“The Last Train to Zona Verde” by Paul Theroux

lasttrainzonaThis is not your usual awe-inspiring account by a famous travel writer. Paul Theroux has made his last trip to the continent he loves best. In The Last Train to Zona Verde he tells us candidly why he won’t be returning to the zona verde – i.e. African bush – and it makes for fascinating if upsetting reading.

The American-born Theroux went first to Africa 20 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, and has returned may times to “the kingdom of light.” In this book, 50 years later, he explores the little-traveled territory of Western Africa, heading North from Capetown, through S. Africa and Namibia and on into Angola. Here he is shocked by a new Africa where country people are squeezed into cities which are nothing but slums of slapped-together mud and thatch, no running water, heat, poverty, mobs and anarchy. Though rich in oil, diamonds and gold, these centres do not share the wealth; in fact they rob their own people.

Theroux does include a chapter (Riding an Elephant: the Ultimate Safari) which describes a dazzling safari, Abu Camp, where guests interact with the resident herd of elephants, whether riding or walking with them through the bush, in private reserve or 400 000 acres of total luxury. Theroux also does a bit of teaching at schools sponsored by overseas aid. But as his trip proceeds he gradually gives up on his hopes for the continent he loves. His conclusions are unsparing and he shares them with considerable honesty.

Review by Anne McDougall