My #TripLit Pick for May: The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari
“As a twenty-two-year-old teacher at a small school in rural Africa I had spent some of the happiest years of my life,” writes Paul Theroux in his new book, The Last Train to Zona Verde. Africa seeped into Theroux’s soul on that first visit, so much so that he has regularly returned to it as a kind of touchstone throughout his celebrated 50-year career as a world-wandering novelist and travel writer.
The goal of the trip he describes in this new account seems simple and symmetrical enough: “For a previous book of mine, Dark Star Safari, I had traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town down the right-hand side of Africa. This time … I wanted to resume my trip at Cape Town and … travel north in a new direction, up the left-hand side until I found the end of the line, either on the road or in my mind.”
A journey so elegantly plotted on a map encounters innumerable obstacles in the real world, of course. And Theroux’s journey becomes more and more challenging as he travels from Cape Town to Namibia, Botswana, and Angola, trying to uncover the Africa that has eluded him.
While he finds instances of intense happiness and inspiration—an enterprising English-language education program run by an American and a safari camp that rescues abandoned elephants are two examples — for the most part the Africa he encounters is a place of grinding heat, poverty, despair, thirst, and neglect. Before long, his hopeful, curiosity-fueled quest to explore the Africa tourists rarely see becomes one of the most difficult and demanding journeys of his life.
And yet while the journey is a trial, the book itself is a triumph, full of qualities to admire and emulate.
First of these is Theroux’s precise and powerful prose, as in this indelible snapshot:
“Beyond the wire was the more familiar Africa of skinny, hungry-looking children wincing in sunlight, of men drinking beer under trees, of straggling villages and frantic chickens and cattle wandering on the roads, of blowing paper and flimsy plastic bags snagged on trees, of piles of castoff rags and trampled beer cans, the improvised, slapped-together Africa of tumbled fences and cooking fires, of mud and thatch.”
Other exemplary traits include his signature straightforwardness; his thoughtfulness; his knowledge; and his intrepid, sheer 70-year-old gumption as he elbows his way onto battered buses, endures taunting youths, navigates jostling crowds, and confronts belligerent officials, and as he determinedly makes peace with flea-bitten hotels, fly-bitten chicken, and futility-bitten wastelands.
Most poignant of all is the portrait of a great travel writer, to my mind the greatest American travel writer of our time, confronting the continent that first inspired him and the daunting realities of the place it has become, and simultaneously confronting the equally daunting realities of the man he has become, the impediments and diminishments that age confers, and the possibility that this might be his farewell to Africa, the place that launched his career as a traveler and as a writer.
All these could conspire to make The Last Train to Zona Verde a book about limits.
But to the contrary, through his consummate skill as a story-spinner of people and place, his all-pervading spirit of adventure, his thirst for knowledge and connection, his determination in the face of adversity, and his ultimate understanding that sometimes enough is enough, Theroux creates a moving testament to the completion and contentment that we all can find within a lifetime of limits—and that this incomplete, discontented African odyssey unexpectedly bestows.
Don George is an editor at large at National Geographic Traveler magazine and has edited several travel-writing anthologies, including his latest, Better Than Fiction. Follow his story on Twitter @don_george.