Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa

If you prefer your travel memoirs vividly reportorial but coy about the author's personal tribulations, Richard Grant's Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa is the vicarious safari for you. Grant does a superlative job of blending hardcore adventure tourism with an unsentimental yet empathetic analysis of local culture and conflict.

The real-life characters of Crazy River include Milan, a South African golf pro doomed to trawl the bars and beaches of Zanzibar until his 18 holes get built; Ryan Shallom, a hunting guide in Tanzania to rich Texans who is as savvy about corrupt game wardens as the feeding habits of grumpy hippos; and Patrice Faye, a French philanthropist-naturalist-playwright who named his school for orphans "Castel Croc" in honor of his crush on Burundi's legendary man-eating bull crocodile. You'll learn a lot about them, but little about Grant other than that he has a yen for travel, an explorer's tolerance for prolonged discomfort, a woman and a dog back home in Arizona and a Ulysses-like resistance to the aggressive sirens who swarm every time a cash-carrying muzungu (the Swahili term for white people, literally meaning "those who wander around lost in an annoying way") enters a bar.

Grant is on a quest to make the first descent of Tanzania's Malagarasi River from its uncharted headwaters to Lake Tanganyika, an endeavor he contrasts with earlier "deranged" expeditions in the same region by 19th-century English explorers Burton and Speke. Grant describes his central river adventure in plenty of sweaty detail and surrounds it with thoughtful reportage on East Africa's challenges with foreign aid graft, entrenched superstition, malnourishment, cattle encroachment, wildlife poaching and post-colonial malaise. He concludes his three-month journey with a view of Rwanda's post-genocide "reconciliation" that is both hopeful and terrifying. Whether on land or water, Grant's panoramic gaze gives his memoir a relevancy that exceeds one man's experiences on a crazy river. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts

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