Traversa by Fran Sandham

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Traversa by Fran Sandham

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Fran Sandham walks from Namibia across Africa to reach Zanzibar. Other than the water crossing, he does it all on foot. Side jaunts may involve hitching lifts, but he is meticulous about getting back to where he stopped walking. Obsessive might be a better word. Not always in the best of moods or the best of health, he produces a realistic and humourous account of an epic journey, suitably laced with tales of those who went before and suffered even more.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: July 2008
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
ISBN: 978-0715637678

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When you reach the end of Fran Sandham's solo walk across Africa, as he finally dips his toe into the Indian Ocean, you need to go back to the beginning and start again.

Lots of books make you want to do that. In this case, you actually need to: in order to fully understand the man, and so many of the things he says and does along the way. Otherwise, you're in danger of thinking this guy was a fool for even trying to attempt a solo walk across the African continent.

Such is the self-deprecation of Sandham's style you cannot help thinking that he has gone into the expedition with far more enthusiasm than nous… and that his stores of enthusiasm and indeed humour weren't as robust as perhaps they needed to be.

That's why you'll need to re-read from the very beginning. Learn that this man was an editor at Rough Guides for several years; ponder what he might mean by I'd been on a few backpacking trips to exotic places (ok he tempers that one with nothing I'd call truly adventurous – but you have to realise his definition of adventure and yours & mine might differ just a tad). Realise that he had been fascinated by the African continent and in particular the Victorian explorers of it since childhood.

He did not go into this trip lightly. He spent a year planning, saving the money, poring over the maps, planning the route, getting the kit together, checking out the political situation and administrative arrangements, upping the fitness levels, even (it can be assumed from odd comments within the text) learning the rudiments of some of the local languages. Hello in Swahili counts as a rudiment in my book!

For all the lightness of touch in the telling therefore, it is important that we remember that in many ways Fran Sandham undertook his expedition in a very professional manner. He decried sponsorship and film crews to give himself complete freedom. A noble gesture, or a sound business decision?

Don't get me wrong – none of that in any way undermines either the achievement or the book that resulted from it. I admire the first and thoroughly enjoyed the latter.

It's just that the chap he meets along the way who revises his initial estimation of you look like Prince Charles to more like Mr Bean has a point.

Unfortunately, from the cover photo, I can't help thinking that he looks like Will Self – which I'm afraid did not endear him to me.

Fortunately, everything else about the book did.

I love the fact that whenever he takes a stopover to rest he almost immediately finds himself eating junk food and spending his evenings over-sampling the local brew. I'm comforted to hear about the times when the kindness of strangers (and more often their innocent curiosity) really irks. I sympathise with the I know the experts recommend… but… approach to packing, carrying, eating, sleeping and just about everything else. I wish I'd known earlier that when you have the trots, what you need are bananas (I learnt the hard way that 5 weeks on chicken soup isn't helpful, noodles come up quicker than you can swallow, but mashed potato in weak gravy seems to work. Probably not readily available in Malawi however).

I'm inspired by the fact that someone who is clearly inept with large animals (ok, donkeys & mules) and not exactly blasé about tiny ones (insects of every creed) can cross the continent. There's hope yet. Yes, I've also been known to blow out a candle and fiercely pretend they aren't there. Not sure I'd have been quite as confident about a flimsy tent sheet being protection against lions though. Where Sandham struggles with lack of food and water, I'd probably have had to add sleep-deprivation to the cocktail.

I endorse many of his judgements about the people he meets along the way, saluting the unstinting generosity of the local people who are among the poorest on the planet, questioning the motives of some fellow-travellers, being grateful that the world provides for the wayward to find a home in the case of some of the ex-pats who've settled in off-beat places.

But the simple fact is that long before most of this happens, shortly after setting out from the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, Sandham gets me immediately on side: if there's tarmac to walk, I'll walk on it – I'm not proud!

Having decided to walk across the continent, and started in just about THE most inhospitable place on earth (Namibia's Skeleton Coast and the Namib desert), our hero decides he's already made life difficult enough for himself… and much of the next 3,000 miles are spent figuring out how to make it easier.

Most of the interesting anecdotes are centred on those rest stops (essential periods of recuperation given the extremes he drives himself to in between). Of the actual long days of walking, and dark lonely nights far from anywhere, he says little. Indeed, he gives the impression that he was hardly ever truly far from anywhere. Often deciding to camp (possibly illegally) in the rough, he finds it extremely difficult to hide away from local traffic. Africa is not the uninhabited expanse of myth and legend, it seems. It's darned difficult to get away from folk, even in a continent this big!

I came to Traversa fresh from Thubron's musings on The Silk Road, and suspect I may have expected a similarly poetic approach. I was rewarded with something entirely different. Although generously infused with the history of the countries of his crossing (Namibia, Zambia, Malawi & Tanzania) with copious extracts and re-tellings from the glory days of Victorian expeditionary endeavours, Traversa scarcely ever delves into the poetic or philosophic. This is not walking to look at dunes and skies and wonder at the majesty of the world. This is a blooming long walk that will only get completed if treated as a job of work.

I once spent a week walking with a guide who treated every outing as a job to do. It's not an approach I appreciate. But then that is often the nature of adventures. They require a quest, a goal, something to pursue at the expense of enjoying the journey.

If it weren't for the photos, one might get to wondering if the author enjoyed any of the trip. However, the few photos included which show Sandham en route, do depict a weary but fun-filled traveller lapping it up and we have to remember that those days where the diary reads something like really great day, clocked up the miles, sun bearable, no injuries, shortages or incidents, quickly found camp simply wouldn't make good copy.

His tribulations on the other hand make excellent copy. Sandham's style is utterly conversational, full of asides and quips and tremendous wit. The kind of questions he raises are those to bring a smile: how do you pronk with a rucksack? where do mosquitoes go when it's freezing? why would a cobbler even think of fixing sandals with nails? He knows when his own decisions aren't sensible, but refrains from even trying to justify them. He feels suitably guilty when tiredness and temper get the better of him.

He simply tells it as it was.

With a good dollop of history on the side.

And as a result, even through those parts where I know I'd have been even more miserable than he was, I still wish I could have been there with him.

An epic journey, told as a jaunt: it's a fabulous read and surprisingly enlightening one.

I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a personal insight into more recent African history try Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin - or the unsurpassable Blood River by Tim Butcher.

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