A sneak peek at your safari

A top-ten list of films, books and plays that are perfect for whetting a safari-bound appetite

“…the desperately funny writing perfectly captures the lure of Africa.”

As Aldous Huxley wryly observed, ‘To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.’ Much as I agree with him, the thought doesn’t detract from the very fine times I’ve had rooting around in bookshops for a sneak preview of a destination.

If you’re heading to Africa then I recommend not relying on locating books in-country: after a year and a half in Swaziland, I can assure you the only books available there are anything to do with Mandela and an impressively wide selection of Barbara Cartland novels. And if you ever wondered why the literacy rates are so low, this article offers a very good starting point: books are outrageously pricey over there.

Here are my top ten tantalising pre-departure teasers for those looking to head off on safari.

The Gods Must Be Crazy – a comedy set and filmed in 1980 in Botswana, critics described it in somewhat patronising tones as a ‘nice little treasure’. I offer far higher praise and regard it unashamedly as a work of genius, with dangerously funny interactions between animals and humans. It offers a perfect introduction to the San people (Bushmen), and captures the determination and ingenuity that is so often required on safari. The final shots of ‘God’s Window’ at South Africa’s Blyde River Canyon are heart-stopping.

“The final shots of ‘God’s Window’ at South Africa’s Blyde River Canyon are heart-stopping.”

Wah Wah – the only movie to have been filmed in Swaziland, the writer and director Richard E Grant looks back on his childhood in the last days of the British Empire in the country. The actors – including Miranda Richardson and Julie Walters – offer perfect portraits of colonial characters, and there are endless sweeping panoramas of breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

The First Grader – anyone heading to Kenya should watch this film to get something of an insight into the ramifications of the Mau Mau uprising. Based on the true story of Kimani Maruge, an 84 year old man takes advantage of the Kenyan government’s perhaps poorly judged announcement that everyone should be entitled to free primary education.

“The Elephant Whisperer”, Lawrence Anthony – I remember being stuck in traffic in Johannesburg, hearing that Anthony had died. He lived for animals, and this book follows his experiences rescuing elephants at his Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand, South Africa. It’s a must for anybody going on safari: your interactions with the gentle giants will be made infinitely more meaningful with the understanding you’ll gain. Watch this video for the touching story of the elephants’ reaction to his death.

“On Foot through Africa”, Ffyona Campbell – bringing to mind Shakespeare’s ‘though she be but little, she is fierce!’, Campbell spent two years walking the length of Africa from Cape Town to Tangiers. Her determination makes for a compelling read; it preceded the likes of Cheryl Strayed’s much-hyped ‘Wild’ and is, in my mind, an infinitely better narrative that offers a degree of introspection with a greater appreciation for the surroundings and inhabitants.

“Snow on the Equator”, H W Tilman – one of the greatest mountaineers, sailors and explorers of all time, Tilman’s book chronicling his years in Africa growing coffee, traversing Mount Kenya, climbing Kilimanjaro and cycling for 3000 miles to get back home to England is one of the most vibrant, entertaining books you’ll ever read. First published in 1937, the desperately funny writing perfectly captures the lure of Africa. ‘Any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of an envelope’, he claimed, and his engaging enthusiasm will surely get you conjuring up half-baked plans for trips with home-made rafts.

‘Any worthwhile expedition can be planned on the back of an envelope’, he claimed, and his engaging enthusiasm will surely get you conjuring up half-baked plans for trips with home-made rafts.

“House of Stone”, Christina Lamb – if you want to learn the history of Zimbabwe, to understand what the world has sat back and allowed to happen there, this is a great starting point. It follows the true story of two very different lives: Aqui, a black girl growing up in a mud hut just a few miles from Nigel, the son of a wealthy white farmer. Based on a series of interviews, we learn the reasons for the anger, the violence, and the destruction of a once great country – and witness an astonishing act of bravery.

“It takes just four actors to convey the horrifying consequences of absolute power.”

‘Travels in West Africa’, Mary Kingsley – setting out alone to Africa in 1893, Kingsley was one of the first people who openly criticised the sending of missionaries to the continent. Living with locals in places such as the Congo, Angola and Gabon, she came to understand their mindset in a way many male explorers failed: where they went to find new lands, she went to find new understanding. Her dry humour makes it a perfect poolside companion, plus you can download it free on your Kindle: “A good filter is a very fine thing for clearing drinking water of hippopotami, crocodiles, water snakes, catfish, etc., and I dare say it will stop back sixty per cent of the live or dead African natives that may be in it; but if you think it is going to stop back the microbe of marsh fever–my good sir, you are mistaken.”

‘Breakfast with Mugabe’, by Fraser Grace – this critically-acclaimed play has been performed in both the West End and on Broadway, and it is a must-see if you ever get a chance. Powerful and heartbreaking, the lack of intermission means you are forced to be a part of what unfolds without the comfort of an escape. As one critic observes of a particular moment, the playwright has captured “Africa’s longest-serving president… When he does raise his voice, as in a scene set at a ZANU-PF political rally, the effect is truly terrifying.” It takes just four actors to convey the horrifying consequences of absolute power.

‘The Three Little Pigs’ – a play that has been performed at Fringe Festivals around the world and received glowing reports, the three actors (and writers) of this piece satirise South Africa’s political scene to perfection. The Orwellian drama is punctuated with laughs which only serve to underline the tense reality of the post-Apartheid era. Characters are crafted to perfection, and the sight of one man gliding in feline fashion around the stage playing a cheap slum prostitute is unforgettable.

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