Travel literature review: In Praise of Savagery

In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns

Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Jani Patokallio

In 1933, Wilfred Thesiger became the first white man to explore the legendary Sultanate of Aussa in what is today Ethiopia and live to tell the tale. Sixty years later, Warwick Cairns in In Praise of Savagery sets off in the same direction. Those are some mighty big boots to fill, and most attempts in this genre, where a travel writer traces the footsteps of an earlier, celebrated explorer or author while attempting to draw some pithy lessons out of it all, fall flat. Can he pull it off?

At first glance, In Praise of Savagery follows the hoary formula, flicking back and forth between the two parallel storylines in chapters often as short as two pages, but there is an immediate triple twist that sets this book apart. First, at the time of the story, Thesiger is still alive; second, Cairns knows him well; and third, the destination of Cairns' quest is Thesiger's second home in the village of Maralal in northern Kenya, not far from the Ethiopian border (but not, it must be said, anywhere near Aussa), where Thesiger awaits - and has set out a challenge for him.

Thesiger's journey makes for compelling reading. He traveled by camel train, with a mutinous crew and meagre supplies, in a hostile country in a state of perpetual civil war, where 'a man's status was judged, entirely, by the number of men, women and children he had killed', and where the four previous parties attempting to enter had all been brutally hacked to death. Cairns' modern-day tribulations, on the other hand, involve surly Aeroflot stewardesses, goat gravy served in 'chipped enamel mugs' and dodgy matatu minibus drivers, all good fun to read about from the comfort of your armchair but not quite on the same level. To compensate, he weaves in a mix of historical and personal anecdotes ranging from 'Upon the Etiquette of a Massacre', about a murderous Scottish feud in 1692, to 'Civilisation', on why hunter-gatherers had it so much better than us benighted descendants of farmers, an opinion very much shared by the perennially restless Thesiger.

If you haven't read Arabian Sands yet, buy that first. But if you have, want more and can't find a copy of the long out-of-print Danakil Diary, this is an engaging and often thought-provoking substitute.

Jani Patokallio saw enough of the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia to have the greatest respect for anybody crossing deserts by camel.

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