camping equipment I’d leave behind, the cameras that would be stolen, the backpack stuffed with boots and clothes and maps. I thought I’d brought enough for an expedition up Everest.

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