Richard Grant, Crazy River

Richard Grant,  Crazy River (Little Brown £13.99)


‘Sore throat, swollen glands, aching joints, sweats and chills in the night, lurid sex dreams, low-grade fever. Abrasions, cuts and bruises on both legs. Infected abrasion of right knuckles. Painful big toe missing half a toenail, starting to infect at the separation line. Mouthparts of tick now thoroughly infected on the back of the neck just under the hairline. Inflamed eyes like a Shinyanga witch. Sunburn. Mosquito bites. Some 40 welted tsetse bites…..’

Some journeys you just want to miss. Which is why travel writers make them for you.

Richard Grant has form in this area. Previous outings have been to the badlands of Arizona and Mexico;  he finished Bandit Roads only just the right side of a bullet in the back of the head.

Now he takes on East Africa, following in the footsteps of his hero, Richard Burton – although he doesn’t go quite to the lengths of the Victorian explorer: Burton got himself circumcised, dyed his skin with walnut juice and learnt both Arabic and Swahili.

Grant still goes the distance in his attempts to be the first to journey down the length of the Malagarasi  River in Tanzania. There are hippos, armed poachers, tsetse flies which you must hit six or seven times before they fall off and, most dangerously of all, very little water.  The raft keeps getting stuck, near crocodiles.  But then they have come in the dry season, which shows casual planning.  Grant quotes Burton approvingly, that “exploring is a series of mistakes,” and does his best to follow suit.

It helps that he’s such amiable company. In the wrong hands, this could have turned into travel misery lite.  From the moment he hears his first muezzin call to prayer in Zanzibar, and it turns out to be a mobile phone ringtone, we know Grant won’t be taking the journey too seriously.  That said, he can also throw in some surprising facts:  those same mobile phones, seen as an essential status symbol, cost slum dwellers in Dar es Salaam a third of their precarious income.

Nor is he seduced by the traditional customs of the African tribes.  Cattle may be objects of love and devotion – ‘like a savings account, a trophy wife and a Cadillac all rolled into one’ – but the herding obsession of the Gogo and the Sukuma is turning their grasslands of East Africa into dust bowls.  ‘A lot of people think poaching is the big threat to wildlife in Africa, but it’s nothing compared to cattle encroachment,’ a local tells him.

Just as for Burton, the pain and hardship of Grant’s journey falls away when he reaches Lake Tanganyika, ‘an expanse of the lightest and softest blue’, with an Arsenal flag flying from a nearby roof;  then he’s on to Rwanda and his long-awaited goal, the source of the Nile, which proves to be a muddy rabbit hole with a thin dribble of water leaking out of it.  In a nice phrase, Grant feels ‘the giddy happiness of self-mockery’.  Witty and well-written, this is still a book that makes you want to stay at home.


 [This review was originally going to appear in the Independent in  2012 but for technical reasons was not published ]

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