Cover Dark Star Safari
Dark Star Safari


Dark Star Safari

Paul Theroux was born and educated in the United States. After graduating from university in 1963, he travelled to Italy and then Africa, where he worked as a teacher in Malawi and as a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1968 he joined the University of Singapore and taught in the Department of English for three years. Throughout this time he was publishing short stories and journalism, and wrote a number of novels, including Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers. In the early 1970s he moved with his wife and two children to Dorset, where he wrote Saint Jack, and went on to live in London. During his seventeen years’ residence in Britain he wrote a dozen volumes of highly praised fiction and a number of successful travel books. He has since returned to the United States, but continues to travel widely.

Paul Theroux’s many books include Waldo; Saint Jack; The Family Arsenal; Picture Palace, winner of the 1978 Whitbread Literary Award; The Mosquito Coast, which was the 1981 Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year, joint winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was also made into a feature film; My Secret History; Millroy the Magician; Kowloon Tong; The Great Railway Bazaar; The Old Patagonian Express; Riding the Iron Rooster, which won the 1988 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Happy Isles of Oceania; Sir Vidia’s Shadow, a memoir of his friendship with Sir Vidia Naipaul; Fresh-Air Fiend: Travel Writings 1985–2000; Hotel Honolulu; and Dark Star Safari. Most of his books are published by Penguin.


Dark Star Safari

Overland from Cairo to Cape Town



Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at

First published by Hamish Hamilton 2002
Published in Penguin Books 2003

Copyright © Cape Cod Scriveners Co., 2002
All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

ISBN: 978-0-24-195864-3

For my mother, Anne Dittami Theroux on her ninety-first birthday

Large-leaved and many-footed shadowing,

What god rules over Africa, what shape

What avuncular cloud-man beamier than spears?

Wallace Stevens, ‘The Greenest Continent’




1. Lighting Out

2. The Mother of the World

3. Up and Down the Nile

4. The Dervishes of Omdurman

5. The Osama Road to Nubia

6. The Djibouti Line to Harar

7. The Longest Road in Africa

8. Figawi Safari on the Bandit Road

9. Rift Valley Days

10. Old Friends in Bat Valley

11. The MV Umoja Across Lake Victoria

12. The Bush Train to Dar es Salaam

13. The Kilimanjaro Express to Mbeya

14. Through the Outposts of the Plateau

15. The Back Road to Soche Hill School

16. River Safari to the Coast

17. Invading Drummond’s Farm

18. The Bush Border Bus to South Africa

19. The Hominids of Johannesburg

20. The Wild Things at Mala Mala

21. Faith, Hope and Charity on the Limpopo Line

22. The Trans-Karoo Express to Cape Town

23. Blue Train Blues

1 Lighting Out

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 in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again. Feeling that the place was so large it contained many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too – feeling that there was more to Africa than misery and terror – I aimed to reinsert myself in the bundu, as we used to call the bush, and to wander the antique hinterland. There I had lived and worked, happily, almost forty years ago, in the heart of the greenest continent.

To skip ahead, I am writing this a year later, just back from Africa, having taken my long safari. I was mistaken in so much – delayed, shot at, howled at, and robbed. No massacres or earthquakes, but terrific heat and the roads were terrible, the trains were derelict, forget the telephones. Exasperated white farmers said, ‘It all went tits up!’ Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it – hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch-doctors. Africans, less esteemed than ever, seemed to me the most lied-to people on earth – manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn. To be an African leader was to be a thief, but evangelists stole people’s innocence and self-serving aid agencies gave them false hope, which seemed worse. In reply, Africans dragged their feet or tried to emigrate, they begged, they pleaded, they demanded money and gifts with a rude, weird sense of entitlement. Not that Africa is one place. It is an assortment of motley republics and seedy chiefdoms. I got sick, I got stranded but I was never bored: in fact, my trip was a delight and a revelation. Such a paragraph needs some explanation – at least a book; this book perhaps.

As I was saying, in those old undramatic days of my school teaching in the bundu, folks lived their lives on bush paths at the end of unpaved roads of red clay, in villages of grass-roofed huts. They had a new national flag to replace the Union Jack, they had just gotten the vote, some had bikes, many talked about buying their first pair of shoes. They were hopeful, and so was I, a schoolteacher living near a settlement of mud huts among dusty trees and parched fields: children shrieking at play; and women bent double – most with infants slung on their backs – hoeing the corn and beans; and the men sitting in the shade stupefying themselves on chibuku, the local beer, or kachasu, the local gin. That was taken for the natural order in Africa: frolicking children, laboring women, idle men.

Now and then there was trouble, someone transfixed by a spear, drunken brawls, or political violence – goon squads wearing the ruling party T-shirt and raising hell, But in general the Africa I knew was sunlit and lovely, a soft green emptiness of low flat-topped trees and dense bush, bird-squawks, giggling kids, red roads, cracked and crusty brown cliffs that looked newly baked, blue remembered hills, striped and spotted animals, and ones with yellow fur and fangs, and every hue of human being, from pink-faced planters in knee socks and shorts to brown Indians and Africans with black gleaming faces and at the far end of the spectrum some people so dark they were purple. Not the trumpeting of elephants nor the roar of lions, the predominant sound of the African bush was the coo-cooing of the turtle dove.

After I left Africa, there was an eruption of news about things going wrong: Acts of God, Acts of Tyrants, tribal warfare and plagues, floods and starvation, bad-tempered political commissars, and little teenaged soldiers who were hacking people – ‘Long sleeves?’ they teased, cutting hands off; ‘Short sleeves’ meant lopping the whole arm. One million people died, mostly Tutsis, in the Rwanda massacres of 1994. The red African roads remained but they were now crowded with ragged bundle-burdened fleeing refugees.

Journalists pursued them. Goaded by editors to feed a public hungering for proof of savagery on earth, reporters stood near starving Africans in their last shaking fuddle, and intoned on the TV news for people gobbling snacks on their sofas and watching in horror, ‘And these people’ – cue a close-up of a death rattle – ‘these are the lucky ones.’

You always think, Who says so? But perhaps something had changed since I was there? I wanted to find out. My plan was to go from Cairo to Cape Town, top to bottom, and to see everything in between.

Now African news was as awful as the rumors: the place was said to be desperate – unspeakable, violent, plague-ridden, starving, hopeless, dying on its feet. And these are the lucky ones! But I thought – since I had plenty of time and nothing pressing – that I might connect the dots, crossing borders and seeing the hinterland rather than flitting from capital to capital, being greeted by unctuous tour guides. I had no desire at the moment to see game parks, though I supposed that at some point I would. The Swahili word safari means journey, it has nothing to do with animals, someone ‘on safari’ is just away and unobtainable and out of touch.

Out of touch in Africa was where I wanted to be. The wish to disappear sends many travelers away. If you are thoroughly sick of being kept waiting at home or at work, travel is perfect: let other people wait for a change. Travel is a sort of revenge for having been put on hold, or having to leave messages on answering machines, not knowing your party’s extension, being kept waiting all your working life – the homebound writer’s irritants. But also being kept waiting is the human condition.

I thought: Let other people explain where I am, and I imagined the dialogue.

‘When will Paul be back?’

‘We don’t know.’

‘Where is he?’

‘We’re not sure.’

‘Can we get in touch with him?’


Travel in the African bush can also be a sort of revenge on mobile phones and fax machines, on telephones and the daily paper, on the creepier aspects of globalization that allow anyone who chooses to get their insinuating hands on you. I desired to be unobtainable. Mr Kurtz, sick as he is, attempts to escape from Marlow’s riverboat, crawling on all fours like an animal, trying to flee into the jungle. I understood that.

I was going to Africa for the best reasons – in a spirit of discovery; and for the pettiest – simply to disappear, to light out, with a suggestion of I dare you to try and find me.

Home had become a routine, and routines make time pass quickly. I was a sitting duck in this predictable routine: people knew when to call me, they knew when I would be at my desk. I was in such regular touch it was like having a job, a mode of life I hated. I was sick of being called up and importuned, asked for favors, hit up for money. You stick around too long and people begin to impose their own deadlines on you. ‘I need this by the 25th…’ or ‘Please read this by Friday …’ or ‘Try to finish this over the weekend …’ or ‘Let’s have a conference call on Wednesday …’ Call mefax meemail meYou can get me any time on my mobile phone – here’s the number.

Everyone always available at any time in the totally accessible world seemed to me pure horror. It made me want to find a place that was not accessible at all … no phones, no fax machines, not even mail delivery, the wonderful old world of being out of touch; in short, of being far away.

All I had to do was remove myself. I loved not having to ask permission, and in fact in my domestic life things had begun to get a little predictable, too – Mr Paul at home every evening when Mrs Paul came home from work. ‘I made spaghetti sauce … I seared some tuna … I’m scrubbing some potatoes …’ The writer in his apron, perspiring over his béchamel sauce, always within earshot of the telephone. You have to pick it up because it is ringing in your ear.

I wanted to drop out. People said, ‘Get a mobile phone … Use FedEx … Sign up for Hotmail … Stop in at Internet cafes … Visit my website …’

I said no thanks. The whole point of my leaving was to escape this stuff – to be out of touch. The greatest justification for travel was not self-improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace. As Huck put it, lighting out for the territory.

Africa is one of the last great places on earth a person can vanish into. I wanted that. Let them wait. I have been kept waiting far too many times for far too long.

I am outta here, I thought. The next website I visit will be that of the poisonous Central African bird-eating spider.

A morbid aspect of my departure for Africa was that people began offering condolences. Say you’re leaving for a dangerous place and your friends call sympathetically, as though you’ve caught a serious illness that might prove fatal. Yet I found these messages unexpectedly stimulating, a heartening preview of what my own demise would be like. Lots of tears! Lots of mourners! But also, undoubtedly, many people boasting solemnly, ‘I told him not to do it. I was one of the last people to talk to him.’

I had gotten to Lower Egypt, and was heading south, in my usual traveling mood – hoping for the picturesque, expecting misery, braced for the appalling. Happiness was unthinkable, for although happiness is desirable it is a banal subject for travel; therefore, Africa seemed perfect for a long journey.

2 The Mother of the World

The weather forecast printed in a box in the Cairo newspaper was Dust, on the cold day in February that I arrived, a day of gritty wind and dust-browned sky. The weather forecast for the next day was the same – no temperature prediction, nothing about sunshine or clouds or rain; just the one word, Dust. It was the sort of weather report you might expect on the planet Mars. Nevertheless, Cairo (population 16 million), a city of bad air and hideous traffic, was made habitable, even pleasant, by its genial populace and its big placid river, brown under a brown sky.

Tourists have been visiting Egypt for 2500 years – Herodotus (roughly 480–420 BC) was the first methodical sightseer. He was fascinated by Egyptian geography and ruins – and was also collecting information for his History, of which the whole of Volume Two is Egyptiana. Herodotus traveled as far as the First Cataract, that is Aswan. Later Greeks and Romans were tourists in Egypt, raiding tombs, stealing whatever they could carry, and leaving graffiti which is still visible today. The grander structures were also pilfered and for two thousand years such things – obelisks mainly – were dragged away and set up elsewhere and goggled at. Though obelisks were sacred to the sun god, no one had any idea of their meaning. The Egyptians called them tekhenu; the Greeks named them obeliskos, because they looked like small spits for kebabs.

The first stolen obelisk was set up in Rome in 10 BC, and a dozen more followed. Felix Fabri of Ulm, a German friar, went to Egypt in 1480, taking notes throughout his trip. An obelisk he sketched in Alexandria now stands in New York’s Central Park. In the same spirit of plunder and trophy hunting, Mussolini looted a fourth-century obelisk from Ethiopia, the Obelisk of Axum. This treasure now stands in front of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, near Caracalla. Because the scattered wars in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made travel difficult, Egypt was regarded as a safe and colorful destination. Egypt stood for the Orient, for the exotic, for sensuality and paganism. Egyptology did not start in earnest until the early nineteenth century, when the Rosetta stone was deciphered and at last the ruins disclosed the secrets of their script. This discovery unleashed a rage for Egyptiana and travelers, writers and painters flocked to the Nile Valley in search of the exotic.

Even then, Egyptian ruins had been ruins for thousands of years. The Egyptians themselves had never left and, though Arabized and Islamized, and nominally conquered by the French, the British, the Turks, their homeland the battleground of European wars, Egyptians went on farming, fishing, and living at the edges of their broken temples and tombs. They were blessed with the Nile. The ruins they regarded as a sort of quarry, a great stockpile of building materials to cannibalize for new houses and walls. But foreign soldiers had done the same, customarily garrisoning themselves in the ancient shrines – any temple unsuitable for French or British cavalrymen was commandeered for their animals.

Throughout, as Egypt was looted and trampled and gaped at, Egyptians remained Egyptian. In pharaonic times Egyptians made a habit of repelling, or subverting or enslaving anyone who ventured into their kingdom. But ever since Herodotus they have been welcoming foreigners, with a mixture of banter, hearty browbeating, teasing humor, effusiveness, and the sort of insincere familiarity I associate with people trying to become intimate enough with me to pick my pocket.

‘Meesta, meesta! My fren,’ what country you come from? America Number One! My fren’, you come with me … my house. You come. Meesta!’

In Cairo, there was a thin line between pestering and hospitality – indeed, they often amounted to the same thing, and although there were plenty of beggars there was little thievery. Egyptians seemed amazingly agreeable. You think they have been briefed to make jokes, by some government bureau but no, they are just hungry, desperation making them genial and innovative. It was obvious they were hoping to make a buck but at least they had the grace to do it with a smile.

‘You don’t speak Arabic today,’ Amir the cab driver said, ‘but you speak Arabic very good tomorrow.’

Everyone in this vast much-visited city had the patter. Amir then taught me the Arabic for please, thank you and sorry. I already knew inshallah, which means ‘God willing.’

‘Now teach me “No, thank you – I have no need.” ’

Amir did so, and before he dropped me he insisted that I hire him the next day.

‘No, thank you – I have no need,’ I said in Arabic.

He laughed but of course kept pestering.

‘My name Guda. Like the Dutch cheese,’ the cab driver said. ‘This is not limousine – not cost a hundred pounds. Just car, black and white taxi only. But clean. Fast. Handsome driver.’

And he spent the entire ride nagging me to hire him for the whole day. That was the theme in Cairo. Once someone had your attention they didn’t want to let go, for if they did you would slip away, forcing them to spend the day prowling for a fare. Business was terrible. But I saw this patter as another age-old artifact, like the plaster sphinxes and the chess sets and the camel saddles they sold to the tourists, the patter was another home-made curio, polished over the centuries.

Nearer the ruins and the pyramids and the sights they just gabbled, aiming to nail you, and they were expert, like Mohammed Kaburia, chubby, greasy-faced, wearing a made-in-China nylon jacket. It was sunset in Gizeh. I wanted to see the pyramids and the Sphinx in this weird dusty light.

‘Only twenty for the horse – you come, my fren’. You see Safinkees! I take you into a pyramid and you see the rooms and touch the moomiya.’

I fished for my twenty Egyptian pounds. We mounted the horses and were off, trotting through garbage beside ancient walls.

‘You pay later. Hey, how many wives you got? I got four – two Egyptian, two English. I keep them very busy!’

‘Of course.’

‘You are a gentleman. I can see in your face.’

‘Twenty pounds, right?’

‘No, no – twenty American dollars. See Safinkees. You touch the moomiya! My fren’ he let me. He know me. Maybe you buy picture. Papyrus. Mother-of-pearl box.’

‘You said twenty pounds.’

‘I say “twenty.” You hear me say “twenty”? Use Visa card!’ He leaned over and whipped my pony. ‘Make the horse gallop. I see you next week. Ha!’

He took out a mobile phone and stabbed the buttons with his stubby fingers and shouted into it and then, ‘This my phone. “Hello, hello!” Cost 2000. Horse is 5000. Arabian is 20,000 – maybe 30,000. Money! You give me baksheesh.’

‘Money, money.’

‘America – best country! America money – best money!’

We were still jogging along, up one muddy littered alley, down another, as dusk fell, as men in gowns and women in robes walked in a stately way, in spite of the puddles, and children shrieked at me on my pony.

‘You give me America money. I take you inside pyramid!’

‘Money, money, money, money. Please stop saying money.’

Mohammed howled into his mobile phone and dug his heels into his horse’s belly and slapped the reins against his horse’s flanks. And he led me past the wall, which was the perimeter of the enclosure of the Gizeh pyramids, a tumbledown neighborhood of squatters and slum-dwellers attached to the wall. In Egypt every wall attracts dumpers, litterers, shitters and pissers, dogs and cats, and the noisiest children.

Mohammed was manic in his banter: ‘America – strong country. Number one country. My fren,’ baksheesh! You buy papyrus … You touch moomiya … You take picture in pyramid … See Safinkees.’

Yakkety-yak, all for money.

And yet, in spite of his banter and his pestering and his deceits, the jaunt on horseback that early evening in Gizeh was gorgeous. Trotting through the back alleys that were stinking with garbage and litter in the mud, the basins of dirty water and buckets of garbage and chamber pots that were being thrown from upper balconies, with a squawk that might have meant ‘gardy loo.’ The smoke from the fires lit in braziers, the stink of the pissed-on walls, the graffiti, the dust piles, the brick shards, the baked mud, the neighborhood so decrepit and worn, so pulverized, it looked as though it had been made out of wholewheat flour and baked five thousand years ago and was now turning back into little crumbs. And yet I loved riding through the crepuscular dusk, parting the air that was penetrated with food smells and smoke and garbage, jogging through the puddles, with the muezzin howling, the dogs barking, the children chasing my sorry pony – the lovely evening sky showing through the dust cloud and striped bright yellow and cobalt blue. And then the pyramid, smaller than I had expected, so brown and corrugated and geometric it looked like giant origami folded from cardboard.

‘Safinkees,’ he said and waved his arms.

The Greek word ‘sphinx’ is unpronounceable to Egyptians, and also inaccurate – the fanciful Greeks associated it with their own mythical creature, appropriated it, much as the Arabs have done.

‘What do you call it?’ I asked.

‘His name Abu-el-Houl,’ Mohammed said.

But that is no more than an Arab nickname meaning the Father of Terror. The enigmatic creature is Ra-Herakhti, manifestation of the sun rising, with a lion’s body and the facial features of Khafre, who was King of Egypt at the time of its construction, 4500 years ago. Sesheb ankh or ‘living image’ is the ancient Egyptian term for such a statue.

Holding on to my saddle I peered into the dusk at the worn down and noseless face resting on crumbly forepaws, like a sand sculpture that had been rained on.

Because the Sphinx is the embodiment of dawn, it faces east, and so the sun was setting in the dust cloud directly behind it. You would not know that from some of the paintings that have been done of it. But Egyptian ruins are so atmospheric they tend to inspire the watcher into blurring reality, the over-excited traveler into seeing much more than is there. Hardly a painting depicts the Sphinx as it is, and even the stickler for Middle Eastern detail, David Roberts, gives it a yearning expression and, for effect, makes it face the wrong way. Earlier painters gave it thick lips and big staring eyes, the painter-traveler Vivant Denon gave it a Negroid face and a wondering gaze.

‘No drawing that I have seen conveys a proper idea of it,’ Flaubert wrote, which is probably true. But when he rode out to it in 1849 he repeated the name the Arabs had told him, Abu el-Houl, the Father of Terror, and noted in his diary, ‘We stop before the Sphinx; it fixes us with a terrifying stare.’ But he also said it seemed to him dog-like, ‘pug-nosed and tattered,’ and Flaubert’s friend Maxime Du Camp claimed that it looked ‘like an enormous mushroom when viewed from behind.’ The Sphinx was the one sight on his Grand Tour that Mark Twain did not mock. The pages in The Innocents Abroad that concern the Sphinx are unique in that breezy book and rare in Twain’s work for his descriptive flights, as he rhapsodizes, even gushes, studying the thing. ‘So sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient … It was MEMORY-RETROSPECTION wrought into visible tangible form … [and] … reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand in the presence of God.’

This is travelers’ invention – I saw it, you didn’t, therefore I am licensed to exaggerate. Twain tells us how he had longed to see the Sphinx, but he at least had seen a photo of it. Flaubert had seen drawings of the Sphinx but never a photograph – there were none. In fact, Maxime Du Camp claimed to be the first to take a picture of it. In his life of Flaubert, Geoffrey Wall noted that these men were probably the last Europeans to see it in this way, afresh. But photography’s spoiling the visual pleasure of places is nothing compared to the way the Internet and our age of information have destroyed the pleasure of discovery in travel.

Invention in travel accords with Jorge Luis Borges’s view, floated beautifully through his poem ‘Happiness’ (La Dicha), that in our encounters with the world, ‘everything happens for the first time.’ Just as ‘whoever embraces a woman is Adam,’ and ‘whoever lights a match in the dark is inventing fire,’ anyone’s first view of the Sphinx sees it new: ‘In the desert I saw the young Sphinx, which has just been sculpted … Everything happens for the first time but in a way that is eternal.’

Ruins especially lend themselves to invention; because they are incomplete, we finish them in our imagination. And although later that evening I ran into a beaky-faced man, in wilting clothes, thirtyish, fogeyish, frumpish, one of those pale bosomy academics you could easily mistake for a senile old woman, who waved his art history degree at me and said with slushy pedantry, ‘The Sphinx is vastly overrated,’ the Sphinx is a perfect object to turn into something of your very own, something grand, or in Nigel’s case, something negligible.

Mohammed said, ‘You give me money. I show you moomiya. You touch!’

‘Please stop saying money.’

He laughed, he gabbled, I was not listening, I didn’t really care, I was laughing myself. I felt a great happiness – the horse, the light, the decay, the ancient shapes, the children’s laughter – and it became one of the epiphanies of my traveling life.

I dismounted and leading my horse closer to the Sphinx I was approached by a woman who asked, using gestures, if I would help her lift a heavy plastic basket. I heaved it – but it was heavy, perhaps forty pounds – Mohammed was laughing at me from where he sat on his horse – and she curtsied while I placed the big basket on to her noggin. She could not hoist it alone but she easily carried it on her head.

Riding back to the stables, Mohammed began shouting ahead of me, louder than before.

‘Look! Look! See that man!’

The man was standing by a wall, a young man in a white robe, a tangle of turban on his head.

‘He not from Egypt! He from Sudan! I know, I know – because his face! He from there.’

Mohammed waved his arm, indicating far away – southerly, in a Sudanese direction.

‘Black!’ he howled, for blackness was such a novelty in Lower Egypt; and he galloped onward. ‘Black!’

Traveling south of Egypt I would be entering the Sudan. I did not have a Sudanese visa and for Americans such visas were hard to come by. The reason was understandable. On the pretext that Sudan was making anti-American bombs (and some people felt to correct the negative image created by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, to look decisive and presidential, even if it meant risking lives and flattening foreign real estate), President Clinton ordered air strikes against the Sudan. He succeeded in destroying a pharmaceutical factory outside of Khartoum in August 1998. This bomb crater would be on my itinerary, for after the bombs were dropped no one in the United States took much interest. Though we become hysterical at the thought that someone might bomb us, bombs that we explode elsewhere, in little countries far away, are just theater, of little consequence, another public performance of our White House, the event factory.

‘I would like to see the bomb site,’ I was telling the Sudanese ambassador, Salih Mashamoun, in his office in Cairo. He was a pleasant, well-educated man who had been ambassador to Vietnam. He was Nubian, he said, from northern Sudan, and raised speaking Nubian.

‘Is Nubian anything like Arabic?’

‘Nubian has no connection with Arabic. It is the true pharaonic tongue.’

He said that he regarded Nubians as the genuine Egyptians and that colonialists had confused the issue by imposing a frontier that divided Egypt and the Sudan. Talking with him made me want to go to Nubia.

‘There, inshallah, you will find pyramids and ruins that are greater than Egyptian. Nubia is the source of Egyptian culture. You must see Dongola and Meroe. The upper Nile. The Nubian tombs.’

But first I needed a visa. I made repeated visits to the Sudanese Embassy. The doorman got to know me, and after three visits he simply waved me through the gate and I went unaccompanied upstairs to the ambassador’s office, and when I put my head through the door he beckoned me in and urged me to sit and talk and offered me tea and told me that Khartoum had not responded to my visa application.

‘But perhaps, inshallah, it will be given.’

‘What shall I do?’

‘You can reapply. Or see Mr Qurashi. He is consul.’

Mr Qurashi Saleh Ahmed was thin, smirking, officious, always waving a cigarette, with a male secretary who constantly shouted at him. Mr Qurashi blew smoke at him and did not respond.

‘No fax from Khartoum.’

‘Maybe it will come tomorrow.’


It was helpful at this early stage of my trip to be reminded of the conflicting meanings of inshallah, which are: ‘We hope’ and ‘Don’t count on it.’

Mr Qurashi said, ‘You can reapply.’

Inaction from an official in such circumstances inspires the thought: Does he want baksheesh? I hung around, wondering whether to offer a bribe, and how to phrase the offer.

I took Mr Qurashi aside and said, ‘Is there anything I might do to help this matter along?’

He said nothing, he happened to be reading a closely typed letter.

‘Perhaps I could pay in advance?’

He was not tempted, he accepted my new application, he urged me to pay another visit because phones were unreliable. ‘But they will be repaired, inshallah.’

I went the next day, and the day after. The same taxi driver, Guda (‘like same as Dutch cheese’, I got the joke every day), who said, ‘In my whole life, I have never taken an American to this embassy. And why you want to go to Sudan?’

‘To see the pyramids. To talk to the people.’

‘Leetle birameed! Boor beeble!’

There is no ‘p’ in Arabic, no ‘v’ either.

More visits followed, I wanted to give this visa my best shot; but in a narrative of this kind such stories of delays are not interesting. The traveler awaiting a visa sits in a stinking armchair in the embassy foyer, looking at the national map and the colored photographs of the national sights and the dusty national calendar, the framed picture of the head of state smiling insincerely, the unfamiliar national flag; cranky officials, the sounds of telephones and murmurs, the back and forth of harassed secretaries. It is easy in these circumstances to talk yourself out of going, for this awful building and this dreary room begin to seem like the country itself.

To pass the time in this week of waiting, I went to the Cairo Museum, I visited the Nobel Prize-winner, Naguib Mahfouz, whom I had last seen in the Intensive Care Ward of the Military Hospital after his stabbing by a Muslim fanatic (recently hanged); I went to a party, I got other, easier visas.

Images of the African interior, where I was headed, filled the Cairo Museum, and I consoled myself by strolling up and down the enormous rooms and the ornate displays, looking at the Africa of wild animals and majestic palms and sculptural faces with the heavy-lidded Nubian gaze, vividly displayed in ancient carvings and paintings and bas-reliefs and sculptures in the museum. Representations in gold and ebony and precious stones of lions, cheetahs, cobras, eagles, hippos were everywhere, not as incidental decorations but as idols, the cobra god Wadjet, the bat-eared jackal Anubis, god of mummification, the sly sexual lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, lion-bodied men, alabaster cats, huge gold hawks, and even the chariots and the gold beds were given an African theme in the vivid imagery of posts with the features of hippos and rails in the shapes of leopards.

Small blue-glazed hippos, King Tut’s cheetah-skin shield, the multitude of stone-carved upright cats – all of them feline gods. To me this was an African treasure house, with fantastic mummifications, the mummified falcon, Horus, mummified sacred ibis; fish in mummy wrappings, and a crocodile in cloth, too, for crocs were worshiped up the Nile in Kom-Ombo, where I wanted to go. The Goddess of Joy, Bastet the cat, mummified as a slender gauzy idol. The Egyptian sentiment and craze for preservation had them mummifying their pets, their trophies, their prize catches, much as a moose hunter seeks a taxidermist and just as frivolous – a mummified Nile perch five feet long, a mummified dog with its tail jerked vertical, the skeleton of a horse.

I was reminded of how from medieval times mummies were taken to Europe for use in medicine (Montaigne mentions this in his essay ‘On the Cannibals’) and that Othello’s handkerchief, woven by an Egyptian, had magic properties, for it was ‘dyed in mummy.’

Nothing was weirder to me than the seated baboon, also a manifestation of Thoth (as well as ‘god of libraries, a birdgod, moonycrowned’), this one mummified but coming apart, the wrapping over its head falling loose, its unwrapped paw extended, still furry and a little dusty, like an ape stirring in a haunted house, shedding its bandages, peeping through its blindfold, looking hairy and vindictive.

And if you were planning to worship anything it might as well be the three-thousand-year-old stone carving, towering over me, of the goddess Taweret, ‘The Great One’ – a pregnant hippo standing upright with its big belly ballooning out, with human arms and a lion’s hind legs, associated with fertility and childbirth.

These marvels were within walking distance of the Sudanese Embassy, and my desire to see others like them on the Nile and in Nubia kept me pestering Ambassador Mashamoun for a visa.

‘Nothing yet but maybe soon, inshallah,’ his excellency said. ‘Will you take tea?’

He was more upbeat than many others. I went to a party given by a hospitable family in the salubrious suburb of El Maadi and at dinner an American woman on my left, hearing of my proposed trip said, ‘I have never been to Africa.’

‘I’ve never been to Africa either,’ an American man said across the table.

‘But this is Africa,’ I said.

‘No, no. Africa is …’ The woman made a gesture, like Mohammed’s gesture at the Nubian boy, meaning down there somewhere.

Without perhaps intending to be negative the partygoers conveyed to me nothing but discouragements.

‘I was in the Sudan,’ a man said. ‘Lovely people. But the roads are awful. I wonder how you’ll manage?’

‘When were you in the Sudan?’

‘Oh, this was’ – and he wagged his head – ‘this was years ago.’

An Irish diplomat said, ‘Your man in Kenya met with six members of the opposition in Khartoum last week and after he left every single one of them was arrested.’

The American man who had claimed Egypt wasn’t Africa said: ‘Zambia’s the place you want to avoid. Zambia’s a mess. People have high walls around their houses. You can’t walk the streets.’

‘Ethiopia – now there’s a place you want to stay away from. It’s still at war with Eritrea.’

A Ugandan man said, ‘Don’t go anywhere near Uganda until after the eighth of March. There’s an election that day and it will be violent.’

‘You heard the AIDS statistics in Kenya? AIDS is wiping out whole communities.’

‘Kenya’s kind of funny. They hired a guy to look at corruption – Richard Leakey. He found lots of it, but when he turned in his report he was sacked.’

‘The thing about the roads in Tanzania is that there aren’t any.’

‘There are no roads in the Congo either. That’s why it’s ungovernable. Anyway it’s really about six countries.’

‘The Sudan is two countries. The Muslim north. The Christian south.’

‘Those land seizures in Zimbabwe are horrendous. White farmers wake up in the morning and find hundreds of Africans camped in their fields saying, “This is ours now.” ’

‘Did anyone read that book about the massacres in Rwanda? I tell you, I got so depressed I couldn’t finish it.’

‘Somalia’s not even a country. It has no government, just these so-called war lords, about fifty of them all fighting it out, like street gangs.’

‘You know about the drought in the Ogaden? Three years without rain.’

Dessert was served and there were more pronouncements of this sort, gesturing south at the big hopeless heart of the continent.

A man with a Slavic accent claimed that he had met me many years ago. He became very friendly, though he could not remember where or when we had met – Uganda perhaps, he said, in the 1960s. At his matiest he confided in me, saying, ‘Colonialism just slowed down a process that was inevitable. These countries are like the Africa of hundreds of years ago.’

This was a crudely coded way of saying Africans were reverting to savagery. But in another respect what he was saying was true. After a spell of being familiar and promising, Africa had slipped into a stereotype of itself: starving people in a blighted land governed by tyrants, rumors of unspeakable atrocities, despair and darkness.

Not a darkness, in fact, but it was all a blankness so blank and so distant you could ascribe almost anything to it – theft, anarchy, cannibalism, rebellion, massacre, starvation, violence, disease, division. No one could dispute what you said; in fact, the literature that existed, the news, the documentation, seemed to support the notion that it was all a savage jungle. To these party guests Africa was the blank space that it had been in the nineteenth century, the sort of white space on a map that Marlow mentions at the beginning of Heart of Darkness. For Marlow, only the blank spaces on the map hold any attraction, and it was Africa, ‘the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after.’ Young Marlow exactly resembles young Conrad (little Jozef Korzeniowski) in this respect, in his love for ‘exciting spaces of white paper.’

I was not dismayed by the apparent ignorance in what these people said. Their pessimism made Africa seem contradictory, unknown, worth visiting. They were saying what everyone said all the time: Ain’t Africa awful! But really they were proving that the features in the African map had dimmed and faded so utterly that it had gone blank. Marlow goes on to say that about the time he set off for the Congo Africa ‘had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.’

Blind whiteness and crepuscular darkness amount to pretty much the same thing: terra incognita. There was a sort of poetic logic, too. In Moby Dick whiteness stands for wickedness. So the image I carried with me on my trip was of a burned-out wilderness, empty of significant life, of no promise, a land of despair, full of predators, that I was tumbling down the side of a dark star.

I was not dismayed. The traveler’s conceit is that he is heading into the unknown. The best travel is a leap in the dark. If the destination were familiar and friendly what would be the point in going there?

Still in Lower Egypt, in the opposite Arabesque corner of Africa from Cape Town, I had all sorts of chance encounters with Black Africa, the tantalizing suggestions of the bewitchment of the larger continent, the African faces that are sometimes identical to African masks.

Traipsing between my hotel in the shadow of the Sphinx and the Sudanese Embassy, in the middle of Cairo; the museum, the coffee shops, the university where I was buying books and checking facts; the party in El Maadi, the literary gatherings – I encountered the tall slender Sudanese, the mute watchfulness of Nubians, the big beautiful animals – lions, elephants, cheetahs – carved in bold relief on coffins and bedsteads; sometimes it was drumming, a syncopation in the night air, or the aroma of Zanzibari cloves, or Kenyan coffee, or a splintered tea-chest in a rubbish heap stenciled Tea – Uganda. Ethiopians and West Africans hawked tourist carvings in the markets of Cairo, and as the Haj was soon to start, and Cairo was a gateway to Jeddah and the holy places of Saudi Arabia, I got used to seeing the sneering small-boned people of Djibouti and Somalia, robed Muslims from Mali and Chad and Niger, Nigerian Hausas, Fang people and Dogons and Malian mullahs from Timbuktu, all robed in white, for their pilgrimage. Representations of the whole of Africa gathered here, as though this was the polyglot capital of a vast black empire and I was seeing examples of every animal and every sort of food and every human face.

What reassured me was the appropriateness of this African imagery in my Egyptian captivity, my prologue waiting for a Sudanese visa, for in that self-conscious mental narrative that serves a writer as a sort of memory gimmick, seeing these features and these faces was just right as an introduction, as grace notes and little pips that would be repeated themes, struck louder as my trip progressed, went deeper, grew denser, got blacker.

Needing to boost my morale with a sense of accomplishment, and to make use of my time in Cairo – Umm al Dunya, Mother of the World – I decided to apply for some other visas. I went to the Uganda Embassy, still with Guda at the wheel, utterly lost in the district of Dokki. ‘I have never taken an American to this embassy!’

But the Ugandan was friendly, Stephen Mushana, a youngish round-faced man in the dusty Second Secretary’s office in Midan El Messaha. He was fluent in Arabic from five years in Cairo. His home village was in a deep valley in craggy southwest Uganda. He was a Mukiga, a member of the Bakiga tribe, whose customs have always fascinated me, their frenzied dances, their ingenious terrace farming, their Urine Ceremony – a promise of polygamy performed by the groom and his brothers that assures that a widow will be guaranteed a husband, one of those surviving brothers.

‘My brother died,’ the Ugandan consul said. ‘But I didn’t have to marry his wife.’ He paused as though wondering how much more information to give me. ‘Well, she died a little while later.’

‘Sorry to hear it.’

‘AIDS is very bad in my country.’

‘It didn’t exist when I lived there.’

‘Maybe it existed but people didn’t know it.’

‘I left there thirty-six years ago.’

‘I was two years old!’

I got this all the time. The average life expectancy in Africa was so short that many diplomats were in their thirties, and some in their twenties, and they had no memory of their country as a big placid republic but only as a nest of problems. I had never seen these places at war; some of them grew up on war – there had been fighting in Uganda from the 1970s onward.

‘It must have been good then.’

‘Very good. Very peaceful.’ And looking back it seemed to me a golden age, and I remembered friends and colleagues.

‘Do you know Aggrey Awori?’

Mushana said, ‘He’s an old man.’

Awori was my age, regarded as a miracle of longevity in an AIDS stricken country; a Harvard graduate, Class of ’63, a track star. Thirty years ago, a rising bureaucrat, friend and confidant of the pugnacious prime minister, Milton Obote, a pompous gap-toothed northerner who had placed his trust in a goofy general named Idi Amin. Awori, powerful then, had been something of a scourge and a nationalist, but he was from a tribe that straddled the Kenyan border, where even the politics overlapped: Awori’s brother was a minister in the Kenyan government.

‘Awori is running for president.’

‘Does he have a chance?’

Mushana shrugged. ‘Museveni will get another term.’

‘I had some good friends - really funny ones. My best friend was a guy called Apolo Nsibambi. We shared an office at the Extra Mural Department at Makerere, and then I got a promotion - became Acting Director - and I was his boss! I used to tease him for calling himself “Doctor” - he had a Ph. D. in political science. I mocked him for wearing a tie and carrying a briefcase and being pompous. I went to his wedding. He came to my wedding. And then I completely lost touch with him. I wonder what happened to him.’

‘Doctor Nsibambi is the Prime Minister of Uganda.’

Perhaps the oldest inhabited street in the high-density city of Cairo, one thousand years of donkey droppings, hawkers’ wagons, barrow boys, veiled women, jostling camels, hand-holding men, and hubble-bubble smokers, among mosques and princes’ palaces, and a bazaar with shops selling trinkets, brass pots and sacks of beans, is Bayna al-Qasrayn, Between Two Palaces.

Through the lovely door of the mosque I could see the faithful at prayer in the posture of submission, kneeling, bowing low, forehead bumping the carpet, like a dog hugging a football.

Raymond Stock, biographer of Naguib Mahfouz, was my guide once again. He said, ‘All the goods and the glory that were the lifeblood of the great city, al-Qahirah’ – Cairo – ‘the Victorious.’

By chance I had bumped into Raymond at the Semiramis Hotel one afternoon. He was sitting with a big pink-cheeked man, very elegant in a pin-striped suit and silk tie, a matching silk hanky in his breast pocket.

‘He is the son of the Khedive!’ Raymond said, telling me his name. ‘He is a prince!’

The face of the big pink-cheeked man grew rosier and princelier at the mention of his pedigree, Turkish rather than Arab, with a dash of snobbery, for the Khedives were giggly Anglophiles.

‘His family used to run Egypt!’

The big pink-cheeked man fluffed his silk hanky and tut-tutted. The last Khedive, an Ottoman relic, was seen in Cairo in 1914, dumped by the British when Egypt became a British Protectorate.

‘Paul’s a writer,’ Raymond said.

The big pink-cheeked pin-striped prince smiled at my safari jacket and baggy pants and scuffed shoes.

‘I’ve just come from the Sudanese Embassy,’ I said, explaining the dust. ‘They’re renovating.’

‘Paul’s going to Africa,’ Raymond said.

‘People keep saying that, but isn’t this Africa?’

The prince’s chubby cheeks went pinker and pinker with mirth. He didn’t say much but he had a way of glowing that took the place of conversation. He finished his meal, dabbed at his lips, and left, murmuring a farewell in French.

‘Son of the Khedive!’ Raymond said.

I had last seen Raymond six years ago, when I had been traveling around the shores of the Mediterranean on my Pillars of Hercules trip and had docked in Alexandria, having sailed from Istanbul in a Turkish cruise ship, with 450 Turks, my genial mess-mates, Fikret, General Salih, and Onan among them.

Then, May 1994, Naguib Mahfouz had been in intensive care, after being stabbed in the neck by an Islamic zealot. Mahfouz was not expected to recover; yet he had, his stab wounds had healed, he coped with the nerve damage, he was back from the brink – had even resumed writing.

‘Naguib-bey shows up some nights around Cairo. He has a sort of salon,’ Raymond said. ‘I could show you where he was born and grew up.’

That was how it happened that we were strolling down Palace Walk, in the district of Gamaliyeh, which means ‘Place of Beauty,’ a noisy cluttered and crowded suburb, though its inaccurate name was part of its charm, like calling a frozen waste Greenland or a garbage truck a honey wagon.

But the people are the interest now, not the littered streets and alleys.

We went to Judge’s House Square, Midan Bayt al-Qadi, to see some beat-up and dusty trees, ‘Pasha’s beard’ trees – named for the furry shape of their blossoms, the Indian walnut, the scrupulous Raymond Stock informed me, Albizia lebbek. The center-piece of ‘this complex compact and nearly self-enclosed world.’

In the square, we passed the mosque school of Al-Mithqal (‘The Sequinned One’ – a sort of Ottoman Sparkle Plenty), Harat Qirmiz (Crimson Alley) to house number eight, Mahfouz’s childhood home. He was born in this ancient tenement with its tall cracked edifice and named after the doctor who delivered him on 10 December 1911, and growing up in that house (‘He used to stare out of that window’), he wrote about his early passions - for a certain revolutionary, and Charlie Chaplin, and a neighborhood girl whom he idolized.