You’ve travelled well when your most valuable souvenirs are the stories you can’t wait to share. Here are 6 of my favourite African travel books, in no particular order, in case you’re looking for something enjoyable to read over the holidays.
Definitely one of my favourite reads in the past three years, this is a deceptively simple tale of Dana Snyman’s travels mostly through the South African platteland. It centres largely on the people he meets, from drifters and karretjiemense to old railway people and Harley bikers. In his hands, even crumbling old buildings, lonely landscapes and roads become characters. Anyone who loves the open road, lonely Karoo dorpies and meeting quirky people will love this book.
AA Gill is Away
This is the only book on my list that’s not local. AA Gill is partly an acerbic London restaurant critic, but for me it’s his travel writing that is superb. He shoots from the hip, is hysterically irreverent and a dreadful cynic, but has a rare ability to “interview places as if they were people”. The pieces in this collection that resonated most strongly with me were those about Africa – his impressions of famine-stricken Sudan, the harshness of the Kalahari or a safari in Tanzania. The African chapters comprise only a quarter of the book, but they’re backed up by fascinating essays about places as diverse as Argentina, Cuba and India, even the seedier parts of Kaliningrad. Stay away if political incorrectness offends you.
A Walk in the Park: Travels in & around South Africa's national parks
Yes, I know, this is my book. But it’s still one of my favourite travel reads, so why shouldn’t it be here? The plot is essentially a ten-week journey in and around fourteen of South Africa’s national parks. But it’s not all about wildlife; rather, it’s a string of experiences, activities and people, peppered with interesting facts, cultural heritage and food, all spiced up with a touch of humour. You can read each chapter like a story, from walking with a San tracker to horse riding, eating oysters to swinging from the treetops, meeting a man who survived a leopard attack to following a romantic lighthouse trail. Apart from the travel tales, there are also at least 300 ideas of things to do in and around our national parks.
Do Not Take this Road to El-Karama
Chris Harvie (an ex-Brit with a guesthouse in Mpumalanga and a now finger in the Karoo pie too) takes us on a trip through eight African countries. He’s a generally cheerful traveller, but sometimes gets all wound up when things – or people – go wrong. And that’s amusing to those of us sitting comfortably at home. This isn’t a book that will help you plan a trip to Zambia or Kenya, but it will give you a taste of what you can expect, from laid-back friendliness to frustration. Beware: you’ll probably catch a bad case of itchy feet, especially if you’re the sort who turns up your nose in horror at the idea of an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink luxury safari and prefers to do things in your own adventurous, independent way.
Dark Continent, My Black Arse
This is an amusing account of black South African Sihle Khumalo’s journey from Cape to Cairo. What sets it apart is that he travels exclusively by public transport. His journey isn’t necessarily easy; there are discomforts and mishaps, as well as a huge language barrier to be overcome. But he gives some insight into people, even though most of his fellow Africans think he’s more than a touch crazy. It’s a different and original take on travel in Africa and all the more enjoyable for that. I preferred this to his second book Heart of Africa.
West Coast: Cederberg to Sea
This large-format book by Karena du Plessis, with evocative photos by Vanessa Cowling, doesn’t really fall into the same category as the other paperbacks I’ve mentioned, which you can read on the beach like novels. But I’ve included it because there are so many quirky stories buried in the text. With Karena and Vanessa as your guides, explore West Coast villages, meet colourful characters, revel in the spring flowers and windswept scenery, and taste some local food. As the publicity blurb so accurately has it, Karena gets people from all walks of life to talk to her about their lives, their favourite recipes and places, ‘they even let her peek into the cupboard where the family heirlooms are kept.’
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