Travel literature review: Crazy River

Crazy River by Richard Grant

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Steve Waters

'Money changes all the iron rules into rubber bands', observed the esteemed Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. Though he was referring to Iran, it could easily apply to Africa, a continent he covered in intimate detail across decades of upheavals. In a new millennium, another journalist, Grant, discovers that 'a $5 bribe will get you a long way in Africa as he tries to put some distance between himself and the beggars, thieves and whores of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Befriended by a crazy former golf pro, he’s shown a life rarely glimpsed by tourists.

Related article: Travel literature review: The Black Nile

Soon the scene shifts to the Crazy River of the title, Tanzania's wild Malagarasi, which Grant attempts to raft, channeling the ghosts of Burton, Speke and Livingstone in the process. In fact, it’s Grant’s passion for these early East African explorers, and his journalist’s keen sense of observation, which raises this book above mainstream travel adventure. Delving into the past, he seeks answers for the present condition, but finds only contradictions. Endless cycles of sad exploitation, fear and superstition pervade a landscape only until dawn when the infectious, uniquely African sense of optimism shines a light of opportunity on each new day.

In Africa, plans never remain on track for long, and as the insanity escalates, Grant is forced to reassess his goals and strikes out alone for mountainous Burundi. His comparisons between this chaotic, volatile democracy and the neat-though-haunted dictatorship of nearby Rwanda are particularly poignant, and include an interview with the latter’s enigmatic saviour-cum-despot Paul Kagame.

This is Grant’s third travel book, and he strikes a wonderful balance between evoking the sepia-toned, blood-stained, imperialist past and the hungry, gritty independent realism of modern East Africa. Never one to focus on his own accomplishments, and slow to judge others, he manages to serve up equal portions of humility and pathos. The epilogue, set in a US pet superbarn, is particularly resonant.

Steve Waters, a self-confessed Burtonphile, works in LP’s Melbourne office and dreams of travelling to the Mountains of the Moon.

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