Travels in Africa: The 7 Books to Read

Once known as the dark continent and still seen as a ‘difficult’ place by some, Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, with 20% of the Earth’s land area and a population of more than 1.4 billion people. Half a dozen European countries plundered, raped and mercilessly looted Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries and while today all 54 African countries are free, most parts of the continent continue to suffer from poverty, political instability, corruption and unpredictable spurts of violence. But while Africa doesn’t, perhaps, look like the ideal place for a nice little roadtrip for most people, the continent has its own charm and some are irresistibly drawn towards it for a bit of adventure – the kind one might not be able to find tamer places. For anyone who’s ever thought of travelling across Africa but hasn’t been able to muster the courage to actually undertake that journey, here’s a list of seven books that you might first want to read. Written by a diverse range of writers, all of whom write particularly well, these books present snapshots of life across Africa and what you may yourself expect, should you someday decide to jack it all in and hit the Trans-African highway.

Ubuntu: One woman’s motorcycle odyssey across Africa, by Heather Ellis

‘At the age of twenty-eight, while sitting in a friend’s backyard in the remote mining township of Jabiru, Heather Ellis has a light-bulb moment: she is going to ride a motorcycle across Africa. The idea just feels right – no matter that she’s never done any long-distance motorcycle travelling before, and has never even set foot on the African continent. Twelve months later, Heather unloads her Yamaha TT600 at the docks in Durban, South Africa, and her adventure begins. Her travels take her to the dizzying heights of Mt Kilimanjaro and the Rwenzori Mountains, to the deserts of northern Kenya where she is befriended by armed bandits and rescued by Turkana fishermen, to a stand-off with four Ugandan men intent on harm, and to a voyage on a ‘floating village’ on the mighty Zaire River. Everywhere she goes Heather is aided by locals and travellers alike, who take her into their homes and hearts, helping her to truly understand the spirit of ubuntu – a Bantu word meaning ‘I am because you are.’ Ubuntu is the extraordinary story of a young woman who, alone and against all odds, rode a motorcycle to some of the world’s most remote, beautiful and dangerous places,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘Heather Ellis has worked as a radiation safety technician, a motorcycle courier, a journalist, and in communications for an NGO. She lives near Melbourne with her three children, and is currently writing the sequel to Ubuntu while working as a freelance journalist and professional speaker. And she still rides motorcycles,’ it adds.

‘What drew a wanderlusting gal in her late 20s, living in a northern Australia mining town, to a grand overlanding motorcycling adventure? You might assume it came from months or even years of careful planning and preparation, or a deep contemplation of world travel, but aside from a lifelong obsession with Africa, the author claims it was nothing more than a beer-inspired whim. Further, she did it the hard way, on a well-worn Yamaha TT660, along a route that included many of the continent’s less than savoury, even hostile, locations. And she drops a bomb at the end of the book that makes it all come together, also helping to explain why it took her so many years to publish her story,’ says ADV Moto.

Walking the Nile, by Levison Wood

‘The Nile, one of the world’s great rivers, has long been an object of fascination and obsession. From Alexander the Great and Nero, to Victorian adventurers David Livingstone, John Hanning Speke, and Henry Morton Stanley, the river has seduced men and led them into wild adventures. English writer, photographer, and explorer Levison Wood is just the latest. His Walking the Nile is a captivating account of a remarkable and unparalleled Nile journey. Starting in November 2013 in a forest in Rwanda, where a modest spring spouts a trickle of clear, cold water, Wood set forth on foot, aiming to become the first person to walk the entire length of the fabled river. He followed the Nile for nine months, over 4,000 miles, through six nations – Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, the Republic of Sudan, and Egypt – to the Mediterranean coast.’

‘Like his predecessors, Wood camped in the wild, foraged for food, and trudged through rainforest, swamp, savannah, and desert, enduring life-threatening conditions at every turn. He traversed sandstorms, flash floods, minefields, and more, becoming a local celebrity in Uganda, where a popular rap song was written about him, and a potential enemy of the state in South Sudan, where he found himself caught in a civil war and detained by the secret police. As well as recounting his triumphs, like escaping a charging hippo and staving off wild crocodiles, Wood’s gripping account recalls the loss of Matthew Power, a journalist who died suddenly from heat exhaustion during their trek. As Wood walks on, often joined by local guides who help him to navigate foreign languages and customs, Walking the Nile maps out African history and contemporary life. An inimitable tale of survival, resilience, and sheer willpower, Walking the Nile is an inspiring chronicle of an epic journey down the lifeline of civilization in northern Africa,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Wood aims for an accumulation of specific and grounded experiences, not some smear of images half-seen from a car window. Maybe the simplest task we can expect of those who write books about walking is that they see and share what we might otherwise never have seen, or may soon lose forever. In this, Wood succeeds. And he has some encounters worth savouring. North of Khartoum, at one dusty little shanty, a shopkeeper offers Wood land, to build him a house, and to find him a wife. Another threatens to divorce his wife if the travellers don’t stay for lunch. Collecting these stories — let alone doing so beautifully — requires a variety of lucky skills [and] Wood emerges as a dutiful and brave guide,’ says the LA Times.

Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, by Noo Saro-Wiwa

‘Noo Saro-Wiwa was brought up in England, but every summer she was dragged back to visit her father in Nigeria – a country she viewed as an annoying parallel universe where she had to relinquish all her creature comforts and sense of individuality. After her father, activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, was killed there, she didn’t return for several years. Then she decided to come to terms with the country her father given his life for. Traveling from the exuberant chaos of Lagos to the calm beauty of the eastern mountains; from the eccentricity of a Nigerian dog show to the decrepit kitsch of the Transwonderland Amusement Park, she explores Nigerian Christianity, delves into the country’s history of slavery, examines the corrupting effect of oil, and ponders the huge success of Nollywood. She finds the country as exasperating as ever, and frequently despairs at the corruption and inefficiency she encounters. But she also discovers that it is far more beautiful and varied than she had ever imagined, with its captivating thick tropical rain forest and ancient palaces and monuments – and most engagingly and entertainingly, its unforgettable people,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘What makes this so much more than just a quirky travelogue is that her voyage is taken in the shadow of her father, the environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged in 1995 under the dreadful military dictatorship of Sani Abacha. Without forsaking her jaunty style, the author shows she is her father’s daughter with sharp observations about Nigeria. In her gentle style, she peels away many of the cliches that envelop Nigeria and reveals both the beauty and brutality of this slumbering superpower, which as any visitor rapidly discovers is one of the world’s most exasperating yet exhilarating nations,’ says The Guardian.

Running With The Moon Paperback, by Jonny Bealby

‘Jonny Bealby was devastated when his fiancée Melanie died unexpectedly while they were travelling in Kashmir. Bittersweet, bold and beautifully told, Running with the Moon is a tale of true love and loss, of exploration, adventure and courage,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘Running With The Moon has been slickly edited considering the author’s self-confessed ability, and has an almost cinematic style. It hits hard from the opening prologue which takes the reader very much by surprise, delivering a stomach punch that sets the scene for the rest of the book and hooks the reader in. The author sets out on an African road trip along with his pal Neil to try to get over the death of his partner Mel. It all goes horribly wrong at the start and he has to continue the journey on his own, although often riding along with other world travellers in convoy. The story contains all the elements of any great tale; romance, danger and a rollercoaster of feelings. We are taken on a journey to Cape Town and back through some of the most dangerous parts of the world such as Angola [and] like all road trips, the story is full of border control yarns and the real world challenges of riding in the third world. Can’t see how anyone could write a better motorcycle adventure book to be honest, considering Running With The Moon’s special circumstances and locations,’ says Classic Bike Hub.

‘Bealby’s insights into people like himself who have all the trappings of civilisation yet have suffered greatly – and into the lives of people who live with death and disease and deprivation on an everyday basis but just get on with it – makes a really unusual read. This book is not a giddy travelogue of ripping yarns and motorbike derring-do (although Bealby must have been pretty tough to have endured some of the more taxing sections of his ride) or an eye opening look at other cultures. It’s mostly about ordinary people and how they cope, and how sometimes a naïve belief in the underlying oneness of human nature can see you through the most trying of times,’ adds Gaia Discovery.

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, by Tim Butcher

‘A compulsively readable account of an African country now virtually inaccessible to the outside world and one journalist’s daring and adventurous journey. When war correspondent Tim Butcher was sent to cover Africa in 2000 he quickly became obsessed with the idea of recreating H.M. Stanley’s famous nineteenth century trans-Africa expedition – but travelling alone. Despite warnings that his plan was suicidal, Butcher set out for the Congo’s eastern border with just a rucksack and a few thousand dollars hidden in his boots. Making his way in an assortment of vessels including a motorbike and a dugout canoe, helped along by a cast of unlikely characters, he followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian adventurers. Butcher’s journey was a remarkable feat, but the story of the Congo, told expertly and vividly in this book, is more remarkable still,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Blood River is not a gruelling recounting of every painful moment nor does it play up adventurous scenes. The author chooses instead to highlight specific challenges faced by himself, the character and stories of people he meets on his journey, and the regions he passes through. His journey is one that illuminates a cross-section of a forsaken people whose plights run the gamut from cruel dictators, substantial and widespread government corruption since the DRC’s independence, rebel militias exterminating entire villages, and as a result the lack of opportunity to fix even the most critical infrastructure to stem the country’s turmoil. We feel that Blood River can appeal to a wide swath of individuals without deep knowledge of Central Africa to jump into an eye-opening journey while also receiving background history through the narrative in a way that doesn’t detract from the memoir’s readability,’ says Poaching Facts. ‘The book provides a gripping story and an absorbing look at a country [DRC] that has been moving backward for half a century – Butcher’s book is a masterful description of a country moving backward,’ adds Foreign Affairs.

Impossible Journey: Two Against the Sahara, by Michael Asher

‘The story of how Michael Asher and Mariantoinetta Peru succeeded in crossing the 4500 miles of the Sahara from west to east with camels and a series of guides in 1986, a feat no other Westerner had accomplished. An added complication was that they had been married only five days before and the desert world exposed the flaws in their relationship. Despite this, their commitment bound them together and the book reveals the courage and determination with which they tackled one of the world’s greatest deserts, as well as the picture of an ancient world threatened by Western culture and ravaged by famine and drought,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘In April 1986, I travelled to Mauritania with my wife Mariantonietta, to begin preparations for a journey across the Sahara desert, from West to East, by camel and on foot. Our route lay through Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Egypt, a distance of 4500 miles. Mariantonietta and I were no newcomers to Africa; we had both lived there for some years and spoke Arabic fluently. To each other, though, we were little more than strangers. When we arrived in Mauritania, we had been married for exactly five days. She, an Italian born on the island of Sardinia, and I, an Englishman, were from cultures as alien to each other, almost, as Saharan ways were to both of us. The book is the story of our journey across the world’s greatest desert [and] it is also the story of a man and a woman who had come to terms with each other in a harsh environment and of how they managed, just, to survive,’ says the author. Take our word for it – this book is an absolute classic, not to be missed.

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux

Dark Star Safari is Theroux’s classic account of a journey from Cairo to Cape Town. Travelling across bush and desert, down rivers and across lakes, and through country after country, Theroux visits some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, and some of the most dangerous. It is a journey of discovery and of rediscovery – of the unknown and the unexpected, but also of people and places he knew as a young and optimistic teacher forty years before. Safari in Swahili simply means journey, and this is the ultimate safari. It is Theroux in his element – a trip where chance encounter is everything, where departure and arrival times are an irrelevance, and where contentment can be found balancing on the top of a truck in the middle of nowhere,’ says the publisher’s note.  

‘His encounters with the natives, aid workers and occasional tourists make for rollicking entertainment, even as they offer a sobering look at the social and political chaos in which much of Africa finds itself. Theroux occasionally strays into theorizing about the underlying causes for the conditions he finds, but his cogent insights are well integrated. He also returns to many of the places where he lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher in the 1960s; these visits fuel the book’s ongoing obsession with his approaching 60th birthday and his insistence that he isn’t old yet. As a travel guide, Theroux can both rankle and beguile, but after reading this marvellous report, readers will probably agree with the priest who observes, ‘Wonderful people. Terrible government. The African story,’ says the Publishers Weekly. ‘Some of his observations about Africa’s economic decline are astute, although his quest for explanations is limited to what he can extract from the cast of characters he meets along his way. Mostly, however, this book is an intelligent, funny, and frankly sentimental account by a young-at-heart idealist who is trying to make sense of the painful disparity between what Africa is and what he once hoped it might become,’ adds Foreign Affairs.

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