Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

by Paul Theroux

Hardcover, 2003

Call number

916.04 T



Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2003), Edition: Later Printing, 496 pages


In Dark Star Safari the wittily observant and endearingly irascible Paul Theroux takes readers the length of Africa by rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry, and train. In the course of his epic and enlightening journey, he endures danger, delay, and dismaying circumstances. Gauging the state of affairs, he talks to Africans, aid workers, missionaries, and tourists. What results is an insightful meditation on the history, politics, and beauty of Africa and its people, and "a vivid portrayal of the secret sweetness, the hidden vitality, and the long-patient hope that lies just beneath the surface" (Rocky Mountain News). In a new postscript, Theroux recounts the dramatic events of a return to Africa to visit Zimbabwe.… (more)

Media reviews

Theroux is often dour, although he finds hopeful signs that Africa will endure and overcome its present misfortunes in the sight, for instance, of a young African boatman doing complex mathematical equations amid “spitting jets of steam,” and in the constant, calming beauty of so many African
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places. Engagingly written, sharply observed: another winner from Theroux.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member tracyfox
[Dark Star Safari] has generated widely differing reviews. Some people find Theroux's insights into contemporary Africa well-informed and valuable. Others deride him as a constant complainer, arrogant know-it-all and secret hater of all things African. I think both sides have valid points.

This is
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a fast-paced narrative that quickly takes the reader off the beaten African track. The author's self-designed 'safari' takes him from Cairo to Capetown on everything from careening minibuses and broken down steamers to luxury trains and dugout canoes. Along the way Theroux can't help but keep reminding us that he is seeing the Africa most people never experience because he is willing to travel without an itinerary and passively outwait the delays. At times he comes across as smug. Other times his comments (particularly about tourists visiting Egyptian ruins and East African game parks) degenerate into nastiness and serve only to underscore that he is losing his battle with time and becoming an old crank.

The two things I enjoyed most about Theroux's recounting of his journey were the way he wove history (both ancient and contemporary) into the narrative and the pains he took to continue asking difficult questions (why Africans are so violent, why international aid fails in Africa, what missionaries think they are actually bringing to Africa) well past the point of politeness. These conversations don't make the author likeable in the least, but they do make for an interesting read.

The thing I liked least about the book was Theroux's unending fascination with prostitution, female circumcision and how often Africans have sex. Only mentioned with a sly wink or nudge, these topics were not broached in any meaningful way and would have, for the most part, been better either left out or explored further. As handled, these topics only reinforce my perception of Theroux as an aging alpha (at least in his own mind) male. Also irritatingly, Theroux spends numerous hours in the book working on an erotic story which is not included in the text either.

Nevertheless, the story wouldn't be the story without Theroux and in my opinion he is a lot like someone you meet at a dinner party -- full of bold swashbuckling stories and opinions on everything, a conversation partner you feel lucky to get to pass the time with, but not someone you'd want to spend every waking hour with. For me, Dark Star Safari lived up to its name. It gave me a better understanding of how different Africa truly is (like a dark star), how severe its problems are, and how difficult they will be to solve. I also left with a keen appreciation of the varied cultures and geography that make up the continent and some insights into why one-size solutions will probably fail. Faced with several harrowing situations and many nights in uncomfortable conditions, I found Theroux's complaints valid as presented. His criticisms were harsh at times, but seemingly voiced out of true concern for Africa and its people.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
I had never read a book by Theroux before, and will never read another. What a smug, pompous, whining, ignorant twit.

He starts out in Egypt doing the 'Social Incest in the Golden Ghetto' (From the Ugly American) tour. He writes about the dinners he has with important people. He doesn't mention what
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they are, but for anyone who has been in the Golden Ghetto its very obvious.

Then he takes a tour boat down the Nile, and is outraged by the tourists, and the help who seem to be pandering for tips. Right at the start the man who is supposed to be a famous world traveler, (who spends most of the book telling you how superior a non-tourist he is) shows that he is a moron.

Most native people in menial jobs in 3rd world countries make very little money in terms of salary, and often have extended families to support. These people may make $20-$30 a month, and tips are what keep them and their families alive. But none of that enters into the head of this clueless dolt, only that his sense of the noble native has been defiled, because they are performing.

He spends much of the book trying to get from point A to point B in the easiest non-tourist way possible, He rails at the aid workers and missionaries who won't give him a lift in their comfortable first world cars/trucks, but then denigrates the tourists who do use first world methods. The only difference is the tourists pay, but he wants a freebie. He eventually gives up on the trucks and roads and gets on trains, because he is worried about his safety (a reasonable fear). But he sees nothing wrong with riding in luxury, with fruit in glass bowls which he doesn't intend to eat, while young children are begging for food outside his window, He would rather they be self-sufficient and starve, than he contribute to their aid-dependence (in his mind the route of all evil).

He feels so superior to tourists because he makes contact with everyday Africans, but even when he travels with them on trucks and buses, he heads off to hotels they couldn't possibly afford when they stop. He is the worst kind of smug traveler, one who feels he is communing with the locals, without actually spending much time in their world.

He was in Africa many years ago, as a member of the Peace Corps. but was kicked out of his country for political and possibly sexual misbehavior. He views the current trip through his past experience, and spends the whole trip whining and complaining how things aren't what they were or should be. He says the aid programs impose a foreign solution to African problems, and so are doomed to fail. He then of course wants to impose his own foreign solution. He may actually have some good points and ideas, but he so obviously has an agenda, that you can't trust anything he says.

Interestingly, he keeps calling Africa a Dark Star, as though it and the people there are something strange and alien. Throughout the book all he talks about is the joy of being unreachable, of being free from his home and family and everyday responsibilities. He treats the country and the people as if they are only there to accommodate his needs and his views.

He ends up at a game park, enjoying the amenities, all the while talking about how horrible they are, and how unnatural. How they create a false canned African experience for the guests. He never takes into account if they are doing a good job in terms of providing employment for the locals, or in protecting the wild life. He of course is above it all so he can enjoy the experience without being tainted.

I saw him on C-SPAN talking about this book, and he first refuted Conrad's use of the cannibal imagery in his book Heart of Darkness, as being inaccurate in reality and as a metaphor. Theroux then went on to talk about how he never went out a night on his trip because the Africans were predators. He called them predators several times, and he never noticed the irony of his statement.
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LibraryThing member CaptainHaddock
After a pause of some years when I devoured his books, I thought it was time to give this one a chance. It certainly is the post political of his travel books. As always he brings people and places to life and gives the reader a deeper insight of the situation in Africa. Nevertheless I found it
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less gripping than his former books, because I noticed a bit more of self-righteous and a bit less of self-
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LibraryThing member hazelk
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
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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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LibraryThing member lauranav
Interesting travelogue as we goes over land, with all the difficulties and insights that kind of travel brings, from Cairo to Cape Town. At times there was a little too much Paul Theroux in his musings, but overall the book does a great job of bringing the real Africa to life. The perspective he
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brings in comparing Africa today to what it was like 40 years ago is very helpful. The cynicism seems earned in what he sees. A few areas he wears his own set of blinkers, but with the length of the book and the intimacy we gain with him through his travels, these are put out there honestly like everything else. Recommended, as a source of life in Africa and a great reading list for further experience.
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LibraryThing member name99
I've not read Theroux before. He makes an interesting contrast to Simon Winchester or William Dalrymple. He doesn't seem to be nearly as cultured as those two Englishmen, and so we get very much less of the historical and geographical insights that pepper their books. On the other hand, he seems to
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be quite a bit more gregarious, and so we get rather more of what everyday people are thinking.

His overall attitude to Africa seems to be one of benign despair, a feeling that whatever the motivations, outsider interference only makes things worse, and that the best foreigners can do is leave Africa stuck in the 18th century operating at a subsistence level.
A cruel conclusion, but, realistically, are there better alternatives?
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LibraryThing member PuddinTame
I once read an essay that claimed that books about foreign travel tell us about the traveler, not the place visited. I took that with a grain of salt, but that is certainly true in this detailed narration of a few months of Theroux's life, with Africa as a backdrop. I won't say that I knew a great
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deal about Africa before I read this, and I don't know much more afterwards. I am skeptical of someone who keeps telling us that he has brought his copy of Heart of Darkness; he's probably decided what he wants to see already. Obviously, from the other reviews, there are fans of Theroux who are happy just to read his prose or vicariously trot along in his footsteps. I hope such people have a good time with the book, I just don't recommend it to anyone primarily interested in Africa.

Theroux's account seems particularly pathetic when I compare it to my sociology professor's wise, witty and often self-deprecating accounts of his own time in village Africa. He wasn't the know-it-all that Theroux is, and he, and we, his students, learned a lot more from his experiences than from a book like this. I have often reflected on those lessons in the 30 years since I was in that class. If I had owned the copy I read of this book, it would have gone straight to the library donation cart.

I almost abandoned the book near the beginnning as Theroux whines all the way down the Nile while doing nothing in particular. Most of his writing is devoted to congratulating himself on being a superior tourist. I am not sure why we are supposed to care. I have never read a book by Theroux before, I won't read another, and I frankly don't care about him, his doings and his thoughts. One of my favorite parts of the book is when he writes ahead to an American consulate and orders them to arrange a series of lectures for him. Overwhelmed by his own magnanimousness at being willing to lecture for free, he is stunned to arrive and learn that they have done nothing. As he ponders this astounding development, it doesn't occur to him that perhaps the personnel were wondering who he is and why he supposes that they are his personal publicity agents.

Theroux has very little meaningful contact with average Africans and has little to tell us. I really don't care if he doesn't like luxury safaris - the only important question is how they affect the peoples of the countries hosting them. My understanding is that this varies, and that in some cases is well managed and eases the conflict between local villagers and wildlife preserves. To the extent that this is true, they are more valuable to Africans than he is. Theroux prefers traditional ways, but since he seems to see other people's lives as an aesthetic experience for himself, I am unconvinced by his uninformative pronouncements.

Except for a few conversations with individuals, the only worthwhile parts are the discussions about foreign aid, and this is chiefly useful as a guide to other books to read. It is telling that Theroux, congratulating himself on roughing it, thinks that he deserves special privileges in the form of free rides from aid workers. He doesn't get them, and his outrage at this affront to his self-importance makes me distrust his assessments. Is the problem chiefly that the aid-workers do a bad job or that they fail to recognize that Paul Theroux is a tremendously important person?

Theroux complains at great length that foreign aid doesn't do much to supply jobs and breeds dependency. So his comments on used clothing are very odd. He tells us at least twice that donated clothing is sold to used clothing dealers, who in turn sell it to the locals. This is apparently supposed to shock and dismay us. I think it's a great idea: unless Africa is being terrorized by a used-clothing cartel, or foreign organizations are getting rich off this, it provides work for the shopkeepers, defrays some of the transportation costs, and gets the clothing distributed at a price that he says the locals can afford. While it still subsidizes their clothing budget, it also places them in a less dependent situation that a straight giveaway would. So what is the problem? Giving the clothing away free would still cost money - little shops are probably more effective.

As for his descriptions of scenery, this is certainly a case where a picture is worth ten thousand words, and if I'm going to read about it, I'd rather read someone who can discuss the areas in depth.

If one wants to learn about Africa, I'd put this pretty low on the list. There are a few little nuggets about various literary figures that he met, but they aren't the sort of thing that I wanted to learn about when I picked up this book, and they are certainly not worth wading through the verbiage. I'd read this only if one thinks that Theroux possesses the curmudgeonly charm that his publishers attribute to him.
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LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Well written and engrossing travel journal across modern Africa. Theroux doesn't want to come out and say it but most of the anecdotes detail the utter incompetence of the vast majority of Africans. He surrenders to the idea that there may be no hope and that subsistence farming and limiting the
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effects tyrants may be th ebest that can be accomplished.
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LibraryThing member spinningjenny
This is an engrossing book. I learned a lot, and enjoyed a sense of tagging along on a trip that I'm never likely to make. The author made a lot of astute observations and I've thought a lot especially about his views on the efficacy of foreign aid in Africa.
One thing that turned me off, so to
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speak, is his insistence on talking about the boring progress of his erotic novel, paired with his too-virtuous assertions about not sleeping with prostitutes along the way.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
I'll be travelling from Cape Town to Cairo myself in 2010, and so this book was especially worthwhile reading, covering as it does Theroux's great journey from top to bottom of the continent. Theroux looks at topical issues in many of the countries he visits, and compares his impressions to those
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of his youth, when he worked in East Africa with the Peace Corps.

As interesting as this book is, I did feel that some of it was too long, and it certainly needed a better editor to weed out the clunky paragraphs and the repeated facts.
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LibraryThing member ubaidd
My first Theroux travelogue was Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a journey in which the venerable travel writer retraced a trip he took thirty five years ago. In Dark Star Safari Mr. Theroux does something similar - he goes on a trip from Cairo to Cape Town, covering the landmass of that great and
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wondrous continent, a place that seems to cling hungrily to its moniker of the dark continent.

Theroux eschews air travel, as anyone whose read any of his travel books will know well. Mr. Theroux Africa is on a different planet, on a Dark Star as the author keeps reminding us. He compares the Africa of 2001 with the Africa he lived in forty years ago when he taught at a small school in Malawi and then at the Makerere University in Uganda, and most everywhere he sees an Africa "on the wane". He encounters pretentious aid workers driving around in expensive Land Rovers, self righteous missionaries, indifferent bureaucracy and superstitious politicians. He also meets some old friends and makes a few new ones. I found the story of an almost deaf Naguib Mahfouz holding court a Cairo hotel delightful.

There is much to recommend and very little to distract. If you are familiar with Paul Theroux' other work you already know his writing is not exactly full of hope but it is excellent. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member lunasilentio
I read this book in a class about vocation. A lot of questions came up about how much we could trust his account. He makes some pretty harsh judgments on people, especially relief workers. All the same, this is worth the hefty page count. It is not tedious to read, I find, because Theroux keeps you
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wanting to know how things end out and where he ends up. Very entertaining!
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LibraryThing member WashandjeNL
One of Theroux's best. A marvellous report of his travels from Cairo to Capetown. Some shocking descriptions of the results our 'aid' to Africa has.
LibraryThing member co_coyote
Africa seems almost hopeless to me. I read this book before I traveled there to see for myself. It wasn't as bad as I thought, but nearly. Theroux, though, remains fairly optimistic. Always one to travel the way less traveled, Theroux is my kind of traveler and guide. For understanding a place from
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the inside out, Theroux is the best.
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LibraryThing member yvonnebarlow
An honest return to a continent the author once loved. Theroux worked in Africa as an idealistic young man when being there was a time of hope - building new democracies and societies. Now - for so many reasons - the hope has faded. A revealing moment - an old academic colleague in Uganda asks
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Theroux when he is going to send his sons to work in Africa, and Theroux asks when the academic will bring his own sons home to work there.
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LibraryThing member RebeccaReader
I've heard and read critiques of Theroux that focus on his arrogance and self-centeredness. But this book is truly special, giving an extremely accurate view of contemporary Africa. His descriptions, praises, and criticisms all ring true, particular those of subSaharan Africa, the land of my birth.
LibraryThing member Tpoi
Theroux is a kind of travel writing rock star, and he's great to read; besides that he's completely mad, having complete disdain for his own safety or comfort. Dark Star Safari shows Theroux to be occasionally brilliant, a quite jaded idealist, an aggressive travler, cynical, a harsh critic of
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'development', the New Left, expats and non-profits.
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LibraryThing member ZacAbeel
Author Paul Theroux is a man that I admire a lot. For most of his life he has traveled to almost every place imaginable and written about his experiences. What makes Theroux different from many travel writers is that he rarely ever visits famous monuments or landmarks that a country would advertise
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on their tourism brochures. Instead, Theroux likes to wander into countries to meet the people living there. It is his opinion, that people are the most important factor when determining why a place is like it is. Thus, to truly understand a region of the world, the people that make up a place, must be understood first.

In Dark Star Safari Theroux travels from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa by any mode of transportation except plane. The end result is this book that chronicles Theroux meeting people from all the African countries in between and also meeting many different Americans and Europeans that have come to help solve some of Africa's biggest problems. Along the way Theroux gets stranded, shot at, robbed, and left to walk, bus, canoe, and train towards his goal.

This book does an excellent job of bringing perspective and sense to the many preconceived notions that we as Americans have about Africa and its problems. This book forced me to consider many of the policies that America and the rest of the world have developed for Africa, and whether or not they are the right ones. The book also does an outstanding job of showing what Africa is really like - not just a place of chaos and dread. Instead, Theroux is able to bring out some of the charming qualities that the continent has to offer and some of the realities that many people living there and here do not want to face.
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LibraryThing member Don1
In the 1960s the author was in the Peace Corps in eastern Africa. He decided to go back decades later to see how things had changed. He started this trip in Egypt and went mostly overland south to South Africa. Fascinating stuff.
LibraryThing member mfeldman51
I love Theroux's writing for its impiety, and this book is no exception. His account of the effect of decades of foreign assistance in Africa is unsparing, particularly as regards Malawi, where he was a Peace Corps volunteer in the sixties. HOW he gets from Cairo to Johannesburg is also pretty
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interesting, since the intrepid Theroux does not fear dubious boats or the open beds of dilapidated trucks. It's a long book, but I was never bored.
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LibraryThing member uryjm
Quite timely reading this when Africa's plight is being highlighted in the news so much at the moment. Theroux travels overland from Cairo to Cape Town offering his jaundiced view on places and people along the way, reserving his most scathing attacks for aid agencies and workers. He can't resist
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noticing that the best cars are the white Land Rovers driven by the charities, that the best hotel rooms are stuffed full of aid workers paying more per night than the average African earns in a month or passing on gossip that he's heard that agency workers have demanded sex for food. What has all this aid for Africa achieved? You can't help but feel it is less than nothing, and that is certainly the view that Theroux wants to push.
I always come away from reading Theroux travelogues feeling I've gained one or two unique insights from his writing that you wouldn't get from the news, documentaries or novels. Dark Star Safari is definitely one of his best, and mostly because underneath it all you feel that he really does care about Africa and Africans and wants to see the Continent thrive.
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LibraryThing member TanyaTomato
True account of the authors adventures through Africa by any means except airplane if possible. Riding on top of trucks, in buses, with scheming taxi drivers, awful trains in disrepair and trains with exceptional service. Explains the realities of Africa - foreign aid is actually a hindrance for
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the countries ever standing on their own, and things seem to be getting worse not better.
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LibraryThing member kakadoo202
Brilliant travel. Got a culture shocked just from reading it.
LibraryThing member debnance
Funny. I had a Paul Theroux on my shelf for years, untouched, and finally decided to take it with me to the Chicago Book Festival last summer where I released it. Theroux was speaking so I thought it would be cool to release one of his books just outside the tent where he was speaking. I left the
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book next to one of the tent stakes and went inside to hear him talk. He was a fabulous storyteller and I immediately regretted that I had given away his book. I went out to try to retrieve the book, but it had already found its way into the hands of a couple who loved the whole BookCrossing idea. Never did journal the book, but I definitely knew the book had a good home. And I've been itching to read Theroux ever since I heard him speak. I vow not to let this book go before I've given it a thorough reading. Later:I've been reading this book in bits and pieces for a couple of weeks. What a great safari it has been. Theroux has guided me through Egypt and Sudan, Kenya and Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. His adventures and misadventures have led me to conclude that I will never visit Africa outside the pages of a book. A wonderful, awful trip to a wonderful, awful place.
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LibraryThing member John5918
Very good in many respects. Theroux revisits Africa, where he worked in his youth, and travels overland from Cairo to the Cape. He evokes the feel of Africa, but both I and my African partner are left with a slightly uncomfortable feeling that he is being patronising and condescending towards
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Africans, like so many travel writers. He is very crticial of aid agencies and I agree fully with him on that.
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