West With The Night

Few books capture the spirit of Africa as well as West with the Night. I won’t try to summarize it here because I won’t do it justice, but there are tales of lions, courageous dogs, horse breeding, flying, and elephant hunts, all laced with a great deal of wisdom.

West With The Night by Beryl Markham [click image for more]
Even though it was written in the 1930s and is set in Kenya (or, as it was then called, British East Africa), it brings alive so many things I’ve come to cherish about South Africa during our brief stay here – the endless savannah, the adventure, the humility of its people. I can highly recommend it, whether you’re interested in Africa or not. And don’t just take it from me. Beryl Markham wrote it so well, according to Ernest Hemingway – who is no small authority on Africa in his own right – that “I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”

Here is just one excerpt which made me laugh out loud, because it is so very true for Africa even today (a fact we were reminded of just a few weeks back when we drove what on the map is labeled as a big highway from Sodwana Bay on the Elephant Coast back to Johannesburg but in reality is a winding pot-holed two-lane and more often than not one-lane road):

“There were roads, of course, leading in a dozen directions out of Nairobi. They started out boldly enough, but grew narrow and rough after a few miles and dwindled into the rock-studded hills, or lost themselves in a morass of red muram mud or black cotton soil, in the flat country and the valleys. On a map they look sturdy and incapable of deceit, but to have ventured from Nairobi south toward Machakos or Magadi in anything less formidable than a moderately powered John Deere tractor was optimistic to the point of sheer whimsy, and the road to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, north and west through Naivasha, called ‘practicable’ in the dry season, had, when I last used it after a mild rain, an adhesive quality equal to that of the most prized black treacle.

This minor defect, coupled with the fact that thousands of miles of papyrus swamp and deep desert lie between Naivasha and Khartoum, had been almost flippantly overlooked by a Government road commission which had caused the erection, near Naivasha, of an impressive and beautiful signpost reading:

To JUBA – KHARTOUM – CAIRO –

 

I have never known whether this questionable encouragement to the casual traveler was only the result of well-meant wishful thinking or whether some official cursed with a depraved and sadistic humour had found an outlet for it after years of repression in a muggy Nairobi office. In any case, there the sign stood, like a beacon, daring all and sundry to proceed (not even with caution) toward what was almost sure to be neither Khartoum nor Cairo, but a Slough of Despond more tangible than, but at least as hopeless as Mr. Bunyan’s.”