Travel Book of the Week: Dark Star Safari

“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hot spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read about in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again.”

Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari

Author: Paul Theroux

Published: 2003

Geographic Area: East Africa (like, all of it)

Original Language: English

As you can see in the image above, the full title of this book is Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. If that doesn’t make you want to pick it up right now, I really don’t know what will.

Dark Star Safari follows Theroux on a journey that he makes–solo–down the spine of Africa. He travels through a total of 10 countries, going by foot, bus, train, canoe, and goat truck. Along the way he meets a dizzying array of people, both local and foreign, and shares their stories.

This staggeringly long voyage is made no less impressive by the fact that he was 59 when he set out, celebrating his 60th along the way. However, it’s worth noting that he lived in Malawi and Uganda as a young man, so he not only speaks good Chichewa and Swahili, but also has a vast network of former colleagues and students. He meets up with many of these people throughout his voyage (including the then-prime minister of Uganda, Apolo Nsibambi), and works as a guest speaker at various local universities.

His adventures in Dark Star Safari include seeing the Pyramids, sailing down the Nile, exploring the Rift Valley, and taking a ship across Lake Victoria, visiting numerous archaeological ruins along the way. There are some wonderful moments in this book.

There are also very heavy moments in this book. Theroux shares some highly poignant scenes that put a human touch on atrocities that many westerners know only as headlines, if they’ve heard of them at all. In one chapter, an Ethiopian journalist recounts his torture in a prison during the “Derg,” a dictatorship in power during the 1970s and ’80s. Years later, after the Derg is overthrown, the journalist gets on a city bus and realizes he is sitting across from the man who tortured him.

In another scene, this one in Nairobi, Kenya, he is riding in a taxi and witnesses a naked man being chased through the gutter by a mob of people. The mob is armed with literal sticks and stones, and it is heavily implied that they murdered the naked man.

Theroux’s main goal was to revisit the countries he lived and taught in decades ago, and see how they have improved or worsened. Keeping in mind that he narrates events that took place in 2001, his prognosis is grim: he describes an Africa that is hungrier and meaner, despite (or perhaps because of) countless dollars of foreign aid. However, it’s worth noting that much of this criticism is aimed at the urban centers of Africa; he sees much more hope in the hinterland, the towns and villages of the continent, where people are more likely to be bound by kinship than by economic necessity.

Anyone who’s been keeping up with my blog will have seen that I mention Paul Theroux’s name a few times. He is one of the most famous travel writers alive today, and he’s one of my very favorite authors, in any genre. He has written a vast number of books, fiction and non-fiction, and I will be reviewing several of them in the future.

Paul Theroux has a very unique voice, and very strong opinions, that come across in his writing. He is old school, he does not suffer fools, and he will call people, governments, and NGOs alike on their bullshit. He says “f*** you” to at least one aid worker.

Matter of fact, if he were to read this blog, he would probably condemn my practice of numbering the places I’ve been to, derisively calling me a “country-counter.”

Because of his opinions, Theroux has earned himself a lot of controversy. He very much walks the walk, no one can say he doesn’t, but at least one reviewer accused him of not doing his homework when it comes to foreign aid. I don’t know enough about this topic to speak on it, just something to keep in mind when you read his work.

Dark Star Safari is a book that delves into the African continent in a way that most westerns probably don’t think about. It is an honest look at the trials and triumphs of its people, who, like with any community on earth, have their good, bad, ugly, and beautiful.

I highly recommend this book, and whether you love it or hate, feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’m happy to hear what you think.

As always, I’ve included a link to purchase this book below. It is an affiliate link, so if you choose to make a purchase, I do get a small percentage.

Buy Dark Star Safari from Amazon
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